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Ideas | Against Crisis Mentality

The Covid19 pandemic has exposed many of the social and economic contradictions underlying our normality. Adopting a short-termist crisis mentality in our response cannot be the answer, writes Nora Ziegler.

New in Ceasefire, Politics - Posted on Tuesday, May 26, 2020 10:17 - 0 Comments

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‘Golden Cages’, Sumarie Slabber (Licensed under Creative Commons)

“The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the emergency situation in which we live is the rule,” wrote Walter Benjamin in 1940. Today, while emergency restrictions are being imposed in response to Covid19, numerous voices are echoing these words, reminding us that “normal was a crisis”. Indeed, only recently the climate movement had faced similar charges. For example, the UK-based grassroots collective “Wretched of The Earth”, in response to Greta Thunberg’s words, “our house is on fire”, reminded climate activists that for many people “the house has been on fire for a long time”.

Benjamin’s critique was directed at the social democratic and communist movements of the 1920s and 30s, for whom historical progress towards freedom and peace was the norm. These movements could not grasp the historical normality of fascism, firmly rooted in modern administration and technological progress, and therefore were powerless against it. Benjamin argued that, in order to “improve our position in the struggle against fascism”, we need a conception of history that corresponds to the knowledge of the oppressed — that violence and oppression is the norm.

It seems that when the “normal” crisis suddenly affects — and becomes visible to — more people, instead of understanding the long-term causes and seeking long-term solutions, we treat it as an exceptional circumstance and wait for it to blow over. Or, even worse, short-term analyses and solutions dominate and undermine the resistance and survival strategies of those for whom the crisis is and was the norm.

I witnessed and participated in this myself when I visited the refugee camp in Calais, France in 2015. For the people living in the camp, the crisis didn’t begin and wouldn’t end in Calais. However, for volunteers and activists, the crisis lasted for the days, weeks or months that they were present in the camp. I perceived a tense, stressed and short-sighted crisis mentality that dominated relationships and dictated priorities. It prioritised action with immediate results and weakened longer-term objectives such as mental health or safeguarding.

From the perspective of the volunteers and activists, I think we enter into this mindset because we are suddenly confronted with contradictions that clash with our “normal” and we desperately try to restore this normality, either through denial or by fixing it; by building houses, signing petitions, donating clothes — anything to avoid police violence and human rights abuses asserting themselves as the norm.

However, the contradictions have always been present, and not just at the margins but as the foundation of society. The philosopher Giorgio Agamben argues that the “normal” situation, in which human rights, the rule of law and democracy are valid, is created on the basis of the exception. All the lives and interests that are excluded from this normal order are at the same time included as the exception. They are at once excluded and included through prisons, detention centres, food banks, homeless shelters, tax havens and drone strikes. The claim that normal was a crisis then takes on a new meaning: normal does exist but it exists by virtue of crisis.

Imagine if lock-down was instituted with a law that says nobody can leave their homes unless they believe they have a mental health condition. This law leaves the decision on its application to the individual and therefore gives up its universal validity. Alternatively, imagine the law said that nobody can leave their homes at all. People would have to break the law, exposing its arbitrary and unjust character. However, if the law states that nobody can leave their home unless they are registered with a diagnosed illness, the decision on which bodies are included in the law as the norm and which bodies are included as the exception is centralized.

This is what constitutes sovereign power: the decision that includes life as the exception to the rule and therefore maintains the rule. Paradoxically, the authority of the sovereign is derived from Law but also creates the order, or “normality”, from which the law derives its validity. This circular argument means that the political system perpetuates itself, for its own sake, through the violence of the exception. When the normal order becomes untenable, the sovereign decision asserts itself, at once excluding life and turning life into the supreme political principle. This extreme centralization and visibility of the decision on life is what characterizes fascist regimes.

As a result of the Covid19 pandemic, social and economic contradictions underlying normality have become exposed. Instead of hiding the inequalities and exclusions that make our society possible, they are brought into the centre, in the form of a national emergency. This national emergency is performed as a public spectacle of hashtags, slogans and propaganda, and implemented with curfews and increased police powers. While real lives are left to perish in systematically underfunded care homes and hospitals, life is simultaneously raised into an absolute value. We are told not to make the virus political and to submit to authority to “save lives”, despite the government’s policies of the last decade clearly being founded on a complete disregard for human life.

All this leaves people feeling confused and doubting their own sense of reality. For Benjamin, the only way out is to bring about a real state of emergency. A crisis that brings about lasting and real change. This could involve taking back and decentralizing the sovereign decision over life. Instead of treating people like passive bodies to be managed, registered, and contained, individual people and communities could be allowed to access and develop the information and power to make decisions over their lives. This kind of change will not begin at the top, however. As we create and participate in food projects, mutual aid groups and other initiatives in response to Covid19, rather than creating emergency structures to manage bodies, we could aim to build structures that encourage broad participation and decision-making.

Nora Ziegler

Nora Ziegler is an activist and writer with a background in Sociology. She is a member of the London Catholic Worker, an intentional community and house of hospitality for migrants and refugees with no recourse to public funds. She has been involved in direct action and campaigns against arms trade, detention centres, deportations, nuclear weapons and militarism.

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