We still have yet to understand that the emergency laws are a general offensive aimed at political democracy, led by the bosses of capitalist society; a general offensive of the rulers against the ruled; a general offensive of the ruling class against all of those who do not want to become part of the system of total consumption… What the bosses want now is nothing less than a parliamentary ratification of their policies, a confirmation of their growing power… Our goal lies in the democratization of both state and society. The struggle against the emergency laws are but one of the means of achieving this goal, one of the means of overcoming the dictatorship of capital over state and society. But we will never be able to achieve this goal if all we do is continue to resist being transfered from a large prison cell into a smaller one, forgetting that the only real liberation from prison is escape.
Ulrike Meinhof, “Notstand-Klassenkampf”
Alexei Penzin (AP): In formulating the theme for our discussion, we departed from obvious social and political things. An atmosphere of a so-called “threat of terror” is being drawn up all around us. The state acts as if it were already in a state of emergency, without ever declaring it officially. It suspends the operation of constitutional principals and introduces special regimes of surveillance and control (e.g. the passport-regime in Moscow ). Russia ‘s constitution actually contains a law of the state of emergency, as do many other constitutions. But our legislature has added a regime of “counter-terrorist operations” to this law, and is currently attempting to add yet another juridical regime, a law on the “threat of terror”. In other words, we live under the conditions of a deferred state of emergency , under which the government multiplies the corpus of juridical rules for emergency while intensifying its rhetoric of threat. It seems that a “real” state of emergency is about to be declared, but this never really happens. Either the government is incapable of implementing this state in reality, or it is simply playing a propagandistic game, constantly flirting with foul play. In preparing this issue, we were inspired by a fragment by Walter Benjamin, which says that we need to supply the “state of emergency” with a broader philosophical and critical meaning. The state of emergency (Ausnahmezustand) is inscribed into history’s very progression, uncovering theontological emergency or exception of class-society itself. How would you assess the attempts undertaken by a number of contemporary thinkers, such as Agamben, for an example, to turn the “state of emergency” into a notion capable of offering a diagnosis for our contemporary condition?
Alexander Tarasov (AT): If we feel ourselves to be leftists, questions concerning bourgeois law should be our least concern. Speaking ex cathedra, Agamben reflects upon Schmitt and Benjamin, upon how this or that term has developed and which conceptual game it operates in. The interest of the Western left in what could be called “linguistic philosophy” is simply a means of evading real problems while living in the countries of the ” First World “, which continue to exist in affluence by exploiting the countries of the ” Third World “. This affluence erases and confuse class-oppositions. The Western Left doesn’t want to recognize this and continues to play these kind of games with the Right, discussing linguistic and historico-philosophical problems instead of fighting for economic and political emancipation. In one of my pieces on Chile , for an example, I was able to show, how the military did not persecute Pinochet’s political enemies, once it had proclaimed a state of emergency, but simply went after those who they owed large sums of money to. Do you think that they were at all concerned with which constructions of Roman law provided the basis for their “state of emergency”? Needless to say, the juridical side of the state of emergency takes on a tactical meaning in the course of struggle among the various forces within bourgeois society, within its ruling elite. There are various groups struggling for power, groups who have staked their interest, who are concerned with the possibility of coming to power and giving up power without giving up their property or their lives. But as soon as the struggle moves beyond the bounds of the social contracts within bourgeois society, it becomes clear that the “normal” juridicial regime no longer applies. In the United States of the 1960s, as the so-called “African-American uprisings” were taking place, the Army was unable to stop these rebellions without introducing a state of emergency. By declaring a state of emergency, they were able to mobilize the Army and the National Guard stationed in other, neighboring states. It’s completely obvious that the decision to declare a state of emergency was only made because of the situation’s direness and the force of the opposition (resistance?) at hand.
AP: In other words, if power has the possibility of hiding a certain state of affairs, of undertaking major punitive measures without attracting too much publicity, then it does. But if this is impossible, it falls back onto a state of emergency. Are you saying that the law simply plays an instrumental role?
AT: Of course. The laws plays an instrumental role on the battlefield of class interests. Needless to say, these are easier to defend under the conditions of a state of emergency. In this case, you aren’t simply basing your actions on a temporary order that will be reversed the day after tomorrow. Instead, you use a certain juridical scheme as your basis, especially if this scheme, for an example, provides for the validity of verdicts passed under a state of emergency, once this state of emergency has been recalled. The state of emergency is a regime under which you can carry out repressions more freely and calmly, on a much larger scale, and, in doing so, guarantee that those who carried out the repressions will go unpunished in the future. If it is only necessary to implement repressive measures against a small group of people, then no one will declare a state of emergency. After all, you can draw up false charges against them personally or simply get rid of them quietly. You can secretly rub out 5 or even 20 people under normal conditions, but 10,000 is just too high a number.
AP: You said that Agamben, in one way or the other, relies on the juridical interpretation of this term, and is only concerned with the legal mechanism, that he is only interested in things that are not located in the sphere of practical politics . But Agamben bases his work on the interpretation of Schmitt and Benjamin. Even if Schmitt is associated with the Right, you can hardly deny that his analysis is rather cutting.
AT: Schmitt was writing on the Weimar Republic and the reality of its legislation. After all, the norms of Weimar legislation allowed Hitler’s rise to power without any legal impediments. The laws of the Weimar Republic were constructed in view of the emergency article in the Weimar constitution, which, in fact, allowed the appointment and subsequent change of the Reich-chancellor without the consent of the Reichstag. At some juncture, it became necessary to appoint a chancellor who would be able to oppose the “danger of Communism” most effectively: this turned out to be Hitler. This is actually why the Left in West Germany fought against the revival of the constitutional article on the state of emergency throughout the 1960s. Schmitt looks over the bourgeois state’s juridical pettifoggery and brings the mechanisms of real politics to the forefront. This is exactly what Benjamin was interested in, because this is a real battleground: Schmitt is a worthy adversary and is not just venting hot air. Formally, if you stand up against the bourgeois state with a weapon in hand, they will tell you that all of their laws say that “violence is something bad”. You answer, “But your system is a system of violence, based upon the army, the police, courts, and other instruments of non-economic coercion. You impose them upon us from an early age onward, and yet you claim that there is no such thing as violence.” This is reminiscent of the proverbial conversation between deaf and the blind. But a polemic exchange between two opponents like Benjamin and Schmitt is an exchange in which both sides accept reality. Why, for an example, did Marx pay such special attention to Machiavelli’s political thinking, which never ceased to astound him? Because, in fact, Machiavelli described the factual operation of the existing political mechanisms, refusing to describe them in the same way as his contemporaries, whose writings were inevitably mystified by religious consciousness. Benjamin avoids any and all conversation according to the rules imposed by the bourgeoisie. If people are dying of hunger, this is a state of emergency. The bourgeoisie find this normal; it only becomes something of the ordinary when those who are unwilling to starve to death rise in revolution. Nothing of the sort, says Benjamin. The situation that you think is normal is actually a state of emergency.
AP: There isn’t actually any sharp contradiction in terms here. To put it simply, Agamben is reminding us that we live in a state of emergency, in both juridical and socio-psychological terms; we’ve “adapted” to this state insofar as we do not focus our attention on it. At the same time, I might add, we are in a constant state of global misbalance; there are different ruling elites, connected to the American or European projects, but there is no real consensus between these elites, nor is there any consensus or compromise with those people that are occupied as employees. This also concerns Europe ‘s social states, which are being dismantled without any show of compromise.
AT: The world has been in misbalance since the demise of the USSR and the Eastern bloc. But there are huge differences between the situation in America and the situation in Europe , notwithstanding all of their similarities. For an example, in Europe , Muslims are not arrested on the grounds of suspicion alone, nor or they held indefinitely in jail without trial according to some equivalent of the PATRIOT Act. The events of September 11th should not be understood as a revolutionary attack or retaliation against American imperialism, but were probably provoked by the ultra-right wing of the USA ‘s ruling class in some complicated way, since this faction was attempting to implement an expansionist foreign policy, fighting against other isolationist – factions. Much in the same way, the Russian government was unable to prove that it did not plant the bombs that destroyed two apartment houses in 1999. From the materials of this case, which has been classified and is now being kept secret for some inexplicable reason, it is clear that three of the people who were convicted of this crime were transporting something to Moscow , but that they didn’t know what exactly it was. They might have been transporting explosives, but then again, they may have not. This is no proof of their guilt. The government escalated the situation on its own. At that point, the regime was falling apart, and this had become obvious. In order for the elite to retain its power, it was necessary for Putin to become president. In order to do so, one could have either instituted a dictatorship directly, or one could have chosen a non-standard solution. This solution was found: it consisted in diverting the people’s attention from the pressing needs at home to the war in Chechnya and the “threat of terrorism”. Generalizing from the experience of history, one can draw up two scenarios. 1. When the state searches for a way out of a crisis, it has far greater access to authentic information than the opposition. It has the possibility for taking preemptive measures. Sometimes, this is a mistake. You can find one example in the history of Czarist Russia: in the early 20th century, the Czarist government took preemptive measures to avoid revolution by starting a “small, victorious war” in the East. But the Japanese war of 1905 was lost, and had the opposite effect that it was intended to fulfill. 2. The second scenario takes place when the existing elite or a part of the elite wants to acquire more powers or more added value than it can under the normal conditions of legality. In this case, one can provoke a state of emergency by artificial means and do one’s business under its guise. This second variant, which takes place when power is in a strong position, is actually less common. Usually, power only opts for this course when it feels its position is stable and that it is possible to go ahead in forcibly consolidating its might.
AP: The events that followed in the aftermath of the hostage-drama in Beslan don’t fit into either one of the two scenarios that you just described. After all, they took place in parallel to the lawsuits against the oil company “YUKOS”. These lawsuits were undertaken from a position of strength, but at the same time, the leadership of the company was implicitly accused of some kind of “emergent” plan to take control of power. It’s obvious that this company itself is a force within bourgeois society.
AT: Beslan should be seen as the next step in a chain of provocations: the attacks on the apartment houses in Moscow , the second war in Chechnya , the Nord-Ost Musical hostage drama. I fully share the classical Marxist attitude toward analyzing a concrete situation at a concrete place in a concrete time. In a way, all of this bears witness to the regime’s weakness, which shows that the regime understands that it can only retain its position by applying force. Yet on the other hand, it shows that the regime is quite strong: in fact, it is so stable that it can afford to forget about its previous promises and the rules of the game that it used to play. For an instance, it can dismantle the social state, which the West is currently doing under the guise of the “threat of terrorism”.
AP: The regime of the state of emergency is one of many elements in the instrumentarium of power in its struggle for resources and against the opposition. Does this mean that the position of the state of emergency is not privileged in any way?
Oxana Timofeeva: Or does it mean that the state of emergency exposes conditions of emergency within the structures of power whenever they are threatened, a condition which is usually veiled by some form of legitimacy or its revocation?
AT: It is masked because capitalist society gives rise to the struggle between different factions of the ruling class. And this is considered the norm. In fact, this is the way things should be, according to the pragmatic point of view of the elite. The possibility for inner struggle without any real attack on the principles of the system heightens its overall stability, since it means that the strongest power is selected by natural means.
AP: There are several meanings of the statement that any society in history is essentially in a state of exception or emergency. In the first sense, if you look at power from the point of view of what it actually does, it always acts in an exceptional way, using any means possible, including illegal measures, in order to establish itself and to pursue its interests. On the other hand, we “we” means the tradition of the Left find that this condition, in and of itself, is a constant “emergency”. If we remember the connection of the “state of emergency” to the notion of dictatorship, there is the analysis-projection of the “dictatorship of the proletariat”, of the revolution as a state of emergency, beginning with Engels. Is this, in fact, the case?
AT: Revolution is a form of open class collision, civil war, in other words. Any war is not a juridical but a real state of emergency. This is not the kind of state of emergency declared by the authorities, which makes it necessary to demystify juridical terms and tear away all the masks; instead, it is an obvious state of emergency. Whenever they tell you that you have freedom of choice, but your freedom of choice is limited by the variants that power provides you with, there is no “choice” and no “freedom”. But if you have no possibility for making any choice at all, and if there is only one obvious dictator, there is no need to prove that there is no freedom of choice. Some situations are so transparent that there is no need to lay bare the demagogy of power.
AP: So then revolution and dictatorship are two poles in which we see the situation stripped bare of all pretenses. But there is one more modification, if we look at the phenomenon known as the “velvet revolution” and the most recent events in Ukraine . On the one hand, they seem to lay bare a certain reality for instance, we see people protesting on the streets of Kiev . Yet on the other hand, they give rise to hypotheses as to the real subjects of these processes, which are kept behind the scenes. A network of activist organizations and foundations “to support democracy” comes into being and is even reminiscent of a network of terrorist cells! In a certain sense, power copies the strategies that oppose it. And the ruling class of another state, namely Russia , carries out a propaganda campaign to unmask the “technologies of the velvet revolution”. Whenever power uncovers these “secrets” itself, it seems to me that the position of suspiciousness has already been compromised. Why does power need to make these revelations? What’s its interest in all of this? If we are going keep saying, “Everything is determined by technology anyway, strange and terrible forces everywhere!”, we will never reach any kind of revolutionary situation. We will keep saying, “This is no revolution! This is nothing but yet another ploy!”
AT: I would say that the system of the “velvet revolution” is not reminiscent of a terrorist network, but of power’s idea of what a terrorist network should be. During the 19th century, the powers in Western Europe frightened the enlightened layer of society with its stories of the terrible terrorist organization by the name of the “International”. In Russia , this organization was known as “internatsionalka”. This term was used by Dostoevsky, for an example. In his mind, the “internatsionalka” was a monstrous underground organization, who tentacles and feeler had taken hold of the entire civilized world. This underground is firmly in control; it sends out bombers, distributes leaflets, prints newspapers and books, organizes revolts and revolutions, and “corrupts” the youth. As far as the official revelations of the “velvet revolution” are concerned, they can be explained by the fact that in Russia , the state is acting like a fire-brigade. It doesn’t think in strategic but in reactive terms. Since it has lost the confrontation in Ukraine , it tells everyone everything it knows about its opponents. It also talks about its real fears, because it recognize the weak links in its own strategy. At the moment, everyone is talking about the export of the “Orange Revolution” from Ukraine to Russia . The ruling class understands quite well that Ukraine ‘s political structure is very similar to that of Russia , namely a clannish-criminal bureaucratic-bourgeois system, created by the former Soviet nomenclatura in alliance with the mafia. If it was possible to inflict a blow to this system there, then it might be possible to do so here as, and it doesn’t matter with whose help. Power in Russia is horrified at the very thought, instinctively.
AP: In your analysis, you suggest a kind of Realpolitik . This would not be the cynical Realpolitik of the Right, but a point of view that allows a focused and critical appraisal of power’s actions, coming from the political and theoretical context of the Left.
AT: One needs to see the reality beyond all the rhetoric and propaganda. If we speak of the juridical notion of the state of emergency, we need to realize that this is nothing more than a mechanism of defending and reinforcing the position of power. If we move beyond the confines of this purely formal understanding, any socio-political formation in which class divisions, exploitation, social inequality, and unequal economic and political rights exist is a state of emergency. This, in fact, is the emergency that we need to get rid of.
Moscow , December 29th, 2004