Current Affairs

The Politics of Emergencies

What exactly is an “emergency” and how do we imagine it?

“Let’s start with the end of the world, why don’t we? Get it over with and move on to more interesting things.

First, a personal ending. There is a thing she will think over and over in the days to come, as she imagines how her son died and tries to make sense of something so innately senseless. She will cover Uche’s broken little body with a blanket—except his face, because he is afraid of the dark—and she will sit beside it numb, and she will pay no attention to the world that is ending outside. The world has already ended within her, and neither ending is for the first time. She’s old hat at this by now.”

The Fifth Season, N. K. Jemisin

Emergencies are inevitable: we human beings are creatures of finite intelligence and limited means, living in a world subject to forces that we cannot hope to control. Our social existence takes place within and is shaped by a tightly-woven tapestry of social relationships, legal restraints, and informal hierarchies: all of these are systems of such complexity that no single person can hope to fully understand them, much less direct them. Such systems are always liable to dysfunction, and if their failures grow large or numerous enough, the result is an emergency in which every normal rule of behavior ceases to be a reliable benchmark. Emergencies are terrifying not only because they may involve loss of life or goods, but also because they annihilate the social scripts—the conventions about who to talk to in a given situation, the rules and courtesies that smooth out our day-to-day interactions—that we choose to follow or reject in the course of living our lives. It is one thing to be given a social script and choose to defy it, but it is another thing entirely to have your entire normal frame of reference smashed in a moment, leaving you without any kind of guide.

For this reason, the ethics of emergencies have occupied philosophers and political theorists for many years, and the ability of a political or social system to cope with emergencies has become a kind of litmus test for its feasibility or legitimacy. This seems at first glance to be a perfectly reasonable yardstick. After all, a large part of our goal as socialists is to alleviate human suffering, and a great deal of suffering is caused by emergency situations, ranging from natural disasters to infrastructure collapses to acts of terrorism. At the same time, we have reason to be suspicious of thinking primarily in terms of edge cases: Brianna Rennix and Nathan Robinson have written in these pages about the limits and indeed the dangers of the “Trolley Problem” so popular in introductory philosophy classes. Making emergency situations a determining metric of political or moral legitimacy runs the risk of erasing or minimizing the actual day-to-day business of politics, which is to construct and maintain social systems that allow people the genuine freedom to live well according to their dispositions and talents. When uncommon emergency situations dominate our concerns, we become obsessed with building systems that can survive at all costs, instead of thinking about how to build systems that, even if not totally impervious to destruction, will actually help people to live good lives. This is, I think, an extremely dangerous proposition.

There are several reasons why this constant foregrounding of emergencies, this “Emergency Mindset,” tends to produce systems and policies that harm human wellbeing. One obvious reason is that it can produce a kind of bunker mentality, wherein whole swathes of the population find that their basic autonomy and privacy have been abrogated by authorities who seek to avoid the repetition of some past or imagined calamity at all costs: think of the U.S. government’s increased mass surveillance in response to 9/11. But another important reason is that it fundamentally means the privileging of some emergencies over others. In a profoundly unequal society, it’s usually the comfortable and powerful who get to decide both what constitutes an “emergency” and which behavioral norms ought to be suspended or maintained for the duration of the crisis. Because an emergency is something that is ultimately subjectively experienced, what appears as an emergency to one person or group of people might appear as perfectly normal to another. Some emergencies experienced by the powerless are totally invisible to the powerful, while others are perceived and judged by the powerful as remote spectacles. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, for example, residents were put into situations for which no amount of foreknowledge could have prepared them. Meanwhile, far away from the crisis, barking heads on Fox News and crypt-dwelling revenants at the National Review were able to talk and write with straight faces about the problems of “looting,” as if people attempting to save their own and one another’s lives were bound to observe the sacrosanctity of the gas station and the supermarket. They were able to say and write these things because Katrina was, for them, no emergency: their own lives were untroubled by the catastrophe, and they did not identify sufficiently with other human beings to experience the deprivation, suffering, and death that followed in the hurricane’s wake as something that ruptured the ethical norms of their personal existence.

This ultimate subjectivity of emergencies takes place largely along class lines: we experience an emergency in proportion to our own powerlessness in the midst of the situation. This reaches its fullest expression in the ability of the powerful to create emergencies and then disavow their existence, because what suffering people experience as a traumatic crisis is, for those in power, merely the unfolding of policy. This logic played out almost perfectly in Ireland’s Great Famine, during which the British Parliament largely refused to pass relief measures aimed at reducing food prices or restricting the export of food. The result was an ongoing export of food for sale in foreign markets, where it could fetch higher prices for the benefit of English and Anglo-Irish Protestant landlords, while the overwhelmingly Irish Catholic peasantry starved. Relief was not forthcoming precisely because those with the power to grant it did not experience the Famine as an emergency requiring immediate relief. (Current Affairs’ ancient enemy The Economist noted at the time of the Famine in 1847 that “the [Irish] people, rapidly increasing, have been reduced, by acts for which they are chiefly to blame, to a sole reliance on the precarious crop of potatoes” and concluded that “every breach of the laws of morality and social order brings its own punishment and inconvenience.”) This is the deeper problem with measuring our systems based on their response to emergencies: they will respond only to those emergencies that have been labeled as such by those with the power to make that designation.

The abstract logic of “emergency ethics” has already been thoroughly developed in the field of political theory, and it’s perhaps telling that its greatest exponent was the jurist Carl Schmitt, one of the most prominent thinkers of the Third Reich. For Schmitt, political sovereignty consists precisely in the power to pronounce an emergency, to decide when the normal states of law and political ethics must be suspended: “Sovereign is he who decides on the exception,” reads the most famous pronouncement of his Political Theology. For Schmitt, no set of norms or procedures can govern an emergency, and the ongoing legitimacy of all norms rests ultimately on a sovereign’s ongoing decision not to suspend them: the emergency is the true reality that lurks behind all norms, held in check only by the opinion and will of the sovereign. Schmitt couches this argument in language that ultimately defends both the effectiveness and legitimacy of the Nazi dictatorship that he came to support, but his characterization illustrates just as clearly the central problem of any large-scale socio-political system: its ability to respond to emergencies rests on the people with the power to declare an emergency. If those people see no emergency, they will not declare one, regardless of what kind of suffering this brings to their fellow human beings.

Obviously I do not think that technocrats are tantamount to Nazis, but I do think that measuring social systems only by their response to emergencies is not an objective criterion. It amounts to saying that a better system is one that recognizes emergencies in roughly the same way that I do. I am sure that there are people who think this is a perfectly reasonable criterion: indeed, the “rule by competence” encouraged by certain kinds of liberal technocrat encourages precisely this line of reasoning, suggesting that detached, sober-minded political analysts are best suited to decide what is a real “emergency” and what is merely public hysteria or an unavoidable tragedy. This is the line of thinking advanced by people who have watched too much Aaron Sorkin and believe that solving our most pressing political and social problems requires putting “smart people” in charge. At its heart, it nurses a deeply cruel and uncompromising authoritarianism. Certain people are simply better suited to rule, and those who refuse to accept rule by the best deserve whatever suffering befalls them as a result.

The subjective and experiential dimension of emergencies makes them, I think, poor fodder for abstract ethical discussions. An emergency is not merely a set of constraints: it is the experience of powerlessness caused by a situation whose scale or shock takes us far outside the space that our codes of behavior inhabit. We find ourselves in the grip of feelings that render normal thought and action impossible. Nearly everyone experiences this at some point in the form of bereavement, when the loss of someone close to us leaves us in a world that no longer makes sense without them. The thought experiment, a central tool of contemporary Anglophone moral philosophy, here shows its utter uselessness. A moment’s brief imagination fails to convey what an emergency like bereavement actually entails. That kind of immersive empathetic and imaginative work demands time and prompting: it is fiction, rather than thought experiments, that provides better ways of thinking about the ethics of emergencies.

Art by C.M. Duffy

The idea of fiction as an essential tool of philosophy is not strictly a new one, although it was absent from Anglophone philosophy for quite a while. Most philosophy in the English-speaking world is done in what is known as the analytic tradition, which emphasizes the ability to state claims as formal logical propositions so as to better understand and critique them. This makes it an excellent tool for discussing ideas in abstraction, but a very poor one for talking practically about the experiential realities of day-to-day life. Martha Nussbaum, who trained first as a classicist and then as an analytic philosopher, sought to bridge this gap with her 1986 book The Fragility of Goodness, in which she argues that one cannot talk coherently about Greek moral thought without dealing with the material of Greek tragedy and the narrative dimensions of Greek philosophy. One of the things that tragedy deals with extraordinarily well is what Nussbaum calls “moral luck,” which is essentially our inability to protect against what I have called “emergencies”: the situations in which forces outside a person’s control render all normal moral guidelines useless. Tragedy deals with these questions by dramatizing them onstage through the principal characters and by discussing them in the songs of the chorus. The emotional investment generated by the drama is absolutely essential, as every theorist of tragedy from Aristotle onward has agreed. Tragic drama educates us about times of crisis not by attempting to provide guidelines, but by developing our empathy and attempting to show the audience what such moments feel like for those who go through them. In doing so, they help us to extend that empathy and allow it to influence our idea of what sorts of emergencies demand our attention.

Drama has a unique ability to make crises immediate and emotionally weighty, while narrative fiction can provide a way of thinking about how the ethics of emergencies play out over an extended period. Perhaps one of the best such considerations in recent years has been N. K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy of science fiction novels. Jemisin creates a society structured almost entirely around its preparation for emergencies, located on a continent periodically wracked by environmental catastrophes called “Seasons,” which result in martial law and the murder of anyone unable to contribute to a community’s survival. This society is governed by “stonelore,” the supposedly unchanging and unchangeable precepts codified in ages past to help communities survive the Seasons. It is, in other words, a society constructed entirely in the shadow of unpredictable emergencies, and over the course of Jemisin’s three novels, she explores both the ongoing costs of such a society for its vulnerable members and the way in which such a society can arise even out of a technological and ecological utopia. It is a harrowing read: her characters endure tremendous losses and face unspeakable choices, all the while dealing with geological catastrophe so severe that they believe the very earth itself wants humanity dead. Jemisin does not attempt to justify her characters’ actions, but she succeeds brilliantly at helping her readers understand and empathize with the desperation of her characters. As the final book reaches its climax, her characters are given the power to remake their society, to turn the tables and take revenge on the society that has so violently oppressed them and those like them. There is nothing to stop them: they have ventured to such faraway places and seen such indescribable things that there is no context to guide their actions, for no one has ever been able to do what they can. They would be fully justified in remaking the world to put oppressed and persecuted people on top and leaving the rest at their mercy.

And yet they do not do so, and Jemisin does not make this a clear or easy choice. It is abundantly clear that their society does not deserve to be spared: it is built from the ground up on the enslavement of a powerful but vulnerable minority population. It considers any human life expendable if that life cannot “pull its weight” in a community. In a stunning and horrifying twist on the question posed by Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov, this society builds the machinery of its flourishing not on the suffering of just one child, but the mutilation and torture of countless numbers of them. The very existence of such a society is a moral abomination, an ethical emergency of the highest order, but Jemisin’s characters choose not to visit it with the judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah and rebuild from the ashes. They decide this not because this society and the people who participated in its atrocities “deserve” to survive, but because such a cycle of violence and oppression can end only through either forgiveness or annihilation.

Jemisin’s portrayal of such a decisive moment both illustrates and criticizes Schmitt’s theory of the exception. On the one hand, Schmitt is correct to note that norms are always incomplete, and that the state of exception that lurks beneath them is a situation governed by pure decision. But Jemisin’s narrative account shows us that there is something prior to decision, something other than pure will that undergirds the choices we make. Her characters’ choice to save the world, to end the Seasons and not violently remake society, is fundamentally a choice made out of love. It is an imperfect love, but one that suffices to extend the characters’ concern beyond themselves and enables them to make the choice to forgive and put an end to countless generations of suffering.

I think that this is what Jemisin reveals in her narrative: that the ethics of emergencies cannot be rule-bound, for emergencies always escape our attempts to codify them, but must emerge through decisions undertaken in love. This is not a word that contemporary socialists often use: it sounds, perhaps, unfashionable, like a relic from the 19th and early 20th centuries in which socialism was often intertwined with religious causes. But I don’t see this as a reason to scorn the word: on the contrary, some of the religious strains of socialist thought have a much more robust articulation than their more numerous secular counterparts of what it means to act in love. One of the greatest exponents of such an understanding in the twentieth century was the Irish socialist and Dominican friar Fr. Herbert McCabe, O.P. As a Catholic, McCabe sees love not as something that makes us feel nice things about ourselves and others, but as something that demands and effects radical change in how we relate to the world. “Do you remember how Paul describes the catastrophic effects of love?” he writes. “God’s love and forgiveness may make you patient and kind, not jealous or boastful; it may prevent you from being arrogant, or rude, or insisting on your own way, or being irritable or resentful, so that you do not rejoice in wrongs but only in what is right. It may make you bear all things, believe all things, hope all things.”[1] For McCabe, “the Christian demand for love and peace is precisely what motivates us to take part in the class struggle: but more than that, the gospel of love, and in particular the Sermon on the Mount, provides us with the appropriate revolutionary discipline for effective action.”[2]

Love in McCabe’s sense, and in the sense that Jemisin portrays, does not mean indulging people who do wrong or allowing atrocities to continue out of good feelings for all parties involved. Quite the contrary: it demands an end to exploitation and suffering for the sake of both persecutor and persecuted. Love for the powerful, for the oppressor, does not demand that we indulge them, but rather demands all the more urgently that they be stopped from oppressing others, because having so much power over the lives of others corrodes our humanity. This is not a love we can easily retain and act on. Indeed, for McCabe it is not a human love at all, but the perfect love of God that makes these demands of us, a love that we cannot emulate on our own but must continually aspire to.

We find such love in ourselves fleetingly and imperfectly, but we do find it. Such transformative love breaks into our lives in the moments of rupture that Christian theology calls moments of grace. This is the love that allows people who have suffered violent crimes to cry out against the incarceration and capital punishment. It is the love that allows a gay person fighting for LGBT rights to say that someone who voted for Donald Trump and refuses to treat gay marriages as real is nonetheless entitled to a living wage and healthcare. This, and only this, is the love through which people separated by distance and experience from one another can nonetheless regard each other’s good as their own.

It may not seem practical at first glance to offer “Love your neighbor as yourself” as the guide for how to think about emergencies, but I think that, with further reflection, it reveals itself as the most practical advice one can give. The blinders imposed on us by literal and metaphorical distance prevent us from seeing the distress and emergencies of other people: these are distances that only love for others can traverse. And in the midst of something that could not be prepared for, something that strips from us all other guides for action and leaves nothing but our decision to act, only by acting in love can we hope to act rightly.

There are already countless emergencies facing people every day, and there will be many more to come. But as socialists, we should not be afraid to face them with love for our fellow human beings, and we should be clear-eyed about the consequences that such love brings: McCabe observes rightly that “if you do not love, you will not be alive; if you love effectively, you will be killed.” The world makes martyrs of those who live most fully for the good of others, and the struggle out of capitalism will not be won without tragedy. But another Christian thinker, C. S. Lewis, offers perhaps the soundest guidance on this matter: “The only place outside Heaven where you can be safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.”


[1] From “Motorways and God,” reprinted in The Herbert McCabe Reader

[2] From “The Class Struggle and Christian Love,” printed in God Matters

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