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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