The philosopher explains why states like to embrace endless crises
Whether it’s the climate emergency, the epidemic of loneliness or the cost of living crisis, an atmosphere of panic has found its way into everyday western life. Once reserved for natural disasters, terror attacks or pandemics, emergency measures have now become normalised. In other words, the ‘state of exception’ has become unexceptional. Why?
According to writer and philosopher Matthew B. Crawford, this normalisation has occurred (in the US at least) over the last 60 years: the ‘war’ on drugs, poverty, terror, Covid and disinformation has allowed the state to nest itself deeper and deeper into the lives of ordinary citizens. The result is a much more Chinese style of governance, with the “legislative function [being] relocated from a parliamentary body to the executive until the emergency passes,” he notes.
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The trouble is, that emergency never seems to pass. Or when it does, another takes its place. All the while, “the public acquiesce to this extraordinary extension of ‘expert’ jurisdiction over every domain of life”. The crystallising moment came during the Covid pandemic when western ideals like the rule of law and constitutional principles suddenly seemed “out of date and in need of revision”.
The normalisation of emergency became the “idiom of government” after 2020. “Climate provides the ultimate emergency, which is, from the perspective of a technocratic power, ideal because its problem is essentially insoluble or very long-term,” Crawford says. “Climate catastrophism is overblown just as a matter of assessing the crisis but it has to be catastrophized maximally in order to scare people into giving up not just freedoms but a whole lot of activities that are woven into life at every level.” To address the problem of climate change would “require a wholesale gathering-up of power to technocratic bodies,” leading to a further loss of democratic control.
None of this is to suggest that there is a sinister plot planned by faraway people. But such is the nature of bureaucracy that once it grows, it is difficult to control. “All you need is a shared morality of sacralising the vulnerable plus already existing bureaucracies that feed on crisis and need to expand,” says Crawford. “That’s the iron law of bureaucracy: they serve their own internal conveniences and interests and they rarely get smaller.”
There are also private-sector bureaucracies, too. Ones that “feed on a generic mood of moral emergency”. According to Crawford, this is where identity politics comes in, as evidenced by the “enormous increase” in diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives. “The HR layer has gotten a lot thicker”, making it a self-fulfilling prophecy. In some respects, it is solving the problems that it created.
Ironically, the roots of our very secular state of emergencies may lie in Christianity. Crawford states there are important differences, but there is a perceptible connection with the victimological politics of today: “The moral elevation of the victim [is] the great innovation of Christianity”.
But Christianity can also be read in a different light, serving as a “counter” to the victim mentality. “We did have a number of centuries, where the emblematic form of Christian politics was something like Charlemagne, which is not an exulting of the weak,” he says. “I think there’s a way to read the Christian story as a kind of manly, spirited response to the world.”
What, then, does Crawford see as the wiser course of action? Though he does not have any prescriptions, the writer advises that we maintain a “critical distance” from the emergencies of the day. “I think people want to be left alone,” he says. “It’s more like: ‘how do I defend just the most basic way of life because it seems to be very much under threat?’” To Crawford’s mind, “defending the space for normal human activity, normal human life and ownership over the things that are most meaningful to us” is important. “There has to be some actual political power exercised in reining in these sort of Messianic, transformative social engineering initiatives.”