by UnHerd Staff
Tuesday, 17
January 2023
Video
15:00

Matthew B. Crawford: the perpetual state of emergency

The philosopher explains why states like to embrace endless crises
by UnHerd Staff

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.


Like what you’re reading? Get the free UnHerd daily email

Already registered? Sign in


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came during the Covid pandemic when western ideals like the rule of law and constitutional principles suddenly seemed “out of date and in need of revision”.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.”

Join the discussion


To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Subscribe
Subscribe
Notify of
guest
39 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Steve Murray
Steve Murray
19 days ago

Now this is more important from Crawford than his woolly “gratitude” essay at the weekend.
He is essentially right about the catastrophising element of events, led by the media with a vested interest in maintaining attention for their platforms but the origins of which lie deeper in state and corporate interests.
His call for a return to normalisation should be heeded. Most people just want to get on with their personal and public lives, but in doing so tend to leave the big decisions to the political sphere which is entirely incapable of dealing with the complexity now extant from technological progress and communication networks.
Davos is, of course, the high water mark of this sphere; high only in its lofty Alpine perch and overweening ambitions.
Until recently i was unfamiliar with Crawford’s work, but alongside Unherd’s Stock & Harrington, he’s positioning himself – whilst acknowledging there are no facile solutions – to be a significant part of the pushback against the forces he identifies here.

John Riordan
John Riordan
19 days ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

I quite liked Crawford’s weekend essay, it was thought provoking.

Benedict Waterson
Benedict Waterson
19 days ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

I highly recommend his book – The World Beyond Your Head – if you get a chance.
Some of the weekend essay was referencing ideas already put down in the book

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
19 days ago

It’s simple really. Creating fear makes it easy to govern. People are more malleable if they are scared. It doesn’t take good government to respond to the latest emergency and govt gets good marks for doing something.

The real goal of government should be fostering human flourishing. This, however, requires creativity and exceptional problem solving skills.

You can see it with the marginalization of some ethnic communities. It’s easy to blather on about structural racism and invent policies that make fat, rich white people feel better about themselves.

But actually lifting people out of poverty, creating conditions that promote better education and economic opportunity, this is a wicked problem that is clearly beyond the ability of our current leadership to grapple with.

AC Harper
AC Harper
19 days ago

Powered by this article I asked myself what crises there were during the Late medieval Period (an interest of mine).
There was the Late Medieval triple crisis of the end of the Medieval Warm Period, The Great Famine, and the Black Death. Now you can argue about the numbers of dead and the social consequences, but the European population took 200 years to recover.
I expect you could also identify other ‘triple crises’… perhaps WWI, the influenza pandemic, and the Great Depression. Other crises are available.
Our current crises are not yet reaching these levels. I hope they never do, but we need some perspective to bolster the hope that most of us can develop Crawford’s  “critical distance” from the emergencies of the day and make sensible choices.

Phillip Arundel
Phillip Arundel
19 days ago

”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”. ”

What an idiot – the Christ story is one of Sacrifice, NOT victimhood. The Opposite. It is you have to do what you have to do and not wimp out – not plead victumhood. The Martyrs are the heroes – the ones who willfully stood up to oppression, even unto death – not played the victim card and rolled over.

Basically everything he points out as his thesis is known – 1984 and almost all dystopias use endless conflict as the background for control. Communism always was based on that, the endless fight against the ‘enemy’ so the state of war is always requiring your submission – or all will be lost. Jihad even.

But from then he speaks sheer drivel – at least the written part, I have not listened yet – but seemingly not worth it. Sorry if I judge it wrongly by just the words above…

”the writer advises that we maintain a “critical distance” from the emergencies of the day. “I think people want to be left alone,””

I mean this is crazy – head in the sand is not what I recommend, is not what real people did or we would still be in the Feudal system the Elites wish to put us back into – so oppression needs fighting back, not backing off, not ‘go along to get along’, but resist tyranny. .

Stephanie Surface
Stephanie Surface
18 days ago

Totally agree with you, to compare Christ’s suffering with today’s “professional victims” is disingenuous. Christ endured and took his destiny on himself without complaint, like the ancient hero of the Classics. Compare his attitude to the near professionalism of contemporary “victims ” with their hypocrisies and judgements of others.I would compare those people more to the Pharisees at Christ’s time as they demonstrate their “goodness”, show off their charities for all to see, but also harshly judge others, who aren’t as “moral” as they are.
The people who still wear their masks outside, sometimes even alone in their cars, or the ones glueing themselves to streets or artworks for a so-called “higher purpose”, are moralising show offs and more comparable to the Pharisees at Christ’s time.

Last edited 18 days ago by Stephanie Surface
Jill Corel
Jill Corel
18 days ago

Thank you Phillip for pointing that out about the Christ story. I thought – what on earth is he talking about!

Merv Hearne
Merv Hearne
19 days ago

The concerted energy put into scaring, demoralising or “gaslighting” the public (to suicide etc), seems so utterly contrary to the idea of security and the therapeutic state it’s absurd. Driving people slowly mad and suppressing even non-ideological dissent should be a step too far. Yet it leaves the masses baying for the blood of dissenters. That our very own National security agencies are involved in these social engineering programmes too in the “marketplace of ideas” and the recent Twitter scandal. This fact should provide true inspiration for panic in us all. Not so, ’tis heresy apparently!

j watson
j watson
18 days ago

Such an article immediately draws me back to Pinker’s magisterial ‘History of Violence’ where he showed regardless of the onslaught of ‘if it bleeds it leads’ modern media bias the empirical data showed a huge and consistent reduction in violence over time, whether that’s inter-state violence like the Ukraine conflict or within a society violence such as physical abuse of women/children etc. The arc of progress, whilst lumpy does appear empirically to have much to commend it, although that does not mean we can be complacent as much still to do. Nonetheless were Newspapers, media outlets only to publish every 50 years the headlines would be ‘Massive increase in life expectancy’ and/or ‘Huge reduction in worldwide violence’.
Thus I’m left with sense the Author underplays the role of the media in creating the ‘emergency’ climate. It just needs all of us to gain broader perspective via other channels too. 

lindy adam
lindy adam
18 days ago

Michael Crichton’s book “State of Fear” written in 2004 is a riveting thriller built upon the very thing you are discussing; namely, keeping the populace in a state of constant anxiety and fear makes it malleable. Its a must read.

Phillip Arundel
Phillip Arundel
19 days ago

Awaiting for approval – Unherd – what is this – every third post gets deleted? Is it random or what – or is it regulating wrong think…

I said what an **************** the writer is – I do not know if that was it – but censored…..

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
19 days ago

You attract more flies with honey than with vinegar.

Stephanie Surface
Stephanie Surface
18 days ago

Same goes for me: “Awaiting for approval”. Guess answering your post needs approval nowadays.

Albireo Double
Albireo Double
9 days ago

My personal pushback is long under way. Talk of a “climate emergency” is now countered with “climate religion” or “climate catastrophism”.

Reference to “the science” elicits “which science” or a proposal of an alternative science.

We are small, but we are many. That will win this particular struggle for us. That, and the internet, which for a change, acts as a helpful conduit for words of sense.

“Emergency…?” Never, ever, again. Unless I can personally see the walls falling.

Dog Eared
Dog Eared
19 days ago

This of course an Orwellian state of affairs being described and superpowered by technology. One can be paranoid on such matters but it’s perfectly easy to tune out of by avoiding MSM, but more importantly the echo chambers where cynicism prevails. Which brings me to climate change catastrophism – understandably Crawford sees the alarmist response sceptically and perhaps in conspiratorial terms, but fails to acknowledge the genuine problems future populations will ultimately face. Sadly he therefore appears to be playing to a ready made biased audience.

Adam Bacon
Adam Bacon
19 days ago
Reply to  Dog Eared

Alternatively, like most of us, he’s seen through the ongoing hysteria (Covid, climate emergency etc), understanding them for they are ( HL Mencken’s hobgoblins).
Carry on panicking if you wish, but really the anthropogenic climate change ”Science ‘ is pretty much as shonky as the Covid variety of Science.

Dog Eared
Dog Eared
19 days ago
Reply to  Adam Bacon

Really? I can understand why some folks are sceptical, after all, Exxon has funded a multi-million dollar industry to ensure people remain confused, and that persists today. But outright denial? Consult any university, any encyclopedia, The Royal Society, not some bloke’s blog. No panic here, I’m entirely indifferent, I realised 25 years ago this was a lost cause because of protectionism.

Last edited 19 days ago by dfsdfsd fssdfsdef
Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
19 days ago
Reply to  Dog Eared

Exxon spends infinitely more money on greenwashing than any campaign to confuse people. The big money is on the alarmist side – the foundations, the NGOs, the research. I would be surprised if Exxon has donated even $10 million to an individual organization specifically to debunk climate change.

It’s like arguing Putin spends millions and millions to promote alarmism so the west stops investing in fossil fuels. Show me the money.

Last edited 19 days ago by clearmedia
Dog Eared
Dog Eared
19 days ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Exxon knew about climate change in the 1970’s and decided then to fund a huge sceptic industry, for profit. The fallout from this campaign will last for hundreds of years.
https://www.newscientist.com/article/2354492-exxon-scientists-in-the-1970s-accurately-predicted-climate-change/

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
19 days ago
Reply to  Dog Eared

We’ve heard all this stuff before. What the article fails to cite is any meaningful donations to think tanks or NGOs or massive ad campaigns. Are we seriously supposed to believe Exxon scientists new about global warming in 1977, when everyone else at that time was predicting global cooling?

I followed a link from your story to a 2009 Guardian article, which accused Exxon of spending hundreds of thousands donating to climate sceptics. Hundreds of thousands!! That’s pocket change when it comes to climate science.

The Guardian article was written in 2009. Meanwhile, in February, 2022, the Associated Press assigned more than 24 journalists across the globe to cover climate issues after receiving more than $8 million over three years from various organizations.

The organizations contributing to the “philanthropy-funded news” via a “climate grant” are the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Quadrivium, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation.

Don’t worry, I can cite dozens and dozens of cases of lavish spending on the alarmist side. There is no money on the skeptic side. There just isn’t.

Last edited 19 days ago by clearmedia
Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
19 days ago
Reply to  Dog Eared

No offence, but after 35 years of failed predictions, why should we take the alarmist community seriously? Climate change is a problem, but what exactly are the problems that humans cannot adapt to?

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
19 days ago
Reply to  Dog Eared

I think many readers of Unherd are more concerned about the ‘solutions’ to climate change than climate change itself which has been going on ever since the world was formed. Personally, I remain more optimistic about humans reacting with skill and ingenuity to any given climate emergency and pessimistic about putting my trust in a small group of people who see their job as managing humanity in order save the planet. There are already NGOs promoting climate change is a result of racial injustice with the usual scapegoats within easy reach:
https://www.ohchr.org/en/press-releases/2022/11/global-climate-crisis-racial-justice-crisis-un-expert
If you think this is hyperbole, don’t forget that it’s only 80 years ago that humans were killing each other for more ‘lebensraum’. How much more gleefully will we kill each other if it’s all done in the name of ‘saving the planet’?

Dog Eared
Dog Eared
18 days ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

climate change itself which has been going on ever since the world was formed

This is the type of thing the world is up against. I appreciate the layman may not grasp the seriousness of the issue, which is why people on the alarmist side get so frustrated.
Ultimately it’s future generations that will curse this one for burying the problem.

Jane H
Jane H
18 days ago
Reply to  Dog Eared

I’m a mere laywoman and from your post, I’m assuming, you aren’t a layman but even I know that the Romans grew vineyards in the north of England during their occupation. In the 1500’s there was a mini ice age. The climate DOES change naturally and regularly, if you care to look back further than ‘when records began’ in the late 1800’s.

Last edited 18 days ago by Jane H
Dog Eared
Dog Eared
18 days ago
Reply to  Jane H

Indeed, these concepts and ‘the weather’ are entirely seperate from climate change, which concerns energy being trapped in the global ecosystem by carbon dioxide. The CO2 we are making now will persist for 200 years, that is why future populations face massive problems. I respectively suggest choosing a publication with integrity and finding out more, should you wish to do so.

Jane H
Jane H
18 days ago
Reply to  Dog Eared

Top Obama physicist Physicist Steven Koonin kicks the hornet’s nest right out of the gate in “Unsettled.” In the book’s first sentences he asserts that “the Science” about our planet’s climate is anything but “settled.” Mr. Koonin knows well that it is nonetheless a settled subject in the minds of most pundits and politicians and most of the population.

Dog Eared
Dog Eared
18 days ago
Reply to  Jane H

A New Book Manages to Get Climate Science Badly Wrong

In Unsettled, Steven Koonin deploys that highly misleading label to falsely suggest that we don’t understand the risks well enough to take action

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/a-new-book-manages-to-get-climate-science-badly-wrong/
Perhaps approaching the subject without confirmation bias would be better?

Jane H
Jane H
18 days ago
Reply to  Dog Eared

Gary Yohe is the Huffington Foundation Professor of Economics and Environmental Studies, Emeritus, at Wesleyan University in Connecticut? He’s no physicist though is he.

Dog Eared
Dog Eared
18 days ago
Reply to  Jane H

Professor of Environmental Studies seems kinda robust tbf. But hey, this is why I’m indifferent on the matter, too many folks have been convinced by the sceptic industry. Protectionism will be our undoing.

Jane H
Jane H
18 days ago
Reply to  Dog Eared

So we can conclude it’s Unsettled then can’t we, for the moment anyway. Wait til ur bank account is linked to a data gathering company highlighting how much ur spending on fuel and airline tickets etc with the inevitable resultant penalties. It’s already happening in Australia but it’s voluntary for the moment but we all know that will change.

Dog Eared
Dog Eared
18 days ago
Reply to  Jane H

Offenders pay? Seems reasonable, especially with businesses and pollution.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
18 days ago
Reply to  Dog Eared

Why should I care about some hypothetical future generation? Why is their future considered worthier than my own?

Dog Eared
Dog Eared
18 days ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

Depends if you have children and other younger kin I suppose. In the time being you can carry on regardless, it’s not going to make any difference unfortunately – I realised that 25 years ago. Still, I have the moral high ground ;o)

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
17 days ago
Reply to  Dog Eared

No, not really. Judging by this current crop of students and its rabid hatred for past generations, future generations will hate us anyway.

Betsy Arehart
Betsy Arehart
16 days ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

I hope you are being sarcastic there! Their future is not worthier than your own, but it is not less worthy. FYI I am a climate change non-alarmist.

Stephanie Surface
Stephanie Surface
18 days ago
Reply to  Dog Eared

Where did you get the “Climate Change Catastrophism” from? The Guardian? Recommend to read statistics by R.Pielke Jr., who was part of the IPCC. Also recommend reading Professor Lindzen , Professor Curry and more statistics by B.Lomborg

Dog Eared
Dog Eared
18 days ago

I think of it more as ‘realism’, degree in ecology and associated reading. I note your list of sceptics – Lomborg is just like Koonin, cherry picking certain data to create misleading arguments (to sell books). These are exactly the kind of people that were recruited by Exxon to cast doubt on climate science. See funding of climate change denial: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ExxonMobil_climate_change_denial

Stephanie Surface
Stephanie Surface
18 days ago
Reply to  Dog Eared

Don’t quote anything from Wiki. It is like reading the Guardian. The scientists have nothing to do with Exxon.