Geoff Mann

Geoff Mann

Sidney Smith Hall, Room SS5017 | 100 St. George Street, Toronto, ON, M5S 3G3 (map)

Permanent Emergency

Arendt once wrote that “all rulership has its original and its most legitimate source in man’s wish to emancipate himself from life’s necessity, and men achieved such liberation by means of violence, by forcing others to bear the burden of life for them.” This paper argues that an effort to understand contemporary sovereignty (“rulership”) might best be pursued not through Schmitt’s influential characterization of sovereignty as inaugurated in the decision on the exception, but by concentrating on necessity. If, as has been said for a century, we are in a “permanent state of emergency”, the exception loses its critical grip. If the “exception” becomes the rule, what does the sovereign decide? Necessity points to a conception of sovereignty—which we might describe as the determination of the distribution of the burdens of life—able to help us grapple with crucial challenges to the modern state. The problems associated with accelerating climate change and inequality, for example, are no longer “exceptional”, but so unexceptional as to be paradigmatic of the current conjuncture. For the state, the problem is not the decisive act in the declaration of a state of emergency. Instead, the present calamity demands daily, almost mundane answers to the question of the distribution of life’s burdens. As the management of “permanent emergency” becomes more central to state function, the “exception” proves an increasingly inadequate conceptual tool. If so, this gives new meaning to the “tragic” understanding of politics in liberal political theory and political economy, insofar, as Arendt put it, as it is founded upon the “terrible truth that only violence and rule over others could make some men free”.

About the Speaker: Geoff Mann teaches in the Department of Geography at Simon Fraser University, where he also directs the Centre for Global Political Economy. His most recent books are In the Long Run We Are All Dead: Keynesianism, Political Economy and Revolution (Verso, 2017) and Climate Leviathan: A Political Theory of Our Planetary Future (Verso, 2018), co-authored with Joel Wainwright. He and his family live in Vancouver, British Columbia.