TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

The Perpetual State of Emergency

As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, Johannes Grow looks at John Milbank’s “Sovereignty, Empire, Capital and Terror” from Telos 121 (Fall 2001).

The terrorist attacks on 9/11 created a chain of events that has led not only to the “othering” of Islam and its followers, but also to an increase in the securitization of society as a whole. In “Sovereignty, Empire, Capital, and Terror,” John Milbank examines the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, notably the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the increasing intervention of governments into the privacy of their respective populations. He questions the wars and the increasingly illiberal turn by the government in regards to dealing with terrorists and criminals and the elimination of due process and, in some cases, habeus corpus. He writes that, “the question that one should ask in response to the immediate aftermath the events of September 11 is why there was outrage on such a gigantic scale” (146). He goes on to identify two reasons: first, the threat against the sovereign, and second, the increasing legitimization by Western governments to intervene in so-called “rogue or failed states,” to ensure the spread of the neoliberal market and prevent the defection of these states from the Western dominated capitalist system. Although there are indeed questions concerning the delineation between national security and the democratic process, the answers to these questions are harder to come by.

There has been an uptick in resistance to the seemingly ever-increasing Orwellian securitization of society; the epitome of “big brother” is perhaps the mass data collection by the NSA and its overseas counterparts. The backlash in the media and in the general population in response to the extent of the spying by the NSA in conjunction with the British spy agency, GCHQ, has shown the reluctance to fully accept this type of intrusion. The looming question then is whether a government has the legitimacy to play “big brother.” Milbank notes that, “the first answer is the threat to the sovereign. It is, after all, sovereign power that is supposed to have the right over life and death” (146). The threat to the sovereign state, according to Milbank, posed by non-state actors, has been the driving force behind the two wars in the Middle East and other interventions by Western states into “failed states.” This American “neo-imperialism,” contrasted by Milbank to the old French and British imperialism, has resulted in a divide between the global North/South, a divide that has prevented the South from being able to break away from the economic stranglehold that the North still maintains over these nation-states. The North, then, facing threats from non-state actors, is attempting to “reclaim” power through enacting a constant “state of emergency.”

The constant “state of emergency,” regardless of what exact term is used to justify it, be it “war against terrorism” or “infinite war,” has provided a background for the suspension of civil liberties and privacy. Milbank questions how one air-hijacking, which has led to the permanent suspension of Saxon liberties, including habeas corpus (in both Britain and the United States), relates to the idea of a war of civilizations. Such emergency measures are not really being proposed, because of the unique character of terrorism, but rather because of the perception of a new threat to sovereignty and capital. Hence, the new European anti-terrorist laws which define as terroristic any actions intended “to destroy [European] political, economic or social structures” (150).

Although Milbank’s article was published soon after the terrorist attacks on 9/11, this “idea of civilizations” has only been furthered through certain media sources and a continued belief in Western superiority over Islamic belief systems. Milbank describes this “war,” if you will, as a symptom of nation-states’ constant struggle against globalization. Although the Bush administration is no longer pulling the strings behind American foreign policy, the Obama administration, has apparently continued with the “state of emergency,” even after the conclusion of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The continued use of UAVs and the amount of NSA data-gathering shows a continuity between administrations and a continuity of national security overriding and dominating democratic processes without much questioning until recently.

While the answer to this “state of emergency” and the subsuming of democracy by national security is one that is hard to find, Milbank concludes that a international polity, one based on “metaphysical legacies” common to Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, would potentially “provide a certain areas of common vision and practice, while at the same time respecting social and cultural spaces for exercised differences” (158). Although he questions the “global society” envisioned by Hardt and Negri, he nonetheless provides his own vision of a global society without the state. Yet the question of the state still remains. Whether nation-states will really eschew “formal power,” and by doing so give up their predominance on the global stage, in exchange for a vision of ” global polity” can only be answered by time and a change in the central belief of a system of states.

Comments are closed.