Giorgio Agamben

July 26, 2008


Damage control?

This short text by Giorgio Agamben, published one year after September 11, gives the most concise possible insight into the neoliberal practice of crisis-management. He is concerned primarily with the military and police strategies of the so-called war on terror, but I think it’s important to point out that this practice of of crisis management was inaugurated with the monetary crises of the late 1970s and early 1980s, and then exemplified by the so-called “Asian Financial Crisis” of 1997-98. The British political theorist Peter Gowan in his text Global Gamble (available here) shows that the United States has been able to use its position as premier financial center and holder of the international reserve currency (the dollar) in order to provoke financial crises and ride them out towards resolutions engineered for their increased profit and control, as clearly occured in Korea in the late 1990s. What Agamben does in this text is to  name the risk-taking regime “security” and to put its principle in a nutshell: security does not seek to create order but to “guide disorder.”

Security as the basic principle of state politics dates back to the birth of the modern state. Hobbes already mentions it as the opposite of the fear which compels human beings to unite and form a society together. But not until the 18th century does the paradigm of security reach its fullest development. In an unpublished lecture at the Collège de France in 1978, Michel Foucault showed how in the political and economic practice of the Physiocrats security opposes discipline and the law as instruments of governance.

Neither Turgot and Quesnay nor the Physiocratic officials were primarily concerned with the prevention of famine or the regulation of production, but rather wanted to allow for their development in order to guide and “secure” their consequences. While disciplinary power isolates and closes off territories, measures of security lead to an opening and globalisation; while the law wants to prevent and prescribe, security wants to intervene in ongoing processes to direct them. In a word, discipline wants to produce order, while security wants to guide disorder. Since measures of security can only function within a context of freedom of traffic, trade, and individual initiative, Foucault can show that the development of security coincides with the development of liberal ideology.

Today we are facing extreme and most dangerous developments of this paradigm of security. In the course of a gradual neutralisation of politics and the progressive surrender of traditional tasks of the state, security imposes itself as the basic principle of state activity. What used to be one among several decisive measures of public administration until the first half of the twentieth century, now becomes the sole criterion of political legitimation. Security reasoning entails an essential risk. A state which has security as its only task and source of legitimacy is a fragile organism; it can always be provoked by terrorism to turn itself terroristic.

We should not forget that the first major organisation of terror after the war, the Organisation de l’Armée Secrète (OAS) was established by a French General who thought of himself as patriotic and who was convinced that terrorism was the only answer to the guerilla phenomenon in Algeria and Indochina. When politics, the way it was understood by theorists of the “Polizeiwissenschaft” in the eighteenth century, reduces itself to police, the difference between state and terrorism threatens to disappear. In the end it may lead to security and terrorism forming a single deadly system in which they mutually justify and legitimate each others’ actions.

The risk is not merely the development of a clandestine complicity of opponents but that the hunt for security leads to a worldwide civil war which destroys all civil coexistence. In the new situation — created by the end of the classical form of war between sovereign states — security finds its end in globalisation: it implies the idea of a new planetary order which is, in fact, the worst of all disorders. But there is yet another danger. Because they require constant reference to a state of exception, measures of security work towards a growing depoliticization of society. In the long run, they are irreconcilable with democracy.

Nothing is therefore more important than a revision of the concept of security as the basic principle of state politics. European and American politicians finally have to consider the catastrophic consequences of uncritical use of this figure of thought. It is not that democracies should cease to defend themselves, but the defense of democracy demands today a change of political paradigms and not a world civil war which is just the institutionalization of terror. Maybe the time has come to work towards the prevention of disorder and catastrophe, and not merely towards their control. Today, there are plans for all kinds of emergencies (ecological, medical, military), but there is no politics to prevent them. On the contrary, we can say that politics secretly works towards the production of emergencies. It is the task of democratic politics to prevent the development of conditions which lead to hatred, terror, and destruction — and not to reduce itself to attempts to control them once they occur.

Published in Theory & Event 5:4, 2002; translation by Carolin Emcke


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