Securitizing the Muslim Brotherhood, legitimizing state violence and renewing authoritarianism in post-Arab Spring Egypt

On 14 August 2013, we watched televised news in horror as Egyptian security forces brutally attacked largely peaceful sit-ins of Muslim Brotherhood supporters protesting against the removal of Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi.

In just 12 hours, the state’s use of live ammunition, snipers, armoured vehicles and bulldozers led to the deaths of an estimated 1000 Egyptians and the smouldering remains of tents, banners and human debris. To onlookers at home and abroad, it looked like the tragic aftermath of a war.

Human Rights Watch called it the biggest massacre in modern Egyptian history. But perhaps more shocking than state violence were the reactions of ordinary people: many Egyptians blamed the Brotherhood for bringing this tragedy on themselves. As researchers of contemporary Egypt we were faced with a baffling paradox: how had revolutionary demands for an end to state violence in 2011, transformed in just 2 years into complicity with the brutality of security forces. Why did Egyptians accept, and in some cases, cheer–as the authorities killed and maimed their fellow citizens? What role did everyday Egyptians play in demonizing the Muslim Brotherhood?

In our Security Dialogue article, we deploy the concept of ‘securitization’ to understand this unprecedented state violence and its widespread acceptance in Egypt. ‘Securitization’ was developed to analyze how security threats are constructed through the speech of state elites in order to allow ‘exceptional’ measures outside of the ‘normal’ political process. But few authors have used the concept to understand security logics in non-democratic contexts, with some arguing that securitization cannot be applied in authoritarian political systems because there are no ‘rules’.

Tahrir Square, 2011 Photo: Jonathan Rashad, Wikimedia

We take a different view. Our article begins by examining what precisely constitutes ‘the rules’ under an authoritarian regime. We draw on the political thought of Marxist Antonio Gramsci, specifically his concepts of hegemony and civil society, to theorise authoritarianism as culturally, institutionally and socially embedded. We argue that a ‘break from the rules’ occurs when rulers deviate from the ‘authoritarian bargain’, thereby rendering state violence unacceptable in the eyes of a critical mass within society. Conversely, the legitimization of state violence is highly dependent upon a consensus within civil society.

The Egypt case illustrates the crucial role of civil society in securitizing the Brotherhood through their demonization of the organization as an existential threat to Egypt. We argue that this wider discourse within Egyptian civil society set the stage for the military coup against former president Morsi on 3 July and further securitising ‘moves’ by the military. In particular, General Abdel Fatah el-Sisi’s 23 July speech, calling on Egyptians to give the military ‘a mandate to fight terrorism’, and the subsequent mobilization of Egyptians on 26 July, provided crucial political cover for the massacres to follow. Hence, the article highlights the blurred lines between state and non-state actors or, indeed, co-opted and independent actors vis-a-vis the state, in the securitization process.

Finally, the article considers how this securitization process institutionalised new levels of state violence and repression, extending well beyond the Muslim Brotherhood: from youth activists to trade unionists and regime critics. We suggest that securitization not only constitutes a break from ‘normal politics’ but may also be integral to the reconstitution of a new ‘normal politics’ after the revolutionary upheavals of 2011.

The article has implications for how scholars study counter-revolution and the renewal of authoritarianism in the post-Arab Spring era, pointing to the utility of securitization theory in shedding new light on the dynamics underpinning the dramatic increase in the use of state violence, complementing existing institutional and materialist analyses. More broadly, the application of securitization theory to non-democracies opens up new avenues of research into the processes by which security logics are used to enable and sustain authoritarian regimes. Research of such dynamics is perhaps more urgent now than ever before.

Stepping into the haunted house? Two challenges when slowing down critique

A world without the need for critique is unthinkable. And yet, Critical Security Studies (CSS) have learned that critique is a difficult and far from self-evident exercise. The Security Dialogue 50th anniversary issue builds on this legacy and addresses, once again, the specter of critique. It is an attempt to give words to the messy states of affairs that we explore with our research.

”if critique is a specter that scholars are to address, our world looks like a haunted house”

Doing and mediating critique implies that there is always a multitude of actors who engage in critique. Scientific experts, NGOs, concerned citizens, state authorities, journalists, militias, and more, are all at times ‘critical’ of one thing or another. In other words, if critique is a specter that scholars are to address, our world looks like a haunted house. Hence, we sought to explore the matters of critique as well as how to make our critique matter. By unpacking different ways of ‘doing and mediating critique’, the special issue’s contributions show the diversity of what can be considered a critical intervention, the theoretical and practical challenges of scholarly critique, and its role and its limitations in the world we inhabit. While reflexive and often self-critical, the articles resist the urge to dispel or dismiss the specter. Equally, they resist reducing critique to a monster, the reaction to whom would be to unmask it or fall prey to panic. There is, in many contributions, an experimental effort to find new ways of making critique matter, e.g. thinking with photos or working in security research consortia.

Haunted house. Source:

Our own contribution is an invitation to step into the haunted house. If CSS are to address the specter of critique, we suggest practicing companionship. As we put it in the article, companionship “involves engaging with the possibilities for critical renewal that everyday companions might suggest”. While this position resonates with pragmatist approaches within the so-called ‘practice turn’, our key scholarly companions have been two philosophers of science and technology – Donna Haraway and Isabelle Stengers. When we put Haraway’s notion of companionship to work, we came to realize that companionship is not always easy. Thus, we want to use this blog post to reflect about two major challenges we encountered and continue to struggle with.

First, to address the specter of critique via companionship does not simply imply getting along with kindred spirits. It requires an engagement with matters that can be difficult and troubling, sometimes with practices and actors that we find disturbing. As one colleague put it: would we accept a fascist politician as a companion of critique? This is a legitimate question. It obliges us to clarify that companions are not to be allies or friends, but the people, things, and ideas that we decide to work with and whose impact on the world we seek to understand. As such, they are staying with us; they accompany us and our research over a long period of time. In fact, we need their company in order to understand them in depth. These companions of critique, willingly or not, provide us the means to advance an account of how socio-political phenomena emerge and are consolidated. The challenge is rather to observe these companions patiently, to resist merely undoing them, while still allowing ourselves to define our stance towards this companion. In research practice, this means asking ourselves, again and again, what kind of world-view we enact with our critical interventions and what the consequences of our critique could be.

The second challenge is how to make our critique matter. Generally speaking, researchers publish their critical interventions in scholarly articles. CSS scholars are no exception and the success of a journal like Security Dialogue shows how critical approaches can make a difference in the somewhat conservative discipline of IR. Yet, this model of mediation is not without problems. It is not only a question of the scope and audience of the mediation – who will read these critical articles? – but also of the way in which we can do critique. A trend that glaringly shapes the production and publication of critique is the act of measuring whether it is critically important. Critique has to be made count – whether that is expressed in journal metrics, number of citations or other impact criteria. Academic careers are increasingly built on the monetary sums of secured grants, the number of academic tasks successfully realized, and not least the amount of journal articles, possibly solo-authored – all of which facilitate the tasks of hiring and grant committees. As Stengers notes, this knowledge economy thrives on research that quickly disengages with its research objects, states of affair and respondents. Engaging at length with companions bears the risk of slowing researchers down. Ironically, being relatively junior scholars ourselves, we had to balance the challenges of dedicated commitment and making critique count in the knowledge economy within this very special issue project (as with most projects we undertake).

Security Dialogue is a living proof of how companionship matters for CSS. We are thankful to its current and previous teams for having created an excellent academic outlet for critique through the course of the past 50 years. And we are thankful for providing us with this unique opportunity to make ‘doing and mediating critique’ the topic of its anniversary celebration. This is also why we want to take this opportunity to emphasize that what we need to make our critique matter beyond impact factors is slow, dedicated, and patient critique based on companionship; a form of critique that gives us the means to live inside the haunted house and learn, everyday anew, to address our specters.


Speed, Event Suppression and the Chronopolitics of Resilience

Terrorist attacks, infectious diseases, financial crises, and floods—what makes contemporary dangers so threatening is their tendency to suddenly materialize, rapidly escalate and quickly spread. So how might we respond to such threats?

In my recent article in Security Dialogue, I investigate how emergency responses are being reorganized in the UK to grapple with the speed and unpredictability of contemporary emergencies. Specifically, I focus on the framework of Integrated Emergency Management (IEM).  IEM looks to accelerate the speed of emergency responses in order to hasten recovery.  It does so by adopting new models of emergency organization rooted in the principles of communication and information exchange.  Various information and communications technologies are relied on to circulate information between the diverse agencies (e.g. police, firefighters, ambulance, etc) involved in the response.  The aim is to achieve ‘shared situational awareness’—that is, a common understanding of the nature of the event and the response’s progress by all responders.

Shared situational awareness is said to improve the integration of different response agencies cooperating within a response, enhance problem-solving and permit the devolution of responsibilities from senior commanders to front-line responders.  The result is a model of emergency response governed from the bottom-up.  As responders identify the extent of the challenges wrought by any given emergency (e.g. a road has been flooded, x number of hospital beds are needed, a cordon needs to be set up) then different response plans may be actioned, new levels of command and control introduced, and distinct specialist agencies invited to assist in the response.  The result is a bespoke emergency response that can be quickly assembled and adapted to address the unique challenges arising from the often-unpredictable unfolding of an evolving emergency.

As I demonstrate in my article, speed is a principle consideration when it comes to strategizing the organization of emergency responses today.  Ideally, we might think of security as a space free from danger.  But emergency responses cannot prevent an emergency from happening.  Instead, they are premised on the hope that when emergencies happen, that actions can be taken to quickly resolve it. Speed is critical in this regard.  IEM looks to ensure a swift return to ‘normality’ following an emergency.  It does so by accelerating emergency response activities to diminish an emergency’s temporal duration, geographic scope, and destructive potential.   Operationalizing a model of emergency responses rooted in the idea of bottom-up self-organization, emergency responses must evolve quicker than threat itself!  Emergency responses, in this respect, can be understood to underpin efforts to enhance UK resilience, ensuring our capacity to quickly ‘bounce back’ from disruptive challenges.  In my article, I call the distinct form of security enacted within emergency responses ‘event-suppression’. Event suppression ensures security not by preventing an event from happening, but by quickly closing down the ‘disruptive’ time of the emergency event and ensure a swift return to ‘normality’. Event-suppression ensures that when events happen, that they have a minimal disruptive impact on ‘daily life’.

On the one hand, distinguishing event-suppression as a distinct form of security might encourage us to consider the very different modes through which security is achieved. On the other hand, we might consider the implications of this ‘need for speed’ for contemporary security politics.  Does it undermine slow democratic process of debate and discussion?  Is it sufficiently checked by slower processes such as training, planning, and the drafting of legislation?  How does such an understanding relate to more spatially oriented analyses examining ‘state of emergencies’?

Dangerous feelings: Checkpoints and the Perception of Hostile Intent

Checkpoints were a surprisingly deadly place for civilians in both Afghanistan and Iraq. While our attention was often drawn to the more spectacular or scandalous acts of violence, the steady accumulation of dead and injured bodies at coalition checkpoints passed by largely unnoticed. At one point, the situation in Iraq was so bad that an average of one civilian was being killed or wounded at coalition checkpoints per day.

Photo by it’s me neosiam from Pexels

Things were not much better in Afghanistan, where the International Security Assistance Force’s own data revealed that escalation of force engagements were the ‘single greatest cause of civilian casualties’. As General Stanley McChrystal put it, ‘we have shot an amazing number of people and… none has proven to have been a real threat to the force’. Although the vast majority of victims were innocent civilians, these engagements were often presented as legitimate acts of self-defence. The rules of engagement allow soldiers to use deadly force against anyone – combatant or non-combatant – who poses an imminent threat to the force and the officers sent to investigate these deaths often concluded that the victims were engaged in a hostile act or demonstrating some form of hostile intent.

As part of this research which my recent article in Security Dialogue benefits from, I reviewed 154 declassified incident reports. Investigators found that soldiers had acted in accordance with the rules of engagement in 119 of these incidents and there were another 16 reports where the findings were redacted or missing. In fact, there were only five incidents where the investigating officer concluded that they had violated these rules. But the circumstances surrounding these deaths seemed a little strange. There is one case where a man was shot because he was ‘wandering aimlessly’ in the road … holding a small round object in his right hand’. Soldiers had assumed that the man was carrying a grenade, it turned out to be nothing more than an uncooked potato. There is another incident where soldiers actively pursued and shot a man who performed a ‘suspicious U-turn’ as he approached the checkpoint and another case where soldiers shot and killed a three-year-old boy because the taxi he was travelling in was travelling as an ‘unusually high rate of speed’. There is even one incident where a man driving a rubbish truck was killed after falling asleep in his cab at the side of the road.

‘affective judgements are not the spontaneous act of a single mind but coloured by a set of gendered and racialized assumptions’

Despite the sheer number of cases, little has been written about these checkpoint killings. As Andrew Bacevich argued at the time, these mistakes were in danger of being ‘filed away and largely forgotten’. Those who have written about checkpoint killings have tended to focus on ambiguities in the rules of engagement, which critics argue are ‘too vague and allows for excessive subjectivity’. While I have some sympathy with these concerns, focusing on the rules of engagement only takes us so far because it assumes that the decision to use lethal force is a fully conscious or rational decision when the testimony of soldiers suggests that feelings, instincts and intuitions are just as important. Drawing on the work of Sara Ahmed, William Connolly and George Yancy, I argue that these decisions could be characterised as affective judgements, which rely on a crude set of infraperceptual practices to identify potential threats and react accordingly. More importantly, I argue that these affective judgements are not the spontaneous act of a single mind but coloured by a set of gendered and racialized assumptions that mark certain bodies as dangerous before they even arrive on the scene. As Ahmed explains,

Although she was not writing about the violence inflicted on the battlefield, these insights are particularly useful for thinking about the split-second calls that soldiers were expected to make at coalition checkpoints and why it was that ‘military-age males’ were often presumed to be hostile even though they had done nothing wrong.

Rethinking security through sound

Security has become an increasingly prominent part of everyday life, impacting us as we travel, interact in community spaces, or consider options for communication.  While physical barriers, passports, and technologies such as X-ray machines and metal detectors are commonly accepted as integral parts of the evolving security sector, ambient sound is rarely imagined as salient to security practices today.  In my Security Dialogue article, ‘Audializing the Migrant Body’, I make a case for thinking about sound- and the sensory body more broadly- in research on bordering, mobility, biometrics, migration, and security.  I suggest that the aural body represents a site of geopolitics that deserves consideration on moral and ethical grounds.

Photo credit: Author

In tracing transnational sonic flows and their interaction with local, regional, and international actors, I conducted fieldwork in Morocco in 2015 and 2016, interviewing (in French and English) undocumented sub-Saharan African migrants who arrived in Morocco via the Western Mediterranean migration route.  Migrants passed through the Malian cities of Bamako and Gao, or Arlit in Niger, coalescing and regrouping in Tamanrasset, Algeria, after the difficult Saharan traverse.  From Tamanrasset, migrants continued north to Algiers or Oran, after which they tried their luck at entering Morocco via the heavily guarded border crossing at Maghnia.  Depending on their country of origin and route, migrants I spoke with crossed as many as nine international borders in the course of their journey.  Some of these border crossings presented few difficulties; others risked being fatal and left my interlocutors with physical and psychological scars.  All the individuals in my data pool were trying to reach Europe via port cities along the Mediterranean—either by boat or by scaling the treacherous and highly guarded fences separating the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla from Morocco.

Photo credit: Author

Many of my interviews took place in migrants’ temporary living quarters in Takadoum, a slum on the outskirts of Morocco’s capital city of Rabat.  Initial contact was mediated through migrant-run aid organizations where I volunteered during my time in the field.  I also interviewed migrants in unofficial forest encampments outside of Nador, along Morocco’s northern coast, and organized extended focus groups where migrants gathered, on a voluntary basis, to talk on the interrelated topics of their phones and communication practices, their journeys, strategies for scaling the border fence, and their onward plans.  In the course of the conversations, I paid heed to the ways that migrants’ engagement with sound and communication infrastructures impacted their behavioral strategies, route choices, and understandings of positionality within a globalized security apparatus.

One of the occasionally frustrating aspects about academic fora is the way that personal human stories are often written out to make room for more generalizable findings or theoretical implications.  While my article in Security Dialogue could not capture the pathos, suffering, hope, and occasional humor that migrants shared, it is my aim that its sustained attention to the phenomenological, embodied politics of sound reminds readers of the commonalities all humans share at the biological level, connecting macro-political questions on important topics such as immigration and human rights with micro-processes that make up the fabric of everyday lives.


Secular risk governance? A look into the recent history of the Turkish military

The Turkish political landscape has been volatile for a while now and, especially in the past few years, we have witnessed dramatic transformations of Turkish state structures and institutions. The attempted coup of July 15th 2016 reinforced the significance and ongoing power of the Turkish military regardless of which political interests they are aligned with and it showed, once and again, the dangerous centrality of corrupt elite alliances in Erdogan’s ‘new Turkey’. More importantly, the 2016 coup attempt became a convenient pretext for massive crack-downs on heterogenous opposition to the government and it further instigated regime change through an emergency status referendum in 2017.

Turkish Military Parade By Pivox [CC BY-SA 4.0] Wikimedia Commons

On the second anniversary of the coup attempt on July 15th 2018, the military itself became the target of radical structural reforms with an emergency decree placing the chief of General Staff and all force commanders under the Ministry of Defense. The decree also officially ended the de facto autonomy of the Turkish military, enjoyed by them since the early days of the republic. Regardless of their official status of autonomy however, the Turkish military has always been an extension and enabler of republican state ideology. This took different forms based on historically specific and fluid political dynamics. From the transition to parliamentary democracy in the 1950s and onwards, the military has loomed over civilian politics through a variety of coups and memorandums. At times the Turkish Military has been aligned with anti-Islamist, anti-leftist and anti-Kurdish political agendas, but has consistently espoused a Sunni Turkish nationalism in the shape of secularism.

The question is: how did Turkey’s hawkish pashas now end up bowing to civilian authority in the shape of the AKP; and more importantly, what is the socio-cultural backdrop to this political shift? The answer can be found in the relatively recent history of Turkish civil-military relations- from the 1980s to the end of the 2000s- when the military defined the rise of political Islam as the top national security threat. During this era, a secularist military mobilized against Islamization by using not only the power of arms and tanks, but also through its institutional reach into the state apparatus to exert control over issues ranging from education, TV broadcasting, and business. In effect, the military securitized religion through large-scale threats of coups and memoranda, while at the same time micro-managing cultural symbols of Islamization in its security discourse and within its own ranks and bases.

In its security discourse during this period, the Turkish military engaged in practices of identifying, expelling, or recuperating ‘Islamist infiltrators’ within the officers’ cadre; most of whom were identified through the headscarves of their wives and daughters. Based on an ethnographic study on military bases and in-depth interviews with the wives of military officers, my article in Security Dialogue examines the lived experience of the unique intertwinement of secularism with security through the concept of secular risk governance. Drawing on risk-based security studies that discuss risk as a form of social governance, I demonstrate the ways that a vaguely defined concept like ‘secularity’ ultimately determined the content and extent of Turkish security and political agendas, and gave meaning to notions of security and risk across a secular/religious epistemic divide. I further show how secular risk governance monitored the social life, daily conduct, and private realms of individuals by measuring ‘excess’ and ‘deviance’ against the backdrop of a normative modern and secular Sunni Muslim identity, where public representation of women’s bodies was key.

My analysis also contributes to our understanding of how the populist secular/religious divide that looms over Turkish politics came into being as a self-fulfilling prophecy through the security framework enforced by the Turkish military. It throws light on a particularly crucial era of the authoritarian secularist security paradigm, which sowed the seeds of the AKP’s revanchist agenda and the increasingly sharpening ‘authoritarian turn’ after 2011 that began with a massive swing of authoritarian power from the Turkish military to the AKP. My analysis also considers civil-military relations since 2011 to make sense of how the military’s anti-Islamist security discourse paved the way for informal and illegal alliances and their subsequent disastrous collapse through the 2016 coup attempt.

This case also offers important lessons in understanding the securitization of Muslims in Western security politics since 9/11. In the article, I point out how safety is practiced as secularity, parallel to the securitization of risky individuals who practice religion publicly in Western countries. This brings attention to future research on the security practices that govern our understanding of what being a ‘safe Muslim’ might mean according to secular norms. Approaching the securitization of Islam in Turkey through the concept of secular risk governance, my analysis bridges institutional and cultural mechanisms involved in security discourses and reveal how security happens through social relations and identities rather than solely through state-led military agendas.

Beyond the Police: Jerusalem’s Modular Security Provision

When we think about public security, we often think about the police, the military, or perhaps about border guards or the criminal courts. But security is often pursued in cooperation with a variety of public and private actors, enlisted by state security actors to reinforce their legal and operational capacities, while providing them with enhanced maneuverability and reduced accountability. I suggest asking – how are these relations formed, and to what end?

East Jerusalem, an urban territory occupied and annexed by Israel in 1967, provides a fertile ground to answer these questions. In attempts to reconcile the strong-arm governance of the Occupied Palestinian territories- only one part of the city- with a claim of a ‘united’ Jerusalem under the democratic rule of law, Israeli authorities augment their security interventions by drawing together – or assembling – a plurality of state and non-state civil actors. Meir Eliahu, one of Jerusalem’s regional border police commanders, illustrated these ties in a discussion on his unit’s police work in East Jerusalem:

‘What we have here is a widespread joint policing activity of all different authorities’ […] ‘including enforcement agencies which are totally not related to the police: the Tax Authority, the Municipal Water Authority, all those things. We want to create leverage that would ultimately make things quiet. We will enter from this alley, we will enter from that alley, climb from above, descend from below, we will come through several dimensions and deal as much as possible with these outlaws’.

Shuafat enclave in East Jerusalem. Photo: Author


In a recent article published in Security Dialogue, I examine the relations formed between state security actors and the public or private actors they enlist, through several examples of security pluralization in East Jerusalem. In the article, I delve into the relations between the police and other social, regulatory or public utility bodies such as the Jerusalem municipality, the National Parks Authority, the local water corporation and the National Insurance Institute. I look at how, through the legal, financial and labor capacities offered by these actors, Israeli state security actors were able to pursue controversial policies such as blacklisting, collective punitive measures and placing restrictions on urban development in a manner that distinguishes between residents worthy of enhanced protection, and those designated as security threats. I propose to think of these emerging relations as modular security: when state security actors can enlist, deploy, instruct entwine, detach and withdraw public and private actors, performances, and technologies if and when the need arises. I continue to identify three features of urban modular security provisions: the heterogeneity of its public and private components, the development of reserved security capacities, and differential performances and practices towards the residents of the city.

The pluralization and privatization of security in East Jerusalem resembles other cases worldwide. From European pluralized anti-radicalisation programmes, through to privately-run prisons in the US and public-private policing partnerships in South Africa, state security provision is increasingly pursued outside the usual institutions of the police, the military or the criminal justice system. I suggest that we turn our attention to the relations formed between these bodies and an extended family of other state and non-state institutions – relations that are often marked by ad-hoc flexible and modular arrangement. Through the assembly of a modular security provision, state security actors seek to reinforce their legal and operational capacities, enhance their maneuverability, and pursue controversial security policies with reduced legal and public accountability.

‘Security, Economy, Population’- A comment to Jacqueline Best

Jacqueline Best’s article ‘Security, Economy, Population’ is a welcome addition to the evolving discussion of ‘exceptionalism’ in the critical social sciences. As Best suggests, over the past fifteen years much discussion of emergency governance and exceptionalism has been shaped by post-9/11 security measures. I fully endorse her call to bring other forms of emergency government—particularly emergency economic government—into this discussion, and to see what they tell us, both empirically and theoretically, about exceptionalism.

Along with Andrew Lakoff, I have been working on historical dimensions of emergency economic government in the United States for a number of years now. As such, I am particularly sympathetic to Best’s point that emergency economic governance is far from a new problem. Indeed, it is historically important to modern reflections on exceptionalism. Carl Schmitt’s discussion of crisis government in Dictatorship(1921)—which Giorgio Agamben has referred to as a first, isolated treatment of the theory of the exception—was motivated in large part by the frequent recourse to exceptional powers during recurrent economic-financial crises in Weimar Germany.[i] Emergency economic government in the US has also been historically tied to questions of exceptionalism. The crucial occasions of American emergency government during the first half of the 20th century were the Great Depression and industrial mobilization for World War I and World War II. These events raised questions about exceptionalism: could they be managed within the legal and constitutional framework of American political institutions?

I would like to approach Best’s article from a somewhat oblique angle, making a few comments on this historical material and then turning to the contemporary forms of economic government that Best analyzes. What was the form of emergency economic governance that was exercised amid depression and world war? How has emergency economic government changed over the last century? And what does it have to do with the ‘state of exception’? In addressing these questions, it is useful to take a step back to consider emergency economic government in the context of broader tendencies of American political development during the first half of the 20th century.

At this time, governmental reformers —specifically late-Progressive reformers—were convinced that in an increasingly metropolitan and mass-industrial society, government would be more frequently required to manage rapidly evolving social and economic problems. To do so, reformers argued, governments had to be equipped with discretionary executive power and mechanisms of technocratic decision-making to address the demands of rapidly changing situations, from economic shocks to strikes and other forms of social unrest. But in the early decades of the 20th century, such equipment was lacking in the American governmental system. Sovereign power was highly diffused, both within the federal government and across the constituent states. Executives —whether mayors, governors, or presidents— had limited discretionary power, at least when judged by contemporary standards. Government at all levels lacked the instruments of technocratic rule: large bureaucracies staffed by cadres of technical experts. Progressive reformers thus identified a mismatch between governmental institutions and the contemporary problems they faced. Reform and adjustment were necessary.

This mismatch that reformers perceived between inherited governmental form and the challenges that confronted modern governments suggests why economic crisis governance raised problems of exceptionalism. The most indicative case, perhaps, is President Roosevelt’s initial response to the Great Depression in 1933. Famously invoking a threat to the nation as great as that posed by an enemy during wartime, Roosevelt did indeed seize—or was granted through emergency legislation—a set of exceptional powers that were soon rebuked by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional. Roosevelt opted for ‘exceptional’ economic government in an emergency situation because the executive in the US federal government was totally unequipped to respond in any other way.

But before jumping to the conclusion —as Agamben does— that Roosevelt’s early response to the Great Depression set in motion a much broader tendency toward exceptionalism that continues to the present day, it is worth noting how reformers responded to the rebuke of early New Deal initiatives to manage the Great Depression in the middle to late 1930s. To grossly simplify a complex story, reformers sought a form of emergency economic government that would not require recourse to exceptional measures. They found it in the instruments of what came, after World War II, to be known as the regulatory or administrative state. A couple of salient features of this regulatory state are particularly relevant for the present discussion. Congressional statutes delegated authority to various offices and agencies housed in the executive branch of government, not through ‘emergency’ legislation, but as standby powers created during ‘normal’ times. Importantly, these new discretionary, executive powers—often exercised by new expert bodies of various sorts—were not necessarily placed under the direct authority of the president. Legislative oversight was generally maintained, and in many cases mechanisms were put in place to promote independence from the ‘sovereign.’ The Federal Reserve, which features centrally in Best’s account, provides an important example of this pattern. In the Banking Act of 1935, discretionary power was, on the one hand, centralized in the Board of Governors, which was to be comprised of members who were ‘well qualified by education or experience to participate in the formulation of national economic and monetary policies’[ii]—that is to say, by experts of a certain sort. On the other hand, measures were instituted to protect the actions of the Board from interference by the president and the presidential administration.

Today, this basic model of the regulatory state is pervasive in the U.S. (and in other countries). It comprises, to quote Best’s characterization of the emergency economic governance mechanisms she describes, ‘a set of expert decision making bodies’ that are, in important ways, ‘insulated from the democratic process.’ At the same time, this model fits pretty uneasily with what is usually referred to in discussions of ‘exceptional governance.’ It certainly does not involve a sovereign proclaiming that the constitution and legality have to be set aside; indeed, it was created by reformers who wanted precisely to avoid such recourse. Rather, this model of economic governance involves the exercise of specific powers that are grounded in statutory authority, that are constrained by various forms of oversight, and that are often insulated from direct control by the ‘sovereign.’ To say that these powers are hemmed in by law does not mean that they raise no questions of legality or even constitutionality. To be sure, they have garnered legal challenges from both the left and the right, in domains ranging from environmental regulation to labor regulation and financial governance. But these legal challenges are not about sovereign exceptionalism, per se. They relate, rather, to specific, statutory powers that are exercised through the technocratic apparatuses of the regulatory state.

So what does this historical perspective tell us? For one, I think it helps us think more clearly about why, at a certain historical moment, economic crisis government was so closely tied to the question of exceptionalism. At the risk of again being far too simplistic, the reason that economic or financial ‘emergency’ raised questions of sovereign exceptionalism in the first half of the 20thcentury is that the institutions of the regulatory state had not yet been invented. There was no body of law, no cadre of experts in government, and no established decision-making bodies that could undertake such interventions. They could only be accomplished by stepping outside of established statutory authority, by creating ‘emergency’ legislation, or by relying on the undefined and theoretically limitless constitutional powers of the American presidency to act ‘by dictate’—and according to the dictates—of an emergency situation.

But in wrapping up this comment, I want to turn from the past to the present, and to some of the core issues raised in Best’s article. Specifically, I would like to engage Best on two points, one analytical and methodological, the other regarding the contemporary politics of emergency, rationality, and executive power. On the methodological and analytical point Best argues that after a flurry of interest in exceptionalism, a recent literature on emergency governance ‘looks away from exceptionalism,’ going so far as to suggest that it proposes to ‘give up on exceptionalism’ as an analytical category. I would gently push back on this characterization. The argument in this literature is not that the category of exception should be discarded. Rather, it is that we have to more carefully analyze and distinguish among different ways that governments deal with what are considered to be urgent problems. This project is fully consistent with Best’s proposal to introduce emergency economic government into the discussion of exceptionalism. But I think more work remains to be done in sorting out whether the legal and administrative mechanisms involved in the governmental forms she is discussing really constitute ‘exceptional’ government in the sense we usually understand it.

There are, no doubt, cases of economic emergency government that take something like the structure of exceptionalism Schmitt described, in which sovereign authority gives itself the right to act without any statutory ground, relying either on inherent constitutional powers or on powers that are simply unelaborated, in the name of the ‘necessity’ of a particular situation. But in other cases, urgent technocratic response to economic emergencies is based on powers that are established in legislation or through the many mechanisms of regulatory authority that are fundamental to the operation of post-war states, including to the way these states deal with emergencies. I would suggest that most cases of emergency economic governance, including many of those that Best analyzes in her article, fall in the latter category, and are not examples of exceptionalism. Though Best and I may disagree on this point, I think we would agree that progress could be made in resolving our disagreement by further scrutinizing the legal and administrative arrangements of particular examples of emergency economic governance.

My second concluding point concerns the kinds of political problems that these questions of emergency, expertise, technocracy, and democracy pose today. At the end of her article, Best provocatively draws a connection between the response to the 2008 financial crisis and the ‘more recent rise in support for the authoritarian right.’ She identifies both as ‘exceptionalist manifestations of [a] new crisis of liberalism.’ In light of the history to which I have gestured, I see these developments from a different perspective. Faced with what seemed like truly dire threats to democratic government, American governmental reformers of the 1930s and 1940s invented the institutions of the regulatory state as the American alternative to sovereign exceptionalism. Today, in domains ranging from environmental policy to economic governance and the basic function of statistical analysis and reporting, these technocratic mechanisms of the regulatory state are being attacked.[iii]Thus, from my perspective, the distressing prospect today is not that mechanisms of expert rule present an exceptionalist politics that may undermine democracy. Rather, it is these mechanisms that were originally invented as alternatives to exceptionalism will be destroyed. Will the Progressive ‘solution’ to the problems of emergency, executive power, and expert rule stand? Can the institutions created to institute democratic executive government, hemmed in by technical expertise, impersonal standards, and bureaucratic norms, survive? I couldn’t agree more that, as Best suggests, our democracy is at stake. But the real threat today is not excessive sovereign power acting under the guise of expert truth. Rather, as in the 1920s and 1930s, it is sovereign power wielded against the truth.

Stephen J Collier is Professor of City and Regional Planning at Berkley, University of California

[i]Giorgio Agamben, State of Exception, (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2005). The argument that Schmitt’s early reflections on crisis government were largely oriented to the economic-financial crises of Weimar Germany is advanced in William Scheuerman, Liberal Democracy and the Social Acceleration of Time(Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004).

[ii]‘Banking Act of 1935.’ Accessed at

[iii]This argument has also been made in Stephen J. Collier and Andrew Lakoff, ‘Trump’s Fictional Crises and the Real Threats to American Democracy.’ The New Republic, February 8, 2017.

A Political Economy of ‘the Exception’? A comment to Jacqueline Best

One of the most noteworthy responses to the election of Donald J. Trump came from politically radical African-Americans. In light of the longue durée of racial supremacy and the experience of those exploited by America’s economic system, it was not surprising or exceptional that aracist, misogynist, xenophobic plutocrat could succeed the first black President of the United States. In contrast, very many white liberals were stunned that such a man could be elected in 2016. I was reminded of this discrepancy, the absence/presence of shock in response to what was conceived of as either a normal or exceptional event when reflecting on Jacqueline Best’s provocative article on ‘exceptionalism’.

During the 2000s, several ‘critical security studies’ (CSS) scholars turned to theories of ‘the exception’ to understand how and why the Bush administration spoke of an ‘emergency’, an ‘extraordinary’, and ‘exceptional’ situation to justify its military and legal choices after the 9.11 attacks. Jacqueline Best’s ambitious aim is to unify CSS and ‘cultural political economy’ through returning the concept of ‘exception’ to its original economic roots. Such an account, she hopes, might overcome some criticisms of exceptionalism theory: the too narrow focus on security; neglect of ‘liberal political economy’; and related tendency to ignore the ‘social production’ of exceptionalism (380).

Best argues that there is a ‘similar logic at work’ in both security and economic exceptionalisms. In both discourses, political and economic elites attempt to define ‘the limit of normal politics’, to suspend ‘the norm (or the law)’, and then to put ‘the exception into practice’ (378, 376). As evidence, she refers to ‘the history of economic exceptionalism’ (377), which she locates in the late 19th- and early 20th- centuries United States, specifically the government’s use of martial law to crush labour strikes (381). In addition, there is a brief study of the US government’s justificatory discourse around the handling of aspects of the 2008 ‘financial crisis’.

An international political economy-centred genealogy of exceptionalism discourse would be most welcome. It is important and fascinating to ask under what circumstances elite actors claim that exceptional circumstances warrant a breach of what they present as the normal conditions of legal, economic, and political power. An account of the ‘social production’ of exceptionalism is certainly needed and Jacqueline Best must be one of the most qualified scholars to undertake such a study. But this is not the main focus in Best’s article. Instead, political economy is absorbed into a security/exceptionalism frame. In my view, this comes with great political, theoretical, and methodological costs.

Best is absolutely right that CSS is limited to the extent that it pays little to no attention to political economy. However, in adopting the concept of ‘the exception’, developed by Carl Schmitt precisely to evacuate class from his theory of the state, Best is in danger of doing the same. For example, the promising historical analysis of the role of martial law in assaulting labour activism quickly makes way for a summary of Michel Foucault’s bold statements about ‘security, economy, population’. Best then endorses Foucault’s troubling analysis of the rise of neoliberalism as a reaction to the ‘increasingly ‘coercive interventions’’ of Keynesian social democracy (387). The ‘problem of the 1970s’, on this account, ‘was that the apparatus of security had been too aggressive in checking the dangers of a free market’. Post-war state intervention in the economy ‘enabled the rise of Thatcher and Reagan and, ultimately, the move towards a far more radical form of economic liberalization’ (387).

The complex and deeply contingent class, raced, gendered, and ‘post’-colonial struggles that were part of the assault on social democracy and the rehabilitation of Hayekian economics in Chicago, Chile, then Washington and London are reduced, via Foucault, to a ‘failure’ of the ‘delicate balance’ between the needs of the ‘free market’ and the capacity of the security apparatuses to manage its exigencies.  The effective erasure of the myriad struggles that actually account for the rise of neoliberalism is probably inadvertent in this article. But it chimes with Carl Schmitt’s explicitly anti-socialist and racist political agenda when he first developed the theory of the ‘exception’. Leading with a Foucaultian rather than a Schmittian frame does not appear to overcome this problem. There seems to be something inherent in the analytic of ‘the exception’ that privileges an elite political economy frame and that marginalises race and class.

This points to a bigger underlying problem with the ‘exceptionalism’ framework. It centres almost entirely on analysing elite discourses about what they are doing in times of elite-defined emergency. The problem is not with analysing elite discourses as such. But these discourses cannot be the main validation of our theoretical and empirical claims. That would be tautology. In Best’s analysis of ‘exception’ discourse in the 2008 financial crisis, elites are quoted making statements about the severity of a ‘crisis’; subsequent actions are thereby ‘taken out of the realm of political choice’ (384) to ‘justify the suspension of free market norms’ (385). But the argument that this discourse reflects some deep underlying logic of the exception, which is both the thing to be explained and the thing doing the explaining, is totally dependent on accepting elite terms of the crisis: that ‘free market norms’ were in fact operative and then suspended.

This is certainly how liberal capitalism presents itself, but that cannot be the basis of our evaluation of the financial crisis. The so-called ‘market’ under capital accumulation is and always has been highly managed in a deeply classed, gendered, raced, and geopolitical manner. This is not news to Jacqueline Best. However, for theories of the ‘exception’ to add any value depends on the claim that it is in exceptional moments that governments ‘decide’ who is and is not worthy of protection and inclusion, who is exposed and who is excluded. Yet, this is what happens all the time in economic management, in class management, in every budget produced in every finance ministry, as well during seemingly ‘extraordinary’ interventions in the economy when elite interests are threatened with collapse.

At this point in the debate around the utility of ‘the exception’ proponents claim that ‘the exception has become the norm’; if ‘free market norms’ are constantly suspended then the exception is always at work. But this defensive move is more concerned with preserving the analytic of ‘the exception’ than analysing the phenomenon itself, in this case the politics of a financial collapse. It is not persuasive. The analytic of ‘exception’ requires accepting that there is a politically and intellectually meaningful distinction between what is normal and exceptional. I’m not sure that gendered, raced and class-based analysis of capital accumulation allows for such a distinction, or at least makes one very difficult to justify. Jacqueline Best seems to be aware of this problem, pointing out that the main focus of the article is on ‘the use of exceptionalist policies by western, industrialized states’. She notes that there is a ‘rich literature on the recurrence of exceptionalism in developing economies, particularly in the context of western-driven development’ (388).

Underlying this distinction is the claim that while there might be constant economic crises in the global South this is not so in the North or ‘West’. ‘While we may forget it in moments of prolonged stability’, she writes, ‘capitalism has always been a volatile and crisis-prone form of political economic organization’. Yet, there is a ‘capacity of free markets to foster the good life through economic growth and [a] tendency to massively disrupt that good life through periodic crisis’ (382). Here Best is trying to have it both ways, acknowledging the crisis-prone nature of capitalism while also insisting that many do live the good life and this good life can be disrupted. In the end, what has to be central to the analysis of ‘exception’ is the appearance of ‘prolonged stability’ for political and economic elites. Many of those same elites were shocked at the election of Trump.

Best is absolutely right that CSS is limited to the extent that it pays little to no attention to political economy. Jacqueline Best has written an important article that will provoke debate across CSS and cultural political economy. But I am not convinced that much is gained from theories of ‘the exception’. If the fascist origins of such theories are not enough to discredit this framing, then its dependence on elite discourses of ‘crisis’ should be enough. I understand that Best is searching for a more satisfactory framework than old-fashioned analysis of ‘class war’. If the problem with such analyses, as Best claims, is that they are too ‘formalist’ and less able to account for the everyday workings of capitalism, then the solution is to work toward a less formalist and more empirically grounded analysis of ‘the tedious ongoing work that is required to produce’ class, gender, racial and geopolitical hierarchy (389). I remain to be convinced that an analytic of the ‘exception’ offers very much in that worthy endeavour.

Patricia Owens is Professor of International Relations at University of Sussex