By Jacqueline Best
These are interesting times for scholars interested in the concept of “exceptionalism” and emergency.
As I have pointed to in my recent article in Security Dialogue, “Security, economy, population: The political economic logic of liberal exceptionalism,” prior to the recent wave of right-leaning election wins it seemed that we were entering into a post-exceptionalist moment.
Yet, even before the recent rise of the extreme right in the United States and across Europe, there was already evidence of the persistence of exceptionalism, particularly in the context of the 2008 global financial crisis. Before we give up on exceptionalism as a useful concept, we should consider the possibilities of reworking it by recognizing its political economic dimensions.
Emergency actions were defined as responses to the imminent threat of an economic meltdown, which transformed their unusual policy reactions from a political choice into an economic necessity. This necessity became the justification for treating the issue as an exceptional problem … a kind of economic exceptionalism similar to the process of “securitization” that we see in the security arena.
When Western governments responded to the financial crisis in 2008, they did so in terms of exceptionalism. American President George W. Bush appealed to the “extraordinary” threat of global and national financial meltdown in order to justify bailing out AIG and other firms, while the British Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne invoked the dire threat of the loss of economic sovereignty (as had occurred in Greece) in order to justify an “emergency budget” of austerity measures.
In both of these cases, we can see a similar logic at work: emergency actions were defined as responses to the imminent threat of an economic meltdown, which transformed their unusual policy reactions from a political choice into an economic necessity. This necessity became the justification for treating the issue as an exceptional problem that needed to be removed from the usual political process, suspending certain economic and democratic norms—a kind of economic exceptionalism similar to the process of “securitization” that we see in the security arena.
This is not a new phenomenon. Both the United Kingdom and the United States made extensive use of emergency powers to address economic crises, including widespread efforts to put down strikes in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, while President Roosevelt used the Trading with the Enemy Act to push through key measures of the New Deal.
Why do governments rely on economic exceptionalism? Foucault’s later lectures on security, biopolitics and population give us some clues. With the development of liberal forms of government starting in the eighteenth century, he suggests that “security” and “political economy” became linked in a very particular way. This was because a new form of power emerged “that has the population as its target, political economy as its major form of knowledge, and apparatuses of security as its essential technical instrument.”[i]
Today, efforts to govern and secure modern populations continue to rely heavily on political economic thinking and practice. Yet free market economies bring instability as well as growth. There is a core tension in contemporary liberalism between the capacity of free markets to foster the good life, and their tendency to massively disrupt that same good life through periodic crises.
It is not just war that has the potential to threaten the very existence of a liberal state or the global system of states. We should therefore not be surprised if, like wars, economic crises also tend to push politics into the register of exceptionalism, as we have seen in recent years.
[i] Foucault, M. (2007). Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Collège de France 1977-1978. London, Palgrave Macmillan, p. 144. Emphasis added.