The following essay argues that the expansion of the ‘state of exception;’ the ability of the State to remove the rule of law to engage in violence, war, and murder, has been increasingly normalized in the current social and political terrain.
Upon Trump’s inauguration, the United States was swept with a massive popular upheaval against his bigoted militaristic policies. In the midst of this, a popular slogan and idea was born of “No Normalization.” However, as is usually the case in the last ten years, the mass popular upheaval was put down by militarized and brutal police responses, and reprisal arrests across the country. As a result, one year later we can safely say the state of “non-normalcy” has been normalized. But this is nothing new.
Political scientists call this the “state of exception” and it was a political logic and rhetorical strategy used to govern and control the public for decades. Particularly under the Obama administration, the state of exception was utilized to legitimize granting increasing powers to the executive branch, including his infamous hit list which resulted in the extrajudicial murder by drone of American Citizens such as Alnar Alinaki. The acts of brutality are always framed as an unfortunate necessity, an exception from the normal order of things combined with the subtle re-assurance that things will return to normal soon, or that the exception doesn’t apply to everyone. It is the despotic hope embodied in the former president’s slogan “hope and change.”
However, definitely the state needs either the consent of the masses for its policies and actions or to convince them of the “exceptionality” and un-ordinary circumstances when it allegedly has no choice but to exert to brutality with impunity. It’s the same political logic and rhetorical strategy used to legitimize atrocities from the mass shootings, police violence and illegal imperialistic designs of mass murder as we are seeing today in Gaza. It is a toxic alluring posture that slowly builds, to normalize the exception and the extraordinary after extra-ordinary eventually becomes plain. It is a slow acclimation of the public to policies and ways of governance formerly felt to be outrageously unacceptable.
The state of exception is a way of constructing and maintaining a little white lie. Today the state continues to have the need to explain and justify its actions in the public eye in order to gain support or quell resistance to its actions. At the end of the day, the state needs to maintain a sense of legitimate rule and governance, else face a public unwilling to cooperate with its policies and initiatives.
Today we are witnessing one of the largest popular up-swells of activism in the past several decades. From movements against police violence, environmentally destructive projects that deprive native people of their lands such as was seen at Standing Rock, to the new movement attempting to address the issue of school mass shooters. Yet for all their vibrancy and tenacity, we have seen relatively small amounts of tangible changes in the establishment, if not active regression towards more destructive policies.
So why isn’t our efforts affecting change? One reason might be, again, the state of exception and how it works to maintain state legitimacy, despite popular disapproval. First, we must come from a common understanding that the ruling state structures are not democratic. Instead, they are constructed to maintain the social structures that prioritize the interests of a small ruling elite. They work to win legitimacy for the pre-ordained policies of this elite as opposed to adjusting policy to the will of the people as you would expect to see in an actual democracy. [Editor’s Note: Some might fundamentally disagree with this framing, see From Democracy to Freedom, by CrimethInc.]
One example is the way police forces in America have increasingly taken on a mentality of viewing the general public all as “potential enemy combatants” as opposed to citizens they protect. This logic opens the door for a hostile view of the public in which they must constantly be vigilant and defend themselves against; however, like everything else, the militarization of the police is not separate from larger social trends. One could track the super extreme militarization of the police back to the Bush era, where the United States for the first time declared war on an idea, that of “terrorism,” and went on a global war both domestically and internationally to squash it. The sad reality is that we are still enmeshed in this global cultural war and one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter from Rojava to Gaza to Ferguson, Charlottesville and Parkland.
Thus to understand a route to victory for these struggles we must understand the logic of the state. And it is a logic of counter-insurgency and totalitarian control. In contemporary counter-insurgency warfare a key element is the battle for hearts and minds. It is a form of warfare created by French Military general David Galula to repress anti-colonial resistance movements in French Algeria. Galula is cited over 100 times in American general David Petraeus “Counter-insurgency Field Manual” which became the ruling military doctrine for the duration of the United States occupation of Iraq. Counter Insurgency warfare is posed as a battle between insurgent forces (i.e. forces who wish to have progressive or system change) and the forces of the state. As opposed to fighting pitched field battles between organized military units it more often takes a more subtle tone where the object of victory is winning over legitimacy in the eyes of the public. Its a form of warfare that is not exclusive to being waged in designated war zones in distant countries.
In the United States the J. Edgar Hoovers “Cointelpro” was an organized counterintelligence and insurgency program created to “neutralize” organized leftist revolutionaries, particularly targeting the Black Panther Party, and describing their free breakfast program for children as their most dangerous element. Why? Because it worked to simultaneously delegitimize the state and legitimize the BPP in their communities, as a potential governing force over that of the United States Government.
Counterinsurgency warfare is a battle between two forces who hope to become the legitimate governing body of an area. The state seeks to delegitimize and destroy the organizational capacity of their adversary, while simultaneously doing “good deeds” and investing in things like public works to build the legitimacy for their state.
Today across the world, centralized authoritarian states are increasingly in a legitimacy crisis. As global capitalism increasingly fails to provide the quality of life assured to past generations, old and “traditional” social roles and ways of life in the west become increasingly impossible to sustain. The role of the white male patriarch as the sole bread winner isn’t a reality for the masses under global capitalism and as the United States witnesses ever growing economic stratification between the rich and poor it is literally driving young reactionary white males up the walls to join fascistic organizations and go on mass shooting sprees to prove their masculinity and solve their inadequacy issues; however, this grassroots reactionary wave is also met with an institutionalized backlash against oppressed peoples, the environment and the working class world wide, as the failing capitalist states are ever searching for more scapegoats. In the middle east, the same can be said for the expansionist policies of the fascist Turkish and Israeli States. As witnessed after the economic devastation of the great depression in Europe, when capitalism fails, imperialistic expansionism is often a likely turn to by powerful states in order to maintain their status.
So if we can see the way these struggles are interconnected through an increasingly unstable global capitalist system, we can understand that constantly separating these struggles, only works to maintain the veneer of each of their “exceptionality.” Without starting from the basis of system change and connecting these issues their always doomed to failure. What we are immersed in is an active cultural, and insurgent vs counter-insurgent war. If you want real substantive change, odds are the U.S. government has a file on you and considers you an active “potential enemy combatant”. When we are fooled into believing we live in a functional democracy we are fooled into thinking we can make any substantive changes on a federal or state level. In reality, while we may be able to make real substantive changes on a local or municipal level the federal and state apparatus are too far gone from the people and washed in corporate money to ever hope to enact any change against.
To gain actual change, to stop police murder, war in the middle east and mass shooters we have to tackle them all at once. And to avoid falling into the state of exception trap we must offer a tangible alternative to our current system.
Invigorating utopian thinking is the solution to contemporary strategies of counter-insurgency warfare in the United States. It is a form of thinking that can get us to the point where we can actually develop and offer an alternative to our dismal political system. Right now the Left offers 0 tangible alternatives or plans of how we could run society and its why we are loosing. If we don’t offer an alternative we default to the current state of affairs and our single issue based organizing only works to exceptionalize and make extraordinary the moments of state failure we protest one at a time. We can’t just cross our fingers and hope that people get it through the single issue work we do anymore. We have to be more explicit and honestly just more honest and courageous in speaking about who we are and how we would like the world to be, instead of hiding it away in fear of rejection. When we take a step back from the single issues, we see that the entire situation is abysmal and all of the failings of the state are unalterably connected to a political and economic system designed to plunder and exploit the masses while serving on the rich ruling class.
Unlike other societies in less developed countries, the bureaucracies and infrastructure of capitalism and the state permeate our daily lives in the most intimate or ways in the United States. We rely on them to communicate as we are here, to eat, to be clothed to get from point a to point b. Most people understand this. Any revolutionary change, or any change at all, will have to confront this reality and find ways of re-altering and restructuring these institutions we are all firmly reliant upon.
Past revolutionary eras and movements, typically occurred at a time when massive states and capitalist infrastructure was just starting to intervene in communities that had connections to more mutualistic community survival and support systems. Today in the U.S. this is not the case. We can’t act like it’s 1870 or 1930 anymore. It’s 2018 and we have to start answering different questions and offering different solutions.
We will never win unless we go to the people and offer a tangible proposal for an alternative that could realistically meet our daily material, emotional and political needs and dreams. It’s not about dogmatically shoving a totalizing alternative down peoples throats. It’s about showing its possible that we can rewire this insane global capitalist structure that unfortunately provides for our every single need, starting a conversation and finding ways that we can resolve the basic logistical questions of how we will get along and make sure we all don’t starve to death without the capitalist system. Almost no one truly understands the full complexity of the workings of our current global “economy”. I believe that we must be able to conceive of and explain the functioning of how an alternative economic and political system works before almost any ordinary person would sign on to a revolutionary program.
So lets google Murray Bookchin and start building a vibrant municipal movement that can get at the roots causes of this failing rotten ass system. Lets work hard together and we can win a better world for ourselves and future generations!