The Secret of George W. Bush's Power:
the State of Exception

In 2005, Factory School published a book by Francis Shor, a professor in the Department of Interdisciplinary Studies at Wayne State University. Entitled Bush-League Spectacles: Empire, Politics, and Culture in Bushwhacked America, it brings together some of the entries that Shor wrote between 2001 and 2005 for such liberal news/commentary "blogs" as Common Dreams, CounterPunch, The History News Network and Bad Subjects. The book is divided into four parts, all of which refer to the "spectacle": "The Spectacles of Empire" (essays about international events); "The Spectacles of Politics" (domestic events); "The Spectacles of Culture" (domestic pop culture); and "Countering Bush-League Spectacles" (domestic political action). Shor begins his collection with a preface that, in its turn, begins with a quotation from Guy Debord's The Society of the Spectacle: "The spectacle cannot be understood as a mere visual deception produced by mass-media technologies. It is a worldview that has actually been materialized." But what Shor says right after this epigraph proves that he doesn't really understand Debord. To him,

Spectacles have played a significant part of empires and public life throughout history. From the circuses of Rome to the Nuremberg rallies of Nazi Germany, the staging of public events for mass mobilization has served the interests of the ruling elite. However, in this era of the society of the spectacle where images dominate beyond just the media environment, the spectacle is even more integral to the functioning of society.

But Debord's "society of the spectacle" is not a trans-historical phenomenon: it can be dated fairly precisely (capitalist society since the 1920s/1930s). As a matter of fact, Debord's society of the "integrated spectacle"[1] has only existed since the 1960s! And the integrated spectacle -- dominated, as it is, by atomization, separation and privatization -- is obviously quite different from the "concentrated" spectacle of Nazi Germany (public events for mass mobilizations, etc). As we will see, Shor realizes this, too. But he's not concerned with appearing incoherent, and he need not be. His book is not a serious work about the society of the spectacle, but a collection of topical and thus highly perishable essays about the spectacle of the Bush Administration. It needs nice "fresh" packaging a lot more than it needs theoretical coherence, and it gets it: the book's cover depicts a pair of "spectacles" (eyeglasses) in which George W. Bush appears in one occulus and an Abu Ghraib detainee appears in the other.

Underneath the packaging is a very well-intentioned but ultimately inconsequential writer, who takes positions -- to be fair, they are indeed the "right" positions, morally responsible positions -- on the controversial issues of the day, but who has no strategic overview and no real plan of action. Note, in this regard, his "sensitive" but rather naive and superficial remarks about Abu Ghraib:

Only our callousness and denial, characteristics built into the political culture of empire, prevent us from effectively countering the gruesome spectacle of Abu Ghraib and what it represents. One does not need a radical imagination to break free from such horror; just a sense of common humanity. But to recognize that common humanity requires overcoming ethnic, religious, and national prejudices that also inform the political culture of empire.

In a certain way, Shor represents everything that is wrong with the left-wing of the Democratic Party (his list of additional resources includes Air America Radio, Code Pink, Move On, United for Peace and Justice, etc). Ironically, though Shor is quite clear about his belief that "George W. Bush and his right-wing cabal" stole both the 2000 and the 2004 presidential elections, he is not the type of person you would want next to you at the barricades -- which have in fact been built and defended in recent years in countries in which similar electroral frauds have been perpetrated (Mexico, the Ukraine, Argentina et al). Note Shor's pathetic reluctance, his total inability to name his enemy, even when it is standing right in front of him:

Perhaps it may be time to raise the whole matter of the "F" word. It certainly seems reasonable to call this erosion of liberties and rights creeping fascism, albeit a postmodern fascism that does not need to rely on mass mobilization [hic] for realizing a proto-fascist agenda. In one of the most brilliant analyses of everyday life in Nazi Germany, Detlev Peukert devoted a whole chapter to 'The Atomization of Everyday Life' in his Inside Nazi Germany (236-242). Combining a form of psychic numbing with political numbing, many Germans just retreated from any public political life and took refuge in their own isolation. Since there is much evidence to support the tendency towards atomization and privatization of everyday life in the United States, it may not require utilizing any reference to fascism, whether postmodern or not. On the other hand, when an administrative authority relies on the militarization of everyday life to pursue a repressive and aggressive agenda, it may be necessary to raise the specter of fascism.

Such hemming and hawing! Come right out and say it, man: Fascism is the precise "worldview" that is "materializing" in America today. Earlier in his book (in less of a mood to beat around the bush?), Shor had said,

Of course, the racism that led the U.S. military to see every 'gook' as VC in Vietnam has also re-appeared in Iraq. According to one British commander in Iraq, American troops often saw Iraqis as 'undermenschen -- the Nazi expression for sub-humans.' Although embedded U.S. reporters rarely provided an insight into the racist mindset, Mark Franchetti of the London Times quoted one U.S. soldier as asserting that 'Iraqis are sick people and we are the chemotherapy.' And with chemotherapy if the sick person dies it was only to help cure the person.

This certainly sounds like fascism, and "classic" 1930s-era fascism, too! But Fran Shor simply doesn't want to face it, much in the same way that -- even though he believes that "certain players acted out of their own personal interests at the expense of the safety and security of the nation" -- he stands by the ridiculous idea that "to suggest that the Bush Administration arranged the 9/11 tragedy is to resort to wildly speculative conspiracy theories." Shor wants to restrict himself to discussing the Republicans' tactics (how they capitalize on terrorism) and does not want to talk about their strategies (how they perpetrate terrorism). Significantly, he also does not want to think about anything that took place prior to 1960:

To view the Bush regime as an aberration in U.S. politics, notwithstanding the electoral shenanigans of the presidential elections of 2000 and 2004, is to neglect the right-wing trends in American life during the last 30 years. These trends have been part of a reaction to the democratization fostered by the movements of the 1960's and the crisis of U.S. hegemony in the 1970's in the aftermath of the conflict in Southeast Asia. Starting with the Reagan Administration of the 1980's, attempts have been mounted at the national, state, and local levels to turn back the clock by repealing or undermining legislative advances made by minorities and women and to reverse environmental protections.

(Don't you just hate hippies? They think everything that's being done today is in response to what they did forty years ago!) But it is plain that the roots of the contemporary situation go back a lot further than the 1960s. It is also plain that the Bush Administration is employing something a lot more complex than a "strict father model of government." According to Shor:

To prove they have compassion, albeit constricted and exclusionary, Republicans mount high-profile campaigns such as their intervention in the Terry Schiavo case. Congressional Republicans obviously believe that they can play on the sentiments of a media-manipulated public, too busy or numbed to realize the details of their awful budgetary cuts. Furthermore, and most tragic of all, hewing to a strict father model of government, Congressional Republicans have arrogated to themselves the desire to play god, dispensing life and death according to their own narrow-minded whims and truly heartless politics.

This is a nice, easy and all-too-obvious set of analogies: strict father in the home (the Republican social agenda); "a strict father model of government"; above it all a strict God (presumably God the Father). The ideology of the Strict Father's authority is often called "authoritarianism."[2] But authoritarianism does not explain the full extent of Bush's fascism.[3] It does not account for Bush's weird two-step: an inclusive and "warm" embrace of people who are "inside" of his literal and metaphorical family (the international family of Judeo-Christian nations), and an exclusive and murderous rejection of those who are outside this family (in particular, fundamentalist Muslims). Quicunque finem iuris intendit cim iure graditur ("Whoever intends to achieve the end of law, must proceed with law").[4] Strict fathers do not capture "outsiders" and deport them for torture or preemptively murder "outsiders" in foreign lands to prevent attacks at home. Strict fathers enforce the law, they do not act outside of it or suspend it due to an emergency.

No, to really understand the spectacle of the Bush Administration, it seems we must go beyond Francis Shor, America and blogs, and read the truly difficult but rewarding work of Giorgio Agamben.[5] An Italian philosopher and professor of aesthetics, Agamben might be described as a political Jacques Derrida. He intends his audience to be much wider than university-affiliated intellectuals and "postmodern" artist-types; he also intends to appeal to anti-authoritarian and anarchist activists.

"The weakness of anarchist and Marxian critiques of the State," Agamben says in his introduction to Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, "was precisely to have not caught sight of this structure" -- the "originary structure" of the "state of exception" -- and thus to have quickly left the arcanum imperii[6] aside, as if it had no substance outside of the simulacra and the ideologies used to justify it. But one ends up identifying with an enemy whose structure one does not understand, and the theory of the State (and in particular of the state of exception, which is to say, of the dictatorship of the proletariat as the transitional phase leading to the stateless society) is the reef on which the revolutions of our century have been shipwrecked." It is clear that Agamben wrote Homo Sacer so that the next revolution, the revolutions of the next century, would have much smoother sailing.

In archaic Roman law, the "state of exception" describes the juridical situation of homo sacer (sacred man), a human being who -- for one reason or another -- "may be killed but not sacrificed," that is, someone who is no longer included in human society nor even covered by its most basic protections. Condemned to exist in a state of exception, the homo sacer can be killed by anyone, without a murder being committed. To Agamben, the striking thing is that this situation (which concerns the extra-juridical order) was inscribed within Rome's juridical order. The rule and the exception to it became confused, indistinct: the exception now becomes the rule. The homo sacer is not simply excluded from society; he or she is also included into its "constitution," its legal code. But he or she is included only as "bare life," only as a body, a mere creature without political or "human" rights of any kind. This was a major historical development, which constituted "the first paradigm of the political realm of the West." Prior to that, bare life (zoe in Greek) had not been "included in/excluded from" the politico-juridical realm, which merely concerned itself with bios (living in the polis as a citizen).

As Agamben notes, Michel Foucault's History of Sexuality, Volume I had already recognized the birth of modern politics ("biopolitics") in this change. But Agamben asserts that the key development was "not so much the inclusion of zoe in the polis -- which is, in itself, absolutely ancient -- nor simply the fact that life as such becomes a principal object of the projections and calculations of State power," but, "together with the process by which the exception everywhere becomes the rule, the realm of bare life [...] gradually begins to coincide with the political realm, and exclusion and inclusion, outside and inside, bios and zoe, right and fact, enter into a zone of irreducible indistinction." Thus, the key questions become "Who decides?" and "Who decides who is a citizen and who is a homo sacer?" Following Carl Schmitt, who early in the Twentieth Century defined "the Sovereign" as "He who decides on the state of exception," Agamben concentrates his efforts on sovereign power, which isn't simply "the question of who within the political order was invested with certain powers," but also the constitution (the "threshold") of the political order itself.

It seems clear that Agamben would not have written a second book about the state of exception -- Stato di eccezione (2003, translated into English as State of Exception by Kevin Attell and published by Stanford University Press in 2005) -- had it not been for the "global civil war" (the global war on terrorism) that George W. Bush started in response to the September 11th attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. As Agamben notes, things have changed since the Nazis' concentration camps: "the state of exception tends increasingly to appear as the dominant paradigm of government in contemporary politics"; "the voluntary creation of a permanent state of emergency (though perhaps not declared in the technical sense) has become one of the essential practices of contemporary states, even so-called democratic states"; "the state of exception has today reached it maximum worldwide deployment."

Rather than citing a great many examples and dealing with them in a verbose but ultimately superficial manner, a la Fran Shor, Agamben gets to the heart of the matter.

The immediately biopolitical significance of the state of exception as the originary structure in which law encompasses living beings by means of its own suspension emerges clearly in the 'military order' issued by the President of the United States on November 13, 2001, which authorized the 'indefinite detention' and trial by 'military commissions' (not to be confused with the military tribunals provided for by the law of war) of noncitizens suspected of involvement in terrorist activities [...] What is new about President Bush's order is that it radically erases any legal status of the individual, thus producing a legally unnamable and unclassifiable being. Not only do the Taliban captured in Afghanistan not enjoy the status of POWs as defined by the Geneva Convention, they do not even have the status of persons charged with a crime according to Americans laws. Neither prisoners not persons accused, but simply 'detainees,' they are the object of a pure de facto rule, of a detention that is indefinite not only in the temporal sense but in its very nature as well, since it is entirely removed from the law and from judicial oversight. The only thing to which it could possibly be compared is the legal situation of the Jews in the Nazi Lager (camps), who, along with their citizenship, had lost every legal identity, but at least retained their identity as Jews. As Judith Bulter has effectively shown, in the detainee at Guantanamo, bare life reaches its maximum indeterminacy.

The noncitizen "enemy combatant" detained by the US military at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba -- itself an "indeterminate" place, beyond the reach of national and international law -- is the modern-day homo sacer. And George W. Bush is much more than an "imperial president": he is a modern-day Sovereign. "President Bush's decision to refer to himself constantly as the 'Commander in Chief of the Army' after September 11th 2001, must be considered in the context of this presidential claim to sovereign powers in emergency situations," Agamben writes in State of Exception. "If, as we have seen, the assumption of this title entails a direct reference to the state of exception, then Bush is attempting to produce a situation in which the emergency becomes the rule, and the very distinction between peace and war (and between foreign and civil war) becomes impossible." But a protected democracy is not a democracy at all and, as Agamben notes with respect to the history of the Weimar Republic, "the paradigm of constitutional dictatorship functions instead as a transitional phase that leads inevitably to the establishment of a totalitarian regime."

The great value and great difficulty of Agamben's books is that they show that Bush's post-September 11th drift towards totalitarianism has actualized or made use of a potential that has existed in the politico-juridical structure of the West since the ancient Romans. Though one must "ceaselessly [...] try to interrupt the working of the machine that is leading the West toward global civil war," one must also realize the superficiality of focusing on "driving out the Bush regime" and the immensity of the real task at hand, which, as Agamben states, "is not to bring the state of exception back within its spatially and temporally defined boundaries in order to then reaffirm the primacy of a norm and of rights that are themselves ultimately grounded to it. From the real state of exception in which we live, it is not possible to return to the state of law, for at issue now are the very concepts of 'state' and 'law.'" And if we can't return, where do we go from here? Not towards totalitarianism, but towards insurrection and revolution. There is no other option.

-- NOT BORED! 11 September 2006

[1] See Debord's Comments on The Society of the Spectacle (1988).

[2] A critique of "authoritarianism" is easily made these days by liberal Democratic opponents of President Bush: note in this regard John Dean's recent thesis (Conservatives without Conscience, Viking 2006) about "the authoritarian personality" and the frequency with which he is called upon to apply it to Bush, Rumsfield, Cheney, et al on MSNBC's liberal news/comedy show, Countdown with Keith Oberman. See also Theodor Adorno and Else Frenkel-Brunswick, The Authoritarian Personality, Harpers, 1950.

[3] For a denunciation of "the liberal identification of totalitarianism with [mere] authoritarianism," see Hannah Arendt, "What is Authority?" in Between Past and Future (1961).

[4] Dante, De monarchia, cited in Giorgio Agamben, State of Exception (2005).

[5] Note well that Guy Debord's theory of the spectacle will come with us. Agamben is a serious student of the Situationist International: he is the author of "Difference and Repetition: On Guy Debord's Films" (1995, included in Guy Debord and the Situationist International: Texts and Documents). In his introduction to Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (1995), setting up one of his major themes, Agamben writes that, "Modern democracy's decadence and gradual convergence with totalitarian states in post-democratic societies (which begins to become evident with Alexis de Tocqueville and finds its final sanction in the analyses of Guy Debord) may well be rooted in this aporia, which marks the beginning of modern democracy and forces it into complicity with its most implacable enemy."

[6] Latin: the secret of power.

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