Crises, capital, sovereignty: Lessons from the history of crisis

This article is part of the series Governance, in crisis.

By Benjamin Chwistek
Lead for Politics, Economics, and World History
Humanities Department
City Literary Institute, London

Synopsis: Crises are frequent, as is the failure of supranational bodies to respond to them effectively. Where does power lie: with capital or the political?

Keywords: crisis, sovereignty, capital, COVID-19, Walter Benjamin, Carl Schmitt


Crises are a part of human life. The twentieth century probably saw more global challenges and crises than any century before it. Some of these had successful international responses and many of them did not.

Any response aimed at containing capital must be supranational, because capital itself is transnational. The same, we can safely say, must be said of a virus that pays no heed to national borders or boundaries. The 2008 financial crash highlighted the failure of supranational organisations to respond to major financial crises. The European Union (EU) being the clearest case of this as Northern and Southern member states divided the union around issues of cash injections, mutualised debt, austerity, and responsibility. The EU has also been slow in its response to the Coronavirus crisis (although there are signs that it may provide some way out of the impending economic crash). Similarly, the World Health Organization (WHO), and other supranational organisations, have failed to prevent the virus spreading to nearly every country in the world (a few Pacific islands remain COVID-free), and killing at least 450 thousand of the nearly 8 million it has infected. Of course, many supranational organisations lack powers of implementation or enforcement. A fact that becomes ever more prescient when we look at the events of the twentieth century.

In 1930, Walter Benjamin wrote an infamous letter to the “Esteemed Professor Schmitt” praising Schmitt’s account of sovereignty. Professor Schmitt was the very same Carl Schmitt who had provided the legal justification for Weimar’s infamous Article 48, which gave the President the power to suspend the constitution during exceptional times. This dialogue around sovereignty ran from the late 1910s until the mid-1950s between two very different German intellectuals: Benjamin, the Jewish-Marxist forced to an early death by the Nazi regime in 1940; and Schmitt, the Catholic-conservative who joined the Nazi party in 1933. Both were writing at a time of crisis for the Western world, wracked as it was by political crises, financial instability and pandemic. It was also a period where the international organisations set up to maintain peace and stability proved their inability to overcome the forces of national politics and finance.

Schmitt opens his 1922 Political Theology with the famous phrase: “Sovereign is he who decides on the exception.” Schmitt’s statement outlines his support for a strong sovereign ruler. Specifically, a sovereign capable of declaring a state of exception (Ausnahmezustand), and overriding the constitution, in times of emergency. This state of exception is justified by Schmitt when it is necessitated in the political interest. Schmitt was a thinker consistently concerned with a strong state, able to provide the security and stability that had been lacking throughout the early Weimar years. Because of this, Schmitt’s account foregrounds the ability of the sovereign to declare a state of emergency as the supreme expression of national political power. This national political power stands apart and above supranational bodies and represents total authority invested in the sovereign nation state.

“We are living through a ‘real’ state of exception. Coronavirus has been the most acute point in the ongoing crisis of developed capitalism.”

Benjamin’s ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, were his final pieces of writing. In them, Benjamin writes: “The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of exception’ in which we live is the rule … the task before us is the introduction of a real state of exception.”  For Benjamin, we live within an ongoing state of exception: the law-preserving power of capitalist social relations and politics. Capitalism is the power which maintains the current juridical and social organization of our communities, in spite of its clear impact on what he describes here as ‘the oppressed’. What Benjamin argues for is a real state of exception – a revolutionary intervention capable of breaking open the ongoing state of exception and moving beyond contemporary capitalist social relations. Benjamin is concerned with the power of capitalism and the market to override political attempts at change. Capitalism is, by its very nature, transnational. Capitalism is unconcerned with individual polities or nation states: capital flows are global and international, yet they fundamentally condition the make-up of the social organisation of our polities.

Schmitt and Benjamin lived and wrote through times of crisis. From their first writings at the close of the First World War, up to living through the crises of Weimar and Nazi rule, their lives and writings were conditioned by their experiences. What their debate highlights is the tension between the political sovereign (Schmitt) and the market as sovereign (Benjamin).

We hear calls from many that the lockdowns must be lifted so as to allow for the economy to continue. We hear calls from many others that the lockdowns must remain in place to defend public health. There is a tension here between the ‘needs’ of the economy, the public as bio-political subject, and the power of the political. The tension between the political sovereign, and the market as sovereign. It highlights, moreover, the role of supranational bodies in responding to crises: whether they be financial, political, or environmental. If individual polities cannot contain viruses, capitalism, or any other major crisis that emerges, then any response must be supranational. Yet our supranational bodies seem unable to meet the challenge whenever they arise.

We are living through a ‘real’ state of exception. Coronavirus has been the most acute point in the ongoing crisis of developed capitalism: after decades of declining incomes, ravishing of the natural environment, greater inequality, diminishment of public services (etc., etc.), the only thing capable of creating a real state of exception was not organised labour or the political system but a virus borne out of the exploitation of the natural environment.

What the proceeding months and years will show us is exactly this: the location and source of power, and the ability of political communities, both national and supranational, to adapt and change – perhaps even in a revolutionary way. If they don’t, it seems inevitable that human life as we currently know it cannot continue.

Image credit: Jonny White / CC BY

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