If sovereignty is the power, granted by a juridical order, of proclaiming an exception to this order – as Carl Schmitt said – and if the state of exception proclaimed by a sovereign is a moment at which life is abandoned by the law, forsaken, and exposed to violence that the law does not punish – as Giorgio Agamben explains – then large-scale disasters challenge the very principle of sovereignty. An emergency and a state of exception are created without being proclaimed by the sovereign, life is forsaken, and violent forces, natural as well as social, roam about foot-loose, paying no heed to the sovereign’s claim of having sole authority over life and death.
Contemporary humanitarianism is a more-or-less distinct formation of power/knowledge that specializes in life saving and relief technologies, which I would like to designate as “technologies of disaster” (henceforth TDs). The moral discourse and globalized practices embedded in these technologies present a different relation to the exception and, hence, a different challenge to the political sovereign. In this paper I propose an analysis of this challenge and some of its consequences. The agents of global humanitarianism are moral entrepreneurs whose discourse and practices propose – implicitly as may be – a new concept of sovereignty and a new model of relations between politics, law, and morality in the Western states.
I. Moral Technologies
For centuries, the main task of political authorities in the West in times of calamity was to contain the disaster; not to let it spread into the safer areas where the court and members of the elite found shelter. In the wake of the disaster, the forces of law and order would return to the scene, trying to restore their rule, and sometimes to take advantage of new opportunities created by the disaster, enhancing their domination or transforming its form. This same pattern existed in the West since medieval time at least until the beginning of the 18th century. Then, gradually, political authorities came to assume more and more active responsibilities for the direct management of large-scale disasters (natural as well as man-made) and developed and adopted new practices of preparation for expected disasters and new practices of control and relief when disasters did occur. Instead of containment, the task of political authorities evolved into the efficient management of the social space and the physical environment, the reduction of damages and injuries, and the political control and manipulation of the distribution of risks and losses. The state of emergency may have been imposed from the outside, but the sovereign insists on controlling the exceptions created by the disaster and on making political use of its consequences. The modern state cannot tolerate no-man’s lands and hence mobilizes all its resources in order to prevent or eliminate them.
It was only around the turn of the 20th century that modern states in the West assumed full responsibility for the way their societies cope with large-scale disasters, prepare for them before they happen, try to limit the damage when they do happen, care for the survivors, and rebuild the disaster zone. But as early as the end of the 14th century, when the first technologies of spatial segregation appeared in Europe in the wake of the Black Death (the lazarete, the quarantine, the closure of houses, cities, and entire regions), political authorities there recognized the importance of, invested in, and tried to gain control over the TDs related to the plague. When both territoriality and the political problematization of life became essential components of the modern form of power, TDs became political technologies, and their control and operation were at stake in political struggles. Plague regulations, issued and enforced by both local and central authorities, were widespread by the 17th century and served as one of the first and most important spheres for the development of the mechanism of bio-power. Earthquakes called for building regulations and provided ample opportunity for rescue and restoration, as Pombal, the “dictator of Portugal,” demonstrated in an exemplary way in the aftermath of the earthquake in Lisbon. And in the second half of the 19th century, after the Crimean War (1854-1856), the battle of Solferino (1859), the American Civil War, (1861-1865) and the establishment of the Red Cross (1864), Western states gradually recognized war as a disaster of sorts and adopted new technologies to save the lives and ease the suffering of its survivors.
However, alongside the political and governmental aspect of TDs, and sometime through it, TDs have always also been moral technologies. TDs are moral technologies for the same reason they are the business of the sovereign – because they involve life-and-death decisions. In another sense, these technologies were moral even before they became political, because they involved care of the living before such care became the daily business of political authorities; and they remain moral, even after being completely dissociated from any institutionalized religion, because they involve the concrete, technical and material embodiment of compassion, mercy, pity, and sacrifice for the sake of others. Indeed, the care of the living and the special attention given to suffering and its reduction is common to TDs and to some of the disciplinary technologies, insurance mechanisms and welfare institutions of the modern state. Like other mechanisms of bio-power and governmentality, of which they are certainly a part, TDs are at one and the same time concerned and capable of dealing with entire populations and specific individuals. The logic of their improvement and specialization means a growing capacity to integrate individuals into specific populations that endow them with essential characteristics, while differentiating individuals according to characteristics that make them singular. But there is a real difference that distinguishes TDs from other mechanisms of bio-power and governmentality. It is this difference that I would like to present now.
I am using the term ‘technology’ in a wide sense to designate a more-or-less structured assemblage of power/knowledge that includes more-or-less coordinated physical instruments, spatial arrangements, means of communication, means of data collecting and processing, organizational procedures, and discursive practices. The entire instrumental apparatus is embedded in, and activated through, distinct discursive regimes that direct the operation of instruments, determine their goals and set standards for their evaluation, educate skilled technicians, and maintain different kinds of interface with other technical and discursive environments.
Such a technological assemblage may have multiple origins, and its genealogy probably contains contingent circumstances, conflicting motivations and unintended consequences; but to the extent that this assemblage has a certain structure, it already has a logic of its own. Foucault demonstrates this difference between the contingencies of a genealogy and the constraints of a structure in his study of disciplinary power and its “political technology of the body”. Modern disciplinary sites, such as the prison or the boarding school, are not where the modern investment of power in the body originated but where this new configuration of power/knowledge took its most paradigmatic form, and where its logic can be most clearly exposed and observed.
In similar fashion, I assume that the modern configuration of TDs is governed by a certain structure and certain logic of relations that cannot be reduced to its multiple genealogy. Such a genealogy would include the emergence of the nation-state and its apparatuses of bio-power, the accelerated improvement in martial technologies, communication, transportation and computation, the institutionalization of emergency medicine as a special branch of the clinical hospital and the specialization of life-saving technologies within the hospital, etc. But the logic of modern TDs is not subject to any of these developments – on the contrary, it has, since a certain historical moment, at least, determined their relevance. This logic is the logic of the care of others, whereas the others who become objects of care live under severe duress or the danger of imminent death. This type of care is made possible by the modern technological apparatus and is articulated through it, but this care of others in distress also provides the technological apparatus with its direction, goals and standards of operation.
It is the way that the care of life in distress is embedded in modern TDs and directs their operation that makes contemporary TDs a distinct part of the apparatuses of bio-power. This distinction is most vividly realized today in non-governmental humanitarian organizations, which are based in a globalized civil society and relatively independent of the state and its political interests and of the global market and its economic interests. This may certainly seem like a naïve presentation of contemporary humanitarianism, yet I would like to insist on the following: despite everything we know about the more-or-less tacit ways in which humanitarian organizations are manipulated by political powers, despite their clear ideological role and the role they play in legitimizing and stabilizing a new, immoral global economic and social order, humanitarian organizations do operate TDs according to a moral imperative that places the saving of life and reduction of suffering in first place.
Moreover, the moral interest – which one may describe as an interest in the good or the just, or in the moral law or the moral duty, and even more generally as an interest in what ought to be done, or in the proper way to do what is to be done – has acquired here a complex technological apparatus of its own. Other interests and motivations – political, economic, libidinal, etc. – certainly play crucial roles in the way humanitarian mechanisms are put to work, but in times of disaster, and the closer one gets to the disaster zone itself, all these “heteronomous” interests, as Kant would have called them, should be articulated in the language of the ruling moral interest: the care of, and concern for, the life and well-being of others. Everything must be justified in terms of this moral imperative, and whatever cannot be thus justified is open to criticism and sanction. Just as is the case in the realms of science, art, or the law, the question is not the purity of a seemingly autonomous judgment but the material existence of mechanisms – discursive, institutional, and technical – whose task is to expose, separate, and exclude elements foreign to the judgment at stake. Such mechanisms have become an integral part of the contemporary apparatus of TDs due to the process of their specialization, that include the education of experts, the emergence of a culture of expertise, and the institutionalization of a differentiated field (in Bourdieu’s sense) of symbolic capital where these experts take positions.
Contemporary TDs are moral before they are political and economic, and they may assume non-moral meanings and be used as a means for political and economic goals only because, and only insofar as, they are directed by the logic of the care of life in distress. A recent cynical example was provided during the war the United States fought in Afghanistan last year, when some US planes dropped humanitarian aid while others were dropping bombs. The American war machine mobilized TDs, just as it mobilized technologies of communication or computation, to prove to the Afghan people and the rest of the world that the war was being directed only against terrorists. The American aid operation was severely criticized by humanitarian activists, who claimed that the aid delivered counted for nothing in comparison to what was needed, and that it was used as cynical propaganda seeking to justify a reckless, futile war. However, the humanitarian claims and the American propaganda had a common ground: all accepted the principle of care of the living, either in order to simulate and abuse it, or in order to realize it properly. Had it been impossible to simulate rescue and relief, TDs would have been useless as a means of propaganda; had it been impossible to separate (if only in principle) proper from improper use of TDs, the humanitarian criticism would have been invalid to begin with.
The ultimate humanitarian criterion is the efficiency of the care of those others in distress. This care does not necessarily involve moral sentiments (like compassion or pity, for example) or moral virtues (like generosity or benevolence, for example), though it may cultivate such sentiments and virtues. Before turning into a moral sentiment or personal virtue, the caring that motivates one to rescue lives and bring relief to suffering acquires objective meaning, being embodied in specific techniques and practices, institutional regulations and statistical tables. Care is first and foremost the means, skills and art of disaster management.
The management of disaster is a skillful, sophisticated operation of a variety of techniques of rescue, relief, spatial control, and distribution of aid and risks, goods and evils. In any large-scale disaster, TDs are inevitably interwoven with the mechanisms, institutions and rules of the state and the market. For this reason, the management of disaster provides a special opportunity for the “moralization” of the state apparatus and civil society, but also for the politicization of the morally-motivated civil society. Facing a more-or-less imminent disaster, coping with one as it unfolds, or working in the wake of one that has already occurred, the state, the actors in the market and every individual citizen are all “thrown” into the moral sphere and judged according to the way they put available TDs to work. Due to the very existence of a more-or-less sophisticated apparatus of TDs, just the possibility of a future disaster, let alone its actual occurrence, has a moralizing effect on the entire social system.
“To be in the moral” does not necessarily mean to act morally (in the same way that one may err or lie when one is “in the truth” in the realm of science); it means that a certain attention to moral considerations becomes inevitable. Such attention must be demonstrated, even if only simulated, and argued for in order to assess what has been done and what is yet to be done. TDs may be ignored, abused, or put to work inefficiently by different actors – all these actions are immoral because of TDs’ potential to rescue and bring relief. It is the potentiality of rescue and relief that turns disaster into a paradigm of a moral event and a unique place of morality. Disaster is always already a moral event and a moral place not because the duty to prevent it or limit its damages is placed over and above its political, economic, or religious meanings; on the contrary, disaster is a moral event due to the existence of TDs whose invention, maintenance and operation are the business of the state, the market, and civil society at large. Disaster is a moral event precisely because (and to the extent that) all these agents have means to intervene in its course or prevent its happening; because its management is at stake in competitions and struggles among multiple social actors, who negotiate the proper criteria for the most efficient, hence worthiest, ways to operate TDs, i.e., to rescue and bring relief.
Here is a simple test for the morality of TDs: to avoid using them due to political or economic considerations is immoral. One may certainly justify a failure to operate TDs or their improper use (in wartime, for example) by recourse to economic or political arguments, but not by moral argument – unless the rescue or relief operation itself endangers the lives of others. At this point we encounter one of the basic principles of TDs: in and of themselves, when free of political manipulation, the instruments involved in TDs are color-blind. Differences of race, class, ethnic group, religion, language, gender, etc. cannot be articulated in the discourse of TDs. Such differences may only be introduced as exceptions (to existing regulations), or under some or other disguise (for example, when regional boundaries overlap with ethnic or class differences). The imperative to care for life in distress sees no such differences. TDs care for life as such; they are concerned with what Giorgio Agamben calls “bare life,” life that exists prior to and outside of all political and cultural distinctions (HS 4-9). Their first and most urgent object of concern is the body, and the conditions that strip it of its social, juridical and cultural protection.
In fact, it is the concept of life itself that has become blind to political and cultural distinctions. There is no life that is not worth living, no life whose abandonment is morally acceptable. The universalization of the concept of life is an essential element in the ideology and technology of contemporary humanitarianism. This process is not self-evident and should be understood, in part, at least, as a reaction to the hierarchical concepts of life proposed by various philosophical and political doctrines that emerged in the 19th century and were catastrophically implemented in the 20th. Distinctions among different forms of life, based on biological, pseudo-biological, anthropological, religious or revolutionary principles, led to the disastrous distinction between life worth living and life whose abandonment, and later even elimination, is permitted. Between the universalist humanitarian ideology, which places the rescue of human lives and alleviation of human suffering in first place, and those doctrines that accept the very possibility of a life that’s not worth living, let alone explicitly advocate the abandonment of certain forms of life, there exists a clear differend. There can be no common ground between those who are preoccupied with superfluous, preventable human suffering and those preoccupied with superfluous human beings who, under certain circumstances, may be eliminated. The biological or social differences among forms of life that make a difference to the latter cannot be articulated in the discourse of the former.
II. The Camp as a Common Ground
This straightforward opposition recently came under attack from the Italian philosopher, Giorgio Agamben. I would like to consider his criticism at some length, for it seems to me the most radical challenge to the legitimacy of humanitarian action advanced so far. Agamben argues in his Homo Sacer that there is a secret common ground between the seemingly opposed positions:
Only because politics in our age had been entirely transformed into biopolitics was it possible for politics to be constituted as totalitarian politics to a degree hitherto unknown… The fact is that one and the same affirmation of bare life leads, in bourgeois democracy, to a primacy of the private over the public and of individual liberties over collective obligations and yet becomes, in totalitarian states, the decisive political criterion and the exemplary realm of sovereign power. And only because biological life and its needs had become the politically decisive fact is it possible to understand the otherwise incomprehensible rapidity with which twentieth century parliamentary democracies are able to turn into totalitarian states and with which this century’s totalitarian states were able to convert almost without interruption into parliamentary democracies (HS 120-122).
According to Agamben, the political ideology and moral discourse, as well as the technologies of the body associated with bio-power, are based on and made possible by a primordial relation between the political sovereign and the life of its subjects. ”Bare life” is the life of a body whose rights have been violated, life that has been forsaken or abandoned, in a zone where the law is suspended and violence is permitted and not punished. Political sovereignty is constituted on the basis of the authority and power to suspend the law, violate rights, and forsake life. Only the sovereign can make an exception to the law and declare life to be forsaken; only forsaken life that exists outside the sphere of the law can be taken without punishment. He who may kill without being punished is either a sovereign or one acting in his name.
Agamben is a faithful student of Karl Schmitt. The exception is interpreted in terms of the abandonment of life and the creation of zones of bare life, outside the protection of the law, but it is still the power granted by the juridical order to proclaim an exception to that order that constitutes political sovereignty. Excluding by making an exception, according to Agamben, is a form – in fact, the original form – of relation to the law and of inclusion within its sphere. The exception is included by being excluded, and by this very exclusion delineates from the outside the boundaries of the inner sphere of law. The law is an expression of sovereignty constituted on the basis of the power to suspend the law and forsake life. Political order is based on this relation, but its claim to legitimacy demands that this basic truth be concealed and that the violence that lies at the basis of juridical-political order not be articulated by the discourse that animates this order.
Agamben seeks to correct Foucault’s argument in the History of Sexuality, according to which the modern apparatuses of bio-power are unfolded like a thick, de-centered network of power relations, in which the position of the sovereign is marginal and should be discarded by a political theory that seeks to understand how power really works. Agamben argues that the political sovereign is still a crucial element of the political order and that the modern networks of bio-power did not simply transform and replace the hierarchical relations between the sovereign and its subject. The truth, according to Agamben, is that the apparatuses of bio-power have transformed the mode of the sovereign exception without de-centering the sovereign’s position. The sovereign has entered “into an ever more intimate symbiosis not only with the jurist but also with the doctor, the scientist, the expert, and the priest” (HS 122). Bare life, which in earlier times existed on the outskirts of the polis and appeared only at exceptional moments, when it was abandoned or became sacred, has been displaced. It now appears at the heart of the political as the modern political subject par-excellence, the basis for the sovereign’s constitution and the object of its daily concerns (HS 123-124).
Inclusion through exceptional exclusion is no longer an exceptional relation to exceptional subjects; it has become a daily relation to exceptional moments in the life or body of any individual, and an ongoing task of dealing with the life of entire populations existing under exceptional circumstances. The sovereign’s right to administer life and the accumulating rights of individuals, which both protect their administered lives and serve as hooks for further intrusions of power into them, have not replaced the former bond between the sovereign and its subjects, according to Agamben – they have simply been integrated into it. This displacement and integration have a double effect: on the one hand, the unprecedented empowerment of the modern sovereign, in the form of the modern nation-state, which is capable of administering the lives of entire populations not only to care for their well-being but also in order to subjugate them or dispatch them on a course leading to their own destruction; on the other hand, the expulsion of outbursts of sovereign violence to the dark corners of the social space and the exceptional outbreaks of total war, while creating a space of “normal” life in which sovereignty is directly and repeatedly inscribed on the bodies of its subjects, while making this inscription transparent, concealing or denying the role it plays in the constitution of sovereignty.
Under these conditions “the camp” – Agamben means the death camp as well as the refugee camp, but the term actually covers anything from the army barrack to the rehabilitation center and from a concentration camp to the Olympian city – has become “the fundamental bio-political paradigm of the West” (HS 181). The camp is a perfect combination of the sovereign authority to exclude or abandon and the sovereign power to intervene, take care, relieve or destroy any single individual and entire groups. It is the place where life has lost its political existence and the law has turned into an endless series of regulations that may be invoked or revoked ad-hoc. The state of exception, that temporary suspension of the rule of law as a response to danger or as an act of revenge, has now become the rule, and it takes place prior to any particular danger and beyond any moral sentiment, revenge included. The exception is embodied in a well-demarcated space, outside the everyday life-world of the “normal” citizen but constantly intruding into its social spaces. The exception has assumed a life-world of its own in which it is at one and the same time the ruling norm and the means of ruling. The state of emergency has become permanent, or at least a lasting aspect of everyday life.
Our interest in disaster should direct our attention to two seemingly opposed aspects of the camp: on the one hand, some camps create (or are created intentionally in order to create) a disaster zone for their inmates. This is clearly the case regarding most totalitarian camps, but it may also be true of a closed army barracks struck by an epidemic. On the other hand, different types of camps open their gates to the survivors of disaster, in order to provide relief and help bring life “back to normal.” Of the latter type, the refugee camp is the best example. Refugees are people who have been forsaken by the law in their countries of origin (either because the ruling power has failed to protect them, or because it is seeking to destroy them). At the same time they are people who have not gained (and may never gain) such protection in the place where they are presently encamped. The refugees in the camp address a claim for protection to a sovereign, subjects of whom they have never been. They claim their human rights precisely because they have been deprived of their rights as citizens. The presence of millions of refugees at the gates of Western states, and sometimes in their midst, breaks “the continuity between man and citizen, nativity and nationality” (HS 131). They create the cracks through which bare life appears at the heart of the political sphere of liberal democracies and is exposed as that sphere’s “secret presupposition,” thus putting “the originary fiction of modern sovereignty in crisis” (ibid).
For Agamben, the refugee camp has a critical revelatory power. It exposes a secret truth of liberal democratic regimes, forcing their ruling powers to expose the direct relation to life that lies beyond their juridical and political appearances, and to deal directly and openly with a mass of living bodies, which, despite being deprived of rights and foreign to the nation, still demands the protection of power. Agamben identifies weakened models of the refugee camps in many demarcated areas inside the nation-state, and not only along its territorial borders and in its airports and the ghettoes of its main cities; to this list we might add workplaces employing daily immigrants, who cross the border in the morning and return at night to their shanty towns on the other side of the border. These are closed sites that serve as buffer zones for separating and mediating between the bare life within and the political life outside, where the intrusion of bare life into the civilized city is controlled and channeled (HS 174-176).
The gap between nativity and nationality, which the refugee camp embodies and widens, accelerates the separation between human and civil rights. “The rights of man that once made sense as the presupposition of the rights of the citizen are now progressively separated from and used outside the context of citizenship, for the sake of the supposed representation and protection of bare life,” but the demand for protection repeatedly fails because of the opposition of the nation-state. The latter’s refusal to accept refugees as immigrants and gradually absorbing them and grant the citizenship not only separate civil from human rights but also links openly and explicitly bare life to the latter and disguises the bio-political origin of the former (132-133). In this state of affairs, humanitarian organizations that provide aid and relief to refugees, invoking the sanctity of their lives, act as a substitute for the political authorities and under their auspices, contributing to the re-institutionalization of a false (ideological) distinction between the realm of bare life and the realm of politics.
Humanitarian organizations deal in their color-blind fashion with life as such, representing their care of the living as an a-political matter and the political authority as impotent when faced with multitudes of lives that have been forsaken. Their hyperactivity in the camps blurs – and thus helps reproduce – the bio-political presupposition of political power, overshadowing the challenge to that power posed by the refugees and by the disaster that has forced them into exile. According to Agamben, the agenda of contemporary humanitarian organizations and the logic of their action are based on the presupposition that only forsaken, bare life is worthy of the aid they offer. Only there, in regions where the law does not apply, aid is provided immediately and supererogateorily, beyond the boundaries determined by nationality, and above the interests represented in and through the political sphere.
Agamben adds here significant weight and a new context to the arguments criticizing the contemporary humanitarian enterprise on the basis of the more-or-less tacit division of labor existing between the nation-state, big corporations in the global market, and humanitarian organizations. The latter, in Agamben’s words, “maintain a secret solidarity with the powers they ought to fight” (HS 133). Regardless of their intentions, humanitarians actually help to diffuse the challenge created by the masses of refugees and restore the local and global order of the national states and the global market. To this we might add another line of critique that claims that, by focusing on catastrophes and their victims, contemporary humanitarianism dissociates the catastrophic event and the camp where its survivors live from a series of interrelated economic, political, and cultural processes that have made the catastrophe possible. The humanitarianism of bare life depoliticizes the disaster, obstructs understanding of its local and global contexts, and tends to represent, if not actually produce, its victims as passive objects of care, devoid of political will and organizational capacities.
Agamben, who does not make these claims, could incorporate them into his argument to lend support to his final conclusion: it is not only the case that TDs can easily become servants of rival masters or can as easily serve a totalitarian as a democratic regime; in their contemporary, humanitarian form, TDs directly serve the bio-political foundation of power in any modern regime. In the present form of humanitarian aid and division of labor between humanitarian NGOs and governments, TDs contribute to the reproduction of the basic condition of political sovereignty: concealing the “originary” relation between the sovereign’s violence and its subjects’ bare lives, dissimulating the direct action of power over the subjects’ bodies. Having claimed that TDs are moral technologies, it seems now, following Agamben’s critique, that they are moral precisely in the same way disciplinary technologies described by Foucault are moral: they lie “within the moral” according to contemporary conventions, but remain morally wrong (or at least dubious) from our critical point of view. We have proposed TDs as a locus of true care of others in distress, an authentic moral care that cannot be reduced to other interests and motivations, but it turns out that this care for others takes place only on the frontiers of the civilized world, in the abandoned spaces where life is forsaken, and that this care is (largely) unknowingly nurtured and limited by anther kind of care, which is more fundamental and thoroughly political: the care of the sovereign to preserve and reproduce its monopoly on making an exception to the law in general, and in particular on the right to declare when it is permitted to forsake life and abandon the living. It is by depoliticizing and sacralizing abandoned life that contemporary humanitarianism, according to Agamben, reaffirms the abandonment of life as the constitutive moment of political sovereignty.
III. The Moral Residue
I accept three of Agamben’s premises: a) The relation of “exclusive-inclusion” is a constitutive element of sovereignty (modern sovereignty, at least), and as a result the state of emergency is an immanent possibility of sovereign power; b) bio-politics, of which “the camp” can indeed serve as a paradigm, is a common ground of modern regimes, from the most totalitarian to the most liberal; and c) in our time, large concentrations of refugees (as well as large-scale disasters) create sites where bio-power is exemplarily exercised and challenged at the same time. And yet I think that Agamben’s analysis falls short of justifying his most provocative claim, namely that contemporary humanitarian organizations are located somewhere near the middle of a continuum of mechanisms of bio-power that serve totalitarian and liberal regimes alike, and that from this position they “maintain a secret solidarity with the powers they ought to fight.”
Agamben fails to see a moral residue in the work of humanitarian organizations that cannot be reduced to the role they play in the political sphere, in the consolidation of a new world order, and in the reaffirmation of the basic principle of modern sovereignty. Like many other political theorists and sociologists, he fails to see this residue since he does not consider moral interests and, more generally, “the moral factor” as a real force active in human reality. More precisely, his analysis is limited to the political sphere and to that which may be articulated in terms of this sphere on the basis of those “originary” principles,” which he calls upon us to question (HS 134). His analysis is based on a presupposition, which he hints at but does not explain, that determines the “primordiality” of the political sphere, which supposedly encompasses and precedes all other spheres of human reality (the economic, cultural, religious, etc.).
Agamben understands the political as the primordial foundation of human existence, which enables and delimits all other human dimensions. He endows the constitutive element of the political with an ontological and transcendental status and interprets the historical multiplicity of political forms as a manifold of expressions and a more-or-less partial realization of the transcendental conditions. In this conceptual framework, Agamben can ignore the real differences between totalitarian technologies that produce disasters and humanitarian technologies that operate to rescue and bring relief to their survivors, and consequently he interprets humanitarian intervention as another effect of the bio-political foundation of power and a means for its reproduction. I see no reason to accept this monistic, a-historical reasoning that takes one political category – sovereignty – and one type of political relation – the inclusive exclusion that determines bare life as an effect and object of sovereign violence – as the sole foundation of the political, which has persisted since antiquity and conditioned the possibilities of all other forms of human relations. I have presented my objections to Agamben’s position in an orderly manner elsewhere. Here it suffices to show that, if one disregards up the foundational or transcendental aspect of Agamben’s argument, it becomes possible to give an account of the real differences – between moral technologies for the administration of disaster and disastrous technologies for the administration of life – and yet remain within the Foucauldian theoretical framework of bio-power. Contemporary humanitarian intervention will be presented, in this context, not merely as an effect of the bio-political basis of power but also as a real force striving for the moralization of power.
Agamben can claim that contemporary humanitarianism only reproduces the fundamental principles of the political – the sovereign exception that forsakes life on the one hand, and the politicization of bare life on the other hand – because he accepts the humanitarian claim that interventions are called for by extraordinary crises (“humanitarian crises”) that transcend the political and call for exceptional care of the bare lives of people who have been abandoned by the law. This, for Agamben, is merely the other side of the sovereign exception. Agamben is well aware of the subversive potential of these crises, in particular the massive presence of refugees, and their challenge to the basic categories of the nation-state. But he understands this challenge as a task to be undertaken, not as an unfolding reality: “The concept of the refugee must be resolutely separated from the concept of the rights of man… The refugee must be considered for what he is… a limit concept that calls into question the fundamental categories of the nation state… in order to clear the way for an overdue renewal of categories…” (HS 134).
I would like to follow this suggestion precisely and consider the refugee as a limit concept, not in order to reaffirm the omnipresence of the logic of sovereignty, as Agamben does, but in order to revise his understanding of humanitarianism. The refugee is a limit concept because, just like the sovereign, he is set apart at the threshold of the law. He is outside the law, since he is not a citizen and does not enjoy the status of a juridical subject endowed with rights. But he is also within the law, to the extent that he becomes an object of concern for political authorities, and certainly when he camps in territories under their jurisdiction. He is an effect of a catastrophic event or of disastrous conditions, which he actually extends and introduces into the daily life of the civilized nation, being the embodiment and living presentation of the exceptional breach of order that catastrophe has been or has created. Usually the liberal sovereign (to whom I limit myself in this context) has no direct responsibility for this breach of order and for all the exceptions it entails. Even if the sovereign’s policies generated disaster, its coming into being cannot be ascribed to or represented as the result of “a decision to make an exception” on the sovereign’s part. The presence of the refugee en masse means that an exception has been imposed on the sovereign or made for it. It is now called upon to make exceptions in response to an exceptional situation. It is required to make exceptional decisions relating to life that has been forsaken, decisions in which the further forsaking of life is always involved. The refugee casts light on the sovereign’s secret relation to bare life, as Agamben argues, but he also places this relation in a moral rather than political context. The very presence of the refugee transforms the exception from a constitutive political relation into a constitutive moral relation. Exceptions necessarily have to be made, not for the sake of sovereignty, but for the sake of those who are not even its subjects.
In an age of globalization, this transformation of the exception, which the refugee embodies on the outskirts of the liberal nation-state, is actually reenacted in any large-scale disaster anywhere around the globe. Whether or not a calamity is defined as a “humanitarian crisis,” whether it is natural or man-made (and we know well that such a distinction can no longer be maintained), it challenges sovereigns all over the world and forces them to make exceptions. In a globalized world, where images and information from faraway disaster zones reach every corner of the globe in no time at all and assistance may be transported within hours from anywhere on earth to stricken areas, there is hardly any large-scale disaster that is not also an event of de-territorialization. Postmodern catastrophes call for – and soon become scenes of – global intervention of all sorts: media coverage, humanitarian aid by governmental and non-governmental agencies, pressure and assistance from neighboring countries, inspection by and assistance from bodies of international governance, investigation and collection of testimonies by commissions of inquiry and interested members of the public world-wide. Most agents that respond to an emergency or try to take advantage of it interfere in the affairs of the sovereign in a limited and short-term way, but it is the humanitarian intervention that calls into question the very foundation of political sovereignty. In a globalized world, no catastrophe is remote enough to be ignored, no refugee too much of a stranger to demand shelter and relief. The presence of bare life in the disaster zone (where local sovereignty has become ruinous or is in ruins itself) or in the refugee camp (where local sovereignty is still oblivious of the new strangers) is not a license to exercise sovereign violence but a call for sovereign protection. Catastrophes throw sovereignty into a space of exceptions; what they demand is the exceptional extension rather than suspension of juridical order, that when taken to its limit, may jeopardize the existing political order.
Clearly, the modern state has a sophisticated apparatus of TDs. This apparatus is put to work within the state and outside its borders as an exemplary expression of the sovereign right to proclaim exceptions and decide over life and death. But, despite the fact that by the beginning of the 20th century the modern nation-state took upon itself responsibility for the administration of disaster, and despite the fact that many governments in the West have at their disposal an apparatus of TDs much more powerful than that controlled by NGOs, the significance of governmental TDs to our discussion is limited. The scale of its TDs notwithstanding, the state can only adopt, partially and distortedly as may be, the logic of care inscribed in the TD apparatus and exemplified in the practice of humanitarian organizations. When a donor state uses its TDs in foreign counties for ideological purpose, as it is clearly the case with recent Israeli humanitarian expeditions to central Africa, the Balkan, and Turkey, it can do so efficiently only to the extent that the humanitarian operation is successful in its own terms. When governmental TDs differentiate among forms and kinds of lives, they put external limits on the humanitarian operation, abusing the instruments at their disposal. This is often the case, of course, but then TDs become simply another apparatus of power, with disaster simply an external event to be controlled and mastered, like changes in interest rates or the ocean tides.
But TDs become a political instrument not only when it is distorted and abused, but no less often when it is used according to its irreducible moral criteria. For when a catastrophe takes place in a weak state the question, who owns and controls TDs becomes crucial. In this sense catastrophes demonstrate an important distinction between “strong” states that are capable of mobilizing a strong and sophisticated apparatus of TDs to handle their own disasters and helping other states, and “weak” states that lack the economic, technological, and organizational capacity to cope with large-scale disasters. In contemporary globalized world large-scale disasters have become a chronic phenomenon in the weak states, and the intervention of humanitarian organizations, upon which those states are increasingly dependent, has become an important force contributing to the disintegration of their sovereignty. It is the very presence of a powerful apparatus of TDs that embody a clear moral interest that makes possible the transformation of the moral claim into a political power.
On the other end of the spectrum, in the strong states, in which a strong apparatus of TDs is an integral part bio-politics at large, the very occurrence of disaster is an opportunity for consolidating state power and strengthening its grip on the governed population. In strong states large scale disasters inevitably lead to a rapid augmentation in the deployment, activity, visible presence and latent capacities of the bio-political apparatuses, as the attack of Spetember 11th has clearly demonstrated, and as Israelis and Palestinians know all too well from daily experience. In a global world, where the “roots of evil,” and disastrous forces cannot be contained within the borders of the nation-state, governmentally controlled TDs are an integral component in a growing network of bio-political apparatuses that nurture the emergence of a new Empire, or at least of a globally coordinated bio-political system. Here too, the moral interests that the technological apparatus embodies are a necessary condition for its political uses.
The recent phenomenon called “international terrorism” is both a parasite of this system and one of the main forces behind its augmentation. It has also brought the present, globalized form of international humanitarianism to a crucial moment. The question, which the events of the last two years have made clear and which is still open today, is whether global humanitarianism is going to fall back upon and submit itself to the dictates of those very state apparatuses from which it once sought to distinguish itself, or will it take a firm stand on the side of bare life, more color-blind than ever, without giving in to the logic of the market and the raison d’êtat.
IV. The Terrorist and the Humanitarian
It is not merely by association that we bring up the issue of “international terrorism” in this context. For if there is a humanitarian challenge to the political sovereign, despite everything said so far, it is not unrelated to the terrorist challenge and it may be fully exposed through a comparison with the latter. Facing the threat of terror (imaginary or exaggerated as it may be), the sovereign nation-state is ready to suspend not only the law but the humanitarian apparatus that works on its margins, and at the same time provide this apparatus with ample new sites and reason to re-deploy itself (the US in Afghanistan and, soon, in Iraq; Russia in Chechnya). The humanitarian organizations, in turn, are often ready to suspend their condemnation of terrorism, which has become a cliché in the public discourse of the liberal states; they are ready to extend their work to populations that support, or at least tolerate, the new form of terrorism as long as their neutrality be recognized and their immunity respected.
But the main link between global humanitarianism and international terrorism is not causal but structural. The structural similarities between these two postmodern phenomena are striking (and embarrassing): trans-national networks lacking any center (or having a center that is contingent and temporary); exemplary models of voluntary, heroic action that are quickly reproduced and distributed across the globe, breeding imitators and enjoying the admiration of large audiences that are not directly involved in the context where the model of action originated; the sacrifice and expenditure of resources taken out of regular cycles of commercial and political exchange for the sake of a goal that is portrayed as higher than the usual goals of political or economic action, a goal whose value cannot be measured in the terms of juridical, economic, or political discourse prevalent in the liberal nation-states; nomad practices and mobility that make possible to land and sojourn for a shorter or longer period anywhere around the globe, combined with an in-depth interest in a particular locality, carefully designated and meticulously studied; a special interest in bare life that calls for action and constrains its possibility; a certain balance, changing according to changing circumstances, between the spectacular and clandestine aspects of the operation; an extensive use of religious discourse and of particular and relatively recent idioms within it, and of traditional philanthropic practices and organizations associated with religious institutions; and a certain indifference – in theory, if not always in practice – to the territorial and symbolic borders of the nation-state.
Let’s take a closer look at these similarities and use them to better understand the place of global humanitarianism in the liberal nation-state and its relation to the political sovereign. Terrorists and humanitarian activists alike are interested in bare life, but in opposite ways. The humanitarian does not make explicit distinctions of skin color, race, ethnicity, and religion in his rhetoric and tends to reform his language and practices, or at least seek excuses, when critics point out such distinctions. In his own rhetoric, on the other hand, the terrorist makes an explicit distinction between life that can and cannot be sacrificed, but in actual practice many of these distinctions tend to be erased (the recent attack in Mombassa, Kenya is a good example: ten Kenyans and three Israelis were killed in an attack that was presumably directed against Israelis). We are faced here with a clear difference – almost an exact binary opposition – within a common structure of relations: life and death. The humanitarian works to save life, no matter whose – the only question is where life is being forsaken; the terrorist’s aim is death, and it matters little whose – the main question is where life can be more effectively and easily sacrificed. The answer to both questions is largely accidental. It is often dependent (among other things) on the answer to another question: where is intervention capable of having a more spectacular effect, either in order to terrorize the local population or in order to impress the distantly remote donors? This difference between the killing and forsaking of life and bringing succor to life that has been forsaken cannot be gainsaid.
The terrorist and humanitarian both are aligned against the sovereign, yet they face sovereignty from opposite sides. Between the terrorist and the sovereign, there is a gray area inhabited by terrorist organizations seeking to establish a sovereign state and state terrorism that seeks to suppress dissenting movements. Between the humanitarian and the sovereign, there is a gray area inhabited by governmental and semi-governmental humanitarian organizations using TDs under the auspices of the sovereign and alongside other state apparatuses. But between the terrorist and the humanitarian there is a gap, a void, which no existing practice can fill. Of course, some terrorist, or so-called terrorist, organizations operate philanthropic institutions, but these are directed at and intended for the benefit of their “own” population, or the population that hosts them. This is a philanthropy that distinguishes between kinds of life and is directed at life that has already been politicized, for it is subject to at least one, primordial political law: the distinction between friend and foe, us and them. There may even be – though this is certainly rare - some humanitarians that have adopted terrorist practices, or are ready to lend their support to terrorist activity, or have even become terrorists themselves, but the moment their involvement with terrorist activity is disclosed they would certainly be expelled from most humanitarian organizations.
The terrorist and humanitarian face the sovereign from opposite directions. They resemble one another in certain crucial aspects of their activity; their difference lies in the direction (and sense) of this activity, in its explicit goals and immediate effects. They both compete with the sovereign itself, never with each other, over the sovereign exception, the right and authority to forsake life, and the proper way of dealing with forsaken life. The two signify the two opposite directions that the bio-political apparatus of the modern state can take. On the one hand, there are moral technologies for the administration of disasters, whose internal dynamic means movement from response to a catastrophic event and its consequences to an attempt to deal with the political conditions that make it possible and amplifies its impact. On the other hand, there are disastrous technologies for the administration of life, whose inner dynamic means movement from response to disaster to the systematic production of disastrous conditions. Between the two there are different areas of congruence and a considerable element of mutual imitation. In response to terrorist acts the state imitates the terrorists, who, in turn, imitate the state; the state also imitates humanitarian practices in response to the demands of humanitarian discourse and to demonstrate its mastery over TDs.
Somewhere in-between the terrorist and the humanitarian, forsaken life imposes itself and demands a new definition of the relation between political rights and their exception, and between the juridical order and its suspension – or extension. It therefore won’t suffice to recognize the refugee as an abandoned body and forsaken life, which “only as such is… made into the object of aid and protection” (HS 133). Nor will it suffice to recognize the citizen as a body and locus of life that should be well-administered in order to protect him from the unbearable arbitrariness and randomness of terrorist violence. The state of total abandonment that accompanies large-scale disasters, like the state of emergency imposed by terrorist attacks, is not merely an opportunity for power to extend and deepen the scope of its mechanisms of governmentality and give new legitimization to the colonization of the life-world.
These extreme situations, which cannot be considered exceptional any longer, also challenge the sovereign by undermining its monopoly over the authority and power to suspend the law, make exceptions, and forsake or sacrifice life. At the same time, the accelerated intrusion of power into the daily life-world of its citizens, which is justified by the need “to fight terrorism,” is not simply or merely the effect of sovereign decisions; it is also, at the same time, a reaffirmation of the threat to this sovereignty, which keeps on peeping up behind the backs of the policemen, security agents, guards and gate-keepers. The reach of this threat is as wide as the entire security network; the threat is present wherever sovereign power is present. It is not only the borders of the nation-state that are being called into question here but also, and perhaps mainly, its totalizing claim to the administration of life. What is being called into question is the authority of the sovereign to be the sole legitimate source of the decision to declare who should be abandoned, whose life can be forsaken, which exception is the proper one. The question, ultimately, concerns the authority of the sovereign to bring under its jurisdiction – precisely by suspending the juridical order – anything that lives and whatever relates to the living, leaving no residue.
In the postmodern arenas of large-scale disasters, contemporary refugee camps and the rapidly multiplying scenes of international terrorism, there appear to be in fact three related processes of deconstruction of sovereignty: the monolithic, unified and coherent concept of sovereignty is undermined by the very multiplicity of agents that negotiate, compete, or fight over different types of exception-making; a lacuna erupts at the heart of the usually ubiquitous mechanisms of bio-power, which seem helpless precisely at the moment when they’re most needed; and the territorial boundaries that inscribe sovereignty in space are constantly transgressed by streams of people, goods, and information flowing into and out of the disaster zone.
But these processes could not have taken place without the discourse and practice of humanitarianism and the disarray, anxiety and death spread by terrorism, which, in turn, would not have any effect without the active cooperation and mediation of the electronic and printed media, without the dreadful images and horrific stories of suffering and distress that the media disseminate world-wide. However, neither the images nor stories make the difference, but rather the new possibilities of action that have opened in two opposite directions, the new relations between power and life inscribed at the two ends of the spectrum through the two major contemporary forms of sacrifice and transgression.
It should be noted that even without a functioning humanitarian non-governmental apparatus, the mere existence – even the mere feasibility – of effective TDs turns life ruined by disaster or inside the refugee camp into a challenge to the sovereign power. The embodiment of the moral imperative – to save as many lives as possible, to limit suffering and loss as much as possible – in concrete TDs transforms every disaster, every refugee camp, anywhere on the globe into a scene of confrontation and cooperation, but in any case of distinction, between the moral and the political. The same is true in the opposite direction for terrorism: even without an active terrorist infrastructure, the mere existence – even the mere feasibility – of disastrous terrorist activity turns “well-administered life” in the nation-state into life at imminent risk, about to be forsaken at any moment, anywhere; this potential forsaking of life, which does not originate with the sovereign, is necessarily conceived as a threat to the sovereign nation-state, any sovereign state around the globe. The moral, religious, or quasi-religious imperative embodied in the terrorist’s deadly mode of action (for it is neither an apparatus nor a social institution) transforms any site within the social space space into a possible scene of confrontation, tacit cooperation, and certainly of differentiation, between the anarchist element inherent in the ideology of terrorism and the raison d’êtat.
Humanitarian organizations widen the gap between the rights of man and the rights of the citizen, thus perhaps contributing to the exclusion of their clients from the public sphere of the liberal state and to the silencing of their voice. But in doing so, they are doing something else besides taking part in the de-politicization of disaster (as their critics rightly claim, though this is not always or necessarily the case) – they are also placing the moral claim above and prior to the political or social bond, and ready to follow up this claim even when it transgresses the limits of the social bond. Terrorism, in turn, also widens the gap between man and citizen through the reaction it provokes from state power (closer surveillance of strangers; stricter forms of separation between citizens and aliens; suspected persons more easily deprived of their rights, etc.). Wherever it is sensed as imminent, the threat of terror also tends to silence, or at least flatten, the political discourse. But it does something else besides contributing to the augmentation of the state and its bio-political apparatus. Terrorism de-politicizes power (we all stand united behind our security forces, etc.) by confronting us with an enemy that unites us all, who is portrayed as an extra-territorial element – a force that transcends the political sphere and must be must be opposed, for its negation is a condition for the very existence of a social bond.
The de-politicization of the humanitarian claim, just like the similar exclusion of the terrorist claim, may be in the short-term interest of the sovereign and its rivals. The humanitarians hope to gain better access to the places and victims of disaster by presenting the humanitarian space as a-political; the terrorists seek to present a radical alternative to the political and avoid any kind of negotiation with the sovereign power. Power itself benefits from the de-politicization of disaster, for this enables it to deny its responsibility for the conditions that make it possible. Power also benefits from the de-politicization of terrorism, for this enables it to avoid coming to terms with the terrorists’ demands and claims. In both cases, the primacy of the a-political principle guiding both humanitarianism or terrorism may serve as a means of de-politicization, which helps to conceal and reproduce the bio-political foundation of modern sovereignty, strengthens state power, and diminishes the universalist dimension of citizenship. But in both cases, what’s at stake is the suspension – inevitably temporary – of the imminent political challenge posed by the sovereign’s two rivals.
The terrorist’s immediate aim is the impairment of the state’s capacity to administer its citizens’ lives, but this is merely a means towards an ultimate goal: the destruction of the state and establishment of a radically different political entity in its place. The humanitarian seeks, in principle if not always in practice, to subjugate the bio-political apparatuses to the imperative of caring for others in distress. But – at least in the case of the more radical forms of humanitarianism – this is but a first step towards a political transformation of the disastrous conditions themselves, the elimination of the permanent state of emergency, and the restoration of a truly civic dimension to the life-world of the stricken population. International terrorism kills and forsakes life in order to undermine the very possibility of citizenship within the existing political order, holding life itself in suspense till the coming of a radically new form of political bond. Global humanitarianism, at least certain voices within it, speaks in the name of the humanity of forsaken life and puts forward moral demands, whose aim is to redraw the boundaries of citizenship and reshape the existing social bond. In its more radical forms, at least, global humanitarianism does not simply protect human rights while renouncing civil rights – in its care for humans and their rights, it seeks to transform the very nature of citizenship.
V. The silent remainder of politics
In the early days of global humanitarianism Michel Foucault gave a clear, evocative formulation of the above claim. In a speech addressed to a rally of solidarity with the Vietnamese “boat people” in 1981, he said:
We are here only as private individuals, who have no other claim to speak, and to speak together, than a certain shared difficulty in accepting what is happening.
I know full well, and we have to face the facts, that there is not much we can do about the reasons which lead men and women to prefer leaving their countries over living in them. The fact is simply beyond our reach.
Who, then, commissioned us? No one. And that is precisely what establishes our right. It seems to me that we must bear in mind three principles which, I believe, guide this initiative…:
1. There exists an international citizenship, which has its rights, which has its duties, and which promises to raise itself up against every abuse of power, no matter who the author or the victims. After all, we are all governed and, to that extent, in solidarity.
2. Because they claim to concern themselves with the welfare of their societies, governments have arrogated to themselves the right to draw up a balance sheet, to calculate the profits and losses, of the human misfortune provoked by their decisions or tolerated by their negligence. It is a duty of this international citizenry always to make an issue of this misfortune, to keep it in the eyes and ears of governments – it is not true that they are not responsible. People’s misfortune must never be the silent remainder of politics. It founds an absolute right to rise up and to address those who hold power.
3. We must reject the division of tasks which is all too often offered: individuals can get indignant and speak out, while it is governments which reflect and act. It is true that good governments like the hallowed indignation of the governed, provided it remains lyrical. I believe that we must realize how often, though, it is the rulers who speak, who can only and want only to speak. Experience shows that we can and must reject the theatrical role of pure and simple indignation which we are offered. Amnesty International, Terre des Hommes, Médecins du Monde are initiatives which have created a new right: the right of private individuals to intervene in the order of politics and international strategies. The will of individuals must inscribe itself in a reality over which governments have wanted to reserve a monopoly for themselves – a monopoly which we must uproot little by little every day.
It can’t be gainsaid that Foucault beautifies the humanitarian movement and misses some of its important characteristics. But one doesn’t have to agree with everything he says in order to recognize, together with him, the inherent political aspect of contemporary humanitarianism and the immanent place of the moral interest and stance within it. We needn’t dwell any longer on the structural comparison with terrorism in order to understand that the moral residue of humanitarianism discussed above is merely the other, outspoken and hyper-active side of that “silent remainder of politics.” The apparatus of TDs safeguards this residue from political reduction. Humanitarian discourse reintroduces it to politics as an irreducible moral claim. In Foucault’s words, the humanitarian discourse offers a new concept of cosmopolitan citizenship and places it, at one and the same time, upon the utopian horizon of moral action, as the addressee of the moral outcry and as the speaking subject represented in, and constituted through, the articulation of this new citizenship. In the name of this subject, humanitarian discourse places human misery and suffering on the political agenda, not allowing it to remain the silent remainder of politics. Humanitarianism employs the new TDs to intervene in politics, on both the national and international levels, calling upon power to account for the ways in which it administers lives, and to encompass human misery in the calculation of its balance sheets.
This is not the battle-cry of a political dissident but a quite basic description of the new agenda of new kinds of humanitarian organizations, which appeared in the West in the 1970s. The only distinctions recognized by these organizations’ concept of life are those between different kinds of suffering and risk, but in the name of these distinctions they depart from the ethos of political neutrality and silence that characterizes the Red Cross and other older organizations. They are ready to politicize their action when it seems necessary, to bear witness, and to publicly accuse the perpetrators of violence. Even when they avoid taking positions on politically divisive issues, they act in full awareness of the fact that direct and indirect intervention in the political administration of disaster is an inevitable part of its moral administration. Their political action consists precisely of the articulation of the moral imperative. They force political authorities into the position of addressees of moral claims, imposing on them an obligation to conduct negotiations regarding their own responsibility for, and response to, disasters and their consequences. The following is how James Orbinski, former president of Médecins sans Frontiers, framed this idea in his 1999 Nobel Prize speech:
Ours is an ethic of refusal. It will not allow any moral political failure or injustice to be sanitized or cleansed of its meaning. The 1992 crimes against humanity in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The 1994 genocide in Rwanda. The 1997 massacres in Zaire. The 1999 indiscriminate attacks on civilians in Chechnya. These cannot be masked by terms like “Complex Humanitarian Emergency,” or “Internal Security Crisis.” Or by any other such euphemism – as though they are some random, politically undetermined event. Language is determinant. It frames the problem and defines response. It defines too rights, and therefore responsibilities. It defines whether a medical or humanitarian response is inadequate. It defines whether a political response is inadequate… For MSF, this is the humanitarian act: to seek to relieve suffering, to seek to restore autonomy, to witness to the truth of injustice, and to insist on political responsibility… Ours is not to displace the responsibility of the state. The final responsibility of the state is to include, not to exclude, to balance public interests over private interests, and to ensure that a just social order exists. Ours is not to allow a humanitarian alibi to mask the state’s responsibility to ensure justice and security.
The logic of TDs implies their conscious politicization, their attention to criticism that discloses unintended political consequences and unconscious political constraints, and their readiness to transcend any given form of political relations. From the point of view of the experts and laymen operating TDs, no political limit to the care of others in distress is acceptable. Therefore no existing division of labor between the political authorities and humanitarian organizations, which is inevitable in some form or other, can justify a failure to re-examine the operation of the apparatus of TDs in order to guarantee that it’s being exercised properly, for the benefit of those who need it most. The same drive towards efficiency that is at work in any technological apparatus is also at work in TDs – the drive to achieve better results in a shorter time with the expenditure of fewer resources. In this case, better results means saving more lives and bringing more relief to more people; shorter time means just the same; and fewer resources means there will be more to be spent in the next calamity. The logic of technological efficiency does not guarantee, of course, that the care of life won’t serve or be made to serve the interests of a certain sovereign power, or that it won’t stop at the borders of the nation-state. This logic does guarantee, however, the recurring problematization of the powers that manipulate humanitarian aid and the questioning of the limits imposed upon it. In other words, the internal technological dynamics of the humanitarian apparatus ensures that the gap between the political and the moral won’t be eliminated even under extreme conditions. Political simulations of humanitarian enterprises may be mounted, and all the more so the stronger humanitarianism becomes as a political agent; but such simulations will always only be capable of reproducing the political ambiguity of TDs and leave the door open for the moral imperative.
As a more-or-less established form of moral intervention embodied in a complex apparatus of power/knowledge, TDs provide an exemplary model of moral action. In fact, the space of humanitarianism is the place of morality in culture. Unlike art and its museums and galleries, science and its laboratories, law and its courts, or religion and its temples and monasteries, morality has no designated place of its own. TDs are localized anew with every new disaster. They turn the disaster zone into an ad-hoc place of morality – that will disappear when life returns to normal, and into a place of ad-hoc morality – the moral sentiments and interest that drive humanitarian action will soon disappear, in the wake of the disaster, when that solidarity born out of the state of emergency begins to dissipate and the social gaps it tends to bridge once again turn into zones of conflict and oppression.
Now let’s turn back to Agamben. The arguments presented above provide sufficient reason to maintain that, contrary to his stated position, the “secret solidarity” that the humanitarian organizations “maintain with the powers they ought to fight” is shaky from the outset. Humanitarian organizations do not simply reproduce the bio-political principle of political sovereignty. Putting TDs into action through the humanitarian scheme of action generates, in ad-hoc and unpredictable ways, flowing currents of goods, people and messages. These currents cross various social spheres and transgress territorial boundaries and zones of jurisdiction, everywhere leaving traces of care for life in distress, which the state, market and other social systems can neither ignore nor entirely erase. In their present form, which is shaped by the discourse and practices of global humanitarianism, TDs disseminate new forms of solidarity and citizenship, infiltrate territorial boundaries, and create new lines of flight and transgression. The point, I believe, is not to show that global humanitarianism is a force equal to the powers it ought to be fighting or at least evading, but to understand that these powers are unable to hide or mend the cracks it rends in their structures.
VI. The Humanitarian Exception
All this leads me to reflect briefly on the cultural status of morality in contemporary Western culture. Today the moral interest finds its clearest expression in TDs, and the disaster zone has become the place of the moral in our culture. TDs are sometimes abused to generate disaster; they are sometimes manipulated for the sake of “heteronomous” or even improper goals; they are sometimes operated in such a way that their results include unintended political, economic and cultural effects, which do even more harm to the victims. But all this happens only because putting TDs to work is considered an urgent moral intervention, and only as long as the space in which they operate remains a place of morality. The relative autonomy of the moral interest embodied in TDs is not an autonomy of judgment; it is not based on purity of intention, nor does it express the moral virtues of individuals or the morality of the laws that rule them. It is the autonomy of a technological apparatus (in the sense defined above [p. X]), of a culture of experts, with its own habitus, standards and symbolic capital, backed by a complex integration of discourse, instruments and organizational patterns. It is a moral autonomy, because the basic standard for the successful operation of the apparatus is the efficacy and efficiency of the aid provided to others in distress.
The autonomy of TDs is realized when the material existence and reproduction of the moral-technological apparatus relies on the state and on players in the market only negatively, i.e. when the state “curtails” itself and gives way to a strong civil society that can generate and support humanitarian projects, and when enough players in the market – individuals and corporations alike – are ready to spend their resources on non-profit goals. The most important result of such autonomy is the fact that humanitarian organizations have entered the limited sphere where the negotiations and conflicts over the sovereign exception take place. This last idea requires a further revision of Agamben’s position, more radical than the first, for it concerns the very concept of sovereignty.
Even accepting the general outlines of the Schmittian interpretation of the concept of sovereignty developed by Agamben, it is still possible, and in fact necessary, to distinguish between the concept of sovereignty and the sovereign exception as a concrete moment in the reality of power. Neither Agamben nor (to the best of my knowledge) Schmitt makes this distinction. As a concept and ideal position within the political sphere, the sovereign is one and united; in practice, even in the most totalitarian forms of power the position of the sovereign is maintained and reproduced through a series of struggles and negotiations, relating even to the ultimate test of the sovereign – the making of the exception. Proclaiming an exception and excluding the excepted are never miraculous phenomena, as Schmitt imagined them to be, emanating ex-nihilo and ex-officio. They are, rather, political decisions entangled in a network of power relations, involving several authorities and power centers and many of the sovereign’s subjects. Political freedom may be measured by the existence of tolerated practices and legitimate institutions for negotiating over the sovereign exception, and by the accessibility of these practices and institutions to the public at large. In a democratic regime, for example, any citizen may enter into negotiation over the exception, and this right is legally guaranteed in the form of strikes, demonstrations, etc., while in autocratic regimes it is a privilege of members of the ruling elite.
Today humanitarian organizations take part in negotiations over sovereign exception – alongside human rights organizations – in any modern state that tolerates even a limited freedom of speech and association. These organizations have come to enjoy a relative autonomy lately as a result of their expertise in the operation of TDs and their positions in civil society in their own countries, and the globalization of civil society that is inseparable from the globalization of the economy, the media, culture, and law.
In this context, it is possible to formulate an important distinction between the discourse and practices of human rights organizations and those of humanitarian organizations. The differences between these two modes of social action tend to become blurred in times of relative calm, when emphasis can be placed on “development,” but they become more striking in times of calamity, when the monolithic, unitarian image and authority of the sovereign in the “weak states” are greatly impaired, and the local arena in which negotiation over the exception takes place is broken into and infiltrated by new global forces. Human rights organizations require the violation of human rights as a pretext in order to claim access to the stricken countries and the right to negotiate over the exception, whereas humanitarian organizations base the same claim on the magnitude of human misery and distress. The former enter into negotiation over the exception in order to limit it as much as possible. In this they join forces with (or serve as an extension of, or disguise for) major players in the global market working to deconstruct local sovereignties, compelling them to accept universal laws and international regulations. Humanitarian organizations, on the other hand, go farther than that. They call for making exceptions, and for widening or restricting the power to make them according to the conditions in the arena of disaster and the needs of the survivors.
As a matter of fact, the humanitarian is extremely interested in the exceptional. He lives off the exception. The humanitarian presents himself as an expert in exceptional situations and exceptional actions, and acts under conditions created by exceptional circumstances, for the sake of people that have been forsaken because they were either excepted or deprived of exceptional measures of protection. Furthermore, being constantly involved in the administration of life where life has already been forsaken, in the disaster zone or refugee camp, the humanitarian is inevitably involved with life-and-death decisions on a daily basis and takes action that may result in more forsaking of life, not only its rescue. And yet – and this is the crucial point – in the midst of his involvement with life and death, the humanitarian does not accept the sovereign’s monopoly of the power to proclaim a state of exception; in fact, under certain circumstances he may remain indifferent to the sovereign’s authority in this respect. To every concerned citizen, every member of a global, cosmopolitan civil society, no matter how imaginary this society might be, humanitarianism ascribes the authority, as well as the duty, to suspend the law of the land in a disaster-stricken area and take exceptional action. Humanitarianism introduces the possibility of proclaiming a state of exception to the daily life of any concerned citizen in the liberal states. It challenges sovereign power not simply by imposing on it negotiations over the proclamation of exceptions (something done by human rights organizations as well), but mainly due to its indifference (in theory, if not always in practice) to the role of the exception in the constitution of sovereignty.
In other words, humanitarianism proposes a new political relation to the exception, which can ignore the sovereign without ceasing to be political (despite all the simulations of neutrality and the professed impartiality of the organizations). It is a political relation in the sense that it relates to the exception according to the interests of the governed, not of the power that governs them. For the humanitarian it is never the constitution of sovereignty or a juridical order that is at stake in the exception, but the bare life that should have been protected by them. From the sovereign’ point of view, the exception designates the limit of a juridical order and testifies to the sovereign’s power and authority. This is precisely why the discourse of human rights, that conceives exceptions from the sovereign’s point of view, struggles to limit them as much as possible. From the humanitarian perspective, however, the exception designates the limit of the sovereign’s power and is rather indifferent to the juridical order. It testifies to the existence, or at least the possibility, or a solidarity that transcends the political sphere and conditions its legitimacy.
This new relation to the exception is often obscured by the pressing need to adapt to the rhetoric and constrains of oppressing political circumstances and compromise with powerful economic interests. The critique of humanitarianism that exposes the shortcoming of the moral enterprise should be careful not to miss its important novelty. Global humanitarianism turns the moral residue into a challenge to political sovereignty and signals the possibility of a radical transformation of the relations between power, law, and morality. Humanitarianism is incapable, of course, of bringing about this transformation, but is powerful enough to articulate its possibility for those who still believe that mending the world is a goal worth striving for.
This paper was Presented at the International Workshop On Catastrophes in the Age of Globalization (Van Leer institute, January 2003)