On Friday last, the United States declared a National Emergency to deal with the Coronavirus, accessing up to $50bn for the problem, bypassing conventional appropriations procedures. In Spain, the Government has taken over private healthcare. In Ireland, government formation negotiations have been largely shelved in the wake of an indecisive February General Election, and a caretaker government continues in office; the same is happening in Belgium. Conventional politics – and our liberal democratic institutions – have been suspended in favour of a supposedly brief dose of totalitarianism, which everyone agrees is necessary to deal with what is an unquestionably dangerous pandemic.
The idea of the State of Emergency is of course not new. The origins of the concept stem from an appreciation that deliberative democracy and the rule of law is inefficient in times of crisis – especially War – and it is necessary to have a mechanism to react swiftly and decisively in order to safeguard the national interest. These are of course intended to be exceptional circumstances; these are states of exception. However, as the theorist and philosopher Carl Schmitt has noted, liberal democratic principle doesn’t really matter when the institutions of government are not under threat. In ‘ordinary’ times, no one disagrees with the State (generally), and the limits placed on government by the rule of law are not a problem. The only time that those principles matter are exactly when the government is under threat. His point is that liberal democracy isn’t actually real; it’s an illusion of how we like to think of ourselves, rather than a reflection of the true nature of the world.
Indeed, if we look at the United States, there have been at least 70 National Emergencies called in the last 100 years, based on Wikipedia; of these, 61 have been declared since Ronald Reagan took office. In addition, 34 are still in force, including one declared in 1979 against Iran. These are no longer exceptions, it has to be argued, but rather tools of American administration, particularly in relation to foreign policy and sanctions. In Ireland, the First Amendment to the Constitution in 1939 allowed for a National Emergency to be declared in time of war – which would be commendable for its restraint (only limited to wartime) were it not for the fact that its first invocation was immediately on passage in 1939, and not lifted until 1976.
Your correspondent is not suggesting of course that the actions being taken by various world governments are unwarranted – quite the contrary. However, it does remind us of the challenge our system of government faces. Liberal Democracy has been shot at for years by all manner of academics, books, polemics, op-eds and politicians themselves; though no one has really proposed an alternative. Now, however, as the number of deaths outside China has exceeded that within China, people are actually beginning to wonder whether that model isn’t actually so bad. Liberalism, so seductive a principle, may have offered false hope equally to the narcissist and the low-born. When will be the point at which we realise that it’s just not all that it’s cracked up to be?