Professor of Sociology of Social Movements
Department of Sociology
University of the Aegean, Greece
EXCEPTIONALITY AND NORMALITY IN MEASURES AGAINST COVID-19 PANDEMIC:
HOW MUCH MORE NORMAL CAN A STATE OF EXCEPTION BE?
Two forms of relationship will occupy us in this note. The relationship between normality and exceptionality and the relationship between crisis and opportunity. In people’s imaginary, exceptional situations function as bad parentheses, as temporary nightmares that the average person is eager to escape. In order for this consolation practice to work, the dynamics of the contradictory dipole ‘normality vs. exceptionality’ is necessary to be activated. In other words, it is imperative that an institutional type of narrative (in order to be convincing) must developed, according to which the measures that are taken and implemented in a state of exception aim exclusively to create the conditions for a gradual return to the previous state of normality. The Covid-19 pandemic, among other things, raised several questions for the global research community regarding the scope and quality of the changes that it is likely to bring to the realm of practicing policies of state and international institutions, as well as to everyday life. In the minds of many scientists (and politicians), the period of pandemic may be a historically rare period of condensed and rapid changes, which would otherwise have required slow and longer transitional times to be implemented.
The first question that arises, therefore, concerns the true relationship between normality and exceptionality in the general political process. Can we assume that there are clear boundaries between the two? Can we assume that exceptionality in politics is the conceptual opposite of normality and vice versa? Dictionaries have already given us a measure of this relationship. According to a definition (https://tinyurl.com/ydfkmvfc), an exception is ‘someone or something that is not included in a rule, group, or list or that does not behave in the expected way’. What does ‘expected way’ really means in our case? The really interesting question would not be as to whether the crisis situation is an exception to the ‘rule’ of normality, but as to whether what we call a ‘state of emergency’ in a crisis situation as in Covid-19 essentially contains rules of political reaction and collective behavior that are exactly the same as those that are also applicable to the ‘state of normality’. In other words, it would be crucial to ask ourselves whether understanding the political developments that have been triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic crisis requires the application of the same conceptual tools we use in political science and sociology in order to understand the phenomena and processes that take place in politics and society in times of ‘normality’ or whether different tools are needed.
In my view, a state of exception is a deviation from the state of normality, but the dynamics of political responses and the collective behavior of institutional and social actors in both cases follow the same rules and obey the same standards. What does this mean in practice? It means that, as a rule, in world history, crisis situations are unique opportunities for socially dominant forces to unfold a wide range of interventionist policies that form a new way of governing which in turn tends to transform our living standards and selection criteria in the long run in fields such as labor, economy, production, political activity, consumption, lifestyle, etc. In fact, with the exception of World War II at the end of which (due to the specific social conditions of how it was waged), a generalized class consensus on the welfare state and the corporatist model of political concertation of the state’s economic and social policies and tripartite agreements was formed, in all other historical cases of crises there have always been specific political and economic elites who have discriminatorily exploited fluid conditions to impose their own choices in the long run. This has been the case in regional conflicts, natural disasters (e.g., floods and tsunamis), hurricanes, coups d’état, ‘wars on terrorism’, financial collapses and other natural or human induced disasters. This has also occurred in the case of Covid-19 pandemic. For example, the economic measures that various governments took have made labor even more flexible, have prepared huge pockets of legitimate unemployment and weakened workers’ rights. Indeed, these situations offer us the opportunity to see clearly that such measures are class and socially biased. Despite the fact that the crisis caused by the pandemic is literally, according to Agamben, a ‘state of exception’, crisis management policies that have been institutionalized around the world to face it are no exception to the above rule of social partiality. The political measures taken to deal with the crisis and how they have been imposed are basically responses of political elites who are essentially declaring society in a ‘state of emergency’, thus creating a climate of enforced and generalized obedience to choices that transform already established class balances, revoke acquired labor rights, suspend established democratic processes and challenge selected lifestyles. Therefore, on the one hand and from a historical point of view, this way of responding to conditions of state of exception is in fact ‘the expected way’ to behave in conditions of crisis. On the other hand, this also implies that we may reconsider our understanding of the relationship between ‘crisis’ and ‘opportunity’.
Indeed, governments’ rhetoric on institutional interventions and decisions are full of references to ‘opportunities’. One could say that in a sense the crisis we are going through is nothing more than a series of great (or even unique) opportunities to adapt to new circumstances and to get better as individuals, families, social groups, societies in the future. Behind the rhetoric of governments lies (or, if desired, is revealed) the dominant idea of ‘opportunity.’ But what does ‘opportunity’ mean within the context of today’s crisis? We should rather ask ourselves ‘opportunity for whom and at whose expense’? Going back to the help of dictionaries, we can take advantage of a simple definition of the term ‘emergency’ by supplementing it in the framework of the aforementioned contexts. Thus, given that human societies are plagued by multiple social antagonisms, ‘emergency’ would be ‘something dangerous or serious, such as an accident, that happens suddenly or unexpectedly and needs fast action in order to avoid harmful results’ (https://tinyurl.com/ujldva2) creating at the same time some (political and social) outcomes that are biasedly (and not generally) beneficial. According to this ‘corrected’ definition of emergency, the term ‘opportunity’ signifies a condition for a deeply differentiated ability of social actors to defend their rights and interests as the crisis situation has a crucial effect on the development of actors’ abilities to influence public decision-making. In this light, the Covid-19 pandemic seems to have led to an open overthrow of even the few social balances which were in force, after decades of aggressive neoliberal policies having been implemented on a global scale.
The fact that ‘returning to normality’ does not exist in real life but only as safe path towards a different from the previous normality (hence to a new ‘normality’) is apparent, if we consider, for example, to what ‘normality’ we returned when we have (supposedly) left the cycle of severe economic recession we had experienced in Greece during the period of implementation of fiscal adjustment measures, which had led to policies of austerity, cuts in wages, pensions, social spending on education, health care, etc., over the last ten years. The ‘return to normality’ – the real escape from the debt crisis of the decade 2010-2020 – reserved a series of bitter, though not so often publicly expressed, findings on the huge expansion of social inequalities and the weakening of social cohesion in Greek society. As for today, a simple look at the first interim reports of 2020 issued by the International Labour Organization (ILO) is enough to realize that the lockdown has created the conditions for a serious deterioration of both the weakest social groups within individual societies and lower-middle-income countries compared to higher income countries. Indicatively, according to the ILO, ‘With the COVID-19 pandemic, we face the risk of reverting years of progress. We may see an increase in child labour for the first time in 20 years’ (https://tinyurl.com/ycexpkpw). Thus, how much more discriminatory against the most vulnerable can these measures taken against Covid-19 pandemic be?