A brief history of the state of exception - Giorgio Agamben

An excerpt from the 2005 book State of Exception which serves as a good introduction to Agamben’s recent work on the nature of state power/sovereignty, as well as his dense and difficult style.

Submitted by Joseph Kay on September 10, 2006

(…) We have already seen how the state of siege had its origin in France during the Revolution. After being established with the Constituent Assembly's decree of July 8, 1791, it acquired its proper physiognomy as état de siège fictif or état de siège politique with the Directorial law of August 27, 1797, and, finally, with Napoleon's decree of December 24, 1811. The idea of a suspension of the constitution (of the "rule of the constitution") had instead been introduced, as we have also seen, by the Constitution of 22 Frimaire Year 8. Article 14 of the Charte of 1814 granted the sovereign the power to "make the regulations and ordinances necessary for the execution of the laws and the security of the State"; because of the vagueness of the formula, Chateaubriand observed "that it is possible that one fine morning the whole Charte will be forfeited for the benefit of Article 14." The state of siege was expressly mentioned in the Acte additionel to the Constitution of April 22, 1815, which stated that it could only be declared with a law. Since then, moments of constitutional crisis in France over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have been marked by legislation on the state of siege. After the fall of the July Monarchy, a decree by the Constituent Assembly on June 24, 1848, put Paris in a state of siege and assigned General Cavaignac the task of restoring order in the city. Consequently, an article was included in the new constitution of November 4, 1848, establishing that the occasions, forms, and effects of the state of siege would be firmly set by a law. From this moment on, the dominant principle in the French tradition (though, as we will see, not without exceptions) has been that the power to suspend the laws can belong only to the same power that produces them, that is, parliament (in contrast to the German tradition, which entrusted this power to the head of state). The law of August 9, 1849 (which was partially restricted later by the law of April 4, 1878), consequently established that a political state of siege could be declared by parliament (or, additionally, by the head of state) in the case of imminent danger to external or internal security. Napoleon III had recourse several times to this law and, once installed in power, he transferred, in the constitution of January 1852, the exclusive power to proclaim a state of siege to the head of state. The Franco-Prussian War and the insurrection of the Commune coincided with an unprecedented generalization of the state of exception, which was proclaimed in forty departments and lasted in some of them until 1876. On the basis of these experiences, and after MacMahon's failed coup d'état in May 1877, the law of 1849 was modified to establish that a state of siege could be declared only with a law (or, if the Chamber of Deputies was not in session, by the head of state, who was then obligated to convene parliament within two days) in the event of "imminent danger resulting from foreign war or armed insurrection" (law of April 3, 1878, Art. 1).

World War One coincided with a permanent state of exception in the majority of the warring countries. On August 2, 1914, President Poincaré issued a decree that put the entire country in a state of siege, and this decree was converted into law by parliament two days later. The state of siege remained in force until October 12, 1919. Although the activity of parliament, which was suspended during the first six months of the war, recommenced in January 1915, many of the laws passed were, in truth, pure and simple delegations of legislative power to the executive, such as the law of February 10, 1918, which granted the government an all but absolute power to regulate by decree the production and trade of foodstuffs. As Tingsten has observed, in this way the executive power was transformed into a legislative organ in the material sense of the term. In any case, it was during this period that exceptional legislation by executive [governativo] decree (which is now perfectly familiar to us) became a regular practice in the European democracies.

Predictably, the expansion of the executive's powers into the legislative sphere continued after the end of hostilities, and it is significant that military emergency now ceded its place to economic emergency (with an implicit assimilation between war and economics). In January 1924, at a time of serious crisis that threatened the stability of the franc, the Poincaré government asked for full powers over financial matters. After a bitter debate, in which the opposition pointed out that this was tantamount to parliament renouncing its own constitutional powers, the law was passed on March 22, with a four-month limit on the government's special powers. Analogous measures were brought to a vote in 1935 by the Laval government, which issued more than five hundred decrees "having force of law" in order to avoid the devaluation of the franc. The opposition from the left, led by Léon Blum, strongly opposed this "fascist" practice, but it is significant that once the Left took power with the Popular Front, it asked parliament in June 1937 for full powers in order to devalue the franc, establish exchange control, and impose new taxes. As has been observed, this meant that the new practice of legislation by executive [governativo] decree, which had been inaugurated during the war, was by now a practice accepted by all political sides. On June 30, 1937, the powers that had been denied Blum were granted to the Chautemps government, in which several key ministries were entrusted to nonsocialists. And on April 10, 1938, Édouard Daladier requested and obtained from parliament exceptional powers to legislate by decree in order to cope with both the threat of Nazi Germany and the economic crisis. It can therefore be said that until the end of the Third Republic "the normal procedures of parliamentary democracy were in a state of suspension." When we study the birth of the so-called dictatorial regimes in Italy and Germany, it is important not to forget this concurrent process that transformed the democratic constitutions between the two world wars. Under the pressure of the paradigm of the state of exception, the entire politico-constitutional life of Western societies began gradually to assume a new form, which has perhaps only today reached its full development. In December 1939, after the outbreak of the war, the Daladier government obtained the power to take by decree all measures necessary to ensure the defence of the nation. Parliament remained in session (except when it was suspended for a month in order to deprive the communist parliamentarians of their immunity), but all legislative activity lay firmly in the hands of the executive. By the time Marshal Pétain assumed power, the French parliament was a shadow of itself. Nevertheless, the Constitutional Act of July 11, 1940, granted the head of state the power to proclaim a state of siege throughout the entire national territory (which by then was partially occupied by the German army).
In the present constitution, the state of exception is regulated by Article 16, which De Gaulle had proposed. The article establishes that the president of the Republic may take all necessary measures "when the institutions of the Republic, the independence of the Nation, the integrity of its territory, or the execution of its international commitments are seriously and immediately threatened and the regular functioning of the constitutional public powers is interrupted." In April 1961, during the Algerian crisis, De Gaulle had recourse to Article 16 even though the functioning of the public powers had not been interrupted. Since that time, Article 16 has never again been invoked, but, in conformity with a continuing tendency in all of the Western democracies, the declaration of the state of exception has gradually been replaced by an unprecedented generalization of the paradigm of security as the normal technique of government.

The history of Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution is so tightly woven into the history of Germany between the wars that it is impossible to understand Hitler's rise to power without first analysing the uses and abuses of this article in the years between 1919 and 1933. Its immediate precedent was Article 68 of the Bismarckian Constitution, which, in cases where "public security was threatened in the territory of the Reich," granted the emperor the power to declare a part of the Reich to be in a state of war (Kriegszustand), whose conditions and limitations followed those set forth in the Prussian law of June 4, 1851, concerning the state of siege. Amid the disorder and rioting that followed the end of the war, the deputies of the National Assembly that was to vote on the new constitution (assisted by jurists among whom the name of Hugo Preuss stands out) included an article that granted the president of the Reich extremely broad emergency [eccezionali] powers. The text of Article 48 reads, "If security and public order are seriously [erheblich] disturbed or threatened in the German Reich, the president of the Reich may take the measures necessary to reestablish security and public order, with the help of the armed forces if required. To this end he may wholly or partially suspend the fundamental rights [Grundrechte] established in Articles 114, 115, 117, 118, 123, 124, and 153." The article added that a law would specify in detail the conditions and limitations under which this presidential power was to be exercised. Since that law was never passed, the president's emergency [eccezionali] powers remained so indeterminate that not only did theorists regularly use the phrase "presidential dictatorship" in reference to Article 48, but in 1925 Schmitt could write that "no constitution on earth had so easily legalized a coup d'état as did the Weimar Constitution."

Save for a relative pause between 1925 and 1929, the governments of the Republic, beginning with Brüning's, made continual use of Article 48, proclaiming a state of exception and issuing emergency decrees on more than two hundred and fifty occasions; among other things, they employed it to imprison thousands of communist militants and to set up special tribunals authorized to pronounce capital sentences. On several occasions, particularly in October 1923, the government had recourse to Article 4 to cope with the fall of the mark, thus confirming the modern tendency to conflate politico-military and economic crises.
It is well known that the last years of the Weimar Republic passed entirely under a regime of the state of exception; it is less obvious to note that Hitler could probably not have taken power had the country not been under a regime of presidential dictatorship for nearly three years and had parliament been functioning. In July 1930, the Brüning government was put in the minority, but Brüning did not resign. Instead, President Hindenburg granted him recourse to Article 48 and dissolved the Reichstag. From that moment on, Germany in fact ceased to be a parliamentary republic. Parliament met only seven times for no longer than twelve months in all, while a fluctuating coalition of Social Democrats and centrists stood by and watched a government that by then answered only to the president of the Reich. In 1932, Hindenburg—reelected president over Hitler and Thälmann—forced Brüning to resign and named the centrist von Papen to his post. On June 4, the Reichstag was dissolved and never reconvened until the advent of Nazism. On July 20, a state of exception was proclaimed in the Prussian territory, and von Papen was named Reich Commissioner for Prussia—ousting Otto Braun's Social Democratic government.

The state of exception in which Germany found itself during the Hindenburg presidency was justified by Schmitt on a constitutional level by the idea that the president acted as the "guardian of the constitution;" but the end of the Weimar Republic clearly demonstrates that, on the contrary, a "protected democracy" is not a democracy at all, and that the paradigm of constitutional dictatorship functions instead as a transitional phase that leads inevitably to the establishment of a totalitarian regime.

Given these precedents, it is understandable that the constitution of the Federal Republic did not mention the state of exception. Nevertheless, on June 24, 1968, the "great coalition" of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats passed a law for the amendment of the constitution (Gesetz zur Ergänzung des Grundgesetzes) that reintroduced the state of exception (defined as the "state of internal necessity," innere Notstand). However, with an unintended irony, for the first time in the history of the institution, the proclamation of the state of exception was provided for not simply to safeguard public order and security, but to defend the "liberal-democratic constitution." By this point, protected democracy had become the rule.

On August 3, 1914, the Swiss Federal Assembly granted the Federal Council "the unlimited power to take all measures necessary to guarantee the security, integrity, and neutrality of Switzerland." This unusual act—by virtue of which a non-warring state granted powers to the executive that were even vaster and vaguer than those received by the governments of countries directly involved in the war—is of interest because of the debates it provoked both in the assembly itself and in the Swiss Federal Court when the citizens objected that the act was unconstitutional. The tenacity with which on this occasion the Swiss jurists (nearly thirty years ahead of the theorists of constitutional dictatorship) sought (like Waldkirch and Burckhardt) to derive the legitimacy of the state of exception from the text of the constitution itself (specifically, Article 2, which read, "the aim of the Confederation is to ensure the independence of the fatherland against the foreigner [and] to maintain internal tranquillity and order"), or (like Hoerni and Fleiner) to ground the state of exception in a law of necessity "inherent in the very existence of the State," or (like His) in a juridical lacuna that the exceptional provisions must fill, shows that the theory of the state of exception is by no means the exclusive legacy of the antidemocratic tradition.

In Italy the history and legal situation of the state of exception are of particular interest with regard to legislation by emergency executive [governativi] decrees (the so-called law-decrees). Indeed, from this viewpoint one could say that Italy functioned as a true and proper juridico-political laboratory for organizing the process (which was also occurring to differing degrees in other European states) by which the law-decree "changed from a derogatory and exceptional instrument for normative production to an ordinary source for the production of law". But this also means that one of the essential paradigms through which democracy is transformed from parliamentary to executive [governamentale] was elaborated precisely by a state whose governments were often unstable. In any case, it is in this context that the emergency decree's pertinence to the problematic sphere of the state of exception comes clearly into view. The Albertine Statute (like the current Republican Constitution) made no mention of the state of exception. Nevertheless, the governments of the kingdom resorted to proclaiming a state of siege many times: in Palermo and the Sicilian provinces in 1862 and 1866, in Naples in 1862, in Sicily and Lunigiana in 1894, and in Naples and Milan in 1898, where the repression of the disturbances was particularly bloody and provoked bitter debates in parliament. The declaration of a state of siege on the occasion of the earthquake of Messina and Reggio Calabria on December 28, 1908 is only apparently a different situation. Not only was the state of siege ultimately proclaimed for reasons of public order—that is, to suppress the robberies and looting provoked by the disaster—but from a theoretical standpoint, it is also significant that these acts furnished the occasion that allowed Santi Romano and other Italian jurists to elaborate the thesis (which we examine in some detail later) that necessity is the primary source of law.

In each of these cases, the state of siege was proclaimed by a royal decree that, while not requiring parliamentary ratification, was nevertheless always approved by parliament, as were other emergency decrees not related to the state of siege (in 1923 and 1924 several thousand outstanding law-decrees issued in the preceding years were thus converted into law). In 1926 the Fascist regime had a law issued that expressly regulated the matter of the law-decrees. Article 3 of this law established that, upon deliberation of the council of ministers, "norms having force of law" could be issued by royal decree "(1) when the government is delegated to do so by a law within the limits of the delegation, and (2) in extraordinary situations, in which it is required for reasons of urgent and absolute necessity. The judgment concerning necessity and urgency is not subject to any oversight other than parliament's political oversight." The decrees provided for in the second clause had to be presented to parliament for conversion into law; but parliament's total loss of autonomy during the Fascist regime rendered this condition superfluous.

Although the Fascist governments' abuse of emergency decrees was so great that in 1939 the regime itself felt it necessary to limit their reach, Article 77 of the Republican Constitution established with singular continuity that "in extraordinary situations of necessity and emergency" the government could adopt "provisional measures having force of law," which had to be presented the same day to parliament and which went out of effect if not converted into law within sixty days of their issuance.

It is well known that since then the practice of executive [governamentale] legislation by law-decrees has become the rule in Italy. Not only have emergency decrees been issued in moments of political crisis, thus circumventing the constitutional principle that the rights of the citizens can be limited only by law (see, for example, the decrees issued for the repression of terrorism: the law-decree of March 28, 1978, n. 59, converted into the law of May 21 1978, n. 191 [the so-called Moro Law], and the law-decree of December 15, 1979, n. 625, converted into the law of February 6, 1980, n. 15), but law-decrees now constitute the normal form of legislation to such a degree that they have been described as "bills strengthened by guaranteed emergency." This means that the democratic principle of the separation of powers has today collapsed and that the executive power has in fact, at least partially, absorbed the legislative power. Parliament is no longer the sovereign legislative body that holds the exclusive power to bind the citizens by means of the law: it is limited to ratifying the decrees issued by the executive power. In a technical sense, the Italian Republic is no longer parliamentary, but executive [governamentale]. And it is significant that though this transformation of the constitutional order (which is today underway to varying degrees in all the Western democracies) is perfectly well known to jurists and politicians, it has remained entirely unnoticed by the citizens. At the very moment when it would like to give lessons in democracy to different traditions and cultures, the political culture of the West does not realize that it has entirely lost its canon.

The only legal apparatus in England that is comparable to the French état de siège goes by the term martial law; but this concept is so vague that it has been rightly described as an "unlucky name for the justification by the common law of acts done by necessity for the defence of the Commonwealth when there is war within the realm." This, however, does not mean that something like a state of exception could not exist. In the Mutiny Acts, the Crown's power to declare martial law was generally confined to times of war; nevertheless, it necessarily entailed sometimes serious consequences for the civilians who found themselves factually involved in the armed repression. Thus Schmitt sought to distinguish martial law from the military tribunals and summary proceedings that at first applied only to soldiers, in order to conceive of it as a purely factual proceeding and draw it closer to the state of exception: "Despite the name it bears, martial law is neither a right nor a law in this sense, but rather a proceeding guided essentially by the necessity of achieving a certain end."

World War One played a decisive role in the generalization of exceptional executive [governamentali] apparatuses in England as well. Indeed, immediately after war was declared, the government asked parliament to approve a series of emergency measures that had been prepared by the relevant ministers, and they were passed virtually without discussion. The most important of these acts was the Defence of the Realm Act of August 4, 1914, known as DORA, which not only granted the government quite vast powers to regulate the wartime economy, but also provided for serious limitations on the fundamental rights of the citizens (in particular, granting military tribunals jurisdiction over civilians). The activity of parliament saw a significant eclipse for the entire duration of the war, just as in France. And in England too this process went beyond the emergency of the war, as is shown by the approval—on October 29, 1920, in a time of strikes and social tensions—of the Emergency Powers Act. Indeed, Article 1 of the act stated that

“if at any time it appears to His Majesty that any action has been taken or is immediately threatened by any persons or body of persons of such a nature and on so extensive a scale as to be calculated, by interfering with the supply and distribution of food, water, fuel, or light, or with the means of locomotion, to deprive the community, or any substantial portion of the community, of the essentials of life, His Majesty may, by proclamation (hereinafter referred to as a proclamation of emergency), declare that a state of emergency exists.”

Article 2 of the law gave His Majesty in Council the power to issue regulations and to grant the executive the "powers and duties…necessary for the preservation of the peace," and it introduced special courts ("courts of summary jurisdiction") for offenders. Even though the penalties imposed by these courts could not exceed three months in jail ("with or without hard labour"), the principle of the state of exception had been firmly introduced into English law.

The place—both logical and pragmatic—of a theory of the state of exception in the American constitution is in the dialectic between the powers of the president and those of Congress. This dialectic has taken shape historically (and in an exemplary way already beginning with the Civil War) as a conflict over supreme authority in an emergency situation; or, in Schmittian terms (and this is surely significant in a country considered to be the cradle of democracy), as a conflict over sovereign decision.

The textual basis of the conflict lies first of all in Article 1 of the constitution, which establishes that "the Privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it" but does not specify which authority has the jurisdiction to decide on the suspension (even though prevailing opinion and the context of the passage itself lead one to assume that the clause is directed at Congress and not the president). The second point of conflict lies in the relation between another passage of Article 1 (which declares that the power to declare war and to raise and support the army and navy rests with Congress) and Article 2, which states that "the President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States."

Both of these problems reach their critical threshold with the Civil War (1861–1865). Acting counter to the text of Article 1, on April 15, 1861, Lincoln decreed that an army of seventy-five thousand men was to be raised and convened a special session of Congress for July 4. In the ten weeks that passed between April 15 and July 4, Lincoln in fact acted as an absolute dictator (for this reason, in his book Dictatorship, Schmitt can refer to it as a perfect example of commissarial dictatorship. On April 27, with a technically even more significant decision, he authorized the General in Chief of the Army to suspend the writ of habeas corpus whenever he deemed it necessary along the military line between Washington and Philadelphia, where there had been disturbances. Furthermore, the president's autonomy in deciding on extraordinary measures continued even after Congress was convened (thus, on February 14, 1862, Lincoln imposed censorship of the mail and authorized the arrest and detention in military prisons of persons suspected of "disloyal and treasonable practices").

In the speech he delivered to Congress when it was finally convened on July 4, the president openly justified his actions as the holder of a supreme power to violate the constitution in a situation of necessity. "Whether strictly legal or not," he declared, the measures he had adopted had been taken "under what appeared to be a popular demand and a public necessity" in the certainty that Congress would ratify them. They were based on the conviction that even fundamental law could be violated if the very existence of the union and the juridical order were at stake ("Are all the laws but one to go unexecuted, and the Government itself go to pieces lest that one be violated?"

It is obvious that in a wartime situation the conflict between the president and Congress is essentially theoretical. The fact is that although Congress was perfectly aware that the constitutional jurisdictions had been transgressed, it could do nothing but ratify the actions of the president, as it did on August 6, 1861. Strengthened by this approval, on September 22, 1862, the president proclaimed the emancipation of the slaves on his authority alone and, two days later, generalized the state of exception throughout the entire territory of the United States, authorizing the arrest and trial before courts martial of "all Rebels and Insurgents, their aiders and abettors within the United States, and all persons discouraging volunteer enlistments, resisting militia drafts, or guilty of any disloyal practice, affording aid and comfort to Rebels against the authority of the United States." By this point, the president of the United States was the holder of the sovereign decision on the state of exception.

According to American historians, during World War One President Woodrow Wilson personally assumed even broader powers than those Abraham Lincoln had claimed. It is, however, necessary to specify that instead of ignoring Congress, as Lincoln had done, Wilson preferred each time to have the powers in question delegated to him by Congress. In this regard, his practice of government is closer to the one that would prevail in Europe in the same years, or to the current one, which instead of declaring the state of exception prefers to have exceptional laws issued. In any case, from 1917 to 1918, Congress approved a series of acts (from the Espionage Act of June 1917 to the Overman Act of May 1918) that granted the president complete control over the administration of the country and not only prohibited disloyal activities (such as collaboration with the enemy and the diffusion of false reports), but even made it a crime to "willfully utter, print, write, or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of government of the United States."

Because the sovereign power of the president is essentially grounded in the emergency linked to a state of war, over the course of the twentieth century the metaphor of war becomes an integral part of the presidential political vocabulary whenever decisions considered to be of vital importance are being imposed. Thus, in 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt was able to assume extraordinary powers to cope with the Great Depression by presenting his actions as those of a commander during a military campaign:

“I assume unhesitatingly the leadership of this great army of our people dedicated to a disciplined attack upon our common problems.…I am prepared under my constitutional duty to recommend the measures that a stricken Nation in the midst of a stricken world may require.…But in the event that the Congress shall fail to take [the necessary measures] and in the event that the national emergency is still critical, I shall not evade the clear course of duty that will then confront me. I shall ask the Congress for the one remaining instrument to meet the crisis—broad Executive power to wage war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe.”

It is well not to forget that, from the constitutional standpoint, the New Deal was realized by delegating to the president (through a series of statutes culminating in the National Recovery Act of June 16, 1933) an unlimited power to regulate and control every aspect of the economic life of the country—a fact that is in perfect conformity with the already mentioned parallelism between military and economic emergencies that characterizes the politics of the twentieth century.

The outbreak of World War Two extended these powers with the proclamation of a "limited" national emergency on September 8, 1939, which became unlimited on May 27, 1941. On September 7, 1942, while requesting that Congress repeal a law concerning economic matters, the president renewed his claim to sovereign powers during the emergency: "In the event that the Congress should fail to act, and act adequately, I shall accept the responsibility, and I will act … The American people can … be sure that I shall not hesitate to use every power vested in me to accomplish the defeat of our enemies in any part of the world where our own safety demands such defeat." The most spectacular violation of civil rights (all the more serious because of its solely racial motivation) occurred on February 19, 1942, with the internment of seventy thousand American citizens of Japanese descent who resided on the West Coast (along with forty thousand Japanese citizens who lived and worked there).

President Bush's decision to refer to himself constantly as the "Commander in Chief of the Army" after September 11th, 2001, must be considered in the context of this presidential claim to sovereign powers in emergency situations. If, as we have seen, the assumption of this title entails a direct reference to the state of exception, then Bush is attempting to produce a situation in which the emergency becomes the rule, and the very distinction between peace and war (and between foreign and civil war) becomes impossible.

Copyright notice: Excerpt from pages 11-22 of State of Exception by Giorgio Agamben, translated by Kevin Attell, published by the University of Chicago Press. © 2004 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press.