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Theses Doctoral

The Politics of Emergencies: War, Security and the Boundaries of the Exception in Modern Emergency Powers

Zuckerman, Ian Roth

The chapters in this dissertation all explore a single set of questions, applying them to a variety of different historical and political contexts. The questions are: how are exceptional emergencies distinguished from quotidian political events? What is the vision of political "normalcy" in relation to which a state of exception can be declared, and in light of which the legitimate ends of exceptional, emergency powers defined? How do the background conceptions that define an "emergency" also shape the political dynamics of emergency powers? As I argued in chapter one, these questions push beyond the two predominant approaches in the contemporary literature: the first was the "naïve realist" view that emergencies have a self-evident, objective character, so that identifying an event as an "emergency" is a straightforward matter of accurately perceiving some factual state of affairs. The second was the decisionist or "deconstructive" view, which argues that emergencies can never be identified or verified factually, but rather are constituted independently of any "facts," for example by a valid legal procedure for declaring a state of emergency, or by a sovereign decision on the exception. Neither of these two approaches, however, can provide us with an adequate account of the politics of emergencies, that is, the sense in which the definition of what counts as an emergency can be a dynamic arena of persuasion, justification and conflict, not only over the temporary consequences of emergency powers, but over the identity and content of normalcy as well. Distinguishing between normalcy and a state of emergency is not just a matter of perception (as in the realist account) or decision (in the skeptical account); it is also, crucially, an act of interpretation and a process of political judgment, where the determination of an emergency is at the same time an evaluative claim about the identity of political normalcy. In other words, the definition of what counts as an emergency is simulations a way of defining what is the state of affairs that is being threatened, which also implies a judgment about the value of preserving a state of affairs that would justify exceptional measures. Thus, while the realist approach obscures this political realm of interpretation and judgment by reducing the definition of to a self-evident determination of facts, the skeptical approach dissolves the concrete political content and stakes of the definition of emergencies by abstracting and isolating the subjective decision on the exception from the broader ideological or normative context that determines whether such a decision will be considered authoritative, or legitimate. Thus, the historical and contextual approach adopted in these chapters is motivated by two basic theoretical claims of the dissertation: first, that the definition of what counts as an emergency is neither a self-evident fact nor the product of an unconstrained decision, but is constructed through a set of background assumptions and political judgments about the identity and value of normality. Secondly, the different ways that emergencies are defined and understood play a decisive role in shaping the political outcomes of emergency powers, so that for example the same institutional framework of emergency powers may produce very different political outcomes as the underlying conception of an emergency shifts. The first section of this dissertation, comprising the first three chapters, explore these questions through an interrogation of theoretical literatures: the first through an interrogation of twentieth century and contemporary works on emergency powers, the second through modern republican thought and the third through theories of modern constitutionalism. The final three chapters focus more narrowly on a case study: the transformation of legal and political theories of emergency powers in the United States. Chapter 4 analyzes 19th century theories of martial law; Chapter 5 looks at the theme of emergency and security during the New Deal period, and Chapter 6 investigates how the 20th Century concepts of War Powers and National Security impacted the idea of emergency powers.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Political Science
Thesis Advisors
Cohen, Jean Louise
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
February 1, 2012