This article was originally written for TeleSUR English.
Last week, the Governor of Missouri declared a state of emergency and deployed the National Guard to the St Louis suburb of Ferguson to quell a fortnight of civil unrest following the police murder of the unarmed black teenager Michael Brown. It was the first time since the Los Angeles riots of 1992, after the severe police beating of another black man, Rodney King, and the Battle of Seattle during the WTO trade negotiations seven years later, that the army had been called in to restore public order within US borders.
But while images of phalanxes of militarized riot police firing teargas and rubber bullets at mostly peaceful protesters have captured the attention of the world, the media circus surrounding the “riot” actually risks obscuring a largely unseen everyday reality that simmers just beneath the surface. For African Americans, the real racist violence resides not in the spectacle but in the mundane; not in the headlines but in between. As Walter Benjamin so pointedly observed at the height of the persecution in Nazi Germany, “the tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of exception’ in which we live is the rule.”
It should be clear by now that the Ferguson riots do not appear in a political vacuum. The militarization of police, the institutionalization of racism, the criminalization of the poor, the systematic marginalization of African Americans and other minorities, the rampant intensification of historical patterns of inequality, the spatial segregation along the lines of class and color, the impunity with which the forces of the law kill, maim and humiliate the dispossessed — these are all symptoms of a series of political and economic trends, some long-term and historical, others more recent.
Clearly, then, what happens in Ferguson does not stay in Ferguson — and the state of emergency declared by Governor Nixon merely serves to highlight a social emergency that has been quietly brewing for decades. Faced with a long, grinding history of racist oppression on the one hand, going back to the days of slavery and segregation, and a more recent pattern in police militarization and economic marginalization on the other, Ferguson has as much to do with long-established patterns of white supremacism and racist policing as it has with the consequences of state power and the neoliberal imaginary run amok.
A Global and Permanent State of Exception
It is precisely in this confluence of temporalities that the state of emergency reveals its true colors. Walter Benjamin, before meeting his tragic end as a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, insisted repeatedly upon the centrality of the Ausnahmezustand, or ‘state of exception’, to sovereign power. Today, the most influential theorist of the concept is the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, who — building on the adage by the Nazi thinker Carl Schmitt: “sovereign is he who decides upon the state of exception” — has crafted a refined analysis and a dystopian vision of the myriad ways in which the state of exception has become not just a technique of government, but its very logic.
“Faced with the unstoppable progression of what has been called a ‘global civil war’,” Agamben writes, “the state of exception tends increasingly to appear as the dominant paradigm of government in contemporary politics [and] has today reached its maximum worldwide deployment.” From Fallujah to Ferguson, the similarities run deeper than the military attire or the heavy weaponry of the troops on the ground. Both places appear at a threshold of indistinction between law and lawlessness, order and disorder — a space of anomie in which human life exists largely at the mercy of the soldiers and policemen who effectively act as a sovereign power upon it.
Here, in this permanent and globalized state of exception, the classical division between public and private increasingly begins to blur. In Fallujah, private contractors were brought in to keep public order, while the US military — at the expense of the public debt — made sure to protect private interests around the clock. In Ferguson, private property is protected from looting while the public is shot at even while standing on their private porches. America wastes public money waging foreign wars for private gain, while at the same time allowing private interests to directly fund local police departments — now armed with the surplus weaponry of these same wars — to maintain public order at home. Security becomes the overarching concern of government, even as government almost always defers to private interests in slashing security when it is social.
Between Democracy and Absolutism
One of the key features of neoliberal governmentality, then, is that it insists on combining a politics of absolute liberalism in world markets with an increasingly authoritarian paradigm in national government. Even as capital flows freely across borders, rivers of migrants and refugees are either blocked and diverted or dammed and detained. Even as the barriers to global commerce are smashed with a religious zealotry reminiscent of the early crusaders, new walls are erected everywhere to keep out the dark-skinned and the poor. Even as liberal “visionaries” press for universal integration, the global reality remains one of systematic exclusion. Where wealth concentrates in ever fewer hands, where gated communities mushroom amidst the squalor of a planet of slums, the vaunted “democracy” of the global marketplace finally meets the totalitarian ambitions of the nation state. “The state of exception,” Agamben writes, “appears as the threshold of indeterminacy between democracy and absolutism.”
Given this growing indeterminacy between democracy and absolutism, war and peace, order and disorder, it should perhaps not come as a surprise that the events in Ferguson have resonated so strongly in a faraway occupied warzone like Gaza, where the absolutism of Israeli sovereignty is brutally brought down on life — to the point where Israel has even determined the exact allowed calorie intake for the strip’s 1.6 million inhabitants: 2.279 per day, to be precise. Of course, Ferguson is not Gaza (at least not yet), but there is an undeniable resonance between the two struggles, and it is not limited to Palestinian solidarity tweets for Ferguson protesters or practical advise on how to deal with tear gas and advancing police lines.
Much more than this, Palestinian/African American solidarity is the explicit subaltern expression of a recognition that not only the struggle but also the enemy is common. From the brand of tear gas to the assault tactics of the riot squads, Gaza and Ferguson are closer than many would feel comfortable to admit. Investigations have revealed that US law enforcement maintains close ties with its Israeli counterparts, and two of the four police forces deployed to Ferguson received their training in crowd control in Israel. Running an occupation is serious business, and US police departments have much to learn from their Israeli counterparts if they are to maintain America’s internal spaces of segregation in an era of deepening inequalities and growing racial tensions.
The Ghetto as an Open-Air Prison Camp
For Agamben, the state of exception finds its topological expression in the camp, which “delimits a space in which the normal order is de facto suspended and in which whether or not atrocities are committed depends not on law but on the civility and ethical sense of the police who temporarily act as sovereign.” For those on the wrong side of the war on terror, the camps are called Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay. For African Americans, the camp is prison — or, increasingly often, the labor camp. If current incarceration trends continue, one in three black males born today can expect to spend at least part of their lives behind bars. While only 12 percent of the US population is black, African American males make up 40 percent of the total 2.1 million prison population. More black men are in prison today than were enslaved before the Civil War in 1850.
As the state of exception becomes generalized, however, the boundaries between inside and outside begin to blur and the two gradually blend into one another. Bit by bit, the logic of the camp spills over into society at large. Gaza, which has been described even by UK Prime Minister David Cameron as an open-air prison camp, is perhaps the clearest contemporary expression of this phenomenon. But similar (though much less extreme) processes are afoot in the US and elsewhere, as spatial segregation becomes the hallmark of the neoliberal urban geography. Today, the ghettos of Detroit and the outer neighborhoods of St Louis, like the townships of Johannesburg and the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, increasingly take on the form of open-air prison camps, in which the police permanently act as temporary sovereign, and in which poor blacks — and male youths in particular — are simply considered free game for the racist fantasies of white officers.
Patterns of Neoliberal Segregation
The contemporary nature of the ghetto and the slum as open-air prison camps is closely connected to deepening patterns of racial inequality and spatial segregation. Far from abolished, in many respects segregation — cultural and material alike — has only deepened as a result of the neoliberal restructuring of the economy. Not coincidentally, the state of Missouri, the city of St Louis and especially its restive suburb of Ferguson are among the clearest examples of these patterns of neoliberal apartheid in the US today. In 1970, only 1 percent of Ferguson’s inhabitants was black. By 2010, that share had risen to nearly 70 percent. The transformation of the town’s racial composition can be ascribed to a white exodus — partly the result of a collapse of the working class as a result of de-industrialization, with white workers moving away from the Midwest “Rustbelt”; and partly the result of an influx of cheap credit drawing a seemingly upwardly mobile white middle class out towards the suburbs.
As housing prices fell, black residents moved into the neighborhood, and pre-established local inequalities (between rental homes and self-owned properties, for instance) were only further accentuated. Meanwhile, the taxable base of local government eroded, leading to reduced budgets for public services and law enforcement. The Ferguson police department, of course, remained almost exclusively white, with obvious consequences for the black newcomers in the neighborhood: according to FBI data, 92 percent of people arrested in Ferguson on charges of “disorderly conduct” are black, while African Americans account for 86 percent of all vehicle stops. Far from protecting the peace, undertrained and overarmed police officers now consider it their job to keep a marginalized population in check through continuous harassment and accusations of petty crime. These are all mechanisms of social control.
In neoliberal America, questions of race and class have thus become nearly impossible to disentangle, and it is precisely at the intersection of the two that the neoliberal counterrevolution has struck African American families extra hard. Economic data shows that the gap in household income between blacks and whites has not been reduced since the end of de jure segregation in the 1950s and 1960s, while wealth disparities have only been deepened by the housing crisis of 2007-’08 and the subsequent recession, which affected African American households particularly badly (not least as a result of the racial profiling in Wall Street’s predatory lending practices). Today, 45 percent of black children grow up in areas of concentrated poverty, and the schools they attend are more segregated than they were in 1980. As class disparities are accentuated, so are the deeply intermeshed racial inequalities.
The Destituent Power of a Political Riot
For African Americans, therefore, the state of emergency has always been a permanent one — it did not start with the shooting of Michael Brown and it certainly will not end with Governor Nixon withdrawing the National Guard from Ferguson. What is different this time around is that the people rose up in defiance of the police murder of yet another young black man, and chose to answer the legal violence of the subsequent police crackdown with an extra-legal violence of their own. Suddenly, their mundane acts of everyday resistance coalesced into a collective act of refusal, giving rise to a political riot. And it is precisely this combination of broad-based peaceful protest with a refusal to respect the violence of the law that has instilled such fear in the halls of power.
The reason the authorities fear Ferguson is, first and foremost, the risk of “contagion” (or what we would call resonance). As the Rodney King riots of 1992 showed, a single spark can quickly set ablaze the dessicated prairies of America’s supposedly post-racial urban constellation. But there is a deeper reason why the authorities fear Ferguson, which is that sovereign power — which stands at once within and without the legal framework, capable of both enforcing and suspending the rule of law — cannot tolerate the existence of a pure form of violence outside the law. As Walter Benjamin noted in his Critique of Violence, “the existence of violence outside the law, as pure immediate violence, furnishes proof that revolutionary violence, the highest manifestation of unalloyed violence by man, is possible.” The fear, then, is that this local uprising could reveal a latent revolutionary potential in the very belly of the beast.
But even if this revolutionary potential is never fully realized, the movement towards it does appear to embody what Agamben would call a form of destituent power — a power that stands completely outside the law and that, by acting to dismantle sovereign power rather than to reform it, has the capacity to diminish the ability of the state to resort to violence and, in the final analysis, to abolish the cycle of law-making and law-preserving violence altogether. “On the breaking of this cycle maintained by mythical forms of law,” Water Benjamin once wrote, still full of hope, “on the suspension of law with all the forces on which it depends as they depend on it, finally therefore in the abolition of state power, a new historical epoch is founded.”
If we are to follow this line of analysis, the supposed “violence” of the Ferguson protests — which absolutely pales in comparison to the violence of finance capital and the state — may yet prove to be highly productive. And while the idea of a “pure” violence outside the law may sound ominous to some, we should remember that the urban riot, for all its seemingly irrational destruction and spectacular evanescence, has historically been a great force for progress. What we now call democracy would not have been possible without it. Indeed, in times of great injustice and institutional deadlock, when the violence of the law drowns out the voice of the oppressed, few things could be more welcome than the destituent power of a political riot to help recalibrate the scales of justice. This, at least, is how it starts. What happens in Ferguson does not stay in Ferguson.