States of Emergency

States of Emergency

By David Runciman and Catherine Carr

David talks to Lea Ypi in Berlin and Helen Thompson in London about the various states of emergency that have been declared around the world. We discuss the theory and practice of emergency political powers: When are they justified? How can they be legitimated? When should they end? Plus we explore what the history of Roman dictatorship can teach us about the present crisis and we ask what it means when elections start getting cancelled.

Talking Points:

As COVID spreads, it is ushering in states of political emergency—everywhere.

Can we distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate emergency powers?States of emergency are, by definition, outside of the rules. 

Historically, emergencies were supposed to be compatible with some form of rule by the people. 

A legitimate emergency needs to be a public, where the public is seen as non-factional.There also needs to be an existential threat to the political community.The nature of the regime is also important: the people need to authorize the emergency.When it comes to legitimate emergency powers, there are two important criteria: time limits and proportionality.

The classical Roman dictatorship was designed to meet the above criteria.

A dictator was not the same as a tyrant.Dictatorship facilitated speedy crisis response.The dictator was supposed to abdicate power as soon as he could. The dictator was an outsider. Today, emergency powers are being assumed by existing governments.

In this case, the emergency (and existential threat) concerns healthcare systems.

Once an emergency is called, the expansion of powers can be an emergency of its own.In the Roman republic, the dictator could suspend laws; he couldn’t create new ones. Today, particularly on the economic side, the government can act in completely unprecedented ways.

The real danger for representative democracy in this crisis is if consensus breaks down over how to deal with the emergency.

Popular legitimation requires that politics are contestable.Britain did suspend general elections during the war. But not during the Spanish flu.The United States has never suspended national elections.We are more invested in elections now because the franchise is much more expansive.

Does the emergency fade in and out as the disease comes and goes?

This might not be a one off thing.The longer the emergency lasts, and the more we do things differently, the harder it becomes to connect our pre-emergency lives to our post-emergency lives.Has this crisis blurred the lines between democracies and non-democracies? Or, perhaps, brought the blurring that already existed into sharper focus?

Mentioned in this Episode:

Britain’s Coronavirus ActLast week’s episode with Hans Kundnani Fukuyama’s article for The Atlantic

Further Learning: 

Our episode with Tom Holland on the Roman RepublicLea’s op ed for the Guardian <a...
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