Occupy Wall Street & the State of Exception

On Friday, September 30, 2011 the United States an­nounced it had leg­ally murdered two US cit­izens without due legal pro­cess in Yemen. The fol­lowing day, the po­lice kettled and ar­rested 700 anti-​corporate pro­testers who were marching peace­fully on the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City. Seemingly un­re­lated and spa­tially dis­tant from each other, these events non­ethe­less re­veal that the US cit­izens taking to the streets to chal­lenge the cap­it­alist looting of the com­mons are also con­fronting a state that has just de­clared that it can as­sas­sinate, without re­course to courts, cit­izens deemed hos­tile to the state.

The Bush administration’s aban­don­ment of due pro­cess to tor­ture and as­sas­sinate non-​citizens, al­legedly be­cause of the “ex­cep­tional” nature of the war on terror, is well doc­u­mented. Obama has now ex­tended this prin­ciple to US cit­izens by sus­pending the Fifth Amendment, the one that says “no person shall be de­prived of life, liberty, or prop­erty, without due pro­cess of law.” Further, Obama seems to have ordered to put an end to the tor­ture and rendi­tion of sus­pects under Bush so that those sus­pects could be ex­ecuted. This is an ex­traordinary turning point, for the murder of cit­izens without due pro­cess of law is now de­creed legal. The same way that for George Orwell the clearest ex­amples of au­thor­it­arian double-​speak under Big Brother were the slo­gans “war is peace” and “slavery is freedom,” now the motto under the Bush-​Obama paradigm is “ig­noring your con­sti­tu­tional rights is legal.” As Giorgio Agamben has ar­gued, this state of ex­cep­tion also defined the Nazi state, which in its twelve years of ex­ist­ence was under a con­sti­tu­tion sus­pended by Hitler in the name of de­fending the German na­tion. The polit­ical re­gimes of North America and Europe seem to be moving in a sim­ilar dir­ec­tion, ruled by con­sti­tu­tions that are re­cur­rently sus­pended be­cause the state of the ex­cep­tion, as Walter Benjamin once ar­gued, is no longer the ex­cep­tion but the rule.

“Imperial sov­er­eignty means that no point of space or time and no ele­ment of the bio-​political tissue is safe from in­ter­ven­tion” (Tiqqun, Introduction to Civil War, p. 157). The bio-​political tissue of US cit­izens was never safe from im­perial in­ter­ven­tion, yet this in­ter­ven­tion was at least partly reg­u­lated. In the 2007 film The Bourne Ultimatum, a secret CIA pro­gram is shut down, and its dir­ectors pro­sec­uted, when Jason Bourne re­vealed that its hit-​men had as­sas­sin­ated US cit­izens without due pro­cess. The movie, and its mes­sage of ac­count­ab­ility for state terror, rep­res­ents a paradigm of the past. The last obstacle that put limits to the reach of im­perial death squads, US cit­izen­ship rights, has been de­clared void. Now the bio-​political tissue of every single human being on the planet can be des­troyed with im­punity through an ex­ec­utive order based on clas­si­fied evidence.

This de-​facto dis­sol­u­tion of the dis­tinc­tion between cit­izens and non-​citizens also means that the very nature of the global geo­graphies under im­perial sov­er­eignty is shifting. In ex­tending the reach of the state of ex­cep­tion, im­perial form­a­tions are also cre­ating glob­al­ized polit­ical sub­jects that are equally vul­ner­able to state terror ir­re­spective of na­tion­ality. While im­perial vi­ol­ence con­tinues being ra­cial­ized and dir­ected largely at non-​white bodies, we are moving to­ward a paradigm of sov­er­eignty in which all human bodies on the planet are po­ten­tial ex­pres­sions of what Agamben calls “bare life,” bodies that can be killed without breaking the law.

This is a somber re­minder that the pro­testers on Wall Street are chal­len­ging not only cor­porate America but also a state that has fully em­braced the reg­ular use of death squads in the name of na­tional se­curity. As we know all too well, in the im­perial order of things the dif­fer­ence between non-​violent act­iv­ists and ter­ror­ists is often a ques­tion of lan­guage and la­bels, as was ap­parent when Joe Biden ar­gued that Julian Assange is a “high-​tech ter­rorist.” But the of­fi­cial an­nounce­ment this past Friday that the state of ex­cep­tion has entered a new polit­ical phase also con­firms what the Occupy Wall Street pro­testers have been saying all along: that or­dinary US cit­izens have been re­duced to a dis­em­powered un­der­class whose demo­cratic rights are re­cur­rently overrun, and made mean­ing­less, by the hi­jacking of the polit­ical system by cor­porate power. And that they have been in­spired by sim­ilar protests in Egypt and Spain re­veal that they see them­selves as part of a global mul­ti­tude striving for uni­versal forms of justice. The same way that the state of ex­cep­tion tends to equalize all hu­mans as po­ten­tial tar­gets ir­re­spective of their cit­izen­ship, the pro­testers on Wall Street are re­sponding in kind and em­bra­cing a more uni­versal polit­ical sub­jectivity, em­bodied in their slogan “We are the 99%.”

From Space and Politics

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