Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Emergency Powers Under Crises

One of Japan's conservative activist organizations is pushing for a constitutional revision that would insert an "emergency clause" that allows suspension of the nation's constitution during emergency situations:
Conservative group behind pro-constitutional amendment petition collecting. The Mainichi, may 4, 2016,
The conservative activist organization Nippon Kaigi (Japan Conference) is behind a pro-constitutional amendment group's campaign for 10 million signatures to call for changes in Japan's pacifist Constitution.  The group decided that the establishment of an "emergency clause" that will allow the suspension of the constitutional system -- including the guarantee of human rights and separation of powers -- in times of major disasters and emergency situations will be the key issue.
I am excerpting from my new book, Crisis Communications, Liberal Democracy and Ecological Sustainability my discussion of how emergency powers have worked to erode democracy in the US, framed with some thoughts about how centralized power (i.e., sovereignty) is introduced through legitimations of "exceptions" to democratic rule:

The Italian social philosopher Giorgio Agamben points out that sovereignty in the modern era is most aptly dramatized by the power of decision that emerges under conditions of crisis.[i] He describes sovereignty as arising from the decision to deny individuals full recognition of their rights, a kind of exclusion smuggled into democratic government.

There is little doubt that rights foundational to liberal democratic government, and encoded constitutionally, can be sacrificed during times of crisis. Indeed, many if not most governments in the world have exceptions built into their constitutions that afford executives inordinate emergency decision-making power.

For example, fifty-three states of emergency have been declared by US presidents since 1976 when the US passed the National Emergencies Act and the majority of these declarations remain in effect.[ii]

As of 2014, President Barack Obama had declared nine emergencies, allowed one to expire and extended 22 emergencies enacted by his predecessors.”[iii]

These Executive Orders afford the president’s office special powers, including the capacities to declare martial law, seize property, call up the National Guard, censor sensitive information, and fire military officers, among other discretionary powers.

Although state of emergency has been normalized in law, the disruptions in daily living caused by officially recognized crises provide insight into how the systematic dispossession of liberal rights – especially those of personhood, property and the pursuit of happiness - can occur under late neoliberal capitalism.

The emergency powers enable under crises enable decision makers to avoid acknowledging the full scope of problems by delaying and censoring information, by increasing regulatory exposure levels, and by failing to prosecute clear wrong-doings and prevent similar catastrophes in the future.


[i] Giorgio Agamben, Means Without Ends: Notes on Politics V. Binetti and C. Casarino, Trans. (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, 2000). 32-33.

[ii] Gregory Korte, “Special Report: America’s Perpetual State of Emergency,” USA Today, October 23, 2013, accessed October 23, 2014,

[iii] Ibid.


  1. Do you think it could be used to restart more reactors and build more reactors mania? They do need to have a radical approach to Fukushima.

  2. It we be good to have an emergency referendum on Fukushima but the psychos would never allow it.

  3. There is this craving for power. We all have those moments, but for those in positions of power, or better positions of authority, the urge easily gets out of control. They like the ease of an emergency when they can push down the gas pedal and speed through the night of chaos. It is their addiction.


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