Carl Schmitt, Dictatorship,
The Restoration royalty referred to this sovereignty as a fundamentally unlimited power to do whatever the state of affairs required in the interests of national security without regard for the constitutional order that was supposedly preventing this.
There is no doubt that virologists, economists, financiers, international experts, and sociologists will study and analyze the history of the coronavirus pandemic for many years to come. But it is of no lesser interest for political philosophers and theorists of international relations, who every day discover more and more signs of the seemingly long buried specter of modernism with all its trappings, such as strictly guarded state borders, friend or foe divisions and, the prevalence of national sovereignty over international commitments, advancing upon our postmodernist present.
The coronavirus has confirmed what the world has been afraid to admit for several years: there are no global responses to global challenges. In the meantime, the national states, lulled by years of the illusory conviction that much of their responsibility can be shifted to the supranational or global organizations, have largely lost the capacity to guarantee their citizens security in a sovereign and, most importantly, efficient manner.
A lot of alarmist articles have been written to the effect that the European Union, the paragon of the world’s most profound supranational integration, has been unable to offer a consolidated response to the pandemic. Though not sharing the extreme points of view, this writer would like to note several factors that will certainly be of importance for the EUs future and the world at large, which is reverting to modernism and, in places, to hoary pre-modernism instead of providing a global postmodernist reply to the global challenge.
First, the EU seems to be in for a new spiral of the crisis of trust for supranational institutions. Given the rapidly spreading pandemic, we see the worst nightmares of Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron come to life within the EU, the epicenter of postmodernism, with the Schengen Agreement, suspended, internal and external migration stopped, and national states imposing the state of emergency and taking sovereign decisions based on their own governments’ estimates regarding the expediency or otherwise of restrictive measures. And yet, these measures are affecting the very core of individual sovereignty in a democratic state the right to free movement, the right to work, the right to healthcare, and the right to security. Moreover, the restrictions are being introduced by all Emmanuel Macron, Angela Merkel, Viktor Orban, and countless others and not just Europes chief sovereignty champions like Matteo Salvini, Marine Le Pen, or the same Viktor Orban, as the nightmares of the last few years presaged.
The EU countries are dividing citizens into friends and foes, allowing friends to come back and banning entry to the foes. The pandemic, which is undoubtedly a global challenge, is making even the most advanced EU countries oblivious of the need to provide treatment to all EU citizens regardless of where they are or fell ill. The priority of national identity has suddenly overshadowed European solidarity. Despite Ursula von der Leyens attempts to assure the Italians that LItalia non é sola, for many of them, her words have no more value than solidarity on migration that the previous head of the European Commission promised them in 2015. This only enhances appreciation for another partner, China, with whom Italy, contrary to all instructions from Brussels, signed a cooperation agreement in March 2019, and who has already sent it two aircraft with medicines and a team of medics.
Here and there, modernist nationalism is supplanted even by the pre-modernist parochial identity that victimizes strangers at home, be it Ukrainians returning home from abroad or residents of northern Italy, who met with a far from cordial reception in the south. Therefore, the first challenge the EU will have to face when the pandemic is over will be to explain to EU citizens why the EU institutions and the member-states are ready to meet many times to discuss global challenges (like migration, Russias or Chinas behavior, global warming, cyber security, etc.) but actually lack a decision-making mechanism and a collective response formula in a situation where the public is exposed to a real direct threat to their security and health.
The second point of fundamental importance is the relationship between the individual and state, which has suffered a dramatic transformation during the state of emergency. I am not referring only to the EU countries, but as advanced liberal democracies, they feel the change most acutely. Given the universal imposition of the state of emergency, they cannot but think back to the classical works of political theorists that analyzed this particular condition of states and societies in great detail. Specifically, one recalls the key points from Carl Schmitts Dictatorship focusing on the exercise of emergency authority. In particular, Schmitt distinguished between the legally organized, that is, limited, the exercise of sovereignty and the perpetually clandestine and basically unlimited substance of state omnipotence, which while it did impose upon itself restrictions by the strength of regular law, those were the restrictions related to what it saw as a normal state of affairs. But in abnormal circumstances or the state of siege, as Schmitt calls it, sovereignty is manifested as a fundamentally unlimited power to do whatever the state of affairs requires in the interests of national security. But these large powers require an extremely high level of public trust in the authorities. Obviously, liberal democracies are unlikely to be pleased with the “fundamentally unlimited power of the authorities. And this is the second challenge the EU states will have to respond to after the pandemic subsides.
Numerous comments in the social media suggest that far from all citizens in countries that introduced a state of emergency and a strict quarantine regard these measures as legitimate, given their negative impact on the economy and their own economic wellbeing. In Italy, for example, the authorities recorded 52,000 violations of the quarantine in just one week from March 11 to 18. As soon as the pandemic is over, the ratio of public trust in governments, peoples personal losses, and the efficiency of emergency measures will certainly be revised and the outcome is unlikely to be in favor of many current governments.
Today, everyday life for residents of many countries is reduced to what Giorgio Agamben described as bare life, a state where numerous restrictions hem in on peoples rights, thus enabling the sovereign to invade individual privacy. At present, many are ready to tolerate this because they feel that their lives are threatened and the public demand for tough measures seems fully justified. Moreover, they see the example of undemocratic China, which has managed to tame the virus quickly.
Under these circumstances, governments are faced with a latent dilemma. On the one hand, the tough measures, if proven effective, may become a factor legitimizing supporters of an iron hand. In some countries, this will certainly be perceived as an argument in favor of the extreme right and champions of sovereignty, who has long advocated the advent of a strong state. On the other hand, the fear of drastic actions may entail accusations of nonfeasance and also play into the hands of the rightists. Readiness to tolerate the non-transparency of the dark well of authority, where decision-making based on information to which ordinary citizens have no access is rapid and performed by a small group of people, may appear to some a reasonable price to be paid for their own security. The winner is always right, as the saying goes; this means that the political elites who manage to triumph over the pandemic will not be taken to task for using undemocratic methods.
But the main question (and trap) is how effectively a modern national state can guarantee security to its citizens. Is it able to operate in an extreme authority environment as reliably as a modernist state? Or has it largely lost the control skills that are vital in an emergency and is not ready to bear the transaction and resource costs involved? The picture of their desperate attempts to convince their own populations to obey the quarantine, their half-hearted moves to suspend air travel or close borders, and their inability to substantiate the principles of coronavirus testing, organize production and delivery of basic necessities, and eliminate the shortage of hospital beds suggests that today some states have long lost the knack for rapid mobilization of internal resources. But they will need an even more rapid mobilization to steer their countries out of the economic nosedive after the pandemic.
Third, the current crisis is exacerbating the issue of EUs global positioning. Can Brussels offer the world common responses to global challenges if it demonstrates its non-competitiveness in comparison with EU member-states? Or will the pandemic expose the fragility of postmodernism and make the world admit that there is no global response to global challenges? That the world has come apart and is now an assemblage of mirror fragments, each of which reflects a part of reality? That today, the structures of modernism, specifically the national state, are more efficient security-wise than the structure of postmodernism, viz. the supranational and global organizations? Will supranational integration be able to offer national states an effective solution to the problem of restoring economic ties after the pandemic?
The future of this resuscitated modernism (or is it neo-modernism?) seems to be dependent on many factors, but first and foremost, on how long the national states will have to fight the pandemic single-handedly and what successes they will achieve in the process. No wonder some people in Europe are already comparing the pandemic to World War II, and this probably means that Europe will need a second Yalta and new agreements on how to organize the afterlife once the pandemic is over.