The new fashion of Emergency Capitalism

The most successful fashion in strategy and governance of our time is the use of emergency.

As financial and production processes increase their speed and take place on ever larger scales, they distance themselves more and more from democratic procedures and their implementation requires increasingly frequent and disruptive emergency procedures.

The mechanism accelerates in the 70s but already in 1940, in On the concept of history, Walter Benjamin wrote:

‘The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that is in keeping with this insight. Then we shall clearly realize that it is our task to bring about a real state of emergency, and this will improve our position in the struggle against Fascism’. 

In (2007), Naomi Klein coined the term ‘disaster capitalism’ with which she refers to a policy paradigm based on  privatization, government deregulation and deep cuts to social spending. Klein shows how global capitalism instrumentalizes disasters such as military coups, terrorist incidents, economic crises, wars, earthquakes, tsunamis, and hurricanes in order to advance its own agenda of creative destruction. Such disasters help to suspend public debate and suppress democratic practices and allow capitalists to exploit the window of opportunity opened by traumatic shocks.

The doctrine of emergency needs a culture of fear and a system of beliefs, values, and emotions to use as  ‘tools of government that come into being as a modus of population management deployed by military, political, and administrative actors’ (Linke & Smith, 2009: 5).
Emergency capitalism has three underlying causes.
1) The expansion of capitalism in time (increase in capital turnover)
2) The expansion of capitalism in space (globalization)
3) The progressive privatization of capital
Capitalism needs continuous expansion to survive. When this expansion occurs over time, it generates a high-speed society, when it occurs in space, it generates a globalized society.
The increase in the speed of production and consumption as an effect of the increase in capital turnover (Harvey, 1990) has generated a high-speed society. Strategic decisions require a speed that democratic processes do not allow.
The globalization of capital requires and entails the weakening of nation states and the exhaustion of politics by the market. This depreciation is facilitated by shocks and emergencies that justify the transfer of democratic sovereignty.
Manipulated reactions to catastrophes are facilitated by the propagation of alarmist messages of the media and catastrophic rhetoric (Furedi, 2018), deploying a securocratic language to emotionally mobilize popular support to programmatic agenda conducive to large-scale transformations in the world order (Linke & Smith, 2009).
The two most iconic examples of emergency capitalism are the war on terror following 9/11 and the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the post-9/11 ‘the Bush administration outsourced, with no public debate, many of the most sensitive and core functions of government – from providing health care to soldiers, to interrogating prisoners, to gathering and data mining information on all of us’ (Klein, 2007: 12).
The USA Patriot Act enabled the government to suppress civil liberties and enhance the influence of the US military- and prison-industrial complexes. Mass surveillance and incarceration thus became the norm (Klein, 2007; Mendieta, 2011).
COVID-19 is another example of how emergency was weaponized against people and democracy.
As a response to the COVID-19 epidemic, governments have severely restricted the freedom of movement and have infringed upon private property and human rights to an unprecedented degree in peace times. Governments have decreed the forced closure of private businesses, such as kindergartens, schools, universities, restaurants, hotels, or retail stores and even private parks and gardens.
Through the emergency, global capitalism could even incapacitated anti-systemic forces through increased use of new surveillance technologies and enhanced social-distancing strategies. YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Google applied measures to block information against the mainstream version of facts, with the power to remove a Bolsonaro’s video and permanently suspend President Trump’s Twitter account.
According to Agamben the pandemic is a socially constructed phenomenon, which helps governments to create a state of exception that justifies extraordinary measures, impossible to implement under normal circumstances.
Agamben claimed that governments purposefully exaggerated the risks of the pandemic in order to implement new social control devices and methods (Agamben, 2020).
Emergency is used to design ‘fast-forward historical processes’(Harari, 2020). In economic terms it is an artificial creation of demand and in military terms it is an extension of what in war is the concept of ‘just cause’ for which a war is only just if it is fought for a reason that is justified, and that carries sufficient moral weight.
Agamben, G. (2020). The invention of an epidemic.  European Journal of Psychoanalysis. Retrieved from
Benjamin, W. (1940). The concept of History, in
Furedi, F. (2018). How fear works: Culture of fear in the twenty-first century. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.
Harvey, D. (1990). Between Space and Time: Reflections on the Geographical Imagination,
Annals of the Association of American Geographers, Vol. 80, No. 3 (Sep., 1990), Taylor & Francis, Ltd. 418-434.
Harary, Y. (2020) Yuval Noah Harari: the world after coronavirus, Financial Times, 20, March, 2020.
Klein, N. (2007). The shock doctrine: The rise of disaster capitalism. New York: Allen Lane.
Linke, U., & Smith, D. T. (2009). Fear: A conceptual framework. In U. Linke & D.T.Smith (Eds.), Cultures of Fear: A Critical Reader, 1-17. London: Pluto Press.
Mendieta, E. (2011). The politics of terror and the neoliberal military minimalist state: on the inheritance of 9-11. City, 15(3-4), 407-413


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