Are there Exceptional States of Exception?

The “state of exception,” as interpreted from Agamben, is a status imposed by the ruling government body that fundamentally exempts it from their own rule of law. These states of exception usually occur in a state of emergency such as war (e.g., War Measures Act) but they can also occur in situations where governments have decided to utilize for more sinister means (e.g., Nazi laws targeting Jews). The legal status of subjects in a state of exception are that they realistically have no human status and as such, anyone can be regarded as an “outlaw” or in some cases, a simple less-than-human physical being that bears no dignity. One may be able to view the “state of exception” as a necessary mechanism incorporated into the sovereign ruling body’s constitution because it enables that ruling body to seize ultimate control over the decision-making process by streamlining crucial choices in emergency situations. The major disadvantage of this is that during the streamlining process, people’s individual rights are considered null and are therefore inevitably violated without regard.

A prime example of this is the War Measures Act, which was sanctioned by the Canadian government in WWI, WWII, and the October Crisis of 1970. The Act allowed for the federal government to seize ultimate control over its citizens and authorize its agents, in the form of the military and police, to mobilize in order to carry out any hastily planned orders. When the Act was initiated in 1970, the police and military were given full powers to conduct searches without cause on citizens, the intention being to discover and identify the terrorist members of the FLQ. In most cases, the argument can be made that the reasoning behind the “state of exception” is to temporarily quash citizens’ individual rights for the greater good of society as a whole by confronting national issues with the strongest response possible. Under this same ideology, the government can ironically be seen as protecting these people’s individual rights from being compromised permanently by enemy forces. Once that threat or issue is resolved, the government can reinstate individual rights once again.

Unfortunately, regimes have existed that abuse these ultimate powers such as the one in Nazi Germany during the 1930s-1940s. This state of exception came into being through coercion and persuasive nationalistic and racist doctrines. The Nazi government had imposed executive laws that essentially made it a crime to be Jewish, gypsy, homosexual, or opponents otherwise decided by the government. By criminalizing these beings over a period of years, the “state of exception” dangerously became the norm in German society, which then also became the norm in other countries as the Germans invaded and occupied more nations in WWII. When one was decided to belong to one of these “criminal” groups, they were stripped of citizenship and sent to jail, in the form of concentration camps. Because they were no longer considered citizens, these people were demoted to a subhuman status that only opened the legal opportunity for the Nazis to impose cruel and sadistic atrocities against them.

States of exception exist from precarious legislation that gives the government ultimate power over the people. In Canada, it can be argued that rights were temporarily suspended under the War Measures Act so that they could be preserved at a later time. In Nazi Germany, one could say that the motivation was to seize all power to impose a dictatorship of cult-like ideologies. The outcomes of such states are truly dependant on the motivation behind the ruling government’s rationale.


Pavlich, George. “Chapter 10.” Law & Society Redefined. Don Mills: Oxford UP, 2011. 152-166. Print.




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One response to “Are there Exceptional States of Exception?

  1. Good overview of the key concepts. Your discussion of whose interests are advanced and / or protected under a state of exception is engaging. When considering the ‘for the greater good’ justification for emergency powers, it is helpful to explore the historical context surrounding their application. During the 1970 October Crisis, for example, you note that the invocation of War Measures was intended to allow police and military agents to “discover and identify the terrorist members of the FLQ”. This fits with the ‘greater good’ and ‘necessity’ doctrines. But who was arrested during this time?

    Police made 497 arrests, which resulted in 62 charges. The majority of these persons had no affiliation with the FLQ, but were on government lists of radicals, separatists, and dissidents.

    The invocation of the Act, in this case, was justified on the basis of a very specific set of objectives, but it was used to achieve different and broader ends. This is not uncommon.

    What do you make of Agamben’s claim that the state of exception has become a paradigm of government?