Sovereigns except themselves from their own laws.

According to Agamben certain norms nowadays are utilized by states in emergency circumstances in order to take control of chaos. During a chaos, the idea is to allow sovereigns to be excluded from their own laws. This allows the state to declare suspension to certain functions or rights during emergencies.  This can also be utilized to suspend rights and freedoms, even if the rights and freedoms were guaranteed by the Charter of Rights. For instance in Canada we have the Emergencies Act which permits to take unusual measures for a small period of time during national crises. However, this act can be utilized for a certain time, sometimes for 90 days. For instance during the notorious FLQ crisis, the state amended certain rights. Additionally during World War I, when the threat of communism was a problem in Canada, rights were also suspended and in World War II, when the Japanese Canadians were regarded as a threat. States of exception come into being when the nation is under threat. Additional, legal subjects are considered to have rights that enforce limits on the decisions of state power.

All individuals are subject to the law, but also subjects in the law. Sadly, only sovereign is he who decides on the exception and decides if the case is exceptional. Martial laws, states of emergency, War measures, declaration of disasters are ways in which a state of exception can come into being. These decisions are based on a claim to necessity. It suspends the rule of law for a certain period of time. Sovereign power is capable to function without restrictions of law, with comparative impunity.  Moreover, modern governments utilize the power to displace the rule of law in order to solve chaos.

Furthermore, individuals are stripped of legal status, civic and political rights becoming legally unclassifiable beings. Sovereign power relates to them as bare life because they are abandoned by law and exposed to sovereign violence. These individuals can be mutilated with impunity but not murdered. Bare life is treated as disposable. The idea is that these individuals are incorporated in the law and in the political community only through a relationship of exclusion. In short, legal statutes and norms may cease to have the force of law, while actions that have no legal content may obtain legal force.


Pavlich, G. (2011). Law & Society Redefined. Toronto: Oxford University Press.


1 Comment

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One response to “Sovereigns except themselves from their own laws.

  1. You begin by stating “According to Agamben certain norms nowadays are utilized by states in emergency circumstances in order to take control of chaos.”

    First, a question: what do you mean by ‘certain norms nowadays’? Is the state of exception a new phenomenon?

    Second, a point of clarification: While it is not unreasonable to say that states of exception are invoked during conditions of emergency, it would be more accurate (from a socio-legal perspective) to say that the invocation of a state of exception is the act that *defines* the emergency.

    You note that “States of exception come into being when the nation is under threat”.

    It is important to clarify your terms here. What do you mean by ‘the nation’? Do you mean ‘the current political regime’, or do you mean ‘the people of a country’? These are not the same thing. Historically, the declaration of emergencies has often reflected the efforts of political parties to retain and expand power.

    You write that individuals considered ‘bare life’ “can be mutilated with impunity but not murdered.” What do you mean by this?