The State of Exception and Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal”

Select an example or case study that fits the definition of a state of exception. This can be from any historical period, and any location. Your post should:

  1. Provide an introduction to the case study / example
  2. Explain how this case study / example demonstrates the exercise of sovereign power and the creation of a state of exception (drawing on concepts from Pavlich’s chapter)
  3. Explain how this exercise of sovereign power was justified rhetorically through an appeal to necessity

State of Exception:

Giorgio Agamben, an Italian philosopher, is widely known for his critique of sovereign power. State of Exception, Agamben’s third volume in a series also comprising of his 1998 Homo Sacer and 1995 Remnants of Auschwitz,  investigated the increase of power structures governments employ in supposed times of crisis.  Within these times of crisis, Agamben refers to increased extension of power as states of exception, where questions of citizenship and individual rights can be diminished, superseded and rejected in the process of claiming this extension of power by a government  (Lentin, n,d.). Agamben states that through the state of exception, “the sovereign ‘creates and guarantees the situation’ that the law needs for its validity-and this circularity characterizes not only extreme regimes, but also the voluntary creation of a permanent state of emergency which has become one of the essential practices of contemporary states… This involves, on the one hand, the extension of the military authority’s wartime powers into the civil sphere, and on the other, the suspension of constitutional norms that protect individual liberties” (Lentin, n.d.).

As stated by Agamben, the state of exception or state of emergency has “become a paradigm of government today” (Raulff, 2004). He stated that the concept was “originally understood as something extraordinary, an exception, which should have validity only for a limited period of time, but a historical transformation has made it the normal form of governance…The state of exception establishes a hidden but fundamental relationship between law and the absence of law” (Raulff, 2004).

The New Deal:

“The Wall Street Boom of the 1920’s produced a season of euphoria”, one where people firmly believed a New Era was emerging and that poverty would soon be vanished forever from society (Schlesinger, 2003). However, according to Arthur Schlesinger, the stock market crash in October 1929 had instead, “exposed the New Era as a mirage” (2003). Schlesinger explains that although Americans had experienced many depressions before, they had never experienced anything like the great depression that followed the Wall Street Crash. He explains that by 1932, “a quarter of the labour force was looking desperately  for work; the gross domestic product was cut in half; the banking system was on the brink of collapse; private charity and local relief were overcome by the rising flood of the unemployed” (2003). In his book, The Coming of the New Deal 1933-1935, Arthur Schlesinger quotes President Franklin Roosevelt during his speech on March 4, 1933 when he stated: “This nation asks for action, and action now…We must act, and act quickly…In this dedication of a Nation we humbly ask the blessing of God. May He protect each and every one of us. May He guide me in the days to come” (2003).

Roosevelt’s speech set up his platform for gaining public support regarding a “state of exception.” As discussed during class, political leaders often try to gain political support, although it is not needed, before obtaining extreme sovereign power and creating a state of exception during a declared state of emergency. Roosevelt did not need permission from the public to declare a state of emergency, for as the President of the United States he already held the power to do so on his own. However, by gaining public support he not only was able to declare an emergency without revolt from society, but was in fact deeply praised for his actions.  It was stated that several days after his infamous speech, people wrote in to the White House saying “It was the finest thing this side of heaven”; and “Your human feeling for all of us in your address is just wonderful,” with many praising Roosevelt like they would to God himself (Schlesinger, 2003).

However, conversely it was also noted that Eleanor Roosevelt called the inauguration “very very solemn and a little terrifying… because when Franklin got to that part of his speech when he said it might become necessary for him to assume powers ordinarily granted to a President in war time, he received his biggest demonstration” (2003).

The New Deal was shorthand for a host of government programs introduced by Roosevelt between 1933 and 1938. The phrase itself originates in Roosevelt’s acceptance speech at the Democratic convention in Chicago, in which he promised “a new deal for the American people” (Cornwell, 2008). Carl Schmitt, a German legal theorist, once stated : “Sovereign is he who controls the exception” (Horton, 2007). Under the New Deal, the federal government proved its sovereign power by greatly extending its power over the economy. Many of the reforms of the 1930s remain embedded in policy today: acreage allotments, price supports and marketing controls in agriculture, extensive regulation of private securities, federal intrusion into union-management relations, government lending and insurance activities, the minimum wage, national unemployment insurance, Social Security and welfare payments, production and sale of electrical power by the federal government, fiat money, and so on.  Industry was virtually nationalized under Roosevelt’s National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933 (Higgs, 1995). Although the New Deal helped many Americans get through the depression, it was a crucial turning point in the history of the U.S. government for politics had never before been so involved in, or exerted more control over, the daily lives of regular Americans (Cornwell, 2008).

Franklin Roosevelt’s exercise of sovereign power was justified rhetorically through an appeal to necessity during his famous inauguration speech as previously mentioned above. The public support he acquired most definitely assisted with many parts of the New Deal to be passed without much scrutiny. According to Stephen Humphrey’s, “Roosevelt’s words in this context are illustrative: ‘I shall ask the Congress for the one remaining instrument to meet the crisis – broad Executive power to wage war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe’(2006).



Cornwell, R. (2008, September 17). The Big Question: What was Roosevelt’s New Deal, and is something like it needed today?. The Independent. Retrieved December 3, 2013, from

Higgs, R. (1995). How FDR Made the Depression Worse. Mises Institute, 13(2). Retrieved December 3, 2013, from

Horton, S. (2007, July 1). State of exception: Bush’s war on the rule of law.(George W. Bush). Harper’s Magazine, p 81.

Humphreys, S. (2006). Legalizing Lawlessness: On Giorgio Agamben’s State of Exception. European Journal of International Law, 17(3), 677-687. Retrieved December 3, 2013, from

Lentin, R. (n.d.). Racial State, State of Exception. State of Nature. Retrieved December 3, 2013, from

Raulff, U. (2004). Interview with Giorgio Agamben. hein online. Retrieved December 3, 2013, from

Schlesinger, A.M. (2003). The coming of the New Deal, 1933-1935. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.


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One response to “The State of Exception and Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal”

  1. Fascinating post. Your analysis emphasizes Agamben’s argument that the state of exception has become a paradigm of government. When you think about it, just about every prime minister and president over the last century has made a point of publicly declaring that “we are living in extraordinary times”. Indeed, the perceived ability to be able to handle emergencies and uncertainty well has come to be regarded as a core qualification for political leadership.