Law, Sovereign Power, and States of Exception

What possibilities for resistance exist for those whose status is that of homo sacer?  Put differently, is it possible for those who are subject to a state of exception and therefore cast outside of the sphere of ‘normal legality’ to resist sovereign power? If so, how?

Yes in answering the question of whether or not the homo sacer (basically someone who is banned, has no rights etc.) can resist sovereign power the answer would be yes. I do believe it is possible for the homo sacer to resist, however it depends on the situation and on the type of regime/government this individual (homo sacer) is under. For example last week in class, we talked about the men that were held in Canada in a jail for terrorism. I don’t remember the exact reasons why they were held, but in relation to this particular issue the individuals went on a hunger strike and basically said they were not going to eat until their case was resolved (these men were being held in jail without a charge and they could not know why they were being held or on what grounds). So this would be an example of a case where the homo sacer was able to resist sovereign power (through the means of a hunger strike which eventually made the government take action).

However I must say I do not feel that normally there is much of a chance for the homo sacer to resist. I believe most of the time where sovereign power problems like this occur, they occur in an undemocratic country. Because of this there is really no motivation for government to comply because the citizens already do not have a voice. In relation to what happened in Canada initially no one really protested the unjust locking up of these individuals without charges laid against them. This had to do with the moral panic that resulted from 9/11 and widespread fear of terrorism. So when these individual were held on supposed grounds of terrorism, no one really questioned the legitimacy until years after 9/11 had occurred and the hype had died down.

On a related note, if it is the exercise of sovereign power that creates the juridico-political space of the camp and places people into this space, how can people exit the camp? Is it possible for persons to move from the status of homo sacer to a ‘legal’ status, despite the decision of the sovereign? If so, what kind of power are they exercising?

For this twofold question I would answer no for both of them. To argue my point I am going to bring up the historical example of the Nazi concentrations camps. I would argue that it is impossible to exit the camp unless the sovereign is overthrown or changes the laws that make the individual a homo sacer (person without right). Again for the homo sacer, I do not believe it is possible for him to move from his current position into a legal status. In relation to exiting the camp I would think this would be highly unlikely. Again, only if the sovereign decided to change the laws keeping these people in the camp. If one is talking about exiting the camp if form of escape, this would possibly be possible. However even this is unlikely. Two summers ago I went on a holiday to Europe, while I was there I got to visit one of the old concentration camps from world war 2 (Dachau). During the tour, the question was brought up about why the prisoners did not rise up and try fight their way out. There were a number of reasons, torture, psychological abuse, and of course armed guards. One has to remember in relation to the concentration camps, these prisoners were exposed to (either directly or witnessed) brutal beatings, tortures, and the constant smell of ovens burning the bodies of those prisoners who died.  This all served as psychological means to keep these prisoners in check.

So basically, I do not see how it is possible to think it is possible for people to exit the camp, nor do I believe that they can get legal status, unless somehow the sovereign creates laws that define what exactly makes a homo sacer. Then I guess it can be argued that in some aspect they have legal status, in the sense that they are legally recognized as people with no rights.


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



Filed under Uncategorized

2 responses to “Law, Sovereign Power, and States of Exception

  1. This is a great post. Thanks. Your personal observations from your visit to Dachau are an important contribution. In relation to the possibility of resistance and ‘exiting the camp’, I would invite you to reconsider the conclusion that moving from a state of bare life to a state of legality can only be accomplished through the overthrow of the sovereign. I think that it is important to acknowledge the significance of popular consent in the maintenance of exceptional practices. While a political leader may be able to exercise sovereign power with impunity and despite massive and organized public opposition, in practice they tend to seek to manufacture consent for their actions. Resisting the state of exception may involve actions that undermine this consent, rather than direct confrontations with the force of (counter-)law. Perhaps it is not necessary to overthrow the sovereign completely (though this was certainly necessary in the context of the Nazi camps). Perhaps is is possible to exit the camp by undermining its legitimacy.

    • Yes, maybe it is possible to move from a state of bare life to a state of legality without overthrowing the sovereign. I did not really consider popular consent, however this is true. I do believe the sovereign will somehow convince the people of the need for consent. In a contemporary perspective, media has a huge impact and role in this. They often have the ability to make or break public opinion on many topics.