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On crisis and statecraft

The polity can be understood as a system of rules. An architecture that consists of tacit and explicit codes that govern, regulate, frame, or otherwise influence the behaviour and expected role of their subjects. The polity is a superstructure of rules with a global or local scope: those that apply to particular cases and those that perform a foundational function of delineating the scope of other rules.

Humans institute their polity in pursuit of a set of ends. The midpoint or common denominator of all rules within each given scope is the scenario, narrative, idea, phenomenon that compels, determines, or informs the process of polity-institution in its totality or in parts thereof.

This object of reference has to be interpreted as external to the process of institution. It has to be independent of the conventions that establish the polity. Otherwise it could simply be ruled out of existence.

Such an immanent external alterity can be typically understood as the need to live in peace and security, to afford a comfortable life, ensure the continuation of the species and the given culture, and so on. Rules do not exist in the absence of such a counter-force to human convention. The polity as a whole or in its parts is neither a-contextual nor decontextualisable. There is no such thing as a polity in abstract.

Couched in those terms, a crisis may be assessed as a challenge to the established guiding narrative and the secondary narratives derived therefrom. It calls for a grand review: to appreciate anew the way the polity is designed, be it in its general form or particular facets thereof. A crisis triggers a process of re-institution.

For statecraft—the art of governance and state-formation or state-institution—a crisis does not necessarily entail a net loss of some sort. It rather offers a turning point, a unique opportunity to re-imagine and re-draw rules that were theretofore perceived as sacrosanct.

A state apparatus can use a crisis as a pretext for concentrating power at the political centre, the top of the hierarchy. It can use it as a means or excuse to pass reforms that would otherwise seem disproportionate and tyrannical.

Evaluations on the qualitative features of rules are always contingent on their midpoint: how severe the object of reference—the external alterity—is thought to be and what must subsequently be done to cope with it.

A crisis forces one to think in terms of “whatever it takes”. For statecraft this can manifest as a sacrifice of a once cherished value to the altars of greed and ambition.

We saw how the 9/11 attacks forever refashioned politics in the USA and much of the world in an attempt to prepare against this ever-present terrorist alterity. How states found it expedient to introduce blanket surveillance as the new normal and how a growing industry of data-mining, with few oligopolistic interests at its top, emerged from that milieu.

In a similar fashion, we witnessed how central banks introduced so-called “unconventional” monetary policies, such as Quantitative Easing, and made them an integral part of their day-to-day operations. At the outset of the recent economic crisis, central banks had to struggle against several constraints before implementing such measures. Currently, in the face of the pandemic and with the world still recovering from the chilling effects of the last economic calamity, central banks expand their QE and related operations as a first reaction to the evolving phenomena. Contrary to what was the norm in the last decade, it is now expected of them to pursue such a course of action and, one might imagine, it will soon be asked of them to go even further.

A crisis redraws boundaries. Shrewd statecraft operators can take advantage of the newly-formed normality to consolidate their gains, moulding the polity in their image.

It would not be surprising to look back at the history of the pandemic, and the ensuing coronacrisis in the economy, as the point in time when monumental changes started taking place, ranging from global trade, the equilibrium of power between the world’s superpowers, to the very relationship between government and citizens in hitherto self-described “liberal democracies”.

While all of the aforementioned can be considered in mere technical terms, as yet another analysis of political phenomena at-large, there exists a more practical insight: in a world defined by its great injustices in income distribution, a world plagued by imperialism and the pernicious ideology of incessant year-to-year economic growth, is there anything to guarantee that the powers involved in statecraft will not abuse the present crisis?