Our program for 2015–16 reflects that we are in the midst of what could be the most important General Federal Election since 1867. The program’s title is taken from a TED talk given by one of our speakers, Professor Pam Palmater, Chair of Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University. Coming just prior to Justice Murray Sinclair’s release of the TRC report, Dr. Palmater drew attention to the fact that, particularly from an Indigenous perspective, Canada is in the midst of a “State of Emergency.” The most obvious example of this is the government’s stubborn reluctance to mount an inquiry into Canada’s national disgrace: the hundreds of missing and murdered aboriginal women over the past decades.” In 1940, Walter Benjamin wrote in direct response to Hitler’s “crown jurist,” the theorist of the “state of exception,” Carl Schmitt: “The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the “state of emergency” in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that is in keeping with this insight.” There could scarcely be a more poignant assessment of the history of settler colonialism and its effects, particularly on First Nations, not least because such an on-going state of emergency was brought about in the name of historical “progress.”

We see such an on-going state of emergency in the economic crisis, the dramatic drop in the value of the Canadian dollar with the falling price of oil, the on-going feud between the government and the Supreme Court, the new security legislation that, according to allegations made by BCCLA, has empowered the government to illegally spy on peaceful dissidents and NGO’s such as Tides Canada and the Dogwood Initiative [CBC News Aug 12], the bombing campaign of questionable legality in Syria, the punitive use of the CRA to crack down on the government’s critics, and the stifling of the scientists whose findings constitute what Al Gore referred to as “inconvenient truths” that might undermine the government’s plan to transform Canada into a so-called “energy Superpower.”

Not to simply criticize the Conservative government, it seems that there is what could be called ideological closure in this country more generally, which is to say a lack of genuine diversity of real political options, violating what Hannah Arendt called the basic “human condition of plurality.” The Liberal Party, to its shame, supported the passage of Bill C-51, none of the main parties are courageous enough to raise claims about the inhuman treatment of the Palestinian people by the state of Israel, and, aside from the Green Party, only lip-service, it would seem, is paid to the need for a real alternative to a carbon-based economic model. Moreover, a consensus appears to centre around an austerity agenda of balanced budgets, lower taxes and diminishing social spending during a time of recession on the backs of the unemployed and underemployed, the majority of whom are under the age of 24. Even that paragon of neo-liberal orthodoxy, The Economist, has admitted in the Greek case that austerity had failed on strictly economic terms. Things, however, appear to be different in the United States when a member of the Socialist Alternative, Kshama Sawant, was elected to Seattle City Council some three years ago on a platform to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour, and a candidate who describes himself as a “Socialist,” namely Bernie Sanders, is running, at times ahead of Hilary Clinton, for the Democratic Presidential nomination. In the UK, Jeremy Corbyn is revitalizing the prospect of genuine alternatives even if these look, perhaps, more to the past rather than the future. In Canada, by way of contrast, what we see is a state of affairs Herbert Marcuse described forty years ago of “one dimensionality.” Such a condition entailed the collapse of what was possible into what simply existed. Today, it appears uncertain that, as a species, we can survive without concrete and substantive alternatives to the current organization of state and society.

2015–16 Lecture Series: "State of Emergency"