Political Delirium

, 21.10.2021
Chronicle from Belarus

But sometimes people are pulled beyond the limits of conventions and the rules of engagement. For example, a person in a state of inebriation might be inclined to ignore a number of evident norms and rules which he would otherwise follow in his daily life. And afterwards, depending on how well-educated he is, he might experience the feeling of agonizing shame, awkwardness, or pain because of what he did during this so-called “exceptional state,” when his actions were not determined by his normally sober judgment. But more often than not the only medicine for this person’s shame or оutrage is to keep bringing himself to this very same state, one of psychedelic delirium in which he completely loses any sense of responsibility for the future. This can occur even in those cases when the person is consumed by helplessness and feels that life has no purpose. Or the sense that any actions will lead to nothing. Norms do their work only when the person sees his future as a concrete project leading him from the past to new accomplishments and dreams; where there is no future, norms lose all purpose.

Of course, the political subject, especially one serving the role of sovereign cannot be reasonably compared to an ordinary person, particularly where his psychological state is concerned. However, if we are speaking metaphorically about politics, then this state of inebriation and the total rejection of norms is instead marked by the shift into the state of exception. “The state of exception” Giorgio Agamben tell us, “is not the chaos that precedes order but rather the situation that results from its suspension.” For sovereign power is in fact the authority which is able to announce a state of exception, thereby halting the operation of laws and norms. It is bad when the authorities do this systematically. But it is even worse when “it cannot deal with the laws from time to time” (and, in fact, does not take into account any laws at all!). This was the case with Alaksandr Lukašenka’s orders in August 2020. Following the state of exception, even one that is not officially declared, the state begins to operate within а mode in which moral and legal rules no longer function as such. Instead, brutal acts – which had up until then been considered legal excesses – become the new anti-norm. Repressions against those who think differently and torture targeting political opponents serve as examples of the oblivion–or anomia–of quotidian law and the unbefitting actions of the political elite. The state of exception becomes its own mode of existence and transforms into the very credo of the powers that be. This is especially the case when the authorities see their future as particularly bleak.

The introduction of the state of exception is especially tempting for a sovereign power, for following the exception, the state no longer has to uphold even its own agreed-upon norms. This itself is liberating and creates the impression of enormous possibilities. A similar effect is brought about when a person consumes a significant amount of alcohol: he is emancipated and the tension from living a life under constant norms is lifted. But what happens when an “emancipated” authority realizes that the only way it can maintain the feeling of omnipotence and control over the situation is through the continuation of the state of exception? The state here becomes an alcoholic who keeps raising the level of exceptionality (nadzvyčajščyna). First, the state makes a habit of mocking its own populace; keeping with the metaphor of alcoholism, it starts with its most beloved, the one who wished to leave him for another, then it moves on to the kids. Then this violence passes on to the neighbors, who are naturally resentful of the sound of screaming and banging on the wall in response. The authorities, having lost their elections and understanding that they no longer hold any legitimacy in the eyes of the majority, come to the conclusion that they can only maintain their previous position by annulling the rules of engagement under which they lost in the first place. When all love is lost, the state attempts to “return” it through violence and humiliation. If not love, then at least its imitation or approximation.

And from this very moment we see the beginnings of the classic case of political delirium. Of course, this manifests differently in every subject. If we consider the case of the Belarusian sovereign, Alaksandr Lukašenka, he started by brutally attacking and torturing his citizens, at least until his head – red with alcoholic violence – grasped the full scale of what he had done. That after such an act there can be no forgiveness. And so it became necessary to “up the dose” and destroy everything having anything to do with normal life: street-side coffeeshops, creative spaces, NGOs focused on wildlife protection and the rights of people with disabilities.[1] He also targeted the more independent media channels, that is those which one can read without immediately experiencing aesthetic shock. It then becomes possible to destroy the Institute of Independent Lawyers, and thereby change administrative regulations, so that even donning a red scarf or white coat would be considered an unsanctioned one-person street protest.[2] It then becomes possible to give a multi-year prison sentence just for scribbling something on the sidewalk. For this is de facto the right to create the state of exception, the natural power of the sovereign, according to Carl Schmitt.

But the level of political transgression and permissiveness continues to grow, just as the alcoholic continues to increase his intake. It further becomes possible to:

  • Forcibly break into the neighbors’ apartment, in order to grab one’s own family members their hair, whilst screaming “The door wasn’t closed!” (In other words, forcing a Ryanair flight connecting two EU cities to land.)
  • Throw rocks at the neighbors’ windows and levy all sorts of horrible expletives because they keep judging you and must be hiding the victims of your own violent acts. And, after all, they do not say hello in the lobby anymore (That is, create a hybrid attack through an artificially constructed throng of economic migrants from the East.)
  • Get addicted to drugs (or just give methadone to the kids of migrants, so that those kids wouldn’t make too much noise during the hybrid attack, and then say on a CNN interview, “You’ll never prove it!”)
  • Threaten the lives of those who lack respect for you (or tell Lithuanians and Poles that “Białystok is ours!” “Vilnius is ours!” or alternatively make Ukraine out to be the center of terrorist operations, claiming that “we are ready to normalize the situation in Ukraine” together with our Russian Big Brother).

All of these actions of a sovereign power – which are in fact quite far even from the principles of Realpolitik – comprise the favorite cynical strategies of bureaucrats and populist politicians. But they are formed with certain concrete pragmatic moments in mind. When political pragmatism replaces moral values through the use of markers of effectiveness, political delirium replaces moral values and rules of the game with a black abyss. Society in turn collapses into this abyss. Accordingly, we begin to see the rupture of the social contract, which lies at the root of any society (if we are to accept the theories of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke). The state first loses some of its traits in the eyes of its citizens; it is no longer perceived as “one’s own” or belonging to the citizens themselves. From this point on, any of its actions are perceived with hostility and beg to be avoided. Then comes the time for the mass disobedience of the citizens, or even an armed rebellion at which point people are no longer willing to tolerate a single one of the illegitimate “laws.” If this does not occur, however, a concentration camp arises where a government used to be.

Wherein lies Karl Schmitt’s mistake when we apply his theories today? Schmitt was incorrect in thinking that the sovereign would continue to have the right to be the executor of the state of exception which he wills into being.  Though it took a while to get there, international law finally led to the principles which were implemented by the juvenile Departments of Justice of many European countries. Namely, they agree that domestic violence and child abuse are not the private business of a given household, but rather a socially dangerous phenomenon. The alcoholic father who beats his family is subject to legal censure, while ​​society at large comes to the defense of those whose rights have been violated. On the international level we also see a slow, but burgeoning – not least because of the Belarusian protests – shift from the principle of cujus regio ejus dextra (whose realm, their right) to that of jus supra potestatem (the law is mightier than force). And this gives us hope that in the near future we will bear witness to the genesis of international legal norms which will forbid autocratic and totalitarian sovereigns from exercising the principle of limitless power over their territory and people. If this does not occur, our politics of today will remain the politics of domestic violence of shoddy sovereigns in a state of political delirium.

[1] The wildlife protection NGO in question is called Ptushki (or “Birds”). See https://ptushki.org/about/mission for more information.

[2] Here Barkoŭski refers to the colors of the Belarusian white-red-white national flag. Lukašenka did away with it in a 1995 referendum, returning the old Soviet colors. Currently in Belarus, one can be arrested just for waving these colors outside of one’s window.

Pavel Barkouski is an independent researcher in the field of philosophy and social science. From November to December 2020 he was a Visiting Fellow of IWM’s Eurasia in Global Dialogue program.

David Kurkovskiy is a PhD student in Slavic Languages and Literatures and Jewish Studies at UC Berkeley, focusing on Belarusian-Ruthenian philology since the Early Modern era, as well as on Belarusian-Jewish political and literary contacts in the early 20th century. He works chiefly between six languages: Belarusian, Lithuanian, Polish, Russian, Ukrainian and Yiddish.

Translated from Belarusian by David Kurkovskiy for IWM Chronicle from Belarus.
First published on

German version of the article published on IWM Chronicle from BelarusPolitisches Delirium

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