The State of Exception & Community Anarchists: St. John's in a State of Emergency

From the time that Mayor Danny Breen declared a "state of emergency" in St. John's on Friday—and through the immediate heralding of his leadership that followed—all I could think of was Giorgio Agamben's "state of exception."

In his 2005 State of Exception, Agamben, an Italian political philosopher, proposed that in states of emergency—like the ongoing one in St. John's right now—the power of the government to suspend the rights of its citizens is exposed. In other words, in proclaiming and maintaining such a state, the government operates above and beyond the codes and laws applicable to its jurisdiction under normal circumstances. The fragility of our rights and ways of life are revealed—along with the extent of the power of our government.

Many Newfoundlanders felt a suspension of our freedom of movement during the "state of exception" which has loomed over us for the past three days. We were ordered to "return home" and to "not drive until the state of emergency has been lifted." Church goers were reminded by VOCM local news that the "church bells [were] silent" as the state of emergency continued into Sunday morning. Given the power that the church held across this province in the twentieth century alone, I found this dramatic language to be an amusing reminder that in 2020, there is no question; the municipal government trumps the church.

My Marxist sympathies were stirred by the fact that the declaration of the state of emergency included the language of returning explicitly home. "Please return home," it read.

Why not write, in an official government statement, "Please find somewhere warm to be," followed by a list of warming centres?

Because classism, that's why.

All snark aside, as many of us lost electricity over the past few days, home was not necessarily the most comfortable place to be. This was, I presume, even more so the case for people suffering certain financial and personal crises. My partner and I considered going to a shelter for heat, to charge our phones, and honestly? for a cup of coffee. The withdrawal was real. However, just as we hauled our coats on, power was restored. It was a powerful, physical reminder of our own vulnerability in the absence of certain public utilities. This was after, of course, the first shock of our vulnerability as citizens with regards to our rights to walk and drive around.

Workers were also affected in a variety of other ways. Some nurses worked 60+ hour shifts. Homecare and hospitality workers were ordered to stay put at work. I'm no lawyer, but it seems that declaring a 'state of emergency' locally can also suspend the efficacy and validity of labour laws. It is an interesting question to what extent a municipal declaration could override provincial and federal laws. In any case, since the Canadian army has been called into help clean up the mess, and Justin Trudeau is continuing to utter lines fit only for a movie script, like "we'll get through this together," I don't get the impression that any public conflict between the levels of government is occurring at the moment.

The other Marxist side of the reality of the St. John's state of exception is that almost no one in this city has spent any money the past three days. I like the idea that this situation could make our habits as consumers more apparent to us. Or at least represent a quick spike in our conscious awareness of ourselves, our habits and our vices. In any case, people have had to ask their neighbours for coffee, milk, smokes, soup, help, over the past few days. This means a lot of us actually met our neighbours for the first time. Those of us who had intermittent electricity started to make coffee and soup for friends without power, and deliver it on foot.

That's right, on foot! Many of us actually did walk around yesterday, despite, in admittedly ambiguous terms, being prohibited to do so.

Otherwise interpreted, the people of the city started to rebel!

For anyone interested in anarchist communities and rebellion under altered political conditions, the events of the past few days were fascinating. One of the most widely observed and reported activities was snowboarding. The steep hills of downtown St. John's transformed into ski slopes. Those of us who live downtown constantly saw snowboarders throughout all of yesterday and today. Some of the videos that emerged were truly impressive:

St. John’s, Newfoundland today. We got about 80cm of snow from r/snowboarding

The municipal government had no choice but to follow up the illicit activity with warnings of a very specific wording. For example, the snowboarding and skiing was followed up by a NO 'PLAYING' order.

Then a small corner store owner illegally opened her doors to serve those going without. Unsurprisingly, a massive line quickly formed, before the operation was shut down.

However, one thing that the government cannot control in the state of exception is the basic will to share.

In the Georgestown neighbourhood of St. John's, residents got together to divide what they had and enjoy it together. And get this, they did this in the middle of the street. Where they weren't supposed to be.

Don't get me wrong, I'm in no way trying to downplay the seriousness of a snowstorm which resulted in many people suffering in the cold, and in which one man went missing. But in such 'exceptional' times, it is worth noting how both the governments and the citizens of a society act different to the norm. The first question the St. John's state of emergency prompted for me was, "What power does the government have?" But the second set of questions was, "What power do we have? How can we help each other?"

Even if it means walking outside and playing in the streets.


  1. What a breath of fresh air reading this. Thank you for this hopeful analysis. As soon as I heard State of Emergency I thought about Agamben's state of exception and Carl Schmitt's discussion of state of emergency powers of the state. The mayor's latest call for "no taxi's" but only personal cars or walking to be permitted tomorrow shows both the class and authoritarian implications for the most vulnerable in the city. No taxis or buses and no food banks, just personal cars to corporate chains. There are so many lessons to learn from the last few days. Keep up the great thinking and analysis. DB

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