Security, Economy and the Mundane Practices of Liberal Exceptionalism

Jacqueline Best

University of Ottawa

13th March

12.30-2pm

The 2008 global financial crisis was met with a host of exceptionalist measures, as bailouts, stimulus and then austerity measures were rammed through legislatures or introduced through executive powers. A quick survey of economic history reveals that exceptionalism has played an ongoing role in liberal democratic government, such as in early efforts to put down major strikes, and in emergency legislation like the New Deal. Yet, not all governments have been as keen to use such measures, even when faced with powerful crises. While British Prime Minister Heath and American President Nixon both declared states of emergency to respond to economic crises in the 1970s, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher’s administration avoided such explicitly exceptionalist measures. What do these differences tell us about the place of economic exceptionalism in the evolution of liberal government?

In this talk, I seek to rehabilitate the concept of exceptionalism, which many scholars have rejected in recent years for its Schmittian overtones. I do so in a way that steps away from such absolutist conceptions and reconceptualizes exceptionalism as an everyday practice, or tool, of liberal political and economic government. After developing a conception of economic exceptionalism that identifies two complementary logics—emergency and technocratic—I then go on to discuss some of the preliminary findings from my ongoing archival research into British and American economic policies of the 1970s and 1980s. By examining both the politics and the practicalities of exceptionalist policies, we can develop a more nuanced understanding of how these techniques are used to resolve some of the constitutive tensions in liberalism—tensions that are becoming all too apparent in recent years.

Jacqueline Best is a Professor in the School of Political Studies at the University of Ottawa. Her research is at the intersection of international relations, political economy and social theory. She has recently published Governing Failure: Provisional Expertise and the Transformation of Global Development Finance with Cambridge University Press. She a currently co-editor of the journal Review of International Political Economy.