How Well Are All? The Co-production of Catastrophe and State-like Authority


Review of All is Well: Catastrophe and the Making of the Normal State, by Saptarishi Bandopadhyay

Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2022.


“… The problem is not the threat. The problem is normalcy,
the things that we accept, the vulnerabilities that we ignore.”
(Saptarishi Bandopadhyay, April 7, 2022)


Scholars of emergency powers who came into the field post 9/11 often share a strong sense that emergencies are by no means “exceptional” to “normal” legal and political orders. Rather they are deeply connected to, and often constitutive of such orders. The anxiety that emergencies signify the “limit of law” and present an opportunity for rule by arbitrary power, morph into the anxiety that emergencies are “the new norm” and an often-concealed opportunity for norm production. 

Saptarishi Bandyopadhyay’s new book, All is Well: Catastrophe and the Making of the Normal State—which sits at the junction between disaster studies and emergency law and infuses both areas with socio-legal and anthropological insights—helpfully spells out such intuitions, giving them shape and a historical narrative. 

According to Bandopadhyay, there is a “normal” relationship between catastrophe and state power that is characterized by co-production (xii, xiii). Since at least the 18th century, he tells us, the state’s legal, scientific, developmental, and security apparatus routinely produced and normalized catastrophes. The book thus tells a history of the transformation of states and catastrophes from the 18th century until today, showing how political authorities and disaster risks were and are co-produced and distributed so that instead of protecting life and resources, emergencies legally sanction scientifically produced “sacrifice zones” for the developmentalist-security state (174-175).

The term that Bandopadhyay uses to capture the co-productive process of disaster and rule is “conservation.” Rather than “regulation” or “governance” that assume a state-like political authority based on rationality, scientific calculation, and the rule of law, using the term “conservation” evokes not only what we recognize as practices aimed to protect the environment (for example, forestry and wildlife protection and indigenous struggles against expert institutions) but also a constant rivalry of narratives, policies, and actions that define the relation between society and nature, and continually constitute political authority and produce crises. This move to “conservation” (often used in a peculiar form as a verb: to conservate) is illuminating yet perplexing. What does it mean that not only the environment, the forestry, etc. are subjects of conservation, but disasters themselves? 

One can appreciate what it means to “conservate” disaster from the book’s theoretical construct. In Bandopadhyay’s account, “disaster management” is a mutually constitutive relationship “between society’s need to manage (‘conservate’) catastrophes and its desire for an enduring and default, or ‘normal’, authority” (3). The ideas, instincts, techniques, and practices that facilitate disaster are also the ideas, instincts, techniques, and practices that generate state formation:

While floods, plagues, earthquakes, and famines are all real, there is no such thing as “a disaster” outside of narratives, techniques, and practices of political struggle within and between societies. In other words, struggles to conservate the existence and experience of localized socio-ecological uncertainties produce hegemonic, state-like authorities, and vice versa. (10)

And how is “normal” state-like authority “conservated”? Bandopadhyay uses “normalcy” to capture two modernist aspirations. First, an aspiration to perfect the relation between society and nature to minimize uncertainty and maximize prosperity and rule. Second, the aspiration that an idealized legal and political authority responsible for maintaining such relationship will become the default model of government. From the conservation of plagues, earthquakes, and famines to that of climate change, contestation over questions such as who caused the disaster? and who can fix it? determine both the catastrophe and what kind of state authority should govern it (210).

The book provides historical evidence to the theoretical construct in three 18th century case studies, namely, the Marseille plague of 1720 (chapter 3), the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 (chapter 4) and the Bengal famine of 1770 (chapter 5). During the 18th century, so goes the historical claim, the ideas, instincts, techniques, and practices that facilitated disaster management also produced “the state.” Starting in the 16th and 17th centuries, there was a move away from God as a legitimizing authority for the production and the control of disasters in Europe. In the 18th century, there was still a strong belief in theodicy but also a distinct move away from it and towards states or state-like authorities. And thus, disaster management—defined as the conservation of catastrophe and the production of state-like power—developed in the intersection between theodicy, natural rights, and other enlightenment ideas, and eventually colonial rule. In God’s stead, imperial ambitions, scientific expertise, and discourses of risk and political economy “struggled against environmental forces” to define disasters and shape the need for enduring solutions (4). The comprehensive and persistent nature of these solutions, as opposed to localized, ad hoc relief and rescue measures, transformed the character of hierarchical governance in England and western Europe. They sketched an idealized, or “normal,” authority—the modern state—whose raison d’être was the conservation of catastrophes (4). 

Bandopadhyay suggests that this ideal continues to guide the hand of “normal” statecraft today. The foundational concepts we use to explain the existence and experience of disasters and the legitimacy of the state to govern—the modernized meanings of such concepts as truth, normalcy, risk, safety, power, and responsibility—were all shaped through the management and the conservation of a variety of crises (11). 

The case studies offer contextual histories of how this process occurred. To illustrate, the Marseille plague case (1720) presents a transition between different orders of a modern state coming out of Europe but also a story of continuity because the ideas that invited the plague were reinforced in its management. In the Lisbon earthquake case (1755), it’s the move from a theocratic state in Portugal to a modern scientific state which conforms to a classic tale of crisis as opportunity for change. Finally, the Bengal famine case (1770) shows how the process of disaster management and state formation can happen in two places: the East India Company’s and later the English Parliament’s handling of the disaster. Their interpretation of the famine, their explanation of why it occurred, whose fault it was, and how it should be managed inaugurated not only colonial rule in India but also a British internal conversation about the moral value of the British state and subsequently a further justification for its imperial rule. 

Like in the Marseille and Lisbon cases, the conservation of the Bengal famine highlights a relationship between the management of “natural” risks and the stabilization of a particular “normal” political and social order. But while in Marseille and Lisbon the management of the disaster was done on behalf of the societies affected, in the Bengal famine it was the British society that was seen to be at risk (from the penetration of despotic corruption and failure of rule). The attempt was to correct the relation between the natural order and the social order in a distant colonized space to avert a perceived crisis in the homeland. This case, Bandyopadhyay shows in chapters 6 and 7, serves as an early example for global disaster management in our time, structuring the relations between the developed and developing world. 

The analysis in the case studies ultimately aims to offer guidance and meaningful interpretation of how disasters and states interact and fail in the present. When we look at state failure in the present and ask about sustainable development, whether or not states are able to succeed in managing contemporary crises, whether they have enough scientific knowledge or material resources, whether executive or military power is justified in such cases—we are, in fact, talking in similar registers using ideas, instincts, and techniques that originated in the 18th century. The conservation of one of the largest looming catastrophes—that of climate change and associated questions like who is responsible for causing it? and who can fix it?—is tied to the future of state-like authority formation (what kind of normal authorities will develop) in the same way that the previous disasters depicted in the book were tied to the future of the nation state (210).

Another important contribution of the book is that it contextualizes the development of the typical 20th century notions of disaster in the field of disaster management, especially that of the “external hazards” vs. “vulnerability” approaches. The external hazards/objectivist approach was popular beginning in the 1930s and 40s and is still prominent in contemporary official discourse on what disasters are and how to handle them. According to this approach, disasters are caused by objective, external hazards or risks that can be prevented. But starting in the 1970s sociologists, geographers, and anthropologists in both disaster and development studies started to provide a radically different definition of disasters centering on “vulnerability.” According to this approach, disasters are not “natural.” Instead, they are the result of “hazards” interacting with societies that were not prepared for them. The same storm hitting two different cities may have dramatically different consequences, one will be described as a disaster while the other can be seen as “rainfall.” There is a relationship between how societies prepare for and can respond to hazards which has to do with their development, both economic and social, and the existence of social services, necessary infrastructure, and poverty. Such background conditions will determine how a society might fare in view of natural hazards. 

Bandyopadhyay subscribes to the vulnerability approach and suggests that we incorporate its insights into the language of official documents, planning rituals of how politicians and lay people speak about disasters. Disasters such as Covid-19 or a particularly harsh winter for example, reveal how such normal parts of society, like “homelessness”, are mass casualties. The interaction of a status quo with a virus or excessively harsh weather shows us how vulnerable normal society really is. 

But while sympathetic to the vulnerability approach, Bandyopadhyay joins a subset of critical scholars—geographers and political ecologists such as Kenneth Hewitt and Michael Watts, historians like David Arnold, Gregory Bankoff, Ted Steinberg, and Mike Davis, and anthropologists like Alex de Waal and Anthony Oliver-Smith—that show how, more than just dealing with deficiencies in the existing social order, disaster management in fact maintains hierarchies and produces vulnerabilities, and thus generates disaster (23-24). The background legal, economic, and social conditions of disasters are manufactured and nurtured by leaders and rivals as exercises of political power, and since the 18th century, as Bandyopadhyay argues, in the process of making the normal state. 

For Bandyopadhyay, unraveling the process of disaster conservation and state formation is intended to “smuggle back in” the unspoken costs of modernity into rational, technical representations of how we should feel about future risk (110). The book was written to argue against two forms of complacency. As he explained in the interview quoted at the outset:

One is that states and disasters are automatically opposed, that one is designed to thwart the other. The other is that somehow we can change the future, or have a better future without reckoning with the kinds of motivations, power relations, racial[ized], gendered, political economy, inequalities, that structure our day to day lives. If I could rewrite the last chapter, [the title] would be: How Well Is All?

In a deeply activist tone, Bandyopadhyay encourages us not to lose sight of the fact that how we live normally and how we perform normal governance, are the same reasons that we have particular kinds of disasters.


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As a legal scholar, a question remained in my mind after reading All is Well: what is the role of law in the process of conservation of catastrophe and the normal state? On the one hand, the answer seems obvious. Like science, economics, and administration, law is clearly involved in this process because legal norms, debates, and contestations (over what counts as a disaster, who is responsible for causing them, and who is authorized to manage them) are at the heart of the co-production of disasters and state authority:

These kinds of regular social constructions produce elderly people who die quietly when there’s a heat wave yet all of that can be traced back to housing law, and food distribution and unemployment. Legal rules that are constructed 50 years before someone dies. You have to look at how law constructs society. Because societies are where disasters happen. If there’s no society there’s no disaster. (Ibid.)

But what does that imply for the rule of law and, in particular, for the debates in legal theory about law and emergency? If normal law, like the normal state, is shaped by the management of disaster, does it mean that the disaster always remains “outside of law,” and law is in a constant state of exception? The book does not directly engage this question, maybe because it takes an external and skeptical perspective towards law as part of the state apparatus that is normalized to conservate disaster and regenerate authority as legitimate. The lawyer is then seen as a participant in the contestation over the shape of normal authority. She takes part in struggles over the definition of the disaster, the projection of normative visions of how it should be resolved, and who should be empowered to realize this vision. She is an activist for or against candidate norms, actors, and institutions of disaster management on the way to being normalized.




Posted on 5 May 2023

KARIN LOEVY is the manager of the JSD Program at NYU School of Law and a researcher at the Institute for International Law and Justice. She is the author of Emergencies in Public Law: The Legal Politics of Containment (Cambridge University Press, 2016).