Succeeding through Failure: Andrew Lakoff on Preparing for Emergencies

Succeeding through Failure: Andrew Lakoff on Preparing for Emergencies

In February, Joanne Randa Nucho, author of Everyday Sectarianism in Urban Lebanon: Infrastructures, Public Services and Power (Princeton University Press, 2016) and associate professor of anthropology at Pomona College, sat down for a conversation with Andrew Lakoff, author of Unprepared: Global Health in a Time of Emergency (University of California Press, 2017) and Pharmaceutical Reason: Knowledge and Value in Global Psychiatry (Cambridge University Press, 2006), and professor of sociology at University of Southern California, where he also directs the Center on Science, Technology, and Public Life. They spoke about his recent book, co-authored with Stephen Collier—The Government of Emergency: Vital Systems, Expertise, and the Politics of Security (Princeton University Press, 2021). Together, they discussed how the book, published during the COVID-19 pandemic, was a timely and much needed intervention on the techniques and schemas of emergency government, from pandemic preparedness to climate change, through an exploration of overlooked Cold War-era histories that defined now-taken-for-granted ideas about vital infrastructures and security. An edited version of their conversation appears below.

Joanne Nucho (JN): In The Government of Emergency, you track the transition between mid-century emergency government, which focused on economic management during a depression or war, and emergency governments we know today, which are future oriented, preventing the collapse of vital infrastructures.

It seems like vulnerability is also a kind of narrative that has certain effects in the world. So what happens with the naturalization of the idea that vital infrastructures are inherently vulnerable to uncertain risks? And why is it so urgent to have this conversation now?


Andrew Lakoff (AL): Our book is, in a sense, about how we came to understand ourselves as vulnerable in a particular way: the idea that the systems underpinning collective life are at risk of sudden and catastrophic interruption. We can see this form of thinking at work in the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Take, for instance, the figure of the “essential worker.” How did this category get defined? It refers to a set of workers in sectors that are classified as elements of critical infrastructure, whose continued operation is to be guaranteed as a matter of national security. Or, if we look at the idea of “flattening the curve,” which was a central aim of early pandemic response measures like school and business closures: the goal of flattening the curve was not to reduce the total number of cases but rather to spread them out over time, in order not to overwhelm the operations of a health system understood in terms of the circulation of essential resources and as vulnerable to catastrophic interruption.

These kinds of off-the-shelf responses to an unanticipated event are based on an underlying schema for mitigating vulnerability that is typically not visible to the public, or even necessarily to the officials who enact the measures.

JN: In your book you talk about how the government’s role is to maintain infrastructure rather than, say, guarantee housing or employment. And so the COVID response, despite appearing confused and contested, was really unified in its aim to shore up vital infrastructures.

So could you talk a little bit about this decoupling of the welfare state from the warfare state? How it continues to bear on vital systems, vulnerability planning, and emergency disaster responses?


AL: We argue that, in the United States, maintaining the operation of vital systems like energy or transportation during an emergency is seen as a fundamental governmental responsibility, one that secures broader political agreement than the provision of welfare to the population. To understand how that happened, we go back to the period of mobilization for total war, in the lead-up to World War II. The emergency measures that were put in place then were designed to ensure that the country would be able to scale up military-industrial production rapidly without suffering from shortages or bottlenecks in critical supplies. During the Cold War, security officials were worried that an enemy attack would cripple the industrial economy, and so again, ensuring the function of critical systems in an emergency was seen as central to national security. In recent decades, that framework has been extended beyond the arena of national defense to deal with other potential emergencies like major natural disasters or pandemics.


JN: There’s a temporality to this that I found interesting. I kept thinking about how well a norm has been established: that governments should anticipate emergencies and be ready for them. The emphasis is not on the slow work of repair in the present but the perpetual state of preparedness for the future. And it suggests a temporal delay of when the benefits for these measures might be seen rather than an attentiveness or responsiveness to repair in the present. How does one even talk about success or failure when the metric is always to come?


AL: During the Cold War the US government spent a vast amount of time and money imagining and preparing for a nuclear attack that, fortunately, never happened. But it’s also the case that if an imagined future catastrophe actually does occur, and it’s determined retrospectively that preparedness for it was insufficient, there may be calls for accountability.  Who is to blame for this failure? That’s the question for preparedness: How do we know whether we are preparing well enough?

Government planners have devised methods to test levels of readiness in the absence of the event itself, such as scenario-based exercises or simulations. These methods are designed to generate knowledge about current vulnerabilities and point to measures that would improve our condition of preparedness. We can say that preparedness succeeds even when it fails, insofar as the response to a perceived failure is not to question whether preparedness was the right approach, but rather to invest in extending its reach further: more exercises, more vulnerability assessments, improved early warning systems. In that sense, it meets the definition of an apparatus.

JN: Yes. It feels too like it’s really hard to fail by its own metric, because it justifies more of what it already does.


AL: Right. Preparedness has a harder time asking about sources of failure that are outside of its scope—in the case of the pandemic, sources of failure like social inequality, political polarization, or public distrust in expert knowledge.


JN: Your two most recent books bookend the COVID-19 pandemic so strikingly, with Unprepared coming out in 2017 and The Government of Emergency just out in 2021. Could you talk about that?


AL: The two book projects were actually envisioned in the reverse order. The project that eventually became The Government of Emergency began in the early 2000s, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and the anthrax letters that followed. Stephen Collier and I were trying to figure out what to make of seemingly new formations of security in the US, like homeland security and biosecurity. To understand where these formations had come from, we took a genealogical approach, which led us in unexpected directions, going back to the 1920s and 1930s and into the early Cold War.

In parallel to this work, I was interested in studying what form the governmental apparatus whose genealogy we were tracing took in the present. My question in Unprepared was, to what extent were the sorts of techniques and styles of reasoning that Stephen and I were uncovering in the past—like scenario-based exercises or system-vulnerability analysis—also present in current pandemic preparedness efforts? The Government of Emergency took longer to finish, in part because we found ourselves asking questions that had not been addressed by historians, in areas like interwar strategic bombing theory or 1950s mobilization planning, and which required a lot of work in obscure and mostly forgotten archives.


JN: You talk in the book about these multiple origin stories for contemporary emergency planning: the Cold War civil defense and the Office of Emergency Preparedness in the 1960s. Why do you think they have been so overlooked in the scholarship?


AL: Not only those sites, but also earlier settings like the National Security Resources Board of the early Cold War, or the Air Corps Tactical School of the 1930s. There has been a fair amount of research on, for example, the history of civil defense and on think tanks like the RAND Corporation. But we found that a lot of the key sources of contemporary system-vulnerability thinking, like defense mobilization and air-war planning, have not been much discussed by historians. I would say that our genealogical approach pointed us in the direction of less recognized work by mid-level government officials and fairly anonymous technical experts. And that this work—though it’s central to understanding the present—has tended to fall outside of established domains of historical inquiry.


JN: So I was really struck by all of the organic metaphors of vital infrastructures: the idea of the body, that these infrastructures are represented as arteries or connections. And so resilience is about shoring up different parts so that if one part of it is attacked or cut off, the system, if set up properly, will continue to function more or less without intervention. So we’re moving more into this fantasy of mechanization, of perfecting a system that will work if parts of it are cut off.

Why is it that multiple system failures don’t seem to interrupt the logic of preparedness? It morphs into: if we prepare enough, we might be able to create a system that functions even when parts of it are broken.


AL: The idea that society is a kind of biological organism that is vulnerable to disruption of its critical arteries has a long history. We can find it in early 20th-century fields like urban planning, which took for granted the metaphor of the social organism. For interwar strategic bombing theorists, the key question was how airpower could be used to disrupt the vital arteries of an enemy war-production system. After World War II, the Air Force wanted to understand why the German economy had been able to sustain its weapons production despite massive air strikes. And the answer—based on an economic analysis of system-vulnerability—was that it was resilient, it could absorb shocks due to things like excess production capacity and the ability to make substitutions for critical inputs. And then during the Cold War, the idea of resilience as a means of reducing vulnerability was built into government planning for a future Soviet nuclear attack. Our argument is that this norm then migrated from national security into other domains, like electrical system resilience in the 1970s or climate resilience today.


JN: And now people don’t see its connection to bombing preparedness. It’s just accepted as common sense.

So following that thread about electricity infrastructure, today it seems to be an agreed-upon idea that the state of American infrastructure is poor. So there would appear to be a really striking disconnect between these genealogies that you’re talking about and the C– grade that the American Society of Civil Engineers gave American infrastructure last year.


AL: It’s probably useful to distinguish between maintenance of existing infrastructure on the one hand versus preparedness for a disruptive event on the other. The latter, of course, is just a schema or plan, one that is only tested with the occurrence of the actual event—at which point we sometimes learn that a given infrastructural system was more vulnerable than planners anticipated—for instance, the levees in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina.

JN: So maintenance and repair fall out of the purview of the disaster preparedness framework that you’re talking about.

You describe at different points in the book the tension between centralized planning (during moments like the New Deal) and American traditions of limited government, private enterprise, and liberal constitutional government. To what extent do you feel like this tension makes the US a unique case, and to what extent has that tension persisted between a federalism that understands states to have a great deal of autonomy, versus grid-like interconnections between systems across regions? There’s something fundamentally unresolved about these scales of planning.


AL: Yes, the book points to the distinctiveness of the administrative device for governing emergencies that was set up in the US in the mid-20th century, and that can still be seen today in the relationship between federal agencies like FEMA on the one hand, and state and local disaster management organizations on the other. At the federal level, what was put in place was a small office that doesn’t have much in the way of operational capacity on its own, but rather is designed to help with planning and coordination across disparate agencies at multiple scales. It’s a precarious structure. For it to work, it depends on engaged and competent leadership and sustained relationships across jurisdictions.

On the one hand, it is a distinctive American story, but it raises the comparative questions you pose. How does this administrative device compare to those that have been developed in other national contexts, but also in multilateral contexts like the World Health Organization? There are ways in which this model of planning across scales of governance could potentially be applicable in dealing with planetary problems like climate change.


JN: Yes, what seems to be a uniquely US problem can in fact be useful to help us think about managing what needs to be a global, transnational issue like climate change. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about how striking it is that so much of the climate change response is similarly oriented to how we shore up the infrastructures that undergird modern life, most of which are very carbon intensive; 24/7 electricity is one of them.


AL: One of our points of reference is the work of the German sociologist Ulrich Beck, who described problems like climate change as examples of what he called “reflexive risks.” What he meant was that the very technological systems that were developed to protect against scourges like hunger, poverty, or disease and to generate economic prosperity have become sources of a new kind of vulnerability. And Beck argued that these new risks are not manageable using the tools of “first modernity,” like infrastructure development or social insurance.

To us, this raises the question of whether novel techniques for dealing with such reflexive risks are being implemented today—in fields like climate adaptation or pandemic preparedness. Mitigating the vulnerability of our most vital systems might be seen as a way to address these new catastrophic risks. Whether these techniques are sufficient to manage such risks remains to be seen, but they are what we have at hand.

JN: The 20th-century progressives profiled in your book wanted to create a “positive state” that would be deeply involved in shaping social and economic life. But they were grappling with the idea that there was this disconnect between government emergency planning and becoming despotic, right? Do you see this question shaping contemporary debates? Emergency disaster planning versus basic democratic norms?


AL: As you say, the question for progressive reformers of the 1920s and 1930s was: How do you equip the executive with the capacities to deal with an emergency situation requiring urgent intervention—such as war or economic crisis—without at the same time undermining the norms of constitutional liberalism? So they invented an administrative machinery of emergency government that was embedded within the procedures of normal government—it is a machinery that we still have in many respects. A potential weakness in this model that the progressives did not foresee was what we now experience as a widespread lack of public trust in government expertise.

JN: Yes. Trust in an expert to rise above the fray of a particular political affiliation was somehow taken for granted in the past.

My last question for you is about that really intriguing final chapter, about the framework of climate emergency. It gets us right back into that foundational problem with American emergency government, which is how to invent administrative machinery that can address future crisis within the framework of democratic government. You elaborate what some of those problems could be: the dangers of climate emergency opening up to certain kinds of autarchic politics in a resource-constrained world; the need to relocate populations in the face of climate risk; even mundane conversations about where to rebuild after mudslides or fires in California.

Expert opinions, or public trust in expertise, is failing. How can we think about this longer genealogy to help us ask better questions, and to create better collective responses to climate change and other emergencies?


AL: In the epilogue, we suggest that the schema we’ve described over the course of the book—whatever its weaknesses—might have resources that could be brought to bear to deal with contemporary emergencies, most significantly climate change. But it is important to be clear about what exactly one is calling for in making analogies with prior 20th-century experiences. Is it a proposal for a restructuring of the American economy along the lines of what was done by the War Production Board during mobilization for World War II? Or is it a call for selectively taking up tools like vulnerability assessment as communities make decisions about managed retreat or groundwater management? What, in other words, is the range of available measures to address our catastrophic future?


This article was commissioned by Caitlin Zaloom. icon

Featured image: Andrew Lakoff. Photograph provided by Andrew Lakoff

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