Precarious Futures



One of the more likely futures would seem to be one of precarity, with a diminishing sense of security and safety. But what exactly does 'percarity' mean. Isabell Lorey makes a useful distinction between three senses of the term. The first -- precariousness -- she derives from Judith Butler, and might speak to the sense that we all owe the endurance of our fragile bodies to the work and care of others, just as others depend on us. Starting from this more affirmative concept, Lorey develops a pointed critique of what it meant to be precarious in the old welfare state model, and then of what it might mean in these 'neoliberal' times. Here is an extract from her new Verso Futures book State of Insecurity where she introduces some of her themes.
-- McKenzie Wark

The Government of the Precarious

Isabell Lorey

If we fail to understand precarization, then we understand neither the politics nor the economy of the present. Precarization is not a marginal phenomenon, even in the rich regions of Europe. In the leading neoliberal Western industrial nations it can no longer be outsourced to the socio-geographical spaces of the periphery where it only affects others. Precarization is not an exception, it is rather the rule. It is spreading even in those areas that were long considered secure. It has become an instrument of governing and, at the same time, a basis for capitalist accumulation that serves social regulation and control.

Precarization means more than insecure jobs, more than the lack of security given by waged employment. By way of insecurity and danger it embraces the whole of existence, the body, modes of subjectivation. It is threat and coercion, even while it opens up new possibilities of living and working. Precarization means living with the unforeseeable, with contingency.

In the secularized modernity of the West, however, being exposed to contingency is generally regarded as a nightmare, as a loss of all security, all orientation, all order.

This monster of the bottomless pit can clearly no longer be really tamed even in the post-Fordist industrial nations of the ‘West’. Fear of what is not calculable marks the techniques of governing and subjectivation, merging into an inordinate culture of measuring the immeasurable.

This leads to a form of governing that at least since Thomas Hobbes has been viewed as no longer possible: a government that is not legitimized by promising protection and security. Contrary to the old rule of a domination that demands obedience in exchange for protection, neoliberal governing proceeds primarily through social insecurity, through regulating the minimum of assurance while simultaneously increasing instability. In the course of the dismantling and remodelling of the welfare state and the rights associated with it, a form of government is established that is based on the greatest possible insecurity, promoted by proclaiming the alleged absence of alternatives. The way that precarization has become an instrument of government also means that its extent must not pass a certain threshold such that it seriously endangers the existing order: in particular, it must not lead to insurrection. Managing this threshold is what makes up the art of governing today.

Against this background, the question raised is not how to prevent and end the threat of precarity that is driving the disintegration of order. It is rather a matter of understanding how we are governed and keep ourselves governable specifically through precarization. In analyzing these techniques of governing, approaches that in various contexts imagine civil war, anomie or the possible break-up of society are of little help. The question is rather where, within these governing mechanisms, cracks and potentials for resistance are to be found.

The analysis of precarity that I develop in this book focuses on the term ‘government’. Michel Foucault has shown that ‘Western’ practices of governing can be traced back genealogically to Christian pastoral power. Already in this powerful prelude to modern governmentality, what is involved is an art of governing people, not things or territories. With the pastoral form of power, specific modes of individualization, including becoming a Westernmodern subject, are both condition and effect at the same time. Individualization means isolation, and this kind of separation is primarily a matter of constituting oneself by way of imaginary relationships, constituting one’s ‘own’ inner being, and only secondly and to a lesser extent by way of connections with others. Yet this interiority and self-reference is not an expression of independence, but rather the crucial element in the pastoral relationship of obedience.

Corresponding practices of governing consequently consist in being led in one’s own conduct by others in precisely such a way as to produce relations to self that are then perceived, in the best case, as independent and autonomous. The art of governing generally consists in the ‘conduct of conducts’, in influencing the conduct of others through their individualization. This does not, however, inevitably mean that individuals are trapped in a vicious circle between being guided by others and being self-guided. Numerous examples of ‘counter-conduct in the sense of struggle against the processes implemented for conducting others’ can already be found in the Middle Ages.

In the eighteenth century, pastoral power underwent a fundamental transformation: the laws to which people had to subject themselves were no longer laws of the king or the church, but rather the self-imposed laws of the citizens. This modern, male, bourgeois form of sovereignty required modes of subjectivation positioned ambivalently between self-determination and subjugation, between self-creation and obedience, between freedom and servility. For the modern citizen, if social and political conditions and one’s own life are perceived as capable of being arranged and influenced by one’s own (co-)decisions, then citizens – believing in collective, and thus implicitly their own, sovereignty, autonomy and freedom – voluntarily subject themselves to the conditions of society.

Yet modes of self-governing do not serve only to make oneself and others governable. At the same time, the potential emerges in them to no longer be governed in existing ways and even to be ever less governed. In the analysis of governing through insecurity, the government of the precarious, it is important to understand the actualization of this double ambivalence of governmentality under neoliberal conditions: the ambivalence between being governed by others and self-government, as well as the ambivalence in self-government – between servile making-governable and refusals that aim to be no longer governed in this way. When we ask in this book why protests against government through insecurity are so difficult and rare, this means problematizing the obvious dominance of the servile side of precarious self-government. This side cannot be separated from the form of labour that is currently becoming hegemonic, one that demands the whole person, is primarily based on communication, knowledge and affect, and becomes visible in a new way as virtuoso labour.


Crisis of the Collective, Chances for the Common

Since the formation of capitalist relations of production, there have been many for whom freedom of labour-power has not been a guarantee against existential vulnerabilities. Wage labour brought neither security nor independence. Only collective welfare-state institutions that had to be fought for were able to ensure relative independence, essentially for the male breadwinner of the family. For this form of security, relational reproduction and care work had to be feminized, domesticated and devalued in its quality as labour. However, the securing of predominately male independence had the advantage that the dependent workers could be organized and assembled for collective struggles.

With the neoliberal demolition and restructuring of collective security systems and the rise of short-term and increasingly precarious employment conditions, the possibilities for collectively organizing in factories or occupational groups are also eroded. New forms of individualization through employment have appeared, which are ever less capable, if at all, of being organized through traditional institutions of representations of interest. How can new practices of organizing that break through these forms of individualization be found today? How can a perspective on social and political conditions be developed that does not reject relationships, connections and dependencies among individuals, in other words, one that imagines and practises forms of self-reliance that start from connections with others?

This is possible when precarization is not perceived and combated solely as a threat, but the entire ensemble of the precarious is taken into consideration and the current domination-securing functions and subjective experiences of precarization are taken as a starting-point for political struggles.

To understand precarization in this way, it is necessary to re-open the field of concepts of the precarious, following its constriction by French social-science usage since the early 1980s, along with its entry into the corresponding debates in other languages. If precarization is no longer limited to lack, coercion and fear, then the demand for a simple ‘politics of de-precarization’ no longer makes sense, as it seeks nothing other than the reformulation of traditional social-security systems. Politics of this kind would only be meaningful, in my view, if it could problematize and break through the hegemonic political and social-security logics of modern nation-states, if precarity and precarization could thus be analyzed in their functions as instruments of domination, and finally, if new modes of securing and protecting against precarity and precarization could be found in the recognition of an ineluctable state of precariousness.


The Precarious and the Critique of Representation

In the late 1990s both Pierre Bourdieu and Robert Castel, two of the most influential sociologists in the field of international precarization research, explicitly feared that collective resistance in the context of precarity would become impossible. Castel took note of the movements of the precarious in Europe, including the transnational EuroMayDay movement, only marginally and relatively late, while Bourdieu was not even able to witness them.

He died in early 2002, less than a year after the first MayDay parade took place in Milan on 1 May 2001. On this traditional day of labour, not only do the heterogeneous precarious in many European cities problematize their situations and experiences, which often remain invisible in corporatist organizations, but, starting from political practices that critique identity and representation, they also seek new forms of organizing the unorganizable. Precarious working and living conditions are taken as the starting-point for political struggles, in order to find possibilities for political agency in neoliberal conditions.

What is unusual about these social movements is not only the ways in which new forms of political struggle are tested and new perspectives on precarization developed. They have also – and this is striking in relation to other social movements – repeatedly traversed and crossed the seemingly very separate fields of the cultural and the political. During the past decade, exchanges around the partly subversive knowledge of the precarious, in the communicative search for a common ground with a view to facilitating a political constituting, have frequently taken place less in political or even university contexts than in art institutions and social centres (as in Italy and Spain). This is only one aspect in the search for and invention of new modes of coming together and organizing, which have become difficult in their traditional forms, as Bourdieu and Castel rightly noted.

The precarious cannot be unified or represented, their interests are so disparate that classical forms of corporate organizing are not effective. The many precarious are dispersed both in relations of production and through diverse modes of production, which absorb and engender subjectivities, extend their economic exploitation, and multiply identities and work places. It is not only work that is precarious and dispersed, but life itself. In all their differences, the precarious tend to be isolated and individualized, because they do short-term jobs, get by from project to project, and often fall through collective socialsecurity systems. There are no lobbies or forms of representation for the diverse precarious.

Yet this should by no means be understood solely as a lack, since it also holds out the opportunity to invent new and appropriate forms of political agency on the basis of precarious living and working conditions. The MayDay movements did not so much attempt to represent a collective subject of the precarious as to try out nonrepresentationist practices. In this respect, the movements of the precarious were the predecessors of the university occupations of 2008 and 2009, as well as of the current Occupy movements and their insistence on democracy beyond representation. Paolo Virno writes: ‘It is typical of the post-Fordist multitude to foment the collapse of political representation: not as an anarchic gesture, but as a means of calmly and realistically searching for new political forms.’

The different meanings of the concept of ‘precarious’ were repeatedly linked in the MayDay movements with the experiences of the individuals and with political practices. The Frassanito Network, in its definition of precarization, outlines the ambivalence of the term, particularly in the context of migration: ‘Precarization thus symbolizes a contested field: a field in which the attempt to start a new cycle of exploitation also meets desires and subjective behaviors which express the refusal of the old, so-called Fordist regime of labor and the search for another, better, we can even say flexible life.’ In precarization an extreme degree of exploitation and a ‘liberation’ from traditional conditions of exploitation bound up with the production apparatus of Fordism merge into new modes of subjectivation.


Three Dimensions of the Precarious

The conceptual composition of ‘precarious’ can be described in the broadest sense as insecurity and vulnerability, destabilization and endangerment. The counterpart of precarious is usually protection, political and social immunization against everything that is recognized as endangerment. Historically, we owe political ideas of protection from insecurity not just to Hobbes’ conception of a security state, in which the representing sovereign protects against the so-called natural state of man, inherent to which is the destruction of property and life by dangerous others. Protection from insecurity, from the precarious, has also been the responsibility of the welfare states of the twentieth century. At the same time, neither Hobbes’ Leviathan nor the welfare state prevents the precarious, they rather respectively engender new historical forms of precarity, new insecurities, from which they are again supposed to provide protection.

Those who are promised security are generally unable to develop free of concern about the threatening, precarized others; they are obligated to obedience and subordination. In a historically different way the precarious thus represent both the cause and the effect of domination and security.

However, when domination in post-Fordist societies is no longer legitimated through (social) security, and we instead experience governing through insecurity, then the precarious and the immune, insecurity and security/ protection, stand ever less in a relation of opposition and increasingly take on a graded relationship in terms of a regulated threshold of being (still) governable. A crucial basis for this development is that precarization in neoliberalism is currently in a process of normalization, which enables governing through insecurity. In neoliberalism precarization becomes ‘democratized’.

To further expand on all these theses, I distinguish between three dimensions of the precarious: precariousness, precarity and governmental precarization.

Precariousness – here I follow Judith Butler – is the term for a socio-ontological dimension of lives and bodies. Precariousness is not an anthropological constant, a transhistorical state of being human, but rather a condition inherent to both human and non-human being. Above all, however, precariousness is not simply individual or something that exists ‘in itself’ in the philosophical sense; it is always relational and therefore shared with other precarious lives. Precariousness designates something that is existentially shared, an endangerment of bodies that is ineluctable and hence not to be secured, not only because they are mortal, but specifically because they are social. Precariousness as precarious ‘beingwith’ in Nancy’s sense is a condition of every life, producing very different variations historically and geographically.

The second dimension of the precarious, precarity, is to be understood as a category of order, which designates the effects of different political, social and legal compensations of a general precariousness. Precarity denotes the striation and distribution of precariousness in relations of inequality, the hierarchization of beingwith that accompanies the processes of othering. This dimension of the precarious covers naturalized relations of domination, through which belonging to a group is attributed or denied to individuals. Precarity involves social positionings of insecurity, yet it implies neither modes of subjectivation nor the power of agency of those positioned.

The third dimension of the precarious is the dynamics of governmental precarization. This relates to modes of governing since the formation of industrial capitalist conditions, and in modern Western societies cannot be separated historically from the ideologeme of bourgeois sovereignty.

Although precariousness designates both a condition of life and the foundation of the social and the political, it was not until life entered politics – with the biopolitics that developed in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as analysed by Foucault – that governing began to centre in a previously unknown way on preserving the life of each and every individual in a population, so as to strengthen the state and serve the productivity of the capitalist economy. In the course of this new art of governing, governable biopolitical subjectivations emerged. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, biopolitical subjectivations increasingly intertwined with ideas of liberal bourgeois freedom and democratic self-determination.

Governmental precarization thus means not only destabilization through employment, but also destabilization of the conduct of life and thus of bodies and modes of subjectivation. Understanding precarization as governmental makes it possible to problematize the complex interactions between an instrument of governing and the conditions of economic exploitation and modes of subjectivation, in their ambivalence between subjugation and self-empowerment. Practices of self-empowerment do not automatically have an emancipatory effect, but are instead to be understood in a governmental perspective as thoroughly ambivalent. They can signify modes of selfgovernment that represent a conformist self-development, a conformist self-determination enabling extraordinary governability. Practices of empowerment, however, can also break through, refuse, or escape from appeals to functional self-government.

In a governmental perspective, precarization can be considered not only in its repressive, striating forms, but also in its ambivalently productive moments, as these emerge by way of techniques of self-government. In a historical era when contingency is not only subject in a new way to conditions of economic exploitation, the term governmental precarization can also cover a productive way of dealing with what is incalculable, with what cannot be measured or modularized, with what eludes government through insecurity.

None of the three dimensions of the precarious occurs individually, but rather in historically differently posited relations. Basically, it can be said of the relationship between precariousness and precarity that different forms of domination are thereby evoked. The socio-ontological level is constructed as a threat against which a political community must be protected, immunized. Legitimizing the protection of some generally requires striating the precarity of those marked as ‘other’. This especially distinguishes liberal governmentality to a high degree. The threatening precariousness can be turned into the construction of dangerous others, positioned respectively within and outside the political and social community as ‘abnormal’ and ‘alien’. In neoliberalism, as noted, precarization is currently undergoing a process of normalization in which, though the patterns of a liberal ordering of precarity continue to exist in a modified form, existential precariousness can no longer be entirely shifted through the construction of dangerous others and warded off as precarity; instead it is actualized in the individualized governmental precarization of those who are normalized under neoliberal conditions.

In my research on the government of the precarious, I am interested in developing a political and social theoretical perspective that starts from connectedness with others and takes different dimensions of the precarious into consideration. In light of the existential precariousness of every (living) being, understanding social relationality as primary does not mean starting from something that is equally common to all. Recognizing social relationality can only be the beginning of an entry into processes of becoming-common, involving discussions of possible common interests in the differentness of the precarious, in order to invent with others new forms of organizing and new orders that break with the existing forms of governing in a refusal of obedience.

Translation by Aileen Derieg

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