On insecurity as the governing mode of contemporary life

Brief notes upon reading Isabell Lorey’s State of Insecurity (Verso, 2015) translated from French by Aileen Derieg.


1. For the past couple of years or so that I’ve been reading Books Like This (BLTs), i.e. books written by contemporary Western political and cultural thinkers, critical of neoliberalism, and often published by such avenues as Jacobin Magazine and Verso, I’ve felt that BLTs tend to be rather programmatic: they embrace the telos of sounding notes of hopefulness, by, first, explaining how terrible are the social conditions of our neoliberal times; second, exposing the tensions and contradictions in neoliberal structures and pointing to possible points of rupture and alternative modes of agency, and; third, calling for resistance primarily by the rejection of particular forms of neoliberal governmentality.

2. In the case of this book, Lorey explains three dimensions of the precarious that condition neoliberal subjects: 1. Social-ontological “precariousness,” which is the common experience of vulnerability that is inherent in being human — that is, being mortal and being necessarily embedded in social relations and therefore affected by the will and actions of others; 2. “Precarity,” the differential experience of vulnerability contingent on identitarian positioning within intersecting political and economic structures that determine the distribution of power and privilege, as well as vulnerability to such risks as death, disease, environmental hazards, crime and violence, etc.; 3. “Governmental precarization,” which denotes modes of subjectivization and governmentality, such as legal and cultural norms and other social institutions that produce self-regulating subjects who have internalized relations of inequality, capitalist exploitation, and precariousness as the norm, and competitiveness as the basis of relative security.

The driving impulses of the precarious subject are thus self-care, self-development, self-advertisement, and ownership as ways of immunization against the threat of insecurity. Such relentless self-regulation is the function of neoliberal subjugation, for the “dismantling and remodelling of collective safeguarding systems” (89) and the “privatization of risk” (63) means that the ever-performing, ever-productive, self-securing subject is left little time, space, energy, and other resources to organize and mobilize with others who are similarly overburdened to forge networks and develop practices of resistance.

3. For Lorey, what distinguishes the neoliberal “state of insecurity” from other states since the dawn of modernity  and the rise of individualism is the reason for self-regulation and compliance with modes of governing: in the sovereign state, subjects obey to be under the protection of the Leviathan, in the welfare state, subjects obey to be under the protection of social security systems (47-48). In the neoliberal state, subjects no longer assume protection by the state, and rather conform to the ethos of productivity, virtuosity, and competition (strive to be active producers and consumers, to provide “flexible, mobile, performative-cognitive, affective,” and free labor) out of fear of being rendered disposable and relegated to the death zones of destitution and moral exclusion — e.g. the garbage slum, the red-light district, the sweatshop. The focus on securing the self and one’s immediate society (e.g. family and close friends) reproduces the system of differential precarity, in which everyone is at risk of redundancy and disposability, and being less at risk means accepting that certain populations must be perpetually relegated to zones of insecurity, suffering, and death — “Better them than me.” The illusion of security begins with the process of othering (43).

4. Resistance thus consists in rejecting (“defecting from, fleeing”) subjugating forms of security (the corporate ladder, the government pension, the private health insurance, the personal social media brand) and their “concomitant fantasies of invulnerability and superiority” (Lorey 111), embracing precariousness, constituting networks of solidarity and a “non-state-run public sphere” among the precarious (generally, ~everyone~ because everyone is precarious in the state of insecurity, but most especially those who are the most at risk, e.g. the persecuted, the poor, the homeless, the informal worker, the illegal migrant), sharing experiences of precariousness, organizing a non-identitarian, “non-representationist,” “political form of formlessness,” a “new democracy” (109) defined by social cooperation based on the “logic of care” (94). In such a “care community” (94), everyone watches out for everyone else, and all collectively mobilize to “invent new forms of protection that do not consist in the immunizing warding off and negating of vulnerability and contingency” (111).

Lorey forwards such strategies as the EuroMayDay parades that aim for “mutual understanding about different modes of precarization and collective knowledge production” (107) and “militant research,” which involves immersion in vulnerable populations to better understand how to navigate the worst conditions of precarity “for the purpose of self-organization” (92).

5. I wonder about the strategy of eliding differences in subject positions and identities in the interest of forging a cooperative political mass — I wonder in what ways this is problematic, if it is problematic, and I wonder if it is, at bottom, an expression of radical empathy or of a kind of consequentialism that cares not about who you are, where you’re from, what you did, as long as ~we~ act together to achieve collectively constituted political goals.

I also wonder how effective are Books Like This, if effectiveness consists in conscienticization and subsequent action. In the end, the emptiness I feel upon finishing BLTs exemplifies the limits of (quite privileged, quite comfortable) vita contemplativa. As Lorey says Arendt points out in “What is Freedom?” political freedom “only functions under the condition of non-sovereignty” (87). Who are brave enough to accept perpetual insecurity as a condition of political freedom?


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