Precarity or Normalization? Yes, Please! A Review of Isabell Lorey’s State of Insecurity: Government of the Precarious

Precarity or Normalization? Yes, Please! A Review of Isabell Lorey’s State of Insecurity: Government of the Precarious

Emilio E Feijóo

In this review, three social conditions of the Precarious (“precariousness, precarity, and (governmental) precarization”) are described. Furthermore, the neo-liberalist use of self-regulation as a means to exert control over individuals is exposed. The possibility to turn precarity into “a form of political mobilization,” as suggested by Lorey, is also explored.

I. From Precariousness to Precarity

In a relativity short and concise work, Isabell Lorey’s State of Insecurity: Government of the Precarious offers a critical account of political and historical shifts marked by contemporary socioeconomic relations –– from the rise of the sovereign state of Machiavelli and Hobbes to the neoliberal withering away of the welfare state. Lorey’s points are not merely historically descriptive but oppositional to neoliberal state politics, and central to her argument is the increasing normalization of precarity as an affective political category used as a method of state control. Neoliberal ideology normalizes precarity as a mode of subjugation through the self-regulation and self-management of populations as products of state power (i.e. governmentality à la Foucault). In a brilliant and ironic reappropriation, Lorey demonstrates that precarity can be decontextualized from a sovereign’s discourse and transformed into a form of political mobilization. In more simple terms: precarity as activism. Seen within this mise-en-scène, Lorey endeavors to give an account of precariousness and precarity in relation to the individual as “a new form of regulation that distinguishes this historical time” (Lorey vi).

Lorey begins by accepting the conceptual distinction between precariousness and precarity (Prekarität) made by Judith Butler. However, their conceptual distinction is not without an equally important third viz. the liminal ideological process that sustains the hegemony of neoliberal state governing: the specter of precarization (Prekarisierung). The three social conditions of the Precarious: precariousness, precarity, and (governmental) precarization are en-framed through an address to self-regulate. Lorey explains, echoing Butler, that precariousness is a socio-ontological dimension of embodiment, not restricted to the domain of the human; rather it is a condition inherent to human and non-human beings as vulnerable bodies. Butler writes: “Precariousness is not simply an existential condition of individuals, but rather a social condition from which certain clear political demands and principles emerge” (Frames of War xxv). Precariousness is an intersubjective condition that is existentially shared between all beings and structured through the social en-framing of bodily vulnerability. However, as precariousness becomes shared by all beings and each body finds itself potentially threatened by others, the conditions for domination soon follow. Domination turns into an anxiety towards others and, consequently, leads to a perpetual state of insecurity.

The second dimension of the Precarious is precarity as a category of order that organizes the threat of insecurity characteristic to the political and social dimensions of neoliberalism. Precarity denotes the uneven distribution of precariousness endowed to “being-with-others,” and consequently forms a hierarchical stratification of domination. It effectively produces affects of “my precarity is more important than yours” and separates those positioned by the address of state power as non-collective entities. This stratification and categorization of precarity is what produces a state of inequality that was, ironically enough, intended to eradicate existential precariousness. With the rise of neoliberal ideology, precarity and inequality as such become the sustaining elements for the legitimization of state power.

Precarization, is an original theoretical contribution made by Lorey and comes to signify the process by which precariousness and precarity become modes of being governed in the addresses of state power, especially in Capital’s monstrous configurations.  Lorey points out that precarization designates the condition of life and the foundation of the socio-political, but that it “was not until life entered politics – with the biopolitics that developed in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as analyzed by Foucault – that governing began to center […] on preserving the life of each and every individual” (Lorey 13) qua strengthening the state as a function of capitalist accumulation. Precarization denaturalizes what is a social and ontological facticity of our being, namely the intersubjective constitution of our way of life, and relegates our subjecthood to a self-made, autonomous and free, self-determined and self-empowered man. But all of this is a sham: it is an ideological supplement designed to further the hegemony of the sovereignty of the state over its constituents.

Drawing on Foucault, Lorey assesses the current political-economic framework, which she calls “biopolitical governmentality” (Lorey 23). As alluded to above, governmentality refers to the entanglement of subjection between the subject of address and the techniques of self-government. Already in Theories in Subjection: The Psychic Life of Power, Butler points out the paradox between being a subject and subjection: we are emphatically dependent on the addresses of power as the very frame that provides the conditions for our existence. Spinoza may have been right that the endeavor of man is to persist in his own being but this persistence is done in some relation to the call of power. Butler’s premise is as follows: “If the ‘I’ and the ‘you’ must first come into being, and if a normative frame is necessary for this emergence and encounter, then norms work not only to direct my conduct but to condition the possible emergence of an encounter between myself and the other” (Giving an Account of Oneself 25, my emphasis). Biopolitical governmentality, in this sense, is the normative frame out of which subjects emerge as a result of power. Lorey follows “late” Foucault’s formulation on the shift of the sovereign as the sine qua non of state power in the sixteenth century to the rise of liberal forms of governance (individuation, happiness, security of property, etc.) in the eighteenth century. This shift in frame provided the economic and political structural conditions for the emergence of biopolitics “as an indispensable element in the development of capitalism” (Lorey 25). New forms of subject formation shifted from the imposition of hierarchical power to the horizontal distribution of power where each citizen regulated his or her own formation. Populations were quantified and delineated from others, producing a cult of self-mastery. Individualization became the precondition for mastering one’s own existential precariousness. And most importantly, entire populations under the frame of biopolitics were formed for the purposes of capitalist accumulation. In a sense, the pernicious logic of capital said: “Be free, be merry, and cultivate your authentic potential as free ‘human beings’; but what was not directly explicit in this imperative was that the call was for the regulation of bodies through self-management, as a means to consume more and cope with precariousness. Did not Horkheimer and Adorno make a similar point regarding late capitalism and leisure time?“Amusement under late capitalism is the prolongation of work. It is sought after as an escape from the mechanized work process, and to recruit strength in order to be able to cope with it again. But at the same time mechanization has such a power over man’s leisure and happiness, and so profoundly determines the manufacture of amusement goods, that his experiences are inevitably after-images of the work process itself” (Horkheimer and Adorno 109)

The ambivalence of governmentality (the right to control your own body, work on it, develop it, and regulate it, etc.) requires a constant reiteration of norms through the frame of the state. The state, however, is in constant threat of being disavowed if subjects no longer are sustained by their address of power. It is precisely in this scenario where Lorey sees a potential to use precarity to produce agency and political emancipation. Lorey points out that 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” (14) they hegemonicially normalize the perpetual state of insecurity as the only game in town. The norm of neoliberalism is a continuous state of insecurity and protection. Neoliberal ideology is none other than crisis capitalism as an Anteus trope; the strength of its power lies in “running aground” (zugrundegehen). Paradoxically, the very “going to the ground” is its grounding, as the only viable socio-economic reality (Hegel and Marx taught us that). Does the current state of austerity measures across the globe, in particular Western Europe, appears to confirm Lorey’s assessment of precarization as the norm to the rule and not the exception? And is not her description of governmental precarization not the prima facie example of governments subjecting their citizens to constant surveillance under the pretense of freedom?

II. The Welfare State and Neoliberalism

In her book, Lorey ventures to trace out the current social-science research on precarity studies. Sedimented in the French sociological tradition, exemplified by Pierre Bourdieu and Robert Castel, Lorey explores the various negative ways precarity has been constructed. In the late 1990s, Bourdieu and Castel feared that collective resistance against precarity would be an impossible task. Precarization studies became plagued with a proliferation of struggles that failed to take into account the potential that collectivization has in the context of precarity. In other words, Bourdieu and Castel missed the potential that social movements like EuroMayDay (and we can now add Podemos and SYRIZA) has had on recontextualizing precarity. The precarious, under this new political horizon, cannot be unified or represented because they are dispersed in both the relations of production and diverse modes of subjugation. Precarity is not limited to work and labor but extended to life itself. Castel’s work, in the context used by Lorey, boils down to the return of insecurity. According to Castel, wage labor was associated for many centuries with one of the most insecure forms of sustenance.Does not the demand for a renta básica championed by Hardt/Negri, and enacted by Brazil in 2004, fall into this trap?) It was only within the last century did “European and North American welfare states succeed in removing wage labor from disadvantage” (Lorey 45). In the last thirty years, however, the welfare state of the second half of the twentieth century has experienced the erosion of social-welfare.

Castel writes that we ought to speak of the ‘return of insecurity’ as a new dynamic that sustains contemporary states, which are not bound up with wage labor but encapsulated with a heightened sense of crisis, anxiety, threat, tension, protection, individualization and security. The virus of precarity, under the beguile of late capitalism, is immunized with a supplement of permanent crisis. Castel proposes that the marginalized precarious be integrated into a “social middle,” because their precarity poses a threat to the break-up of society. Lorey, however, is highly suspicious of the logic of integration, because it is never politically neutral, as those who are integrated are almost always products of a prototypic class. Instead, she offers a compelling account of precarity as a form of political mobilization where the precarious recognize a social relationality in the process of becoming-common. It is a practice that forms the Precariat but not in terms of identitarian or representationalist politics, rather as new modes of collectivization and social organization.See Becoming Common: Precarization as Political Constituting by Isabell Lorey As alluded to above, the precarious cannot be permanently unified or represented because they come from a multiplicity of subjectivities not limited to economic exploitation or class. Do we not have a similar theorization in the post-Marxian camp as inaugurated by Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe in 1985 with Hegemony and Socialist Strategy? And is this not within the thirty-year range with respect to the withering away of the welfare state and the rise of neoliberalism as an ideology? In nuce, Laclau and Mouffe proposed that class is no longer a priori the determining demand for political mobilization –– although it can be mobilized as a potential region for social transformation. Instead, a multiplicity of demands are combined, constructed, and articulated, qua a more expansive social horizon not limited solely to the economic. 

The withering away of the welfare state (designed to be a safeguard for the precarious of society) becomes precarious itself as it ventures to manage and reduce risk through state apparatuses (e.g. the military, social security, the legal system). Under neoliberal ideology, the socio-ontological dimension of society (precariousness) and the political community that is protected from the threat of danger (precarity) is, according to Lorey, constantly immunized from the threat of what is “other.” The other functions to legitimize the state of insecurity as a specter that continually haunts the safety of the society. To illustrate how state power relies on the ideological supplement of insecurity and protection, let us briefly turn to Waiting for the Barbarians by J. M. Coetzee: the unnamed Magistrate’s peaceful existence is disturbed by the Empire’s declaration of a state of emergency. Its Third Bureau prepares for the imminent attack of the indigenous barbarians. The nameless Magistrate, when confronted with the captured barbarians, and most poignantly with the barbarian girl, begins to question the legitimacy of the Empire. In seeing the “other” and the precariousness of the barbarian girl, he is prompted to act to preserve her life for the sake of his desire, only to be disavowed by the community that once sustained him.“One thought alone preoccupies the submerged mind of Empire: how not to end, how not to die, how to prolong its era. By day it pursues its enemies. It is cunning and ruthless, it sends its bloodhounds everywhere. By night it feeds on images of disaster: the sack of cities, the rape of populations, pyramids of bones, acres of desolation” (Coetzee 154) He remains precarious but no longer within the frame of the Empire because he is in turn “othered” by the community that once sustained him. For example, crises and “othering” frequently occur with reactionary groups who demagogue over a perpetual state of crises and blame societies’ troubles on immigrants. We only have to look at Marine Le Pen and the Front national in France or Republican demagoguery over “illegals” (sic) in the United States.

In certain respects, the “state of insecurity” will only continue to increase as neoliberal ideology normalizes precarity. But could the electoral success of right-wing populist movements with their xenophobic, isolationist, and protectionist rhetoric be the counter-hegemonic weight needed to neutralize neoliberal ideology? And is the election of Donald Trump (and quite possibly Marine Le Pen) the moment of the withering away of neoliberal ideology? Or is it the ideological construction par excellence when a reality exceeds fantasy and the former feels less real than the latter? In other words, if a phatasmatic and celebrity figure like “Trump” can be elected, what does that say about our political and social reality? In a nutshell, whether neoliberal ideology or right-wing xenophobic populism prevail, they are still under the hospices of capitalist exploitation and it is the task of the left to carve out a space within this socio-political “reality.” Lorey proposes an interesting counter-hegemonic operation that takes back, so to speak, precarity as such.

III. ‘Your Public is invading my Private!’ and ‘Your Private is invading my Public!

The public/private coupling of human activity has increasingly become blurred under late capitalism. Labor functions in relation to private leisure in order for the subject to be more efficient in the “productive” public sphere. Self-realization takes place, not in explicitly private terms, but as a performance in the public sphere. Lorey cites an exquisite passage from Paolo Virno’s A Grammar of the Multitude which is worth quoting in full:

I believe that in today’s forms of life one has a direct perception of the fact that the coupling of the terms public-private as well as the coupling of the terms collective-individual, can no longer stand up on their own, that they are gasping for air, burning themselves out. This is just like what is happening in the world of contemporary production. (Lorey 74)

Aside from the delectable prosopopoeia Virno uses to characterize the implosion of the terms ‘public-private,’ his point is a salient one: the modes of production involve more than labor in the traditional sense. There are different modes of production that are hegemonic based on intellect, thinking, speaking, and affects that produce different socialites without the limitations to the place and time of wage labor. In more direct terms, they are overdetermined. But if manufacturing labor power is no longer the dominant mode of production for many in neoliberal economies, then in what sense can we legitimately say that a group can mobilize in the public sphere without having to rely solely on a discourse of precarious work conditions? In other words, are there other factors or elements that can function to ameliorate working conditions without having to recourse to strict economic demands? Lorey draws on Hannah Arendt’s concept of the virtuoso, or performing artist, who exposes herself to the gaze of the other. The act of performing does not have an end (tangible) product in mind but it is the performance itself that outlasts the activity. In this sense, for Arendt, politics is an act of performance that exposes itself to the gaze of others and outlasts any immediate performative action. Out of this space of performance, arises a politics of freedom; a place where acrobatic freedom-acts are produced in relation to cohabiting with others. But what about productive labor (in Smith’s sense) and the virtuoso worker today? According to Lorey, “performative-virtuoso labor becomes a new form of productive labor” (Lorey 83) where knowledge, service, communication, and affects become incorporated into the capitalist production process. It is as if capital can adapt to the different relations it has enamored with its subjects and whose shock absorbers prevent it from collapsing in on itself. Is this not a monstrous robotic hybrid; a cross between Marx’s vampiric metaphor and Weber’s tentacle metonymy?

The most innovative of Lorey’s contribution in her book is a political strategy that re-appropriates the political dimension of the Precarious as precarity. Using a group of feminist activists from Madrid as an example, Lorey demonstrates how Precarias a la deriva have appropriated the Situationist dérive as a strategy to enhance the status of care. The Precarias venture out into the city without a directed goal and explore the everyday precarized life in order to find what commonality might emerge from vulnerable bodies. Instead of searching for a common identity, which presupposes representation, in a Spinozian pastiche they organize what is “common to and property of the human body and such other bodies as are wont to affect the human body” (Lorey 93). Developed in these encounters and exchanges, the multiplicities and singularities of precarious life manifest themselves around these common notions irrespective of neoliberal dispositifs. The refusal to be part of the state apparatus effectively functions to reject the normative framework of the state and produces a new and more liberating cooperative based around the notion of care. In line with Virno, this exodus in terms of massive defection from the state, institutes “a non-state run public sphere” (Lorey 101) that achieves a radically new form of democracy.

Lorey remains optimistic in that she thinks that modes of self-governing are “incalculable and potentially empowering” (Lorey 106). Inherent to these new modes of subjugation, Lorey believes that the precarious subject can elude neoliberal forms of domination and perform new practices that are resistive to hegemonic powers, or more precisely, en-frame multiple subjectivities where ‘the new’ can emerge. But do we have a choice?

In a now oft-quoted joke by the Marx Brothers, popularized by Žižek, Groucho is asked: “Tea or coffee?” His response: the disjunctive “Yes, please!” Why this bizarre and out of place affirmation? The point is never simply the joke but the structure of the joke as such. “Tea or coffee? Yes, please!” refers to both tea AND coffee without “effacing the disjunction between them” (Wood 11).See Kelsey Wood’s Žižek: A Reader’s Guide p.11 and Rex Butler’s Slavoj Žižek: Live Theory p.154n10 for an explanation of the structure of the joke. In other words, the difference between the two terms are preserved, yet contrasted by a pseudo-response to a false “free” choice. The structure of the joke reveals the false dichotomy at-hand by affirming both a conjunction (‘or’) and a disjunction (the lack of correspondence between the interrogatory and the imperative). The disjunctive response operates as a refusal to the false choice present in the options given to the interlocutor.Much like Hegel’s critique of the force of Understanding in his Preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit (¶ 32) as tearing asunder what belongs together into abstractions, a joke (when each constituent part is explained) losses its humor and the punch line losses its bravado; not to mention that we totally miss the point. “Precarity or Normalization?” refuses the false “free: choice at hand by answering in radically different form: “Yes, Please” is its own radii refusing and resisting the normative framework of contemporary state power supplemented by neoliberal ideology.

Lorey’s innovative account of the precariousness of life in political discourse, as an indispensable affect, ought to be considered when formulating any sort of political mobilization. The affective dimensions of precarity; the address of power relations in daily life; and the en-framing within normative discourses provides, ironically enough, the very conditions of freedom from state power. Although the spectral totality of capital continues to haunt us in all its monstrous ways, it does gives us its own sepulture to bury the ghosts; provided that we no longer sustain the ghosts with our materiality, something for which they greedily wait. The ghosts “won’t starve but we will perish” (Kafka 223). 

Works Cited

Butler, Judith. Giving an Account of Oneself. New York: Fordham University Press, 2005. Print.

Butler, Judith. Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence. London: Verso, 2004. Print.

Butler, Judith. The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997. Print.

Butler, Rex. Slavoj Žižek: Live Theory. New York: Continuum, 2005. Print.

Coetzee, J. M. Waiting for the Barbarians. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin, 1982. Print.

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich, Arnold V. Miller, and J. N. Findlay. Phenomenology of Spirit. Oxford: Clarendon, 1977. Print.

Horkheimer, Max, Theodor W. Adorno, and Gunzelin Schmid Noerr. Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2002. Print.

Kafka, Franz, Milena Jesenská, and Willy Haas. Letters to Milena. New York: Schocken, 1954. Print.

Lorey, Isabell, and Aileen Derieg. State of Insecurity: Government of the Precarious. London: Verso, 2015. Print.

Lorey, Isabell “Becoming Common: Precarization as Political Constituting” e-flux Journal n.p. June-August 2010. Web. 21 Aug. 2015

Wood, Kelsey. Žižek: A Reader’s Guide. Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012. Print.