Understanding the Coronavirus Pandemic with Foucault? by Philipp Sarasin

Here is a section from one of the best theoretical analyses I have read on the coronavirus so far. Read the full article here.

4. SOME CONCLUSIONS WITH REGARD TO CORONA

It is clear that Foucault did not speak of real pandemics but that he used infectious diseases as models of thought in order to organize forms of power according to ideal-typical patterns. We are in a different situation: we live in the midst of a pandemic and are subject to, or observe through the media, different modes of appearance of power and government. So what can the three models that Foucault developed teach us?

First: There are transitions and overlaps between the different forms. The complete lockdown of Wuhan rigorously follows the plague model, and every curfew ultimately does so, too. The models show that curfews are necessary when that statistical knowledge cannot be gained that makes possible the liberal smallpox model.

Only when systematic tests supply massive amounts of data about infected and non-infected people, like for example in South Korea or Singapore, is it possible for governments to restrict themselves to isolating the infected and recommend caution for the rest of the population, without however having to impose a lockdown. It is possible to say this without irony or malice: that public life goes on and the economy continues to function in South Korea or Singapore is precisely the liberal promise of the smallpox model.

Second: the plague model remains a threat, even a danger. This includes, for instance, that in Morocco the corona-related curfew is imposed with tanks in the streets and harsh military measures, that in Israel prominent voices warn of a “coup” executed by Netanyahu under the pretext of the fight against Covid-19, that Victor Orbán in Hungary is planning a transition to government by decree, or that in the United States Attorney General Barr is seeking permission to hold prisoners indefinitely without trial. But it also includes that the storage and evaluation of movement data of everyone carrying a mobile phone is unlikely to easily be relegated to a purely technical possibility after this crisis. The liberal smallpox model fundamentally and always requires that the power of the state be monitored with suspicion.

Third: The smallpox model of power describes, more or less but nevertheless fairly accurately, the form of government in times of a pandemic that the European governments adopt, despite all differences and many national egotisms. The strategy to #flattenthecurve means to reckon with the pathogen and to know that it cannot be eradicated, but to “extend” its distribution over time in such a way that the health system can handle it. And the strategy of prohibiting gatherings of several people does not amount to discipline—for what purpose?—but rather is something like a narrow but well-justified and understandable framework the state sets for individual behavior. In general, the call to observe rules of “social distancing” belongs without doubt in the sphere of liberal techniques of government, which are fundamentally based on individual freedom and must respect this freedom. To take care of oneself, to protect oneself, but also, as can widely be observed at the moment, to find forms of neighborly or solidary organization are techniques of the self that fill the liberal contours of the smallpox model with the concrete material of social self-organization.

Fourth: … but the leprosy model is lurking in the background. It emerges in the idea that appears here and there that one should let old people die “to save the economy”—or it becomes factual reality when retirement and nursing homes are abandoned and their inmates die locked up and alone, as is reportedly the case in Spain.

Postscript on techniques of the self

In his lectures on the history of governmentality in which he developed the smallpox model and spoke at length about neoliberalism, Foucault did not use the concept of techniques of the self. Even if there is an internal connection between his quite positive evaluation of (neo-)liberalism and his concept of techniques of the self, which he examined in the 1980s by using the example of antiquity, it is by no means the case that Foucault regarded techniques of the self as a form of power wrapped in the cover of liberality, as is often asserted today (indeed, he explicitly rejected precisely this interpretation in his lectures). The opposite is the case: the “relationship of self to self” and thus the possibility to conduct oneself in a particular way that is, precisely, notdetermined by power was, for him, the basis of the subject’s freedom. Consequently, as Foucault said in 1982 in his lecture, “there is no first or final point of resistance to political power other than in the relationship one has to oneself.”[14] Today he might add: and resistance to the virus. Or simply: take care.

This essay was first published in German in Geschichte der Gegenwart and has been translated for the foucaultblog by Verena Erlenbusch-Anderson.

3 pandemic predictions from Lucretius How being afraid of death is making some people less ethical

3 pandemic predictions Lucretius

3 pandemic predictions from Lucretius

How being afraid of death is making some people less ethical

The global spread of the coronavirus has forced us to confront our own mortality, and fears about illness and death weigh heavily on the minds of many.

But there’s a risk that fear for our own life will outweigh fear for the collective to the extent that, however unwittingly, we start to act in a way that causes harm to the collective – the global phenomenon of panic-buying is an obvious example.

As early as the first century BC, Roman philosopher Lucretius predicted that humanity’s fear of death could drive us to irrational beliefs and actions that would harm society. And as COVID-19 sweeps across the globe, three of his key predictions are coming true.

Prediction one: being afraid of death corrupts our subjective experience of life.

Lucretius made the case that people aren’t afraid of death unless there’s an immediate danger of dying; it’s when illness or danger strike that we get scared and strive to understand what comes after death.

The goal then becomes alleviating these fears. Some people do so by imagining that they have immaterial souls that shed their bodies or that there is a benevolent God, Lucretius writes. Others might imagine an eternal afterlife, or an immortal soul that is more important than the body and the material world.

But such beliefs carry an ethical danger that people may become preoccupied with something that literally does not matter at all. This fear and anxiety, Lucretius says, stains everything in life. It ‘leaves no pleasure clear and pure’ and it could even lead to ‘a great hatred of life’.

The question of the existence of God aside, the scientific evidence does suggest that anxiety about death isn’t good for us; studies show that this type of worrying can lower a person’s immune system and make it more vulnerable to infections(which, needless to say, is not ideal during a pandemic).

Prediction two: being afraid of death deepens social divisions and puts certain groups at greater risk.

In addition to staining one’s own experience of life, Lucretius predicted that the fear of death could escalate social divisions, because when people are afraid of dying they might think that withdrawing from others will help keep danger, disease and death away.

And while Lucretius wouldn’t have been opposed to social distancing if everyone was able to do it, this isn’t what’s actually happening around the world. Due to many factors, the gig economy being a notable one in the bunch, the sad reality is that the wealthy are able to distance themselves while the poor are being made increasingly vulnerable to death.

This phenomenon is well-documented in terror management studies; the fear of death results in a desire to escape, at the expense of disadvantaged groups. In China for example, rural migrant workers were blocked from quarantined cities, kicked out of apartments and turned away by factory owners, as authorities tried to control the spread of the coronavirus.

In the US, poorer workers do not have the luxury to work from home when schools close, and cannot afford to take sick days or see a doctor, which makes them more vulnerable than those who can afford to isolate themselves.

There is evidence of increased social divisions on the basis of race as well as class; Asian Americans are experiencing increased discrimination, with even schoolchildren becoming the targets of racist comments, and fewer people are going to Chinese restaurants out of fear of being infected.

Prediction three: being afraid of death inspires some people to accumulate wealth or political power at the expense of the community.

Lucretius predicted that some people will take advantage of social crises like plagues and wars to try and gain political power to secure a legacy for themselves after death. He wrote that this ‘blind burning after elected office coerces wretched people to go beyond the boundaries of what is right’ by sacrificing the good of the people for political position.

As well as political power, Lucretius warned that those who fear death may also think they can extend or preserve their life by ‘rising to the level of the greatest wealth’. Although, of course, the belief that the accumulation of power and wealth will secure their life is false.

You can look to President Trump as a manifestation of this prediction. By downplaying the spread of the coronavirus in America, Trump protected his electoral campaign as well as the US stock market (and by extension, his own wealth). In doing so, he placed political position and wealth above public health—just as Lucretius predicted.

There are politicians who learned about the virus early on and sold their stock while downplaying the danger to Americans. Now corporations are seeking tax-payer bailouts for economic damages related to the impact of the virus in what Naomi Klein is calling ‘Coronavirus Capitalism’.  

Advice from Lucretius on how to avoid these predictions:

According to Lucretius, being afraid of dying is irrational because once people die they will not be sad, judged by gods, or pity their family; they will not be anything at all. ‘Death is nothing to us’ he says.

Now, not fearing death is easier said than done. That is why, for Lucretius, it is the most important ethical challenge of our life. Instead of worrying about what may happen after death, Lucretius advises people to focus on keeping their bodies healthy and helping others do the same.

We need courageous caring, not fear.

 You can find out more about Lucretius’ ethics in Lucretius II: An Ethics of Motion by Thomas Nail, published this month by Edinburgh University Press.

Published here at The Institute of Art and Ideas

 

CALL FOR PROPOSALS: THE UNDERCOMMONS AND DESTITUENT POWER

CALL FOR PROPOSALS: THE UNDERCOMMONS AND DESTITUENT POWER
 
March 26-28th, 2020, Indiana University in Bloomington.
Organizers: Micol Seigel, Bella Bravo, Kieran Aarons, Mia Beach, Ross Gay, Rosie Stockton, J. Cameron Karter
Confirmed Speakers: Fred Moten, Frederic Neyrat, Laura Harris, Mikkel Bolt-Rasmussen, Adam Kotsko, Dylan Rodriquez, Mauvaise Troupe Collective, Jaime Alves, Daniel Nemser, Jackie Wang
Deadline for Proposals: February 1, 2020
 
We are pleased to invite submissions for the international conference, “The Undercommons and Destituent Power,”  to be held in Bloomington, IN, March 26th-28th, 2020. Amidst an unprecedented wave of global unrest, this international and interdisciplinary conference aims to (re)launch critical debate and exchange around the means, methods, and imagination of revolutionary community in the 21st century.
Responding to our tumultuous times, “The Undercommons and Destituent Power” draws inspiration from two renegade currents in North American and European thought that seek to dismantle and refashion the central categories of Western politics. In Moten and Harney’s call for a joyfully indocile social life that evades the capture of classical politics, in Agamben’s call to rethink emancipatory violence through the growth of a ‘destituent power’ that cancels relations of domination without replacing them, we see convergent eorts to exit the disastrous course of modernity. Is it not in undercommons, i.e. in the interstices  of an imperfect captivity, in the festivity of fugitivity and exile that our shared power first comes to be felt? Is it not through our de-stituent capacity to desert and refuse the identities and vocations oered to us that we gain contact with our true collective capacities, that community becomes thinkable beyond any subjective ‘standpoint’?
We are interested in “destituent power” and the “undercommons” not only for their power as analytic tools through which to think, perceive, and critique our present, but as ethical and political orientations in practice. We envision this conference as a hybrid space of encounter, an opportunity for the stowaways in and outside the University to conspire and explore forms of collective life that evade the political constraints of citizenship, sovereignty, and governance. Proposals should engage with the two traditions, the undercommons and destituent power—preferably both, but at least one. We urge participants to read both core texts, available on our conference website. Below are some questions we hope might inform your proposals:
  • How do Agamben’s call to think a ‘destituent power’  and the unconquered sociality of Moten and Harney’s ‘undercommons’ allow us to dismantle the ruling fictions of our time? What convergences and divergences exist between them? What do categories such as ‘use’, ‘inoperativity’, ‘desertion’, ‘exile’, ‘fugitivity’, ‘planning’, and ‘hapticality’ allow us to rethink?
  • How can we dismantle sovereignty without paving the way for its reconstitution in new forms? What sort of thinking and acting cancels and deactivates juridical and social norms and roles without seeking to replace them with ‘better’ ones?
  • What does it do to the notion of the “undercommons” to look at it from the vantage point of European autonomous thinking?  What does it do to the notion of “destituent power” to approach from the Americas-centered Black radical tradition? Does destituent power take race sufficiently into account?  Does the undercommons do enough to imagine revolution?
  • How can we leap over the ingrained truism according to which governance forms the unassailable destiny of all social organization? Can we imagine a revolutionary movement developing in the absence of either a historical subject or a guiding program or ideology? How, beginning from a heterogeneity of singular and divergent perspectives and experiences, can a common strategic sensibility emerge, without cancelling the generative dierences within it?
  • How do we identify the apparatuses that govern and suspend our lived contact with the world, detaching us from the relations that everywhere constitute our existence? How can we overcome our habit of living as if we did not belong to this world, as if we were not party to our situation?
  • How can we think a sociality that both precedes and exceeds the institutions of economic and governmental administration? How can we articulate the relationship to ourselves, to one another, and to the world in ways that do not proceed from, nor measure themselves against, a law, origin, or foundation? How does our commitment to social life in common require us to do war with the idea of society itself? If bare lives turn out to be bare only insofar as no attention is paid to them, which forms of collective attention and care making us unfit for subjection?
  • How can we reactivate the memory of the refugees, fugitives, renegades and castaways that have always ensured that the West remained an ‘unsafe neighborhood’ for our oppressors? If “knowledge of freedom is the invention of escape,” how can we push beyond the critiques of the present disaster toward the creative procedures that unravel and deactivate it?
  • Can we think a process of collective self-organization and struggle that would not have recourse to what Jackie Wang and Frank Wilderson have identified as the logics of ‘innocence’ or ‘Humanity’, i.e., the impulse to lay claim to a right deduced from a qualitative ‘humanity’ grounded in reason and deserving of expression? Can we think a form of political agency that neither deduces itself from, nor creates a new title to, a basis, ground, or inner legitimacy conferring authority upon itself?
  • How can we search out the vanishing point between Blackness’ refusal of standpoint and the desertions of Humanism from within its own ranks? What art of distance and proximity, what forms of political and poetic resonance allows the dierent lines of flight to coalesce?
  • What would it mean to rethink the social and the political problem through the figure of the refugee, the fugitive, the renegade, the castaway? What if groundlessness, inoperativity, and exile were seen not merely as privations, but as the very paradigms allowing us to rethink political action, the theory of the subject, and the nature of the revolutionary voyage?
Abstracts, proposals, or full papers may be submitted by email to: destituentcommons@gmail.com

For additional information on the conference, please visit our website: destituentcommons.com.

“Understanding the Philosophy of Movement” An Interview with Thomas Nail

 

Kinetic Revolution - Understanding the Transversal Reality of the "Philosophy of Movement" (dragged).jpg

 

Kinetic Revolution: Understanding the Transversal Reality of the “Philosophy of Movement”

Dario Giovanni Ali interviews Thomas Nail, Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Denver on his theory of “kinopolitics.” Translated into Italian and published in Visitors, K-Pocket Guide (Italy, Kabul Press, 2020), 52-61.

Download here in English and Italian.

Dario: In The Figure of Migrant (Stanford University Press, 2015), you claim that the migrant has become the political figure of our time. Human migration is increasingly common in all nations of the world, more today than ever before. With your words: “The migrant is the political figure who is socially expelled or dispossessed as a result, or as the cause, of their mobility. The migrant is the collective name for all the political figures in history who have been territorially, politically, juridically, and economically displaced as a condition of the social expansion of power” (Hostis Journal, 30 June 2015). So what is the social impact of this recognition of the migrant as the main political figure of our time?

Thomas: If migration is understood to be, as I believe it is and has been, a major constitutive social force throughout history, my hope is for at least two consequences: First, I hope it means that migrant voices and agency will be included in the social processes they themselves help to build and reproduce. Those who contribute socially and are affected socially should have the right to determine how they are affected socially. Currently, we are living in a global apartheid in which millions of migrants who form the backbones of so many social and economic systems are treated as if they are nothing or as if they were “illegal.” 

Second, and relatedly, there is an important historical consequence: Western civilization was founded on the dispossession and colonization of migrants (nomads, barbarians, vagabonds, and the proletariat). Western culture has also made it a strategic point to destroy and marginalize migrant histories. My hope in showing migration to be a much longer and larger historical structure is that we will try and recover these erased histories to supplement and even overthrow the currently dominant and exclusionary ones. 

D) Speaking in an interview with CriticalTheory.com in 2015, you claimed that “societies themselves are not, as they are often treated, static entities of fixed members but continuous circulations of metastable social flows.” Historically societies are actually the result of a mixture of different people and cultures.

In The Figure of the Migrant, three words are essential to understand the “kinopolitics”: “flows,” “junctions” and “circulation.” What is the exact meaning of these words, and how are they interlinked? How can a word such as “citizenship” take on new meanings and implications in the politics of movement?

T: A flow is a continuous movement of matter. Societies are produced and reproduced by accumulating a continual flow of materials such as water, wood, air, stone, metals, money, people, and so on. Instead of just letting rivers flow, trees grow, and people move, societies try and harness these flows by continually capturing them and iterating them again and again in a social “junction” or “cycle.” These cycles are what allow matters to become metastable, like eddies or whirlpools in a river. Each cycle siphons off a material flow, cycles it, and discards the waste. There are no perfect circles—only leaky entropic ones—so the quest of continual extraction continues. Once enough of these flows have been sustained in relatively stable cycles, the cycles can be ordered into much larger fields of social circulation. Some cycles are larger, more central, contain more sub-cycles, and so on—and at the limit of these large orders is where you find the emergence of what we call “borders.” Borders are the main operators that expel social waste, dispossess people outside, and fortify the final social junction so that the whole process of social circulation is secured and defended. 

Citizenship is an extremely heterogenous idea with widely diverging historical meanings. Conceptually, I am not sure that the risk of salvaging this term is worth all the dangers and misunderstandings that are likely to come with it. Can there be citizenship without exclusion? I am not sure. I have not written a lot about “citizenship” but rather about “migrant cosmopolitanism,” which is defined not by any universal category such as “cosmopolitan citizenship” but by the singularity of the struggles and demands of concrete migrant groups. There is no final social system or universal subject of politics for me. The figure of the migrant is not a universal ahistorical social figure but a historical one primary to our present moment that demands our ethical and philosophical attention. The challenge, then, is to respond to new figures as they emerge. The migrant happens to be the figure of our time. For example, the refugees and allies now struggling to enter the United States through Mexico are not universal; they are concrete and historical, and we should not presume to know their demands and needs before hearing them out.             

D) Movement is a specific feature of social life. Historically, however, the emergence of sedentary cultures has developed a sort of suspicion toward movement because it cannot be contained, framed and therefore ruled. If, on the one hand, fixity is historically linked to authoritarianism, to control, and to forms of governance, on the other side movement expresses an unrestricted sense of freedom. The jester is one of the most significant figures that had embodied the essence of movement during the Middle Ages. Considering that he was never part of the traditional social orders of Middle Ages (oratores, bellatores, and laboratores), he was harshly condemned  by the Catholic church as an evil and dangerous figure. Some of the contemporary figures you identified are those of the nomad, the barbarian, the vagabond, and the proletariat. Can you talk a little more about that?

T: Movement, for me, is neither good nor bad. It’s not a normative idea. There is, physically speaking, no such thing as stasis in the entire universe as we currently know it. Given this, it makes sense to me to start from where we are at historically and think of how movement is distributed or arranged in patterns of circulation. It is amazing, however, that so much of Western history has been so obsessed with achieving stasis and explaining motion by something else (eternity, forces, time, etc). The migrant, for me, is not a figure of freedom or constraint, but a figure defined by the expansion and expulsion of social circulation and bordering. The migrant is the one who is continually expelled by territorial, political, juridical, and economic dispossession in order to expand a certain regime of social motion (agriculture, cities, kingdoms, and capitalism). The nomad, barbarian, vagabond, and proletariat are the historical names given to a similar historical process of migration. Each name characterizes the territorial, political, juridical, and economic nature of their social expulsion.   

D) In Being and Motion (Oxford University Press, 2018), you further develop the theory expressed in The Figure of the Migrant, and you present the basis of what has been called a “philosophy of motion.” You claim that “the old paradigm of a static cosmos, linear causality, fundamental particles, and classical space-time no longer fits the twenty-first-century reality of cosmic acceleration, turbulence, and continuously vibrating fields.” Your theoretical proposal refers to sociology, economy, law, and politics, embracing even cosmology: It includes a real reformulation of all aspects of human and nonhuman life, and in this respect it sounds revolutionary. What are the political, economic, scientific and aesthetic consequences of a new kinetic paradigm based on motion?

T: The philosophy of movement is a six-volume project with new and exciting implications for politics, ontology, art, science, and nature. Here is a complete list of the volumes, half of which are still forthcoming: The Figure of the Migrant, Theory of the Border, Being and Motion, Theory of the Image, Theory of the Object, and Theory of the Earth. I will not try and summarize each one, but in general all the books try to show that in each of these major fields, movement has been marginalized and explained by something else—and that this has caused some serious errors in our thinking and in our histories. The aim of this project is to invert this situation and offer a new, movement-oriented framework.  

Each of the volumes follows a similar tripartite structure as The Figure of the Migrant: Part I is conceptual, Part II is historical, and Part III describes the implications for contemporary life. Each book follows a similar “historical ontological” method by beginning with a contemporary problem (migration, borders, digital media, quantum theory, and climate change) and then does a deep, historical immanent critique of this problem that ends up completely inverting the way we think about the past and the present. 

I do not imagine this project as a new metaphysical system of philosophy like Kant, Hegel, or even an anti-system like Deleuze—but rather a strictly historical and new materialist project animated by and situated in a particular present. I have no opinion about the “nature of reality in itself” or whether it is being or becoming or vitalist or otherwise. I hope that it is clear in Being and Motion that the philosophy of movement is distinctly different than what we typically call “process philosophy” in a number of important ways described in Chapter 3 of Being and Motion.      

D) I have a question about another one of your research areas. In Lucretius I. An Ontology of Motion (Edinburgh University Press) you reference the Latin philosopher and poet Lucretius—responsible for the reintroduction of Greek atomism into Latin and Western thought—as an important historical figure in relation to movement and new materialism. How can a literary work such as De rerum natura be considered still contemporary in order to promote a new philosophy of motion and a real “kinetic revolution”—as you defined it?

T: Lucretius, I argue, was the first philosopher to put movement and motion first in his philosophy. I spent a lot of time going through the history of the philosophy of motion and was really quite shocked to find that only a few philosophers affirmed motion without trying to explain it by some other kind of substance, force, law, logic, or principle. Who in the history of philosophy thought that nature and matter moved stochastically without mechanism, vitalism, or other exterior explanation? Based on my research, my current conclusion, for reasons I cannot go in to here, is that only Lucretius, Karl Marx, and possibly later Henri Bergson fit this description. Marx and Bergson both wrote their first books on Lucretius, so there is a direct connection.  

With the aim of tracing the historical precursors of the philosophy of movement in the Western tradition I am writing a series of books on a number of figures, not all philosophers, who have been important precursors to this maligned idea of movement. 

To the point, Lucretius is important because he is the first materialist to do away with all residues of stasis. Even the atomists still held onto the idea that atoms were eternal, unchanging units. In Lucretius, however, you will find that he never uses the word “atom” or any Latin cognate for this term. It’s a major misunderstanding with huge consequences for the Western tradition. Lucretius, I think, is really a pre-Western thinker whose most important influences come from pre-Greek Minoan and Homeric oral cultures—and not primarily from Epicurean rationalism. Instead of atoms, Lucretius writes about flows, folds, weavings, strings, vibrations, textures, and pedetic movements without origin or end. Lucretius rejects all origins, all teleologies, all stasis, all gods, and all metaphysics. In the end, for Lucretius, every thing is a kinetic, performative, and meta-stable process that emerges from indeterminate matter in motion. 

This is roughly where physics is at with what is now called “quantum gravity theory” in physics. In quantum gravity theory, space and time and all the laws of nature are not, as Einstein thought, a priori features of nature. They are emergent, metastable processes of indeterminate quantum fluctuations of energy. This is an extremely radical and relatively recent idea to which Lucretius is a precursor, in my mind. Physicists do not have an agreed-upon and experimentally supported unified theory of quantum gravity yet, but it’s where most of the work is being done in theoretical physics and quantum cosmology today. I think Lucretius was an important precursor to this new worldview and thus strikingly contemporary and prescient. 

The Climate-Migration-Industrial Complex

I just published a short piece at the New School’s Public Seminar magazine on migration and climate change. A further development of the idea that climate migration is a form of primitive accumulation.

Read online here, download here.

Thirty years ago there were fifteen border walls around the world. Now there are seventy walls and over one billion national and international migrants. International migrants alone may even double in the next forty years due to global warming. It is not surprising that over the past two decades, we have also seen the rise of an increasingly powerful global climate-security market designed to profit from (and help sustain) these crises. The construction of walls and fences to block rising sea levels and incoming people has become one of the world’s fastest growing industries, alongside the detention and deportation of migrants, and is projected to reach $742 billion by 2023. I believe we are witnessing the emergence of what we might call a “climate-migration-industrial complex.”

This complex is composed of private companies who profit by securitizing nation-states from the effects of climate-related events, including migration. This includes private detention centers, border construction companies, surveillance technology consultants and developers, deportation and transportation contractors, and a growing army of other subcontractors profiting from insecurity more broadly. Every feature of this crisis complex is an opportunity for profit. For example, even when security measures “fail” and migrants cross borders illegally, or remain beyond their visas to live without status as “criminals,” there is an entire wing of private companies paid to hunt them down, detain them, and deport them just across the border, where they can return and begin the market cycle all over again. Each step in the “crimmigration” process now has its own cottage industry and dedicated army of lobbyists to perpetuate the laws that support it.

Here is the incredible double paradox that forms the backbone of the climate-migration-industrial complex: right-wing nationalists and their politicians claim they want to deport all undocumented migrants, but if they did, they would destroy their own economy. Capitalists, on the other hand, want to grow the economy with migrant labor (any honest economist will tell you that immigration almost always leads to growth in GDP), but if that labor is too expensive, then it’s not nearly as profitable.

Trump is the Janus-faced embodiment of this anti-immigrant, pro-economy dilemma and the solution to it — not that he necessarily knows it. With one hand, migrant labor is strategically criminalized and devalorized by a xenophobic state, and with the other, it is securitized and hyper-exploited by the economy. It is a win-win situation for right-wing capitalists but a crucial element is still missing: what will continue to compel migrants to leave their homes and work as exploited criminals in an increasingly xenophobic country?

This is where the figure of the climate migrant comes in. What we call “climate migrants” or “climate refugees” are not the victims of merely “natural disasters,” because climate change is not a strictly natural process — it is also highly political. The causes of climate-related migration are disproportionately produced by rich Western countries and the effects are disproportionately suffered by poorer countries. The circumstances that determine who is forced to migrate are also influenced by the history of colonialism, global inequality, and the same conditions that have propelled economic migration for decades. In short, the fact that climate change benefits the perpetrators of climate destruction by producing an increasing supply of desperate, criminalized, physically and economically displaced laborers is no coincidence. In fact, it is the key to the Trump “solution.”

Another key is the use of climate change to acquire new land. When people are forced to migrate out of a territory, or when frozen territories thaw, new lands, waters, and forests become open to extractive industries like mining, drilling, fishing, and logging. Trump’s recent (and ridiculous) bid to buy the thawing territory of Greenland for its oil and gas reserves is one example of this. Climate-stricken urban areas open up new real estate markets, as the gentrification of New Orleans after hurricane Katrina illustrated. In other words, climate change might not mean the end of capitalism, but rather could actually signal its resurgence from current falling rates of ecological profit. During colonialism, everything and everyone that could be easily appropriated (oil, slaves, old-growth forests, etc.), was gobbled up. The workers who are left today under post-colonialism demand more money and more rights. The minerals left are more expensive to extract. This is why capitalists have increasingly retreated to financial speculation, and now to monetizing their own crises.

If only there were new ways, the capitalist dreams, to kick start the economy and cheaply dislodge huge numbers of people from their land, devalorize their labor, and then appropriate that labor extremely cheaply. In other words, if climate change did not exist, capitalism would have to create it. Luckily for the capitalists, it does exist, because they did create it. Climate migrants now form what we might call a “disposable climate labor army,” conscripted out of a standing reserve of global poverty from wherever the next climate-related disaster strikes, and deployed wherever capitalism demands precarious, securitized, and criminalized labor to be exploited.

We need to rethink the whole framing of the climate migration “crisis.” Among other things, we need a more movement-oriented political theory to grapple better with the highly mobile events of our time — what I call a “kinopolitics.” The advent of the Capitalocene/Kinocene makes possible today the insight that nature, humans, and society have always been in motion. Humans are and have always been fundamentally migratory, just as the climate and the earth are. These twin insights might sound obvious today, but if taken seriously, they offer a complete inversion of the dominant interpretive paradigms of the climate and migration crises.

Humans and Earth have always been in motion, but not all patterns of motion are the same. There is no natural, normal, or default state of the earth or of human society. Therefore, we have to study the patterns of circulation that make possible these metastable states and not take them as given. This is what I have tried to work out in The Figure of the Migrant (2015) and Theory of the Border (2016). Unfortunately, the dominant framework for thinking about the climate and migrant crises is currently upside down. It starts from the perspective of a triple stasis: 1) that the earth and human society are in some sense separable and static, or at least stable, structures; 2) that the future should continue to be stable as well; and 3) that if there is not stability, then there is a “crisis.” Mobility, then, is a crisis only if we assume that there was or should be stasis in the first place. For example, migrants are said to destabilize society, and climate change is said to destabilize the earth.

From a kinopolitical perspective, we can see that the opposite is, in fact, true: Humans were first migratory, and only later settled into more metastable patterns of social-circulation (made historically possible by the social expulsion and dispossession of others). Migrants are not outside society but have played a productive and reproductive role throughout history. Migrant movements are constitutive and even transformative elements of society, rather than exceptional or marginal phenomena. The real question is how we ever came to act and think as if societies were not processes of social circulation that relied on migration as their conditions of reproduction. The earth, too, was first migratory, and only later did it settle into metastable patterns of geological and atmospheric circulation (e.g. the Holocene). Why did we ever think of the earth as a stable surface, immune from human activity in the first place?

The problem with the prevailing interpretation of climate change and migration is that the flawed paradigm that has defined the “crisis,” the notion of stasis, is also proposed as the solution “Let’s just get things back to normal stability again.” In short, I think a new paradigm is needed that does not use the same tools that generated the “crisis” to solve it — i.e. capitalism, colonialism, and the nation-state.

Today’s migrant “crisis” is a product of the paradox at the heart of the capitalist, territorial nation-state form, just as the climate crisis is an expression of the paradox at the heart of anthropocentrism. The solutions, therefore, will not come from the forms in crisis but only from the birth of new forms-in-motion that begin with the theoretical primacy of the very characteristic that is dissolving the old forms: the inherent mobility of the migrant climate and the climate migrant.

Thomas Nail is associate professor of philosophy at the University of Denver, working on a series of books on the philosophy of movement. His most recent book is Theory of the Image (Oxford University Press, 2018).

Climate change is a weapon of primitive accumulation 

Cithaerias Esmeralda MHNT.ZOO.2004.0.976 (2).jpg

Climate change is a weapon of primitive accumulation 

Climate change has disproportionately negative effects on poorer countries and people of color, and disproportionally positive effects on receiving countries that benefit from hyper-exploitable and precious labor – what I call a ‘reserve climate labor army.’ This asymmetry is the result of a long history of capitalist colonialism and racism, which continues now through the bordered management of migration. Thus, contemporary global migration cannot be reduced to merely natural climatic causal explanations (Hulme 2011). The figure of the ‘climate refugee’ is never simply fleeing climate change but is doing so under postcolonial conditions of geopolitical violence and racism. The term ‘climate refugee’ itself serves to cover over the real kinopolitical conditions of social circulation at work that make such populations vulnerable to displacement in the first place. 

Climate change is a weapon of primitive accumulation, or what I would call ‘expansion by expulsion,’ because it expands Western power by forcibly expelling people from their previous patterns of motion and appropriating them into its own conditions of social reproduction. This expulsion is fourfold: migrants lose the right to their land and homes (territorial expulsion), they lose their right to full civic participation (political expulsion), they lose their right to legal status (juridical expulsion), and they lose their right to the means of production or subsistence (economic expulsion). This fourfold expulsion is the necessary condition for the direct appropriation of vulnerable and cheap migrant bodies and for the expansion of capitalist eco-racism. 

Nationalism, xenophobia, and racism also play a structural role in the process of primitive accumulation because they socially devalorize and thus cheapen the labor and lives of migrant workers. If migrants arrived but were not thoroughly racialized and discriminated against, their labor would be too valuable for capitalist investment to bother appropriating them in the first place. Thus, capitalism wields climate change under a triple condition of eco-colonialism: 1) the historical origins of recent climate change are in colonialism itself (oil from Africa, industrial production from slavery, and so on); 2) colonized populations and indigenous people are disproportionately forced to move because of climate change; and 3) these same populations are racialized as dangerous barbarian boat people upon arrival (Moore 2016; Goldberg 2017; Giuliani 2017). 

But climate change, like primitive accumulation, is not just about the dispossession and appropriation of people and cheap labor. It is also about the direct appropriation of cheap or free land. The two go hand-in-hand and have done so since before the rise of capitalism (Nail 2015). At the same time that climate change displaces people, it also opens up previously occupied lands, waters, and forests to new privatized extractive and/or constructive industries. As the climate changes, previously inaccessible areas will be opened up for expanding new markets (supplied with abundant cheap labor), including new security markets for new borders, fences, walls, drones, and all the rest. (Think of the privatization and gentrification of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.) In other words, climate change might not mean the end of capitalism but might in fact herald its rebirth or second wind. 

If capitalism loves disaster, why should we think climate change will necessarily mean the end of capitalism (Klein 2007)? If anything can be commodified, there is no absolute natural limit to capitalism, only relative limits to profit. We are most certainly at the cusp of one of these limits today, which Jason Moore attributes to ‘the tendency of the ecological surplus to fall’ (Moore 2016). Everything and everyone that could be appropriated easily (oil, slaves, old-growth forests, etc.), was gobbled up during colonialism. The workers who are left today want more money and more rights. The minerals left are more expensive to extract. This is why capitalists have increasingly retreated to financial speculation. If only there were a way, the capitalist dreams, to somehow cheaply dislodge huge numbers of people from their land, devalorize their labor, and appropriate it. 

In other words, if climate change did not exist, it would be necessary for capitalism to create it. Lucky for it, it does, because it did. Migrants today ‘form a disposable industrial reserve army, which belongs to capital just as absolutely as if the latter had bred it at its own cost’ (Marx 1976, 784). 

Read more here.

New Issue of Theory & Event, Volume 22, Number 4, October 2019

issue cover image

The latest issue of Theory & and Event looks great!

Congrats to Kieran on the Symposium on “Myth and Politics in Furio Jesi”. Looks like some great contributions in there.

Articles

Reviews

Biographies

  1. Biographies
  2. pp. 1141-1143
  3. restricted access View | Download | Save

 

“Centrifugal Force and the Mouth of a Shark: Toward a Movement-Oriented Poetics,” by Kevin Potter

Image result for Warsan Shire home

Centrifugal Force and the Mouth of a Shark: Toward a Movement-Oriented Poetics
Kevin Potter
Ariel: A Review of International English Literature
Johns Hopkins University Press
Volume 50, Number 4, October 2019
pp. 51-78
10.1353/ari.2019.0033

Abstract

“No one leaves home unless / Home is the mouth of a shark” read the opening lines of Warsan Shire’s poem, “Home.” Connecting this powerful poem to the migrant/diasporic literary tradition, this article will introduce a new interpretive framework for the study of migrant literature—one which I call “kinopoetics.” I modify here Thomas Nail’s (2015) concept of “kinopolitics,” or a “politics of movement,” which suggests that “regimes of social motion” have historically created the material conditions for social and political formation (24). Kinopolitics, in turn, recognizes the migrant as the primary constitutive figure of social history and transformation. Extending from a politics to a poetics, kino-poetics takes a non-representational approach (derived from Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, and Nigel Thrift) that treats literary texts as aggregates of sensible experience and affective maps of migrant mobility. I will explore, then, how these texts depict the migrant experience of disenfranchisement and expulsion and the “pedetic social force” (Nail, Figure 124), or active political power, that migrants are able to enact. I emphasize how migrant literature reconfigures the static, place-based poetics built into a regime of borders and nationhood. I will conclude with a kinopoetic reading of Shire’s poem, showing not only how it foregrounds the centrifugal forces that coerce refugees into exile but also how the migrant’s poetic voice confronts and undermines nationalistic hostilities.”