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Precarity and Experimental Subjection
Dale Carrico   Feb 19, 2007   Amor Mundi  
Precarity is a word that is coming to be used by more and more people to designate what they take to be key continuities in the conditions, experiences, and implications of a growing majority of the human population to the characteristic mode of exploitation in the contemporary world.

More specifically, precarity in these discourses indicates an ongoing casualization of the terms of employment under which ever more people labor to survive in today’s world, usually conjoined to an ongoing informalization of the terms under which ever more people struggle to secure the basic conditions of housing, healthcare, access to knowledge, and legitimate legal recourse under which they live. 

Whether it denotes the dismantlement of established entitlements in relatively democratic North Atlantic societies arising out of the market fundamentalist gospel of an endlessly elaborated and augmented “personal responsibility,” or denotes the erection of barriers to the achievement of entitlements for people in the overexploited regions of the so-called “developing world” through the terms of globalization euphemized as “free trade,” precarization describes a social and cultural inculcation of human insecurity as well as the consequent opportunistic mobilization of that insecurity to maintain and consolidate the complicity, obedience, or at any rate the acquiescence, of the overabundant majority of people on earth to the terms of their own exploitation and to the disproportionate benefit of incumbent elites.

“Casualization” is a term that describes the emerging preponderance of people who labor in temporary, part-time, intermittent, “flexible” forms of employment, typically with diminished entitlements, security, occasions for advancement or provision for the future, or institutional recourse in matters of grievance.  Usually this tendency is described as a shift away from the expectations of especially the citizens in relatively democratic North Atlantic societies that desirable employment will be permanent or at any rate stable, full-time, skilled, characterized by relatively secure benefits, pensions, underwritten in some cases by professional traditions like tenure but more broadly by the provision of more or less extensive welfare entitlements. 

“Informalization” is a term that is often used interchangeably with casualization to describe the same trends in prevailing conditions of employment, but also describes the contemporary proliferation of insecure, “unconventional” (though ever more conventional) “off the books” social transactions more broadly: bribery, black-markets, influence peddling, kickbacks, barter, payment in kind, blackmail, unpaid labor, squatting, peer-to-peer production, and so on. 

Jacob Hacker’s recent book The Great Risk Shift captures this dimension of the casualization thesis very well.  In the book, Hacker tells the story of the consolidation of the American middle class in the aftermath of the New Deal.  During this era, a majority of Americans grew both steadily richer and steadily more secure (especially if they were white), as a consequence of health and retirement benefits they received from employers, and welfare entitlements they received from new public programs like Social Security and Medicare, which provided benefits when employers would or could not.  But Hacker points out that this framework has been dismantled over the course of the last generation, exposing the majority of Americans to the unprecedented risks of a turbulent market economy.  “Increasingly,” Hacker suggests, in a fairly typical expression of a precarity thesis, “Americans find themselves on a financial tightrope, without a safety net if they slip.”  Hacker’s narrative of the intensifying precarization of the American lower and middle-classes emphasizes rising bankruptcy rates, falling rates of the insured, growing job insecurity as automation and outsourcing render workers less valuable or altogether dispensable, and a growing volatility of individual fortunes, as family incomes fluctuate in ways that are comparable to the swings of stock values in volatile global markets, but in ways that uniquely threaten the capacity of individuals to survive from day to day or make reasonable plans for the future.

Most accounts of precarity, however, take pains to emphasize the special vulnerability of women, youths, immigrants (legal and especially illegal), and refugees (both political and especially, one expects all too soon, environmental) to the casualization of employment and informalization of general welfare they mean to describe as the current catastrophic precarization of life.  Nevertheless, precarity characterizes the social conditions under which an ever growing majority of humanity lives, even comparatively privileged people who confront diminished expectations and increased existential volatility.  Indeed, part of the special force of the various accounts of the Precarity Thesis will be their facility at connecting up these disparate experiences of increasing insecurity and hence their capacity to provide new grounds for global solidarity and efficacious political organizing.  Meanwhile, at one and the same time, part of the special vulnerability of many accounts of the Precarity Thesis will be their inadequate sensitivity to the differences between, say, the anxieties of a well-educated white middle-class temp-worker in a North Atlantic suburban enclave, on the one hand, and the imperiled existence of an illiterate undocumented itinerate laborer squatting in a toxic floodplain in some urban mega-slum in the Southeast Asia, on the other.
According to the International Labor Organization, fully half the workers in the world—approximately one and a half billion people—live in families that survive on less than US$2 a day per person.  Half a billion working poor live on US$1 or less per day.  The overabundant majority of these people work in the sprawling informal workforce, without welfare benefits, secure housing, basic healthcare, or reliable recourse to the law, farming, fishing and otherwise scrambling for subsistence in poor villages and alleys or rooftop garden plots.  Outright unemployment rates continue to rise globally, while approximately half of the total of unemployed or underemployed people in the world are young adults, aged 15 to 24. 

In his chilling and urgent recent book, Planet of Slums, Mike Davis writes of the plight of this planetary precariat, of the billions of people living under the precarious conditions of “informal” employment, housing, legality, living out a threatened and precarious personhood.  Opening with the description of the historical watershed moment when the urban population outnumbers the rural (an event that has very likely already taken place),  he goes on to delineate the monstrous new urbanity of the megacities in which this population dwells: in squalid desperately violent slums without services or reliable infrastructure.  It is a new planetary polis that better bespeaks the morphology of the refugee camp than that of the splendid historical cynosures of the City, London in the eighteenth century, Paris in the nineteenth, New York in the twentieth. 

The vast “surplus populations” driven into cities by the brutal urgencies of neoliberal austerity regimes, by the reorganization of the countryside by agribusiness, by war, by genocide, or by climate change are concentrated into segmented, surveilled, and unsupported spaces, incubators for pandemic disease, disorganized rage, and organized crime.  In a ghoulish mimicry of the leisurely volunteerism that produces open source software and peer-to-peer collaborations like Wikipedia and the user-generated promotional verbiage uses to sell books, wherever the informal precariat manages to sculpt from the dangerously unstable septic, often outright toxic, geographies to which they are typically consigned something like a minimally liveable and hence rentable place, they are, be sure, unceremoniously displaced as quick as may be, and so function as a kind of unpaid, dispensable collaborative developmental force of last resort.  Low-lying and coastal as these megacities usually are, one can scarcely contemplate what is going to happen to some of these “surplus populations” as Greenhouse waters continue to rise.

It is in Chapter 25 of Capital, that Karl Marx argued that “capitalistic accumulation itself… constantly produces… a relatively redundant population of workers… a surplus-population.”  The long-valorized former Chairman of the Federal Reserve (and former inner-circle acolyte of the breathtakingly bad market fundamentalist guru cum crappy romance novelist Ayn Rand), Alan Greenspan provided ample confirmation of Marx’s prediction, as throughout his endlessly garlanded and prolonged bipartisan tenure he repeatedly expressed the attitude that it was part of his job to keep the economy “healthy” by ensuring that a goodly proportion of people remained unemployed, inasmuch as the job insecurity maintained by an abiding reserve labor force restrains demands for higher pay and benefits, keeps costs down and hence “global competitiveness” up.  Here, as elsewhere, public figures paid by public moneys to work in the public interest diligently work in fact to immiserate some substantial portion of that public to the conspicuous benefit of another portion. 

For Marx, this is all quite elementary: “It is the absolute interest of every capitalist to press a given quantity of labour out of a smaller, rather than a greater number of labourers, if the cost is about the same.”  Given the incomparable complexity of the functional division of labor which renders it difficult to impossible for anyone to gauge in an objective way just what their indispensable contribution to ongoing production really is, and hence demand appropriate compensation for it (call this “alienation”), and given the way our primary to exclusive focus on the price of a commodity available for exchange distracts our attention away from questions of its objective utility or considerations of the conditions under which it is made or concerns about the longer-term impacts it makes on the environment (call this “commodity fetishism”), and given the current globalization of “free trade” under the regime of the multinational corporate form it is ominous to register Marx’s insistence that “[t]he more extended the scale of production, the stronger this motive. Its force increases with the accumulation of capital.” 

In a usefully complementary formulation, Michel Foucault proposes in his Discipline and Punish, that it is no accident that centuries of reformers have been able to demonstrate through recourse to the more of less unchanging evidence of prevailing crime rates and, more to the point, rates of recidivism, that “prison fails to eliminate crime.” And hence, for the typical assumption that it is the task of the liberal prison to effect such an elimination, Foucault proposes the substitute hypothesis that the prison is an institution that “has succeeded very well in producing delinquency, a specific type, a politically or economically… usable[,] form of illegality.” (p. 277)  The prison, and especially (famously) the exemplary prison architecture of the Benthamite Panopticon, becomes a figure that condenses the “discourses and architectures, coercive regulations and scientific propositions, real social effects and invinciple utopias, programmes for correcting delinquents and mechanisms that reinforce delinquency” (p. 271) all of which have their share in the “carceral system” or operation of “disciplinarity” that Foucault finds operating “around, on, within the body by the functioning of a power that is exercised on those [who are] punished—and, in a more general way, on those one supervises, trains and corrects, over madmen, children at home and at school, the colonized [!], over those who are stuck at a machine and supervised for the rest of their lives.” (p. 29) 

n producing delinquents, in an apparently marginal but in fact centrally supervised milieu,” the prison—as one exemplary institution among others in “a carceral archipelago” of supervisory locations including schools, asylums, hospitals, workplaces, and so on—produces “a pathologized subject” (back to p. 277), one that solicits massive normalizing administration at a moment’s notice should the “need” arise, one that is “legitimately” exploitable as a resource should this come to seem desirable, and one that functions as a palpable example of the frightening costs of abnormality for the not-as-yet marginal and, hence, exhibiting through conspicuous contrast, while at once prompting, the exemplary workings of the normative practices that produce “normal,” self-regulating, properly economizing subjects in the first place. 

Precarity discourses typically take such canonical accounts of modern subjection as a point of departure, but then go on to propose that new institutional conditions, cultural machineries, and normative urgencies have lately been set in motion that need to be taken into account to grapple with novel contemporary circumstances of exploitation and duress.  These tend in an altogether unique and unprecedented way [1] to be staged on a self-consciously planetary terrain, [2] to be articulated through rhetorics of corporate-militarist “competitiveness” that bespeak neoliberal globalization as much or more than they do customary (inter)nationalism, and [3] to take the form primarily of technodevelopmental social struggle (and, as I shall elaborate a bit at the end, biomedical developments in particular) among a diversity of contending, differently authorized, stakeholders . 

Although it is undeniable that an insecure workforce has always existed in industrial societies, it is significant that the demands of so-called “Fordist” production models for stable and skilled workers long ensured that this casual or “flexible” labor-force remained structurally peripheral in North Atlantic industrial societies to a more secure labor-force.  Whereas, at the heart of precarity discourse, one will find a special emphasis on the rise and recent hegemony of the contemporary multinational corporate form—which is structurally compelled to increase shareholder profit, whatever the consequences otherwise, while being simultaneously structurally incapable of distinguishing profits garnered relatively effortlessly through the endless externalization of risks and costs from profits achieved through the difficult enterprise of genuine innovation and superior production—and the concomitant rise of postwar neoliberal globalization models that systematically prioritize the demands of investors over the needs of individual welfare, and emphasize “deregulation” for incumbent interests while imposing debt, “market discipline,” and excessive “personal responsibility” on vulnerable majorities. 

(This shift from classical Marxist and Foucauldian formulations is announced already, I would say, in the shift in the work of the later Foucault to extended accounts—many of them finding their way to publication in English only recently—of the rise of “biopolitics” and the operations of a “governmentality” through which autonomous and “enterprising” selves enlist themselves in projects of self-control that complement the controlling interests of social incumbents as these are indicated in the operations of formal governance.) 

By way of a conclusion of this extended meditation on the promising, if problematic, idea of precarity, I want to propose that there are interesting connections for me between precarity and two other topics with which I am preoccupied here at Amor Mundi.  The first connection is to the politics of environmentalism, and I have sprinkled references to these issues here and there throughout this discussion already. 

The emergence of planetary consciousness connected with the rise of organized environmentalist political movement promsies (threatens) to displace the internationalist consciousness of corporate-militarist competitiveness.  (And, as an aside, it does seem to me that no small part of the energy that drives the so-called Global War on Terror is that it functions as a direct counterweight to this emerging planetary consciousness: a counterweight that bolsters incumbent interests precisely as environmentalist movement instead threatens them; and which formally mimes environmentalism as, ostensively, a response to a global existential threat, and one that can displace awareness of a more urgent with the spectacularization of a comparably less threatening one.)  An environmentalist discourse of precarity would register the disproportionate distribution of risks and costs associated with climate change, biodiversity diminishment, material toxicities, soil erosion, and so on, while at once testifying to the interdependence of human beings with the planet’s dynamic biosphere as well as the human interdependence that both threatens and seeks to remediate the damage of extractive petrochemical industrialization on that biosphere.   

There is a second connection, I think, to the politics of prosthetic self-determination, morphological and lifeway diversity, topics about which I talk quite a lot hereabouts.  It seems to me that precarity discourse might usefully address itself to certain so-called “bioethical” quandaries, especially concerning the scene of informed, nonduressed consent. 

I have proposed the phrase experimental subjection to describe the ongoing and upcoming transformation of the historical frame through which agency is coming to be articulated in human societies now under the unprecedented pressures of rapid and radical technodevelopmental changes and social struggles. 

So long as you don’t push the analogy too hard, it can be helpful to think of this frame shift into experimental subjection as roughly comparable to the classical shift from royal subjection to citizen subjection.  Broadly speaking, that involved a shift from an understanding of proper selfhood deriving from one’s sense of their location within a “natural order” overseen by god’s representatives on earth to a conscientious selfhood invested with “natural rights” and overseen by the exigencies of market exchange. 

Under the terms of experimental subjection, to the contrary, proper selfhood derives from one’s sense of their location within an intelligible narrative of ongoing self-creation, and this within the larger context not of “natural order” but of a conspicuous and proliferating lifeway diversity.  Further, experimental selfhood is not so much conscientious as consensual.  The experimental self engages in an ongoing negotiation between desire and risk.  Her every assertion and self-assertion is an assumption of personal risk and cost as well as an assumption of social responsibilities.  This is because, for one thing, the experimental and self-creative subject is a figure in danger as much as in bliss, and bears both the personal scars and skills that testify to the costliness of experimentation for finite, vulnerable beings under conditions of uncertainty. 

Precarization is an inextricable dimension in the emergence of experimental from conscientious subjection as it plays out in all its devastating differences in the world.  And an emphasis on this precarity undermines the facile volunteerism that will tend to overtake accounts (especially technocentric ones) of self-creation narrated from positions of privilege: So long as prosthetic self-determination is figured through the precarious scene of an expression that is as apt to misfire, provoke, confound, embarrass, or fall on deaf ears as it is to be felicitous, it is less likely to take up instead the commonplace figure, and manic fantasy, of a prosthetic encrustation of the fragile organism in a cyborg shell rendering him immune from harm, from time, from dependency, the man in his castle, an atom in the void.

Biomedicine is arriving at a state of something like constant revolution, throwing off so many promising and threatening therapies from moment to moment that one often cannot calculate with ease the impact to one’s risk or benefit in embarking on a course of therapy of just how far along in the developmental state of the art one happens to be.  Nor can one know in advance what the combinatorial effects of proliferating therapies will be.  And so on.  Under such conditions it is difficult to know just what it will mean to say of an act of consent that it is a properly “informed” one.  These difficulties become all the more vexed when we turn from the scene of consent to the scene of decision in which parents and guardians embark upon or refrain from therapeutic courses that will articulate (and quite often, you know, irrevocably) the capacities of preconsensual subjects.

Quite as important, and still more relevant to a discourse of precarity, it is especially difficult to think through the ways in which one might be variously positioned as “competent,” “knowledgeable,” “authorized,” or as already “abject,” “imperiled,” “hopeless,” and so on, and all in ways that will definitively skew the address of therapeutic claims of promise or threat in the first place.  It goes without saying that the Marxian accounts of the production of especially vulnerable “surplus populations” are of special concern in the face of biomedical projects that promise such exquisite outcomes (the radical “enhancement” of desired human capacities or the extension of healthy lifespan) that risks and costs imposed or cajoled onto abject populations might acquire a certain allure, especially to those who are likely to profit doubly (to spell it out: both monetarily as well as therapeutically) by them.  So, too, Foucauldian accounts of the production of “pathologized subjects,” seem especially in point in the face of biomedical projects that would police human bodies into a conformity denoted as “optimal health” for fear of otherwise imposing “unfair costs” on existing citizens or “disadvantaging” future ones.

The emergence of global bioremedial networks, integrating burgeoning clinical trial data, always-on biometric sensing and tracing, complex private and/or public networked medical administration, assessment, disbursal, and record keeping, and all of this supplementing the still ongoing disruptive transformation from a mass-mediated to a peer-to-peer digital networked public sphere, seems to me to be producing a novel and provocative political consciousness—very much like the impact of accumulating evidence of climate change on a humanity that has recently seen the earth from the perspective of orbit and understands for the first time that the world is indeed a planet likewise has done.  We are becoming experimental subjects, inducted in interminable technodevelopmental social struggles, acting on a planetary rather than a national, international, or even global terrain.

The political imagination of medicine is presently transforming under pressure of a collision between a normalizing model of liberal healthcare administration and this “experimental subjection” model of consensual genetic, prosthetic, and cognitive modification.  The liberal model is defined by an ideal of universal “basic” healthcare provision (an ideal at which we never, of course, really arrived in fact, especially in the United States), while the experimental subjection model is defined instead by an ideal of perfect morphological control and of the widest possible lifeway diversity compatible with a perfectly intelligible scene of informed, nonduressed consent (an ideal at which we will just as surely never arrive, either).  What remains is likely, as ever, to be a shifting politics of risk, profit, and stress management, but one which will be differently articulated depending on the ideal that drives it, and one that, to be sure, will manage to be more democratic and more fair the more we manage to ensure the scene of consent is as informed and nonduressed as possible by keeping access to knowledge open and poverty at bay for all.  By all means we will want to ensure that just as we must resist the elite insistence that casualization, informalization, and precarization constitute some kind of emancipatory flexibility and loosening of onerous constraint (as indeed it might be were, say, a universal basic income guaranteed to all as a birthright), so too we must resist the elite insistence that our universal induction into planetary bioremedial networked clinical trials constitute some kind of carefree shopping for elective enhancements when in fact we will be exposed to unprecedented scrutiny and danger (as well, no doubt, as opportunity), and when the distribution of technodevelopmental costs, risks, and benefits is not the least bit likely to be safe, fair, or deliberative unless we make it so.

There are, to be sure, resources for both pernicious mystification as well as for practical hope in the ways these new discourses of precarity variously connect up to the deep awareness—or, likewise, to the all-too-potent, all-too-common disavowal of awareness—of the ineradicable finitude or precariousness that definitively articulates the human condition in its environmental vulnerability to suffering and death and in its social vulnerability to misunderstanding, humiliation, and abuse.  As Judith Butler has commended to our attention in an important recent essay, this attention to (or disavowal of) our existential precariousness can be mobilized in the service of democratizing projects of empathy, conversation, and solidarity or just as easily to mobilize moral panics, hysterical censorship, or punitive wars without end.  It can inspire the necessary planetary consciousness of environmentalist movement or just as easily the crazy rage fueling “our” interminable racist militarist “War on Global Terror.”  It can drive the consignment of “surplus populations” to deaths-in-life that live only in their trace in the life of privilege, or it can drive the emergence of an era of universal consent and, hence, emancipation.

Dale Carrico Ph.D. was a fellow of the IEET from 2004 to 2008 and is a lecturer in the Department of Rhetoric at the University of California at Berkeley.

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