Wednesday, November 30, 2011

"...have you not forgot to wind up the clock?"

I began writing this before the eviction. Tenses are screwy. I'm letting it stand. I don't want to talk about Dilworth in the past tense yet. Hopefully I'll never have to do so.


Occupy Philly’s continued occupation of Dilworth Plaza has generated a number of pseudo-leftist critiques from people concerned with “labor” and “job creation.” For those of you who do not know, the rationale behind Occupy Philly’s eviction is that a 50 million dollar building project has been slated to begin at the site of the occupation since November 15. The city gets a skating rink; the unemployed can look forward to 800 or so jobs. Aren’t jobs what Occupy wants? How, ask liberal conservatives, conservative liberals, and (my favorite crowd, insofar as they expose the political bankruptcy of Maddow-watching "progressive" Democrats) conservative conservatives, can a left-wing social movement impede job creation? Of course, as they will acknowledge, these jobs will be temporary; 800 workers won’t be employed all at once. But isn’t something better than nothing? “In this economy?” (A lovely phrase that imagines “the economy” as an object susceptible to deictic indication…)

The answer, of course, is no. Such right-liberal criticisms routinize the precarity of employment; indeed, they show how well neoliberalism and flexible accumulation practices have altered normative understandings of work. Not only are we to take exploitation in the form of surplus extraction as the way of the world; now we are to be positively grateful when—happy chance!—a charitable capitalist consents to exploit us at all. Precarity and the exposure to contingency have become the nomos of the contemporary—the way in which the present divides itself. This round of struggle does not pit the proletariat against capitalists, but the precariat against the existentially secure. Of course, the language of the mid-nineteenth century continues to map onto the present: the precarious proletariat, as Marx would always state, were vogelfrei, free as birds, free to starve if they couldn’t secure, say, a low-paying job building a skating rink at Dilworth, while Mssrs Moneybags could shut down the shop for a year and still eat heartily, growing their jowls if not their capitals. But Occupy, I think, has foregrounded the issue of precarity, that the norm now is exposure to contingency, and it’s along these lines that the current cycle of struggle should be thought. They’ve brought this issue to the fore in two ways: negatively, by not making demands for jobs their primary concern, and, positively, by fashioning sites of occupation as havens from precarity and contingency. We might say: An Occupy camp is that place where members of the precariat meet and, through the mutuality of care, free one another from exposure to existential contingency. Even as Occupy thrives on contingency of all kinds—chance encounters, the openness to creative accident, and even bodily contiguity—it has cut a spatial division between the world of precarity and a world of care. In so doing, it has taken over the role of the state: to shield citizens from exposure to unwilled, unintended, contingent forces.

Occupy forces us to think the political from the perspective of precarity. Materially and ideologically, Occupy constructs itself from fragments, conjoined bric-a-brac: “homes” patched together with multiple pieces of cardboard and plywood, flimsy tents lashed to trees, flimsier consensus built through grueling hours and days of argument. (I’m recalling now the one woman who had an indescribable collection of stuff on display, first by the west-facing steps, then on the north side: some radical papers, odd toys, records with no apparent political import, dead flowers, chipped vases…) And, of course, the Occupiers themselves, the precariat, left with nowhere to go but to one another. All of these gatherings, collections, conjoinings were susceptible to interruption. Consider, for instance, the concerns about the coming cold, the weather: we’re actually talking about a political movement, a polis, so precarious that snow could destroy it—and, indeed, by literally destroying people, exposed bodies. Even as it empowered itself in its contingent coming-together, precarity, exposure, and bad contingency persistently threatened Occupy. The substrate of the potential world we would make is the ontological fragility of the world we inhabit.

I take finitude—and thus precarity—to be an ontological fact. So does any economics (it’s a science of finitude), and for this reason economic discourse is always inches away from serving as an ontological discourse. We might say that economics is a technology for negotiating the facticity of finitude, of precarity. It thus risks a certain callous positivism: scarcity is the way of the world. The proper ethico-ontological question concealed within economic thought is: how is finitude, precarity, our given exposure to contingency, to be negotiated, reckoned with, handled? How do we care about our contingent being-here-together?

We can’t unwork this fact of sheer exposure. No one can determine, before birth, if they are to be born into the secured-wealthy or the growing precariat. We’re thrown into our positions—we could call this contingent distribution of security and precarity a “birthright lottery,” with Ayelet Shachar. But, if we can’t control the underlying heteronomy that determines the modality of our being, the contingent assignment to a life free from or exposed to further contingencies, we can make a world that controls the effects of such contingent assignment, that cares for the fact of our unintended thrownness. (Once more: this is what the state used to do, at least normatively.) I’m recalling now the opening lines of Tristram Shandy, a “novel” at the origins of a literary tradition that, we are told, brought into the world the autistic and autarkic liberal subject. But, as we see, exposure to contingency, to an unwilled determination of one’s being, stands at the very origins of this subjectivity:

“I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me; had they duly consider'd how much depended upon what they were then doing;—that not only the production of a rational Being was concerned in it, but that possibly the happy formation and temperature of his body, perhaps his genius and the very cast of his mind;—and, for aught they knew to the contrary, even the fortunes of his whole house might take their turn from the humours and dispositions which were then uppermost;—Had they duly weighed and considered all this, and proceeded accordingly,—I am verily persuaded I should have made a quite different figure in the world, from that in which the reader is likely to see me…”

Tristram’s origins are tainted by nonreflexivity—the way his parents refuse to consider the effects of their actions, as they were duty bound. Contingency undoes everything in Tristram’s life-course, from his name to his nose. But, as Tristram knows, the origins are unassailable, he is factically in the world as he is, and what remains is to manage effects, to negotiate his unwilled presence in the world.

There are better and worse ways of managing the fact of precarity, of exposure to contingency. But it cannot be annulled. Liberals would have us think that the 800 people securing jobs at Dilworth will be freed from contingency, from exposure to bodily undoing. But the precariat cannot be freed from precarity through labor. Precarity will return, months later, jobs gone, skating rink complete. Neoliberalism’s valorization of labor—as an expression of self-responsibility, self-care, and as a modality of freeing oneself from contingency—enables us to ignore the fact that precarity can’t be un- or over-worked. It’s labor’s ontological presupposition.

The 800 people needing labor are precarious anyhow. Far more precarious is the thought of precarity itself. The struggle now consists in showing the insistent, non-transcendable fact of precarity, in showing how we are differentially exposed to contingency, and in developing a modality of sociality that does not seek to annul (through labor, through ideologies of freedom, or both) precarity, but continually (re)organizes social being to negotiate fragility, finitude. The struggle consists, in other words, in showing how a village of cardboard, plywood, and plastic offers members a greater freedom from precarity by insistently recognizing its own, and their, fragility. A fragility that no kind and no amount of labor—not even 800 jobs—can un-work.

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