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2021 | Book

Precarity and International Relations


About this book

This book addresses the implications of current thinking on precarity, precariousness and the precariat for the study of International Relations and International Political Economy. Drawing on a broad range of critical theoretical resources including literatures on aesthetics and psychoanalysis as well as feminist, Foucauldian, Marxian and postcolonial social theory, it explores the implications of precarity thought for three concepts: Sovereignty, Solidarities and Work in International Relations. Does precarity re-inscribe or undermine the logic and practices of sovereignty? As a common condition and point of mobilization, does precarity represent a new labor activism or does it find ethical grounds for solidarities that destabilize identities? How is precarity located, practiced and occluded in work relations? Running counter to the contemporary impulse to grasp precarity and processes of its proliferation in homogenized terms as either being ensconced in national imaginaries, or as ushering in a condition of global precarity and a global precariat class, the book also underscores the entanglements of the global, national and local in the discursive and material production of precarity and precariousness in the present conjuncture.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1. Introduction
This book brings together a highly diverse group of critical scholars to explore the confluence between precarity and International Relations (IR). Drawn from varied theoretical commitments and perspectives, the contributors to the volume offer new pathways towards understanding the implications of precarity for IR. This introductory chapter presents the main themes covered in the collection and summarizes key arguments of individual authors. The three themes—Sovereignty, Solidarities, and Work—not only present new registers for engaging precarity, but also help recast the conversation in IR from all too familiar abstractions and towards material and symbolic experiences of precarity on local, national, and global terrains. This chapter introduces some of the principal questions addressed in subsequent chapters and considers how they might reconfigure IR discourses. Does precarity affirm or undermine sovereignty in challenging state-centric notions of the political? As a common condition and point of mobilization, does precarity represent a new labour activism or does it find ethical grounds for solidarities that destabilize identities? Is precarity an unavoidable global condition of work in the 21st century? These and similar questions pose new challenges for IR as theory and practice against the lengthening shadow of precarity.
Ritu Vij, Elisa Wynne-Hughes, Tahseen Kazi

Precarity and Sovereignty

Chapter 2. Notes on Abandonment
If references to ‘abandonment’ have proliferated in relation to a wide range of recent political discourses, journalistic reports, ethnographic accounts, and social commentaries, the essay argues that the assumptions and presuppositions inherent in the deployment of abandonment as a term often remain obscure and deeply ambiguous, dissimulated amidst the very ease with which this proliferation of references find their contemporary resonance and appropriate relevance. The essay thus seeks to address and engage these very assumptions and presuppositions, opening up paths in which abandonment might find some renewed sense of its conceptual consequence or critical import. At the same time, the essay addresses: (1) how references to abandonment might begin to relate to a more established set of discourses foregrounding questions of precarity and precarious life and (2) how Jean-Luc Nancy and Giorgio Agamben’s respective understandings of abandonment might open up new ways of thinking abandonment, not as a ‘condition’ or bound to a dialectic of security and stability but as an opening towards questions of law, freedom, and excess (‘a profusion of possibles’).
Philip Armstrong
Chapter 3. The Global Subject of Precarity
This chapter explores the universalizing logic of precarity and precariousness in global studies discourse. Originally articulated in the work of Guy Standing and Judith Butler, this logic presupposes a possibility for a global politics of equality between precarious subjects in the North and South based on an emergent shared horizon of suffering. In a close reading of Standing and Butler, I challenge claims about equivalence by calling attention to the liberal analytics that inform their work. Drawing on a postcolonial attunement to historically constituted exclusions, I argue that precarity is better understood as a disordering experience of sovereign subjectivity whose principal referent is the liberal not global subject of precarity. Globalizing the liberal subject of precarity entails the recuperation of its constitutive outside, namely the Third World as the original site of abjection. The de-politicizing implications of attempts to universalize the subject of precarity are briefly outlined in conclusion.
Ritu Vij
Chapter 4. Precarity at the Nexus of Governmentality and Sovereignty: Entangled Fields of Power and Political Subjectivities
This chapter directs attention to precarity in the microspaces of everyday life. Departing from approaches that conceptualize precarity as an objectified condition, the chapter casts precarity in terms of processes entangled in continual slippage between fields of power that are diffuse and indirect on the one hand, and direct and coercive on the other. Recognizing multiple subjectivities associated with any one actor, the chapter also departs from aligning a particular objectified condition with a particular subjectivity to explain how and why individuals may experience the same objectified condition differently, and to give voice to those who refuse interpellated subjectivities.
Nancy Ettlinger

Precarity and Solidarities

Chapter 5. Irregular Labour and the ‘Life of the State’: Precarity, Citizenship, and Sovereignty in Decolonizing Africa
It has been common for recent debates about precarity to attribute the rise of precarious livelihoods to the rise of neoliberalism and the retrenchment of protective state institutions. A number of authors have raised concerns about the erosion of ‘conventional’ modes of citizenship in this context. However, these perspectives often overlook the fact that precarious livelihoods have been the historical norm under capitalism. Governing precarious forms of work—particularly through efforts to manage the fluid boundaries between stable and unstable forms of work—has often been vital to the production and transformation of state authority. This is especially the case in colonial and postcolonial contexts where irregular forms of work have often flourished. This paper examines these dynamics by exploring debates about the political organization of labour in colonial and postcolonial Africa, from c. 1935–1980, particularly at the International Labour Organization, drawing on Gramsci’s conception of ‘relations of force’.
Nick Bernards
Chapter 6. Struggling with Precarity: From ‘More Jobs’ to Post-work Politics
The experience of precarity has become the new normal under capitalism, moving up the echelons of class and occupational background. What was once the standard employment relation for the fringes of the labour market (informal workers, migrants, racial minorities, women, artists, and the working poor) is now becoming a common experience for middle-class professionals and industrial workers of the North as well. By recounting the story of the rise and fall of Fordist post-war capitalism and the subsequent triumph of neoliberalism, as it has been reconstructed by regulation theorists and autonomist Marxists, this chapter wants to show that precarity is far from the state of exception under capitalism or a reality unique to neoliberalism. In fact, for a variety of reasons, it is the post-war full employment economic success story that stands out as an exceptional episode in the history of capitalist accumulation, difficult to reproduce in times of relative peace, informational economy, and ecological fragility. For practical and ideological reasons, this chapter argues, the Left should not stake its political hopes on solving the secular crisis of capital with another (green) New Deal. Instead, we should understand neoliberal precarity as an anti-labor attack on the very legitimate demands for less work and more autonomy and flexibility in work that students and industrial workers raised at the height of the social democratic period. It is this dream of increased worker autonomy from paid labour and the realm of necessity that should serve as inspiration for a true socialist alternative to the present crisis, which should counter the ideology of work (the obligation to work to survive and full-time full employment as litmus test of good government) with a post-work vision that reduces work, diminishes the stronghold paid work has on our livelihoods, and fundamentally reimagines the relationship between occupation, employment, and income along more dignified, socially meaningful, and ecologically sustainable lines.
Wanda Vrasti
Chapter 7. Disability Counter-Communities: Resisting Precarity with Friendship
Inventing ‘a relationship that is still formless’ is how we propose to counter the precarity of disabled people in modern British (Community and) Society. We are concerned with disability in this chapter and the governmental tactics of the welfare reform, which creates disabled people as ‘community-threatening’ and consequently outside the scope of so-called community rights. To find a way out of this, and to resist the precarity that results from this community-threatening label, we suggest a new collectivity that we call counter-community and a new relation whereby we understand that collectivity that we call friendship. We take Michel Foucault’s quintessential reading of ‘friendship’ here to understand it as a creative relationship between disabled and non-disabled people that can innovate a new way of life and new cultural forms. Friendship, exercised in counter-community, allows for the disabled to perform a relational right (as opposed to juridical right) to not work and to live enriched lives in new collective bonds. These bonds have the potential to transform a culture of disability as community-threatening and to create culture—whereby, through lived relations of friendship, we can see performing the right not to work/to not be ‘active citizens’ as a non-threatening way of life.
Ivanka Antova, Bal Sokhi-Bulley
Chapter 8. Precarity and Judith Butler’s Ambivalent Social Bond. What Is the Value of Ettingerian Transconnectedness?
This chapter explores precarity as that which is produced and differentially distributed via the logics of differentiation used to structure subjectivity. Drawing on the work of Judith Butler and Bracha Ettinger, and cognisant of the need to consider that which Sara Ahmed terms ‘staying with critique in its lengthy duration’ in relation to whiteness, an ambivalent-(yet transconnected) approach to thinking social ties is considered. The ‘body reasoning’ (Oyĕwùmí) which structures Western thought is expanded beyond one type of body in psychoanalytic thought. I propose that an ambivalent-(yet transconnected) view of social ties demands a politics that owns the production of its hierarchies, examines that which is muted or repressed, and interrogates the spheres of subjectivity enabled through different types of body/trauma/phantasy/desire complexity.
Nóirín MacNamara

Precarity and Work

Chapter 9. Precarity Unbound: Insurrectional Migrancy and Citizen Precarity in a Globalized World
This work explores ‘insurrectional migratory movements’ and the conditions of precarity they reveal among both migrants and citizens. Mix-migrant populations composed of refugees, asylum seekers, forced migrants, economic migrants, and exiles fuel the insurrectional exhilarations of human displacement, particularly in the proverbial ‘West’. I define insurrectional movements broadly ‘as those movements that have shown extraordinary capacities to pressure “modernity” as the single hegemonic measure for political authenticity, social order and governmental conduct’ (Soguk in Borderscapes: Hidden Geographies and Politics at Territory’s Edge. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2007; Globalizations 12(6):829–833, 2015). I characterize contemporary migrant movements as insurrectional in terms of a ‘surging politics of normative defiance vis a vis the “modern territorial mode”’ that organizes the international order. Migrants lives are at once conditioned by an existential precarity and transformative capacity within the territorial order. On the one hand, at every level, they encounter attempts to plunder their time and alienate their bodies from politics and rights. On the other hand, however, migrants only tolerate the unequal power relations and the associated vulnerabilities by redefining their own subjectivities from those who obey to those who strategically defy the normative ideals of modernity and governmentality. They defy the ideals around which modern, nation-statist territorial orders are constructed and justified, including those ideals undergirding the countries and national communities as well as the international state system. As they do so, they emerge as the existential mirrors on which citizens’ extant and future precarities are revealed. In the last three decades, the citizen/nation/state form has been under unprecedented pressure. Even in the West, the balance of power has shifted in favour of global political-economic forces beyond the control of states and citizenry. As philosopher Paul Virilio observed, modern citizenship has become a process leading to a disappearance of the right-bearing citizenship; where the citizens and others appear as little more than the ‘living-dead (mort-vivant)’ or ‘raw materials’ in the service of transpolitical capitalism and anational states.
Nevzat Soguk
Chapter 10. Within the Factory of Mobility: Practices of Mexican Migrant Workers in the Twentieth-Century US Labour Regimes
This paper investigates the dynamic relation between the transnational social practices of migrant workers and the continuous attempt to capture them into articulated labour regimes across Mexico and the United States. In the first half of the twentieth century, the attempts of capturing workers’ kinship networks and their turbulent movements across the border by the individual action of employers and recruiters was then supported and reorganized by governments under the so-called Bracero Programme. This became the constitutive and permanent inner workings of the capitalist mode of production during the Western economic boom that aimed to valorize the mobility, disposability, and precariousness of migrant workers. Through secondary and primary sources, this paper aims to study the creation of a factory of mobility through the analysis of the tumultuous relation between migrant practices and capitalism’s transformation. This chapter aims to present precarity as coextensive with the inner workings of wage labour already in the Fordist regime, and as a constitutive element of the capitalist mode of production beyond Western borders in order to shed light on the issue of precarity in a transnational, non-European space.
Claudia Bernardi
Chapter 11. The Aesthetics and the Politics of Precarity: Three Films
Precarity has become a potent political problem, but most of the approaches to precarity do not grasp the specifically political nature of precarity. Some understandings of precarity revert to economic determinism as they read the politics off of the particular socio-economic conditions or flexible labour contracts and practices of precarious workers; other understandings seek to ground a transformative politics in an ethics of the recognition of vulnerability but, in so doing, universalise precarity and deprive the notion of any political purchase on the particular characteristics of precarious workers. This paper seeks the politics of precarity in the ways that it shapes the possibilities for subjectivity. It does so through a reading of three films: Adrián Caetano’s Bolivia (2001), Michael Winterbottom’s In This World (2002), and Alain Corneau’s Fear and Trembling (2003).
Matt Davies
Chapter 12. Fashioning and Contesting Precariousness: Unauthorized Migrant Workers in Japan
Within the alleged advent of the ‘gap society’ (kakusa shakai) in twenty-first century Japan, an association of migrant workers with disadvantaged, non-regular jobs seemingly reflects dominance of discriminatory discourses against these workers, which takes for granted the production of them as precarious subjects. This chapter seeks to denaturalize and re-politicize such a presumption, particularly focusing on unauthorized migrant workers in Japan. In doing so, it seeks to press forward two interrelated arguments about the practices of producing and contesting precariousness. First, it is argued that immigration controls, which regulate the transnational inflows of workers and define the conditions under which their entry is authorized or denied, help to fashion precarious labour in ways that respond to capital’s demand for greater labour market flexibility through the creation of institutionalized uncertainty. Second, this chapter also argues that unauthorized migrant workers, who may be portrayed as being at the forefront of precariousness due to their extremely uncertain, insecure, and unstable conditions fundamentally attributable to their status of ‘illegality’ in Japan, are not simply powerless victims but rather are political actors who contest and negotiate such conditions even at the most subaltern level.
Hironori Onuki
Precarity and International Relations
Ritu Vij
Tahseen Kazi
Elisa Wynne-Hughes
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