On Precarity and the Freedom f-r-o-m Security

Ana Vujanović (2016)

A review of the book State of Insecurity: Government of the Precarious by Isabell Lorey, published by Verso in 2015.


The political theorist Isabell Lorey is one of the most striking European voices in the recent debate on precarity and precarization – terms that describe the systematic inequalities wrought by neoliberalism in the name of financial crisis and austerity, and which lead to such recent phenomena as militarized violence and xenophobia. For reference, Lorey draws from political and biopolitical theory, feminism, gender and postcolonial studies, as well as the interventions made by social and political movements, such as Euromayday, Occupy, and 15-M. This invigorating intersectionalism has created a potent critical platform for analyzing the present moment.

State of Insecurity: Government of the Precarious is Aileen Derieg’s translation of Lorey’s book Die Regierung der Prekären (2012). It is her first book to appear in English, though she is the author of numerous works of cultural and political theory in German. Here Lorey is particularly concerned with the neoliberal “state of insecurity” and how it relates to the process of precarization. Lorey’s long-term research on precarity leads her to the question of neoliberal government, of government through and by insecurity. The first line of the book makes this clear: “If we fail to understand precarization, then we understand neither the politics nor the economy of the present” (1).

Following a foreword by Judith Butler, the book starts in medias res. It confronts the reader with a panoply of burning questions and does not relieve its grip until the last page. These questions concern the general biopolitical condition of neoliberalism. Under neoliberalism, precarious is the new normal. Precarization ceases to be a marginal social phenomenon and becomes the rule. That change fundamentally affects numerous other aspects of labor and life, and Lorey’s carefully chosen cases fall into four categories– freedom, virtuosity, immunization, and care–all of which are elaborated in this concise and dense book.

Instead of going succinctly through all of these categories, let me single out and present here Lorey’s method of unpacking the precarious, as it signals the ways that her critical theory breaks new ground while at the same time displaying her characteristic manner of building arguments.

Notions of precariousness, vulnerability, insecurity and, consequently, immunity, security, and safety, have a long theoretical tradition and have had a remarkable impact on debates surrounding neoliberal rule. At base, they are existential as much as social categories, predicated on the thesis that the human being is, from birth, dependent on the social. Social bonds are necessary and desirable, but they pull both ways: they bring with them fear associated with human vulnerability, the human being exposed to others who all share the capacity to cause her death, and vice versa. And they also, therefore, bring the various processes and instruments that protect human beings from one another.

In Precarious Life and Frames of War, Judith Butler – one of the most influential references in Lorey’s book – contests the current “ontology of individualism” on the grounds that it overlooks the ontological precariousness of human life and body, namely, that they are unable to function autonomously and independently. Butler recognizes that in the course of history these instruments of protecting human lives and bodies were never used equally, that they were instead used predominantly to protect certain individuals from the risks to which the rest of society is exposed. Governmental procedures structured security according to a logic of competition, projecting precariousness into less protected, or unprotected populations: immigrants, various sexual and ethnic minorities, lower classes, women, the underclass.

Against this backdrop, Isabell Lorey distinguishes three dimensions of the precarious that, taken together, exceed the scope of Butler’s argument. The first is, as in Butler, the ontological dimension–the existential / social precariousnessof human life. The second dimension in Lorey’s analysis is precarity, which she defines as a category of order, one “which designates the effects of different political, social and legal compensations of a general precariousness” (p. 12). Precarity is associated with the unequal distribution of precariousness, the naturalization of domination and, therefore, of inequality in social relationships. Lorey refers to the third dimension of the precarious as governmental precarization. By this she means the entanglement of precarization with a form of governing that involves self-governing. In neoliberal capitalism today, precarization, according to Isabell Lorey, cannot be projected to the social margins any longer, as it has become the norm, the rule. As such – and here we can see the theoretical switch characteristic of Lorey – precarization itself has become an instrument of governance. It instigates an overall sense of insecurity and installs states of insecurity within which it can level social differences and pacify frictions.

I find this dialectic line of reasoning in regard to precarization and insecurity cannily chosen for the purpose of criticizing neoliberal government. That government has been based all along on threat, specifically the threat posed to citizens by their own imaginary, pre-social human beginnings. And at the same time, governmental precarization promotes an individualism that has shaken the social to its foundation and will eventually bring us to an entirely asocial territory.

Lorey’s dialectic line of reasoning, which embraces tensions and operates with contradictions, allows her to unpack the genesis and political function of the notion of freedom. Since I find it particularly indicative of the context that defines itself as (neo)liberal, I will briefly sketch Lorey’s argumentation. She follows here Foucault’s analysis of the subject and power, according to which power can be exercised only over free subjects. However, Lorey at that point departs from Foucault and focuses on how autonomous, sovereign, free subjects become free in the first place. From her historical perspective, freedom functioned as liberalism’s stake–its buy in–within the discursive formations of security, so that freedom and insecurity stood in opposition. Freedom as self-government became the norm because those – and only those – who managed to become free subjects and thus sovereign were, to a degree at least, protected from the precariousness of life. At the same time, “all those who did not meet the norm and normalization of the free, sovereign-bourgeois, white subject, along with his concomitant property relations, and those who threatened this norm, were precarized” (p. 36–37).

If the precarious is the new normal, then the implications are grave. Once precarization becomes the norm, freedom–which has already designated the norm–drastically alters its position as well. It does not separate free subjects from “others, who are precarious,” nor is it capable of protecting from precarization. On the contrary, in neoliberalism those who are free are also precarious. The two notions overlap. Freedom’s prevalent role today is to create subjects who accept the conditions of normalized precarization. It protects the state of insecurity, now an integral element in the process of subject formation.

I cannot help but be reminded here of the film Epidemic (Lars von Trier, 1987) in that it shows neoliberal capitalism as an inherently catastrophic, destructive and self-destructive project. Like von Trier’s Doctor Mesmer who travels to the countryside to cure the people infected by the plague, only to spread the disease with his own (infected) kit, the freedom promoted by neoliberal capitalism captures the lives of others. It promotes freedom as a dissociation from the precarious only to bring the free into the process of precarization.

The same goes for the language of protection and insecurity, labyrinths of ultimatum from which escape requires acceptance of insecurity as, paradoxically, a form of protection instead of a threatening, existential condition. Lorey’s analysis, conceptually straightforward and politically unambiguous, is persuasive: neoliberalism makes the poor poorer, the same way Doctor Mesmer made sick people sicker. What comes to mind is the state of austerity imposed upon the peoples of Southern European countries, whose indignant claim “Bankrupt but free!” is more than a rhetorical slogan: it names the governing political rationality.

It is important to note here that Lorey is not only an astute analyst of the state of overall insecurity and precarization, she is also a thinker of possible futures. The precarious are not only victims; they could also seize social agency if they were to concentrate on changing the current modes of governing. This is the path towards exposing the ruling ideology, showing how it is embedded in public culture and private life. Once recognized as such, precariousness would cease to be threatening, and could become a ground for new politics and new political alliances.

Some attempts along these lines can be found in current protests and movements such as 15-M in Spain and the Movement of the Outraged in Athens. However, one of the crucial examples of breaking through the logic of security and protection that Isabell Lorey discusses and affirms in State of Insecurity is the Madrid based feminist group Precarias a la deriva. This case study provides us with an intriguing and potentially far-reaching alternative. Precarias advocates ideas of community predicated on Spinozan “common notions.” These go beyond common identity in fostering the affective connections of bodies. A second, equally important community orientation for Precarias is the notion of “care,” in lieu of security and protection. Interpreted this way, Precarias a la deriva shed light on Lorey’s own resistance toward the ideas of community and communization defined by being united and / in sharing the commons.

From another angle, this brings Lorey’s standpoint closer to Roberto Esposito’s view: community as a form of linkage that presupposes lack and requires shared obligations, not only duty and debt, but also, concomitantly, care. In such a society, society of the munus, it seems that nothing makes more sense than to take precariousness not as an obstacle, a dubious margin or a deviation of the politics, but as the premise of a new self-organized politics of care and its primary concern.

In this regard, in State of Insecurity Lorey makes one more – the most remarkable in my view – move beyond Foucault and Butler. While all three authors have been and will be, I believe, remembered first of all for their attitude towards people, Foucault and Butler speak and worry about extreme social figures, the marginalized and the misfits. In apparent contrast, Lorey pays attention to the middle and the ordinary. However, it’s crucial to note that this move follows her assertion that precarization is the rule that makes the precarious the norm. In changing focus, she therefore does not depart from Foucault and Butler in an epistemic or methodological sense. What she shows, rather, is that the social topology itself has fundamentally changed. That is why this shift towards the ordinary, the “normal“, although described as “only topological,” is truly groundbreaking and makes Lorey into a discerning thinker of our own times, where people–ordinary, common, living people themselves–have become misfits in a society that once promised to be theirs.

Published in Social Text Journal Online, 12 November 2016:

On Precarity and the Freedom from Security