:: Article

from a state of insecurity to a community of care

By Max Sipowicz.


Isabell Lorey, State of Insecurity: Government of the Precarious,
translated by Aileen Derieg (Verso, 2015)


Isabell Lorey is a political theorist whose past work has encompassed theories of governance, modernity, and biopolitics. In State of Insecurity, her first book translated into English, she argues that “precarity,” here understood as the idea of living with an unforeseeable scarcity and contingency, is not merely the result of liberal and neoliberal forms of government, but is also increasingly the preferred form of governing through the use of various methods she refers to as “precarization” in order to govern. Lorey highlights the importance in this notion in the opening sentence of the book, where she states that “[i]f we fail to understand precarization, then we understand neither the politics nor the economy of the present.” Indeed, her work explores this concept of precarization and places it within the social, political, and historical contexts of modern governmentality. To paraphrase philosopher Judith Butler’s foreword to this text, its contribution is important as it allows us to understand that precarity is a “new form of regulation that distinguishes this historical time.” Lorey’s book is also important as it charts out a possible exit out of precarity, entering into what the author has refers to as a “community of care.”

State of Insecurity sets out to explore a number of things. Firstly, Lorey defends an understanding of precariousness in a threefold manner: as precariousness taken as a socio-ontological dimension of bodies, both human and non-human; as “precarity,” which is to be understood as a form of categorising various effects of political, social, and legal consequences of precariousness; and lastly as “governmental precarity,” which designates the modes of governing since the formation of the industrial capitalist condition. The second concern of the book is the development of a historical account of modes of government to show how precarity permeates everyday life. By addressing these two concerns, Lorey goes on to show that precarization is not an exception that one might find only in countries struggling with their continual economic development, but also, increasingly, the preferred form of government in the West.

The first of these concerns is addressed by Lorey through an engagement with several other thinkers. She draws on the work of philosophers such as Michel Foucault and Judith Butler, as well as sociologists such as Robert Castel, in order to set up the connection between the notions of precarity and biopolitics; she does this to show that precarity arises as an effect of the structural political and legal regulations of modern states, which are intended to protect against general, existential precarity. She argues that governments begin a process of “biopolitical immunization” by which the relations of domination pervading modern politics become legitimized. To clarify this further she writes: “The security of the community is regulated through the integration of a neutralized and domesticated potential danger, which is in part produced by security techniques for their own legitimization.”

Lorey begins the book with an engagement with Butler by which she comes to define the notion of precarity. She argues that Butler’s position is that a lack of recognition for the fundamental precariousness of life is the starting point in analyses of domination. Lorey expands on this by saying that Butler’s formulation commits one to an ontological stance that must be thought in relation to social and political contexts, thus forcing one to an analysis of domination in terms of the analysis of political and social contexts which protect some lives and not others. This connection between the two notions, of precarity and domination, guides the remaining argument of State of Insecurity, leading to the ultimate conclusion that governmental precarity is not just a mode of domination but the primary mode by which states dominate and subjectify their citizens.

This is picked up in the second chapter through an interaction with Foucault’s work, and the development of the notion of “biopolitical governmentality.” What is meant by this is a structural entanglement between the government of a state and the techniques by which governing takes place. Lorey recalls Foucault’s analysis of power to show that “by the end of the eighteenth century, the strength and wealth of a state depended increasingly on the health of its population,” and therefore on biopolitics. This shift in the focus of governing, Lorey argues, led to a reduction of general existential precariousness to ensure an economically productive workforce on which the state depended.

In her engagement with Foucault, Lorey explores the historical background and the shift towards “governmental precarity” as a form of biopolitics. Lorey’s historical argument develops from early concepts of the “sovereign” in Machiavelli and Hobbes. In these accounts, the state was governed not for the benefit of the people, but rather for the benefit of the monarch or government itself. With the advent of liberalism and the rise of the bourgeoisie in the early-eighteenth century, and then later in the eighteenth century with the continued rise of a liberal political economy, the notion of sovereignty changed from “rule for the sake of the sovereign” and the people became the locus of the state’s power, as the strength and wealth of a state became increasingly dependent on the health of its population. This changes again with the advent of neoliberalism, where the safeguarding no longer needs the kind of welfare provided by the liberal welfare state, and instead focuses on protection and security.

Lorey addresses a worry voiced by the prominent French sociologist Robert Castel that the increase in precarization on a global scale might lead to the dissolution of society. Castel, Lorey points out, is one of the originators,—along with another sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu—of the field of precarization research. His argument is that with the erosion of the welfare systems provided by the state will come a destabilization of security for wage workers, leading to what he terms a “return of insecurity.” Lorey further describes this as “not simply a repetition of the old misery [of precarious working conditions] but rather an insecurity that is newly bound up with wage labor.” What is at stake here, for Castel, is the independence of the entire working class, which relies on the social security provided by the welfare state as an escape from precarity. The return of general precarity, Castel’s argument goes, will lead to a fatal wounding of the state, which he argues, following Hobbes, has as its key purpose the provision of security for its members.

In response to Castel’s worries, Lorey argues that the rise in governmental precarity will lead to new, alternative forms of self-government. She writes that Castel is not wrong in his diagnosis of the increasing pervasion of insecurity within modern societies, but what she takes issue with is his lack of consideration for an increasing normalization of precarity that can be seen throughout societies in the Western world. What she therefore argues is that rather than aiming for a realm beyond politics, a completely new place of living together needs to be reinvented in order for radically new forms of democracy to become actualized. Her interest is thus to emphasize the potentialities for change within power relations themselves. As precarity is unavoidable, Lorey argues here that it is at the same time what gives the potentiality for seeking new forms of governance, which will focus on care instead of emphasizing security and protection.

Lorey’s solution is what she terms a “community of care,” that is a community in which one’s relationship to others is emphasized, unlike liberal societies where the individual is elevated above the society. The first step to realize this is an exploration and recognition of what is commonly shared, which will allow “the potential for changing existing conditions to become emphasized.” This will allow for addressing the growing precariousness of the world, which “always exists in relation to others and is thus constantly linked to social and political possibilities of action.” The establishment of this community of care must necessarily be considered a political action. Lorey argues that “[like] precariousness, what is in common is not something that has always already existed, to which recourse can be had; rather, it is something first produced in political action, because shared differentness does not outside the social and the political.” Her solution is therefore not an abandonment of politics, but rather a striving towards forms of self-government and resistance to precarization within current political models.

Given the brevity of State of Insecurity, Lorey impresses with the scope and depth of her engagement with the concept of precariousness and the strength of her argument. Without abandoning clarity she manages to provide a thorough summary of the historical context out of which her concept of precarity develops, while at the same time maintaining an analytical and critical excellence. Her solution to the problem precariousness poses for modern societies is interesting, and shows that revolutionary potential can affect political situations from within, and not merely from without.



max sipowicz

Max Sipowicz is a writer from Melbourne. He’s currently writing an MA dissertation on Immanuel Kant’s politics. He blogs here and tweets @maxsipowicz.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, May 1st, 2015.