The Precarious Minimum

Precarity has become the central logic of neoliberal governance. An excerpt from the new book State of Insecurity.

Governmental precarization does not inevitably eat its way through society like a virus spreading resistance. On the contrary, despite the transnational struggles of the precarious, which marked the entire 2000s, and despite the protests of 2011 especially in southern Europe and the US, it currently seems possible, at least in some of the richer parts of Europe, for citizens to come to terms with social insecurity in the most different ways and in the most diverse social positions, to handle the privatization of risks and contribute to the normalization of precarization through subjugation and conformity – borne by their fear of being replaceable.

Contrary to [Robert] Castel’s threat scenario,

In a previous chapter, Lorey argues that Castel’s is an immunological argument which sees precarity as an economic, social and psychological condition among those on the “margins of society”, a condition which, as the ranks of the precarious increase, threatens to infect the stable welfare-state protected “central” population (e.g: middle-class white men) with fear and social disintegration. -Ed.
neither the security of a social order nor neoliberal governing techniques are presently endangered by ‘precarity’ spreading out from the ‘margins’. Precarization has, rather, long since arrived in the so-called middle of society. Precarious living and working conditions are currently being normalized at a structural level and have thus become a fundamental instrument of governing.

The result of the normalization of precarization, however, is certainly not that we are currently living in an insecurity society; we still live in a security society, but it is one that has become governable through precarization. The state is not withdrawing from all formerly fundamental institutions of safeguarding. In neoliberalism, however, safeguarding no longer needs the extent of liberal welfare-state techniques of protection. Instead the state increasingly limits itself to discourses and practices of police and military safeguarding, which in turn increasingly operate with disciplinary control and surveillance techniques. At the state level, political and social safeguarding are still just about balanced: the more social safeguards are minimized, and the more precarization increases, the more there is a battle to maximize domestic security. Migrant others, in particular, must repeatedly demonstrate through assimilative integration that they are suitable for the collective of those who are still minimally safeguarded – otherwise they can be declared a security risk.

When domestic security discourses are correlated with normalized social insecurity in neoliberalism, then the fundamental dispositive of liberalism shifts. Instead of freedom and security, freedom and insecurity now form the new couple in neoliberal governmentality: the state does not on principle limit freedom or combat insecurity, but both become the ideological precondition for governmental precarization.

What we are dealing with specifically are strategies for securing domination which rebuild existing concepts of security so that insecurity becomes a normalized mode of governing. The central paradigm of the governability of biopolitical subjectivations currently consists neither in safeguarding through a representative sovereign nor in welfare-state institutions of safeguarding. What characterizes this paradigm is rather a ‘neoliberal government of insecurity’.

According to Maurizio Lazzarato in his 2008 book on the ‘government of inequalities’, all safeguards against risks, all socio-political institutions, operate within a neoliberal logic of ‘dispositives that must function with a minimum’. This minimum defines a threshold in a political sense: specifically, the varying border area in which it is repeatedly necessary to determine anew where ‘the risk of “civil war” threatens the rupture of social peace’. The immunizing demarcation with respect to threatening secessionist struggles is regulated using techniques of the minimum, the minimalist state, and the self-regulating forces of the market. These techniques are central to the ability of neoliberal politics to operate with institutions, turning them away from the production of social safeguards towards the production of social insecurity. The art of governing currently consists of balancing a maximum of precarization, which probably cannot be exactly calculated, with a minimum of safeguarding to ensure that the minimum is secured at this threshold.

The process of normalizing precarization does not entail equality in insecurity. Within the framework of neoliberal governmentality, there is no need to do away with inequalities:

Neoliberal logic has good reason to want no reduction, no end of inequality, because it plays with these differences and governs on the basis of them. It only attempts to establish a tolerable balance, as much balance as the society can bear, between different normalities: between the normality of poverty, of precarity (précarité), and the normality of wealth. It is no longer concerned with ‘relative poverty’, the gap between different incomes, nor is it concerned with the causes of it. It is only interested in ‘absolute poverty’, which prevents individuals from playing the game of competition . . . In order to establish this tolerable balance, a new form of hardship, the neoliberals need the institutions of the welfare state.

Quote from Maurizio Lazzarato’s Le gouvernement des inégalités

Against this background, precarization is a steering technique of the minimum at the threshold of a social vulnerability that is still just tolerable. The focus of this logic of governing is consequently no longer primarily on regulating fixed hierarchized and identitarian differences. At the same time, those who are still, or newly, construed through racializing or ethnicizing ascriptions as being extremely threatening and other continue to be exposed to the ‘liberal’ mechanisms of precarity. Precarization is therefore not an impending danger for a centre, but a technique of governing that is in the process of being normalized.

In this process, however, a loss of hegemony can, in fact, be noted: that of the standard male Fordist employment conditions, which ensured a man’s – socio-politically supported and protected – independence on the basis of the domestication of wife and children, in turn giving these a dependent security. The private sphere of reproduction attributed to women only signified a continual safeguard for married women. For heteronormative social protection they had to accept their structural insecurity, their precarity, which was protected in dependency. By way of welfare-state safeguarding, the hegemony of a protective bourgeois and heteronormative masculinity was enabled, and specific normalities were produced, which guaranteed the nexus between work, family and nation.

Against this background, not only does social insecurity merely return, its governmental function is also fundamentally transformed. Social, economic and legal insecurity (in terms of both labour rights and other rights) is increasingly less a threat that can be projected solely onto those who are dependent, marginalized, or alien ‘invaders’, in order to legitimize positioning them in society at the inner and outer peripheries, and be able to maintain an (imaginary) centre of the (national) self, of the normal and of belonging. The distinction between the liberal, Fordist normal and the precarious that deviates and is separated from it has long since become impossible. The traditional boundaries between the social positionings of the normal and the precarized are dissolving: precarization becomes a normality with new inequalities. The imaginary centre of the normal is not simply threatened, nor is it merely unsettled. Instead, it becomes itself increasingly insecure and threatening.

Reactions to this include demands for securing borders and thus purportedly strengthening the protection of the ‘natives’. Yet borders remain permeable, cannot be closed per se, and absolute security is not possible. In this lasting insecurity, there are attempts to regulate the autonomy of migration, which results in a growing endangerment and precarity of the migrants.

The normality of the minimum developing in the neoliberal paradigm stands in a continuous line of precarious working and living conditions in place since the formation of capitalism. The becoming-normal of precarization historically ties into the norm of unsecured working and living conditions without becoming identical with them. If the Fordist welfare state is considered as a historical exception against this background, as a limited phase of a special normal, and precarity and precarization are viewed as a norm of capitalist conditions lasting beyond this phase,8 then domination-shaped continuities and ruptures of this norm in times of exceptional safeguarding have to be taken into consideration if we are to be able to grasp the current process of normalizing precarization.

The exceptional safeguarding through the welfare state guaranteed livelihoods and social advancement for many in different ways, reproducing and manifesting at the same time classifications and subdivisions of labour according to naturalized gender attributes and characteristics of origin. This liberal legitimation of precarity through the classification and construction of bodies and ‘cultures’ has become fragile, and with it the relations of domination in which the value of labour was measured by physical and culturalized characteristics. Currently, however, this means primarily that male citizens, who previously enjoyed the securities of the standard employment conditions, are also increasingly confronted with precarious living and working conditions. Nevertheless, international divisions of labour continue to exist, as well as a clear wage gap between the genders in the national labour markets. Women’s responsibility for domestic housekeeping and care work also remains largely unchanged. For its part, however, reproductive work is increasingly organized in an international division of labour and is economically and ethnically differentiated and hierarchized.

Economization and the political regulation of differences function quite differently under neoliberal conditions than under liberal parameters. Liberal and Fordist biopolitical governing techniques adhere to naturalized differences of bodies, striating and counting them on the basis of a universalized, standardized measure of superiority that produces precarity. Neoliberal and post-Fordist governing techniques are entirely different: biopolitical steering techniques govern in this political-economic mode on the basis of competing differences. It is no longer primarily a matter of deviations from a national normality, but rather of regulating a tolerable balance between diverse normalities. Biopolitical governmentality then functions through the double ‘mode of modulation’: measuring and counting in terms of universalized, standardized units of measure at the economic level, which can be called ‘modularization’, conjoins with the qualitative differences of bodies, actions, activities and affects that must be produced in competition through active (self-)design, in other words through ‘modulating’. At the present time, this self-governing modulation is primarily understood in the sense of servility, of subservience and obedience, which is certainly usable both politically and economically in the calculated exchangeability of the module. Individuals are supposed to actively modulate themselves and arrange their lives on the basis of a repeatedly lowered minimum of safeguarding, thus making themselves governable. Governmental techniques of self-government emerge in this way, which I have called ‘self-precarization’. Living and working conditions are supposed to orient themselves in relation to an economicized measure. This measure can assume the most diverse forms, ranging from a minimalist (welfare) state all the way to educational policy talk of excellence and evaluation, but it can also lead to the categorization of the ‘superfluous’. This kind of abstract equivalence, according to Angela Mitropoulos, presupposes inequality and exploitation conditions as well as violence, and also produces them.

Working Beauty

In the opening scene of Julia Leigh’s debut film <em>Sleeping Beauty</em>, Lucy (Emily Browning), our beautiful college-student protagonist, serves as a medical test subject. She leans her head back as the doctor slowly threads a tube down her throat, then fills a balloon in her chest with air while she holds the tube in place. Lucy cooperates excellently and leaves with an envelope of money and a smile.

Comments are closed.