Conditioned Support: Necropolitics and solidarity in times of crisis
Agata Dziuban, Zuzanna Dziuban
A couple of days ago, one of us posted a request for support on the website of a grassroots self-help group. Over the last few weeks, numerous virtual communities of this kind have been established, including hundreds of local “Visible Hand” forums, dozens of initiatives to sew masks for healthcare workers, and fundraisers for groups particularly affected by the epidemic – i.e. precarious workers, artists, or homeless people. The emergence of communities of this kind is perhaps one of the most positive developments in the current situation. They are inspiring examples of the spontaneous grassroots self-organization and mobilizations that have been made in the name of solidarity, mutual support and care.
The reproduction of life, both in a literal sense and as a typically devalued and low-paid reproductive labour, is increasingly being taken over by citizens.
Yet, the fact that such initiatives are needed at all exposes the weaknesses, inadequacies and failures of governmental institutions and existing care systems, whose responsibilities are being taken over by them. The reproduction of life, both in a literal sense and as a typically devalued and low-paid reproductive labour, is increasingly being taken over by citizens. The preparation and delivery of meals to people facing homelessness, care for the elderly, supplying medical staff with protective equipment, offering legal assistance to laid-off employees, providing psychological support – all these forms of work are spontaneously becoming the domain of community- and solidarity-based outsourcing. This outsourcing fills the void left by the state and its agencies – a void for which there is no room in the times of crisis. The mandated lockdown and self-isolation, severe restrictions on mobility and travel, the radical shrinking or absence of income, and the fear for oneself and one’s loved ones, make our reliance on those infrastructures that create and sustain our biological and social existence even more evident and tangible. The absence of state-based care mechanisms exposes the extent to which we are, in fact, dependent on one another. For some, access to these informal support networks and solidarity-based assistance is literally a matter of life or death.
The aforementioned post on a local online forum concerned precisely this kind of support – providing a meal to a person who had no means of subsistence. Deprived of access to the internet and stranded in a foreign town with no-one to turn to, she asked one of us to post the request online on her behalf. The responses to this post came as a shock. Some forum participants questioned the credibility of the person in need: they asked how it is possible to have no money; some wanted to learn about the details of her circumstances. The validity of such questions was legitimized by fear of “swindlers and freeloaders” preying on the web. The plea for support itself was seen as controversial and a sign of entitlement. Also, the credibility of the person who published the request was challenged: one of the forum members posted screenshots from a private Facebook profile promoting an Emergency Fund for Sex Workers. He suggested that both the person posting the plea and the person in need are sex workers, and so they should not be granted support. Of course, the post was also followed by sexist and discrediting jokes. Several members of the group decided to help, but almost all of them, in private exchanges, asked whether the friend was providing sexual services as if this translated into the reality of her hunger and the importance of her needs.
This kind of conditioning and negotiating of solidarity and support is not rare. It manifests in many grassroots, community-based exchanges, including those where help is offered.
Alas, this kind of conditioning and negotiating of solidarity and support is not rare. It manifests in many grassroots, community-based exchanges, including those where help is offered. This was an experience of the second of us, whose post (on another self-help forum) – providing information on the availability of emergency contraception and abortion at the time of the pandemic – was first met with harsh criticisms by group members and deleted by the site administrators in a matter of minutes. This reaction expressed not so much the administrators’ disapproval of the post content as their caution against the potential risk that keeping it could entail: the threat that the website could be reported or left by people for whom abortion is a normative and ideological no-go. Thus, against their own beliefs, the administrators were disciplined to impose restrictions on what forms of assistance are justified and which appeals for support could appear in the spaces created by spontaneously-arising grassroots communities.
To be clear: this text is not meant to question the value of such initiatives and groups. Nor does it intend to criticize mechanisms that govern the dynamics of spontaneously-created web-communities, which organize around immediate problems and at the intersection of many political and social subjectivities. The multiplicity of often contradictory or agonistic voices, positions and perspectives constitute an unquestionable value of such communities. We are interested instead in the ways in which established and institutionalized frames of recognition for specific practices and forms of subjectivity impose an unfair, unequal and conditioned/conditional distribution of support. The examples described above show that requests for help coming from certain positions or articulating certain types of needs allow for support to be withdrawn and its obviousness to be called into question. In fact, such instances of withdrawal or repudiation of support reproduce and reinforce existing structures of inequality and precarity, (de)legitimize particular forms of life or work, and (de)valuate those forms of life as (un)deserving of engagement and aid. The contemporary moment in which solidarity once again organizes the social and political imagination and mobilizes community action, ought to create a space for the visibilization and dismantling of those frames of recognition. Their exclusionary and hierarchizing effects shape material conditions of human existence and determine the ability of many people, if not entire communities, to live and survive, both in times of crisis and in times of “normality”.
The pandemic-related crisis and the emerging forms of mobilization, driven by solidarity and an ethics of care, make the conditionality of living and survival more evident and visible.
The pandemic-related crisis and the emerging forms of mobilization, driven by solidarity and an ethics of care, make the conditionality of living and survival more evident and visible. What the present-day situation makes us realize is the extent to which this conditionality is naturalized in moments that, from the perspective of the pandemic, may seem “normal”. For some individuals and communities, the present crisis is yet another obstacle in one’s access to decent life conditions and the possibility of making one’s own decisions. There are also individuals and populations for whom the struggle for survival is not an exceptional but a permanent state. We are thinking here about those whose low pay means that they live under the subsistence level – on a wage that allows the mere maintenance of one’s basic necessities and life functions. We are thinking here about domestic workers, nurses, ward nurses, paramedics, nannies, care workers, and teachers, all of whom perform care labour for which they are poorly remunerated or are denied a continuity of employment. We also have in mind those populations that are, on a daily basis, subjected to violence motivated by racism, sexism, homophobia or transphobia. This pertains, too, to the situation of those who, for years, have been confined to the disastrous and life-threatening conditions of refugee camps and detention centres. At the moment, responsibility for the dramatic situation in those places is being placed on the pandemic – as if the agency of the virus was constructing a new reality marked by suffering and peril, thus erasing the visibility of threats inherent to the “pre-virus” one.
All these individuals and populations (as well as many others) are, in the times of “normality”, anyway left to themselves. Hence, it is no surprise that, in times of crisis, they are subjected to conditional and conditioned support. The differential valorization and hierarchization of certain claims for help, distinguishing between those that must be addressed immediately and those that can be disdained, postponed or discredited, activate often unconscious, unarticulated and unproblematized frames of recognition. Under conditions of limited availability of resources, such as of healthcare, financial support, legal aid, attention and empathy, these frames dictate who is to be left out – because they would be left out anyway. This follows from their position in a hierarchy that assigns a different value to various forms of subjectivity: the life and survival of some are regarded as unquestionably valuable, while the life and survival of others are perceived as less valuable or deprived of any worth. Such devalued life is subjected to violence, expressed in neglect or indifference, and, occasionally, by a strategic refusal to help – i.e. necropolitical violence by omission.
The conditionality of support, dictated by the assumption that the person in need is (perhaps!) a sex worker, or a decision to deny access to information on abortion, are forms of grassroots crisis-driven necropolitics..
The conditionality of support, dictated by the assumption that the person in need is (perhaps!) a sex worker, or a decision to deny access to information on abortion, are forms of grassroots crisis-driven necropolitics. This necropolitical violence, manifested in the debates, actions and decisions of virtual communities, does not come from nowhere. It constitutes a spontaneous enactment of deeper, structural violence that devalues the life and survival of different individuals, communities and groups, also in times of “normality”. This violence is expressed in public discourse, political decisions, law and institutional practices. It is inscribed in the logic of global capitalism and neoliberal labour markets; it is at the core of conservative ideologies, and patriarchal, xenophobic, nationalist political projects. It is the tissue and framework that lays the grounds for our day-to-day coexistence.
Also in times of so-called normality, necropolitical violence is the principle organizing the lives of sex workers: it is evoked in their stigmatization, social marginalization, and deprivation of access to social rights and protections. It compels them, by the force of law, to work in criminalized contexts and to remain in criminalized employment relations. This institutionalized and legally established necropolitics strips sex workers from protection against exploitation and violence, legitimizing, in fact, and allowing for non-institutional forms of physical, sexual and symbolic violence against them. During these times of crisis caused by the pandemic, sex workers and their problems – workplace closures, the loss of income, a lack of health insurance and social benefits, high financial penalties for continuing work, or the risk of detention and deportation – remain outside the scope of society’s solidarity-oriented imagination. Sex workers become invisible; indeed, they are invisibilized. Even if they are addressed in public debate, they are cast as potential epidemiological threats, and not as members of a community particularly vulnerable to the virus and struggling for survival.
Necropolitical violence organizes legal and cultural discourses around abortion, determining whose life and survival deserve sustaining and protection. By putting more value on the survival and development of a fetus than on the survival and development of a pregnant person, it condemns the latter to an existence over which they have no control. In times of crisis, those who are seeking safe home-based abortions or access to legal procedures abroad – both of which are almost completely criminalized in Poland – encounter an array of additional barriers, including limitations on their ability to access information. This radically curtails the already drastically restricted horizon of choice. Grassroots necropolitics around abortion constrains the possibility to exercise one’s reproductive rights, deny people control over their lives, bodies and futures, the shapes of which we can hardly imagine today. It generates more of the insecurity, uncertainty and anxiety that underlie the daily experiences of those with an unwanted pregnancy in Poland. The slogan “abortion saves lives”, so scandalizing for its opponents, exposes the necropolitical dimension of the anti-abortion violence, which – in the name of saving the fetus – invalidates the experiences, perspectives and socioeconomic positions of people with unwanted pregnancies. This slogan does not refer exclusively to the situations in which pregnancy and birth pose a direct threat to the person’s life but pertains to all circumstances when access to abortion directly translates into the quality of their life and survival.
By exposing the malfunctions of the healthcare system, the deficits of welfare institutions, the anti-worker and antisocial logic of market mechanisms and political decisions (as exemplified by the governmental anti-crisis shield), today’s crisis exposes, first and foremost, the necropolitical violence underlying the pre-crisis world.
By exposing the malfunctions of the healthcare system, the deficits of welfare institutions, the anti-worker and antisocial logic of market mechanisms and political decisions (as exemplified by the governmental anti-crisis shield), today’s crisis exposes, first and foremost, the necropolitical violence underlying the pre-crisis world. Revealing the scale of our interdependence and the need for, if not the necessity of, mutual aid, the pandemic demonstrates, too, how small and seemingly benign decisions of grassroots support groups can reinforce violent structures of exclusion. These decisions determine the material conditions of life and survival of the most disadvantaged individuals or groups. This is why it is so important to critically reflect on (and subject to ongoing reflection) not only the governmental and institutional structures of support, which are in and, in fact, contribute to the crisis, but also on the frames that structure grassroots solidarity. If it is true, as many of us hope, that after the pandemic there is no return to the world as we knew it, then we should, perhaps, consider this moment as an opportunity to negotiate new principles to govern our collective life. The time has come to develop new, (anti-necro)political projects. The starting point could be to reconsider the notion of solidarity by replacing conditional and conditioned support with a form of solidarity that values every life equally. We dream of solidarity that does not hierarchize, condition or exclude.
The prospect of such unconditional and unconditionable solidarity, and of its institutionalization in public debate, law, and economic and social order – which would also include the full decriminalization of abortion and sex work – is more than a dream that we share. This prospect offers, too, an antidote to a fear of the future, haunted by radicalizing forms of necro-capitalism and necro-nationalism. Now already under the guise of the state of emergency and the fight against the pandemic, we are witnessing a sanctioning of the use of direct force by the state, “prophylactic” criminalization and militarization, brutal forms of eugenics, expanding surveillance, and the domination of corporatism and the logic of exploitation, which deprive ever-new categories of subjects of their fundamental rights. The post-crisis world could be a world in which the number of individuals and populations pushed outside the frames of recognition and, thus, condemned to extinction, would increase drastically.
That is why a hope arising from the impossibility to return to the world as we knew it ought to become the organizing principle of our grassroots political praxis. This praxis could be founded in the demand for a radical anti-necropolitics: a politics oriented towards safeguarding the life and survival of each and every one of us.
The world of the future that emerges in front of our eyes is not new. This is but an extension and amplification of the reality we inhabit now, of the world we lived in before the crisis. That is why a hope arising from the impossibility to return to the world as we knew it ought to become the organizing principle of our grassroots political praxis. This praxis could be founded in the demand for a radical anti-necropolitics: a politics oriented towards safeguarding the life and survival of each and every one of us. As exemplified by the cases of abortion and sex work, at stake is not just securing the mere maintenance of existence, but the possibility to create conditions that would render all lives livable: empowered, safe, free from exploitation and state or non-institutional violence, with an open horizon of the future. Only an inclusive and non-hierarchizing solidarity, rooted in the awareness of our fundamental interdependence and shared responsibility, would allow for such an anti-necropolitics to emerge. In order to destroy our necro-world, we need to restructure the existing frames of recognition and appreciate life in all its forms – regardless how different some of those lives might be from our own.
Translated by Jerzy P. Listwan