Angela Mitropoulos ‘Contract and Contagion: from biolpolitics to oikonomia’

Angela Mitropoulos’ Contract and Contagion is a wide-reaching and ambitious book that makes important critical interventions on the role of contracts and debt in neo-liberal society with reference to a politics of the household (oikonomics)  as the nexus of race, class, gender and sexuality.*

According to Mitropoulos –

Contract is the hyphen situated between politics and economics, which is to say, the emergence of political economy from moral economy, and the points of articulation between state and market.

Citing the US dollar as a global currency backed up by global military power as an example, Mitropoulos states that debts are ‘guaranteed by violence, whether implied or deployed.’ This observation appears hyperbolic but America does have all the guns and money. Mitropoulos analyses the racialised and gendered dimensions of surplus labour arguing that the construction of slavery as an attribute of blackness and unpaid domestic labour as a property of femininity are forms of ‘naturally constituted debt.’

Mitropoulos is at her most engaging on the subject of infrastructure. Pointing towards the occupations of Tahrir Square, Wall Street, and Oakland Mitropoulos describes how movement and relation are changed by the improvised nature of  ‘infra-political’ interventions such as building toilets in homeless encampments, delivering healthcare to undocumented migrants and creating phone apps for evading police kettling. Here, according to Mitropoulos, activism creates new infrastructures for survival, ‘generating nomadic inventiveness rather than a royal expertise.’ – neat!

I’ll leave you with Mitropoulos’ words on why you should give a damn about oikonomics –

A politics of the household turns on that most materialist of propositions: we are how we live. **

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*What follows is less of a critique and more of a summary post because… Mitropoulos rocks and you should go read her stuff! Lots of it is online so no excuses.

**Think about it – then go do your fair share of the washing up.


Resilience: a Politics of Passivity

some resilience-boosting advice from the smug people at Action for Happiness

I read a great little article the other day in Radical Philosophy about resilience. Mark Neocleous in ‘Resisting Resilience’ articulates something that had been niggling me for a while about the concept; its inherent passivity and lack of critical grrrrrr!

Resilience is commonly defined in terms of an ability to ‘bounce back’ after a trauma or crisis and carry on as per usual. The rhetoric of resilience is that it is a big bad world out there and, since there is nothing we can do about it, we better get on with it.*

Neocleous’ article focuses on the sudden emergence of resilience-speak in the post 9/11 era. Integral to the concept of resilience is the expectation of attack. To be resilient is to be braced for an array of worst case scenarios. Neocleous argues that resilience, then, is security with imagination. Through the resilience agenda states can justify increasingly repressive security measures in the name of averting imagined attacks and crises. In Neocleous’ words, resilience is ‘nothing less than the attempted colonization of the political imagination by the state.’ But it is not just states that are keen on resilience, the IMF and the World Bank posit it as cure-all for the crisis of global capitalism.

Once you start looking out for resilience-speak you will notice a) its prevalence**, and b) that it is often directed at women. Where emotional care-taking is overwhelmingly the work of women, resilience is the capacity to deal with everybody else’s shit whilst keeping a lid on your own. It appears that the UN would agree. The theme for the UN International Disaster Reduction Day 2012 was Women and Girls: the [in]Visible force of Resilience. The promotional material read: ‘Women and Girls are the pillars of resilience – they are the first to prepare their families for a disaster and the first to put communities back together in the aftermath.’ An arduous task. How prudent of the UN to acknowledge this otherwise unrecognised, and certainly unpaid, work with an awareness-raising day!

Resilience makes the most sense in the context of environmentalism. If you have little to no control over your environment and it is becoming increasing hostile due to climate change, resilience is a brilliant thing.  Resilience involves a capability to adapt and overcome the challenges that you are faced with. And yes, if I was a seed, a passive entity, I might want to be resilient too.*** However, I can exert some control over my environment, and work to change it where I find it hostile. I will not roll up like a hedgehog, be kicked around and shuffle along!

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*I suspect that the rise of resilience has something to do with the rash of Keep Calm and Carry On paraphernalia available for purchase just about everywhere. I don’t need to tell you where you can shove that tea towel/t-shirt/mug.

**I recently applied for a job where ‘resilient’ was listed as one of the essential criteria. It was an admin role. Translation: it is essential that you will quietly put up with being put upon. Perfect!

*** How seed resilience is fostered through seed sharing and promotion of biodiversity rather than GM crop monocultures is a critical issue. See, Resilient Seed: on the seed industry, EU seed laws and the engagement for seed-sovereignty and check out Dr. Vandana Shiva and her organisation Navdanya, ‘a women centred movement for the protection of biological and cultural diversity.’

Are Prisons Obsolete?

ImageIn Are Prisons Obsolete? Angela Y. Davis makes a compelling case for prison abolition. Davis begins by defending the necessity to ask the eponymous question citing that in the US prison populations increased tenfold in the three decades following 1960, without major debate about the efficacy of imprisonment. Yet, bringing into question the effectiveness of incarceration is a first, and necessary, step towards further critical analysis of the racism, sexism and moral bankruptcy of the prison system.

Davis argues that it is a lack of imagination that allows for mass incarceration to go unquestioned as ‘on the whole people take prisons for granted.’ This leads to an unwillingness to talk about the alternatives to imprisonment – decriminalisation of of drug use, decriminalisation of the trade in sexual services and restorative rather punitive justice.

If prisons are obsolete, then their permanence is ideological. Davis draws attention to the ideological work that prisons do as a dumping ground for ‘evil-doers’ asserting that

Put simply, this is the era of the prison industrial complex. The prison has become a black hole into which the detritus of contemporary capitalism is deposited. Mass imprisonment generates profits as it devours social wealth, and thus it tends to reproduce the very conditions that lead people to prison.

Whilst the theorisation of prison industrial complex comes out of an analysis of the US context, it is a global phenomenon that has particular relevance to the UK where we have the highest proportion of private prisons in Europe. As of April 2012 privately-run prisons account for 14 out of 139 prisons in England and Wales. For your information –

If you want an example of prison industrial complex in action, take a look at the G4S ‘Working Prisons: Working People’ page complete with youtube video* inviting local businesses into partnership. The film concludes ‘the key message to local businesses is – we can help you grow your business, we can help you develop your business, so please come and talk to us.’ Or in other words, prisoners are exempt from minimum wage law and we can offer you an ‘opportunity’ to exploit this ‘resource.’

One of the most important points Davis has to make is regarding the difference between prison reform and prison abolition. Prison reform can only ever amount to a better life for prisoners. If the prison as a structure of state control is racist, sexist and unethical then reforming that structure contributes to its permanence and sidelines discussion of prison obsolescence.**Davis observes that

As important as some reforms may be – the elimination of sexual abuse and medical neglect in women’s prison, for example – frameworks that rely exclusively on reforms help to produce the stultifying idea that nothing lies beyond the prison. Debate about strategies of decarceration, which should be the focal point of our conversations on the prison crisis, tend to be marginalized when reform takes the center stage.

Having spent a day last December at CLINKS conference ‘Breaking the Cycle of Women’s Offending: Where next?’ which focused on community sentencing as an alternative to custody, I have some experience of the frustrations of prison reformism.  I went home regretting that I hadn’t had the confidence to speak up about prison abolition and propose that the inequalities faced by women in the criminal justice system might have something to do with the way in which (to quote Lisa Simpson) ‘the whole damn system is wrong.’

The Gossip’s Bridle or Branks

Historically, women were not imprisoned as they had no rights in the public sphere anyway. As such, reform focused on turning ‘fallen women’ into good wives and mothers. In the seventeenth century the Gossip’s Bridle of Branks – a headpiece with an iron bit was which was forced into a woman’s mouth – was used to punish women in the domestic sphere,  to silence and subdue ‘quarrelsome’ wives. Whilst sometimes bridled women were paraded through the streets (as in the picture to the left) they were also used to tie women to a wall of the home until the husband released her. The economic argument for community sentences for women rather than costly prison sentences brings us back to gendered rights and gendered public and private spheres. Women are already enslaved in unpaid domestic labour so it is more cost effective to imprison them in their own homes where they can take care of their own children. Research from the new economics foundation report ‘Unlocking Value: How we all benefit from investing in alternatives to prison for women offenders’ finds that ‘for every pound invested in support–focused alternatives to prison, £14 worth of social value is generated to women and their children, victims and society generally over ten years.’ Yet supporting women to be good wives and mothers so they can generate ‘social value’ (happy families) is hardly prison reform – its is a return to the way in which women were always already punished in the domestic sphere.

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* G4S have their own youtube channel. Look it up if you want to give yourself nightmares.

** Obsolesence is a word I hadn’t come across before reading Davis. I like the way it sounds like a glowing kind of decay.