“How many of them?”: Thoughts on Quantification and the Political Economy of Refugee Populations

Canada is currently preparing to welcome 25,000 Syrian refugees from UN camps in the region, with over 500 staff working in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, helping them – swiftly and securely – to find sanctuary.  If our compassion is quantifiable, we should note that 25,000 marks a higher pledge from our newly elected Liberal government than an earlier commitment, less than half as kind; and also, that our 500 staff in the region has been noted (in a recent broadcast of CBC’s The National) as the largest team ever assembled to take on such a task.

If compassion is quantifiable, so too is crisis.  It is easy to feel overwhelmed by the numbers accompanying international efforts to provide assistance to Syrian refugees.  More than half of Syria’s population is currently displayed.  Around 220,000 people have been killed, and nearly 13 million are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance inside of Syria.  So far, only just under 105,000 resettlement places have been offered globally since the start of the crisis (numbers are available here from Amnesty International).  More than 4 million refugees await resettlement in just five neighbouring countries: Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt; countries still dearly near the beating heart of conflict in the East, of a war waged between the Assad regime in Syria and the myriad cells of anti-Assad rebels (including Daesh) with all of their puppet strings extending directly back to Western imperialists.

I do not wish to address, which has already been addressed many times, the destabilizing role Western imperialist powers have played, and continue to play as an extension of their economic games, in strategically situated regions of the East.  The advanced stage of technocratic security-state capitalism that we see in many Western countries is characterised by this identification and elimination of both local and foreign security threats (called threats of terrorism) through and by the great weapons of mass surveillance, data collection and secretive foreign intelligence collaborations.  In this sense, the war that the West wages on terror is almost mimetic of the late capitalist game: a war waged through sheer numeracy, intelligence and quantification.  Neoliberal modes of management in technocratic capitalist nations tend towards quantification (we see this not only in the administration of government and social services, but also in the public sector and education); and this evaluative policy, of bare numbers and abstract utility, is profoundly alienating.  For the most part, we are able to circulate in our day-to-day without feeling too much this sense of alienation, but refugees – whom some suggest are being circulated and commodified by Western powers as any other economic “good” – have the abstraction of this sheer numeracy driven in to them by the lived reality of their circulation.

I have heard humanitarian resettlement workers make the claim that stability and opportunity are significant determinants in health outcomes for recently immigrated refugees struggling to cope with PTSD, depression, and other mental health disorders, given the traumatic experiences they have endured.  Perhaps this provides some evidence for the former claim.  Through free self-determination in a just Liberal society, we ought to be able to shed the alienation of abstract numeracy that might be felt when we regard ourselves as only a commodity, a “good” exchanged and for exchange.  We can, for now, suspend judgement on the ideological nature of this reality; if freedom under neoliberal capitalism is only an illusion (concealing the reality of freedom for the ruling class at the expense of the emancipatory freedom of the oppressed), we must all the same recognize it as a convincing illusion to explain the dull ideological force held by Western neoliberalism over its consumer class.  It seems then possible to conceive phenomenologically an alienation admitting of degree felt by those whom we seek to integrate into our society.  It seems to me a philosophical dishonesty to deflect efforts to engage this topic only to push the platform of a revolutionary cause that seeks to overcome completely the alienation that is a necessity under the current global economic system, however worthy that cause is.

We can immediately engage with the effects of this overwhelming numeracy of refugee assistance.  And, to an extent, I believe that Canada already has.  Earlier, we posited as premises the quantification of compassion and crisis.  I would like to suggest now that we are forced to negate these premises, recognizing them as something to be overcome.  Quantification is a given in the technological society, inextricable from its modes of management.  At the same time, my lived experience of myself as only an abstract number is profoundly alienating; I add as a corollary that alienation exists as something to be overcome, as part of an ethical responsibility to self.  ‘Alienation’ also has the sense of dispossession (Latin alienare, “to make another’s”); as such, alienating integration seems inauthentic, a resigned acceptance that is simultaneously a creation of difference (“to make an other”).  This othering amounts to a failure to recognize in the refugee population their authenticity of being.  Abstract numbers cannot suffer.  They are not like ‘I’, who is an individual and who can suffer.  Neither are they thereby the ‘we’, which is just an extension of the sufferable ‘I’.

These hard boundaries between beings ought to be broken down.  The sheer numeracy of the refugee crisis is a quantificative codification of their abstract history, some general notion of a history existing through and dissolved into each individual’s history, taken up as an object and translated into the language of a neoliberal mode of management.  The way to overcome this is by way of a face-to-face recognition of the other.  The codification of an abstract history is essentially an exercise of technocratic power, preserving over the immigrant population an alienation that constricts their existence to the being of a dispossessed abstraction.

Levinas remarks, “The human only lends itself to a relation that is not a power”.  In Totality and Infinity, Levinas explains the subject’s relation to the other in terms of the disabling of the subject’s power, a kind of power not to be able to exercise power over the other: “The expression the face introduces into the world does not defy the feebleness of my powers, but my ability for power [mon pouvoir de pouvoir].”  The face signifies an undoing of the very powers of the subject, the powers of representation and comprehension.  In this context, the ethical comes to mean then a disabling of power and an opening of a relation that does not lend itself to power.[1]

From the Canadian perspective, it seems as if there are genuine efforts to welcome refugees into our communities in such a way that discloses to each the face of the other.  Private citizens’ groups are sponsoring many families, providing assistance with everything from school registration for children to Social Insurance Number applications.  It is true that many such groups are affiliated either with members of refugees’ families who have already immigrated to Canada, or with Churches; however, I do not think that this defies the claim that our efforts to welcome refugees have aimed, in a partial but genuine way, at the undoing of the alienation of abstraction under the exercise of the powers that both displaced and now welcome the refugee population.  For Levinas, the face-to-face relation transcends the historical and factical situatedness in which being finds itself in recognition of what is other to it.  Perhaps our recognition of the face of the other has the capacity to undo (to the extent that is possible given our greater state of alienation under late capitalist society) some of the deleterious effects on the exercise of state power, as a matter of perceived necessity, on a population of the traumatized and needy.  And perhaps this is something to be proud of.

Our history of integrating refugees in Canada has been far from perfect in the past.  But as a country that makes efforts to embrace its multiculturalism, in spite of a checkered past, we can find cause for optimism in the response of Canadians to the Syrian refugee crisis, if only as the site of a face-to-face with the abstract and (can we say?) dehumanizing quantification of entire populations under the rules of the game of post-imperialist Western political economy.  The question of what Canadian culture itself is, is bound to become more stark in periods where the mass integration of a population becomes inevitable; inauthentic appropriation is as harmful, as alienating, perhaps even more so, than inclusion only as an abstraction of “otherness”.  As the question will arise in the current state of crisis, perhaps we can answer that, rather than one that sees its responsibility in the other in their circulation as mere “goods” in need of shelter and organic subsistence, we are one that recognizes its responsibility in the face of the other.  And this, if only so that we may play our small part in undoing the very powers which hold us all in an alienating subjection.

[1] Krzysztof Ziarek, “Which Other, Whose Alterity? The Human after Humanism” in Between Heidegger and Levinas (New York: State University of New York Press, 2014), 230.  Excerpts are from Levinas, Basic Philosophical Writings; and also his Totality and Infinity.


Cheating At Life?

For my WordPress followers who may not come across my work through other channels, I have recently started a guest series over at The Bubble Chamber – a Canadian history and philosophy of science blog based at the University of Toronto – called, “Cheating At Life? Biopolitics at the Margins of Political Economy”.  Notes for this series have been compiled from a recent colloquium of the same name, given in Concordia University’s Philosophy Graduate Department.

You can find my introduction to the series here.

Part II can be found over here.

The folks at The Bubble Chamber are doing some excellent work.  Please support them by continuing the conversation on their pages!

All that I can say.

How does it feel waking up to a new geopolitical situation? The European Union will start to shift away from the borderless entity we currently recognize it as, as is already seen in Belgium. Western journalists are already pointing to the Islamic State’s tentacles as now having stretched out farther westward. Refugees fleeing from equal violence in their own countries (with far greater constancy) will face even more challenges finding sanctuary in the increasingly xenophobic but ‘astutely liberal’ west. And while we coldly keep them out, the west will escalate violence in the very countries they are fleeing from. Hollande has haunted me with his promise of a “ruthless” response…

As much sorrow as I have for this terrible loss of life, I am all the sadder for what is already destined to be fuel for rising (and new) fascistic and nationalistic tendencies in France and Europe.

No Fallout, Not Now

One has to distinguish between this “reality” of the nuclear age and the fiction of war. But, and this would perhaps be the imperative of a nuclear criticism, one must also be careful to interpret critically this critical or diacritical distinction. For the “reality” of the nuclear age and the fable of nuclear war are perhaps distinct, but they are not two separate things.[1]

No Fallout, not now.  I’ve got work to do.  Books to read.  Writing to attend to.  Firmly, I must decline your invitation, deflect your advance, reject your seductions of nuclear waste and romantic post-apocalypticism.  No, Fallout; I shall resist my life’s melting at the border of your nuclear war, your diagesis, your critical imperative.  May god have mercy on my productivity.

No Fallout, Not Now.  Jacques Derrida, in a 1984 issue of Diacritics, takes on the speed and sheer imminence of global mass suicide by nuclear auto-obliteration: “No Apocalypse, Now Now”[2].  ‘Speed’ appears as an irreducible new phenomenon of the Cold War era.  Speed is a temporality of us collectively careening towards our ownmost destruction.  There is no right speed.  Speed is an ever-present, in which we immerse ourselves critically to confront ‘remainderless destruction’, the perspective of the (final) war, “the first war which can be fought in the name of the name alone, that is, of everything and of nothing.”[3]  A war not quite between Being and non-Being, but between Being and its Other, non-Being for it. 

The idea evokes the image of Dr. Strangelove’s Major Kong, riding the atom bomb like a rodeo bull, full speed ahead… 

I load up Fallout 4 for the first time.  I am telling myself that this does not constitute procrastination.  I am thrust into a new world with astonishing, decentering and dislocating speed.  I awaken.  I have a wife and a son.  I have a robot.  My family has place in Vault 111.  Nuclear weaponry obliterates several major American cities.  I am thrust into Vault, cryogenically frozen (asleep through the war) and awakened to behold my wife’s murder and my son’s capture.  It is a new world into which I am so violently thrown.  These events make up the first few moments of gameplay in Fallout.

We expect this speed with the apocalypse; apocalypse promises to be cataclysmic, a truly explosive spectacle.  Fallout consummates this expectation.  But we are not so much ‘fallen’, as ‘thrown’ into the fable of the post-apocalyptic nuclear age.  For Heidegger, Verfallenheit (‘fallenness’) had to do with the historical and factical situation into which Being finds itself always already born: for example, in Being & Time, where Heidegger sets up Being as that for which its own Being is a problem, something encountered in the state of its ‘fallenness’.  By contrast, we can say that ‘thrownness’ is Verfallenheit with a violence; it is ‘fallenness’ complemented by speed.  As such, we are torn up and plunged into Fallout the nuclear fable, amidst echoes of warheads and mushroom clouds on the horizon.

But we may interrogate our expectation that the post-apocalyptic world will be one into which we are thrown.  It is interesting to consider our enduring romantic fascination with nuclear war, with imminent and actual environmental catastrophe overcoming us in the real.  Climate change and looming disaster in the modern geological era of the Anthropocene is, too, bound up with the question of speed, as something irreducible in it.  The essential speed of humanity qua techno-scientific anarcho-market labour-powered wage-slaves is bound to the ecological crisis with chains, each absolutely overcoming the other, the nuclear speed of the techno-human elevated to an ontological principle for the world in which it finds itself fallen.  While speed is an irreducible element of the current crisis of anthropogenic climate change, humanity finds itself so absolutely overcome by it (its ownmost crisis!) that its experience is more of a fallenness than a thrownness.  As a fallenness, it is not typically perceived as a violence, not essentially different from other historical and factical situations of our individual experiences of being that infinitely exceed us.

However, the evidence is overwhelming on this point, that anthropogenic climate change is a violence, that its violence injures poorer nations with unequal and greater severity compared to nations whose contribution to the climate crisis is greater, that it injures future generations of humanity as well as other forms of life on Earth.

Must our recognition of this violence be only as a thrownness?  Or may we make a turn, from fallenness into thrownness, or vice versa, as one who experiences themselves falling forward in a dream, only rapidly to awaken shooting upright from their bed?

In Fallout, the environment is our foremost threat, rather than any faction or any arms of war.  The entire landscape is heavily irradiated.  All that gives sustenance is toxic, a sickness.  We are even asleep (cryogenically frozen) during the initial mass nuclear destruction, only to be thrown out spinning into the new world, with a new purpose, and a new threat that is absolutely overcoming and identifiable as such: the post-nuclear environment.  In the act of waking, the former world is dissolved, as a dream.  We are fallen into the post-apocalyptic world of the nuclear fable by way of thrownness into the Vault.  In this way, we might suggest that Fallout subverts the expectation of the apocalypse as a waking cataclysm into which we are thrown.  We are to recognize that our waking world – a dream world held in a tension over its own dissolution – is only the dream world of a non-apocalyptic present, where speed is reducible to humanity as something that has not overcome it, and where what is really said by our self-assurance of the dream world is only a self-effacing deferral: No Apocalypse, Not Now. 

And so we are thrown, Vaulted, into the world of Fallout, which is just to say a ‘fallenness’.  The dream held in tension is dissolved, and our immediate encounter with violence is carried through to the fallen world, an encounter as something ecological.  Speed has also been subverted here, as if whipped around a massive gravitational center and set upon a new arc; it becomes a velocity, and thereby possesses of it some direction.  And yet the direction shall ever be constant should we continue to see Earth as the bomb, ourselves riding it into the waste and void of annihilation, seeing ourselves set out on a frenzied path upon which speed is our only reckoning.

[1] Derrida, “No Apocalypse, Not Now (full speed ahead, seven missiles, seven missives)” in Diacritics / summer 1984, 23.

[2] Derrida, “No Apocalypse, Not Now,” 20-31.

[3] Ibid., 30.