“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.


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