BIOS: Life, Death, Politics; Closing Roundtable
Gilberto Rosas, "Illiberal Technologies and Liberal Societies"

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

posted under , , , , , by Unit for Criticism
[As part of our continuing coverage of the April 30-May 1 conference, BIOS: Life, Death, Politics, we are pleased to publish a version of Gilberto Rosas' contribution to the Closing Roundtable]

"Illiberal Technologies and Liberal Societies"

Written by Gilberto Rosas (Anthropology, Latina/Latino Studies)

Whether the topic is the new South Africa, contemporary southern California, Turkey, Greece, or elsewhere on the globe, a recurrent question during the conference has been: is there a qualitative distinction between liberal and illiberal states in terms of biopolitics?

What biopolitics allows us to do is to chart the continuities and differences between totalitarian regimes and those of liberal democratic societies, particularly for those on the margins. My intervention is primarily methodological, situated as I am on the borders of anthropology and ethnic studies. I have spent over a decade researching the Mexico-United States borderlands, specifically those between Arizona and Sonora, and the resulting criminalization of a group of young people.

As many of you are aware, Arizona has passed a draconian measure SB 1070 targeting the undocumented and enabling police to enforce federal immigration law. As the conference met yesterday [on Friday April 30], the act was amended. It currently includes provisions that schools will lose state funding if they offer any courses that "promote the overthrow of the U.S. government, promote resentment of a particular race or class of people, are designed primarily for students of a particular ethnic group or advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals." Moreover, the Department of Education has told schools that teachers with "heavy" or "ungrammatical" accents are no longer allowed to teach English classes.

But these illiberal technologies are hardly new. They follow a series of dramatic raids across the country, in states such as Iowa and Ohio, and there are there are rumors of more to come. These raids create a palpable threat to the lives of the undocumented and, increasingly, to those who resemble them. They reveal the continued significance of sovereign power, how it is experienced relationally, unevenly, and hierarchically in liberal democratic regimes. Certain bodies are the first to be rendered pathologically fat, as in Susan Greenhalgh’s paper, as opposed to the svelte idolized super bodies of the white, wealthy elite. Certain bodies are the first to be tortured; the first to be imprisoned; the first to be criminalized; the first to be rendered as the enemy; the first against which society must defend itself.

The distinction between “the criminal” and “the enemy” that Paul Kahn so ably charted in his keynote lecture yesterday is precisely how the exception is mobilized in immigration enforcement in the US-Mexico borderlands. In this respect the border patrol is excepted; it is designated as a domestic police force despite its reliance upon military technology and tactics.

Much of the debate over the “crisis” of the state hinges on the assertion of sovereign failures to control borders; governments fail in controlling the flow of commercial instruments, currencies, flora and fauna, commodities, labor, and alien bodies (in this case boiling with swine flu and other diseases). Well before the despotic SB 1070, Minutemen and other vigilantes practiced racial terror, thousands died in what are elsewhere termed the killing deserts, and a politically ambitious sheriff waged war on immigrant--or is it Latino?--communities in Phoenix, Arizona.

Moreover, the Obama administration enlisted officers in immigration through the provision of 287G which effectively allowed officers in communities that agree to it to participate in immigration law enforcement. As we know from Agamben in his much neglected Means without Ends, what enabled camps and related technologies of terror was their designation as a policing operation.

Nevertheless, the vast majority of undocumented migrants make it to their destination, despite militarized policing practices--a peculiar conjunction of the power of death harnessed by the United States' largest police force--or vigilantes and other forms of criminal violence. A racial state of emergency is the normative mode of immigration governance across the U.S. today, particularly at a moment where immigrant and Latino are commonsensically collapsed.

But, as I have argued elsewhere, neither the border nor the securitization of immigration should be understood as a camp in the classic Agambenian sense of the term. It is not solely a space of death but perhaps a different form of "camp." The state of exception has become the rule with notable liberal, capitalist, and biopolitical permutations. That for-profit enterprises are involved in the warehousing of the undocumented is but one clear difference. More importantly, to close on a positive note, neither the border nor related technologies of immigration enforcement produce the total closure of Agamben's camp.

Today, on May 1, 2010 as I speak, migrants and their allies are emboldened. They are engaged in dramatic public protests against these forms of rule across the United States. This suggests that despite the continuities between liberal democratic technologies and totalitarian regimes the former provide avenues for resistance and terrains worth struggling for at a moment in which both the left and the right converge in abandoning the welfare state. A new lexicon for an affirmative bios, or what Sharad Chari termed “biopolitical struggle,” must be developed.


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Richard said...

Thinking of the term 'illiberal', which I liked, but wondering what terms we use to describe actions and apparati that are counter-liberal or -- dare I say -- vaguely socialist when we discuss these things with our less liberal associates?

The Right uses terms like 'liberal', 'socialist' and even 'progressive' as terms of abuse (how did progressive become a bad thing?), so how do we talk about these things and engage those we may disagree with in a more public discourse without falling foul of these sorts of misappropriated terms?

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, there is nothing inherently illiberal in these laws. Everyone who has mentioned the possibility to bring the case to the Supreme Court mentions the fact that foreign policy is a prerogative of the federal state. So Arizona might not have the legitimacy to legislate on the subject. No principle of "liberalism" is at stake, so much so that any other liberal democracy in the world has similar or more draconian laws on the subject.
Unless we use the term "liberal" in the unique American meaning, and we mean that these laws are not "leftist" laws. But that would be a tautology. John Rawls and Habermas would despise the laws, and so do I, but they certainly don't have a monopoly of what "liberal" is.

Emanuel Rota

Lauren said...

That's a really good question Richard. I find myself coming at more or less the same question from the other side. That is, I agree entirely with Gilberto's assessment of the deep-seated illiberality of (so-called) liberal societies. But I wonder too: if "liberal" is to stand only for the failures of particular liberal states and/or the limits of liberalism more broadly, what term do we use to stand for alternatives to the illiberality described in this post?

We all understand the critique of liberalisms past and present. But do we know how to defend or characterize ideals such as equality? Or citizenship? Or tolerance?

Lauren said...

Manuel wrote: "Unless we use the term "liberal" in the unique American meaning, and we mean that these laws are not "leftist" laws. But that would be a tautology. John Rawls and Habermas would despise the laws, and so do I, but they certainly don't have a monopoly of what "liberal" is."

Not sure I follow you Manuel. Yes, you're right of course that in the US "liberalism" long ago branched into something like what Europeans tend to call either Labor or social democratic politics. And, yes, the strongest case against the _constitutionality_ of Arizona's law is to do with federal control over immigration law. But I still think that many self-identified liberals (including Habermas and Rawls if you want to call the former a liberal) would describe the various things Gilberto has described as illiberal on a number of grounds. Even many libertarians (who don't tend to be leftwing in the social democratic sense) would find a militarized police force illiberal. Think also of the ACLU kind of liberal who is also not always leftwing in a social democratic sense.

As to other liberal democracies having similar laws. Do you mean something like Italy's laws against facial veils (in the news today)? If so, why wouldn't or couldn't one argue that such laws are illiberal? Just because certain states have democratic and constitutional structures that have historically been associated with liberalism doesn't mean that everything they do or enact automatically qualifies as liberal. George Bush was not a liberal president--and not just because he wasn't leftwing. His policies were illiberal in a number of ways.

Naturally people (whether they call themselves political liberals or not) can argue about he meaning of liberality or illiberality. Just like people can and do argue about what constitutes justice or equality. But does that mean the argument isn't worth having?

Anonymous said...

Actually, Emanuel, a small, but statistically signficant percentage of US citizens are Latino and thus US citizens. We certainly don't want to assume the homogeneity of the US citizenry. And, I certainly do not subscribe to the meaning of liberal/liberlism as leftist. But tolerance, as problematic a concept as it is as Wendy Brown among others has demonstrated, is certainly being interrupted by these laws. Illiberal they are.


Lauren said...

An article in the NYT about how immigration is now playing out in British politics

Richard said...

My initial problem with erminology perhaps stems from my coming from the UK, where liberal is definitely not left. It's shunned by right and left both. But in the US, it's about as left as mainstream politics get so when you say it's not left, yet these politics are illiberal, I'm not sure how to use that. For example, as a relatively new US citizen I listen to 'liberal' public radio commentary, and 'conservative' talk radio. I think we need publically non-polarising terms for left, for center, and for anti-left in order to engage and not just trade misinterpretations in the public media. I guess I'm assuming that the public vocabulary for this debate will somehow crystallize out of just these sorts of academic discussion. I guess I would like a word for 'liberal' that's as confident and unassailable as 'feminist'.

Lauren said...

You are right Richard. Discussing "liberalism" in US academic discourse can be a bit like being wedged between a rock and a hard place. The rock is a long tradition among US academics of critiquing and/or spurning liberalism as both politics and political theory. There are good reasons for those critiques but it does leave open a number of questions that are hard to answer given how protean liberalism is and how desirable some of the principles that it claims to enshrine. The hard place is how the US right tars anything they don't like as liberal whether it is or isn't! They've successfully turned it into a pejorative: at last among their own ranks. Good luck trying to crack that nut! Gilberto has certainly pinpointed the challenge for us.

Anonymous said...

Actually, Lauren, Italy does not have a specific veil law (France does) and I was not referring to that.
I was referring to the fact that all Liberal democracies in western Europe have now mandatory national id cards that serve exact the same purpose of the Arizona law.

According to the NYT, the law:

"would require the police “when practicable” to detain people they reasonably suspected were in the country without authorization. It would also allow the police to charge immigrants with a state crime for not carrying immigration documents. And it allows residents to sue cities if they believe the law is not being enforced."

I believe that historical liberalism is pretty simply defined by the rule of law, division of power, freedom of the market and freedom of expression. This is why no liberal constitution I am aware of has provisions against the control and detention of individuals when there is reasonable cause. Only if we make liberalism into something that is not, we can claim that liberalism and this law are incompatible. (By the way, Hans Kelsen, one of the most important liberal jurists of the 20th century, had a hard time explaining why nazi laws were incompatible with liberalism.)
The only reason why the US call liberalism the left wing of the liberal party (in the US both Dems and Republicans are liberal parties, in the historical sense of the world) is that it never had a social-democratic or labor party emerging on the left as a real political contender. Hence, the US has a situation similar in nomenclature to the UK in the 18th century, with wigs and tories before labour.
There is also substance: neither the German or French socialists would call themselves liberals (there are liberal parties in Europe, by the way) nor liberals would normally call themselves socialists.

As far as how we call this law, I think we can even call it fascist. Political insults do serve a purpose. If we want to fight the battle against this and the future laws, however, we do have to accept the fact that relying on the liberal tradition will not bring us far. For instance, the argument used to defend the law –the immigrants are breaking the law and hence we should treat them as criminals– sounds awfully liberal to me...


Unit for Criticism said...

Manuel, thanks.

On Italy/the veil: This was published yesterday in the NYT. It looks as though the law in Italy is a local one.

Let me make clear (again) that I don't speak in defense of the liberal status quo OR liberalism tout court. I simply like it when people are explicit about what they hope to achieve.

The key point for me in what you said above is the matter of "reasonable cause." Looking Latino isn't a reasonable cause for the police to do anything--to argue that it is to attempt to legitimate a form of racism. That is why liberalism and this law are indeed incompatible.

Here for example is the Arizona ACLU making a variety of arguments against the law as "discriminatory," "exploitative" and so forth.

All that said, I do think modern societies (whether market societies or not) need the rule of law. And they need it all the more because the test of "reasonable cause" must be very high. Do you disagree?

Yes, US politics has lacked a viable Labor or Socialist Party; but no the liberal wing of the Democratic party from, say, FDR to LBJ, is not at all like the 18th century UK Whigs. What did the Whigs ever pass that is comparable to the New Deal? (You are conflating classical liberalism and neo-liberalism and forgetting why the word "neo" is now used.)

Finally, I agree that we cannot rely on "the liberal tradition" to deal with this current moment in the long history of globalization. But I also think that Arizona's law is fascist or at least proto-fascist. I think that characterization is defensible and not especially inflammatory. (LG)

Bruce Rosenstock said...

Manuel, do you mean that Kelsen said that his jurisprudential philosophy was hard pressed to say what nazi law was not liberal, or that you think that Kelsen would be hard pressed to say why nazi law is not liberal? I would be surprised to hear that Kelsen himself had a hard time explaining why nazi law is not liberal. Why is it hard to say that the Nuremberg legislation against racial miscegenation violate the Grundnorm of equality before the law? Or, in more contemporary context, why is it hard to say that "definition of marriage" laws that stipulate marriage to be between a man and a woman are illiberal, whereas the Massachusetts Supreme Court decision that ruled in favor of same-sex marriage is liberal? If both are liberal laws, then we need some other way of distinguishing the two cases. Or is anything less than a rejection of the entire legal structure underpinning bourgeois marriage just a case of fascism masquerading as liberalism? Even Marx thought that the bourgeoisie began as a revolutionary class; until the coming of the classless society shouldn't we encourage such revolutionary tendencies as may yet remain within the liberal bourgeois state, including most prominently the idea of equality before the law?

Kerstin Klein said...

"a recurrent question during the conference has been: is there a qualitative distinction between liberal and illiberal states in terms of biopolitics?"

have been working on this question during an entire PhD on the biopolitics of human embryos and stem cell research in China. yes and no. yes, there are differences, because unlike Foucault's thesis biopolitics has now also entered domains of the non-liberal West. no, not so much, when one actually differentiates also between biopolitical practices in so-called liberal states, and if one looks at all those practices of biopolitics that are coercive and govern without a distance, which cannot be captured by contemporary biopolitical approaches like biological citizenship etc.

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