In the era of the refugee, it’s both, of course. But there is still a point to knocking one term up against the other rather than settling too quickly for a comfortable, non-confrontational both/and.
In the Preface to her book Precarious Life (2004), Judith Butler writes: “there are others out there on whom my life depends, people I do not know and may never know. This fundamental dependency on anonymous others is not a condition I can will away” (xii). Writing in the aftermath of September 11, 2001 and the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq that followed, invasions for which Europe is now paying heavily in the form of its refugee crisis, Butler seized on terms like precariousness, dependency and vulnerability in order to suggest to Americans that rather than striking out militarily against other nations, a better response to the experience of their own vulnerability– the 9/11 experience– would be to recognize how widely that experience of vulnerability is shared with the people of other nations. This would enable them, as she says, to turn “an inevitable interdependency” into “the basis for global political community” (xii-xiii). In a sense, she suggests, Americans have already realized that, in spite of the enormous military power they possess, their lives are precarious, but they have not drawn the proper conclusions about what it means to share this category of precariousness with so many other people.
Okay, but what are the proper conclusions to draw from our “inevitable interdependency”? As far as US militarism is concerned, I have no doubt that Butler and I would draw exactly the same conclusions. But researching the book I published in December 2017, The Beneficiary (Duke University Press, 2017), brought a truth home to me: the perception of inevitable interdependency at the level of the planet does not by itself lay any moral obligation at all on you. It does not require you to do something you are not already doing; it does not require you to stop doing something you are. In the history of capitalist ideology since Adam Smith, that perception has popped up again and again, each time seeming to entail an understanding of the world economic system as, like the solar system, too vast, too self-sufficient, and too smoothly functioning to be affected by any individual’s choices, moral or otherwise. From this perspective, what interdependency does is to make moral choices irrelevant.
Writing in The World is Flat, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman lists, for example, the nations and corporations on which he depends for the components of his Dell laptop:
The Intel microprocessor came from an Intel factory either in the Philippines, Costa Rica, Malaysia, or China. The memory came from a Korean-owned factory in Korea (Samsung), a Taiwanese-owned factory in Taiwan (Nanya), a German-owned factory in Germany (Infineon), or a Japanese-owned factory in Japan (Elpida). My graphics card was shipped from either a Taiwanese-owned factory in China (MSI) or a Chinese-run factory in China (Foxconn). The cooling fan came from a Taiwanese-owned factory in Taiwan (CCI or Auras). The motherboard came from either a Korean-owned factory in Shanghai (Samsung), a Taiwanese-owned factory in Shanghai (Quanta), or a Taiwanese-owned factory in Taiwan (Compal or Wistron).
This is interdependency, but it is interdependency with zero moral entailment. For Friedman, interdependency is a source of aesthetic delight: a “supply chain symphony–from my order over the phone to production to delivery to my house,” and “one of the wonders of the flat world.” Granted, he published The World Is Flat in 2005, five years before the wave of suicides at Foxconn– one of his examples, and at that time the main site of production for the iPhone, the world’s best-selling product. (The suicide nets are still there, along with occasional threats of mass self-destruction on the part of the workers.) Friedman could of course have spent more time noticing the conditions of labor in the plants he names. But noticing the conditions of labor of those on whom he depended for the production, assembly, and delivery of his laptop, even conditions involving coercion, overwork, underpay, and other sorts of unpleasantness, would not have been enough to turn his perception of interdependency into a perception of moral responsibility. Friedman could always say–it is plausibly what he and other apologists for global capitalism silently assume– that those who do that labor also depend on the labor of others, and indeed depend on it just as much as he does. Even George Orwell, an early adopter of the global-justice imperative, made this point about the coal miners of the English Midlands: they too depended on coal to heat themselves in the winter. Everyone is a consumer, and any consumer anywhere has the power to command the labor of everyone else everywhere. Everyone benefits. That’s what interdependency means.
There is of course a moral problem here that Friedman does not recognize. But it does not come from interdependency. It comes from inequality.
Another in a series of Butler’s brilliant re-channelings of Hegel on self-consciousness, the subject of her PhD thesis and first book, her vision of universal precariousness proved to be more widely persuasive in the Bush and Obama years than one might have expected from its strenuously philosophical premises. It’s not that American common sense after 9/11 was ready for Hegel’s story of the coming-into-being of self-consciousness as dependent on the contingencies of a social relationship, let alone ready for Butler’s friendly amendments to it. Common sense had, however, been coached on the subject of precariousness. It had been prepared to accept that concept by (in Simon During’s words) the “more or less religious lineage which has always privileged precariousness and its many cousins (vulnerability, uneasiness, groundlessness, and fallenness, for instance) as conditions of human existence. Thought this way, precarity extends beyond social and intellectual zones to connote an experience that is also an anthropological truth … a particular account of what it is to be human” (“From the Subaltern to the Precariat,” boundary 2, 2015, 59).
What Butler wants from her vision of universal precariousness is practical leverage against injustices that are not universal, injustices that are suffered by some, not by everyone. In other words, she wants a politics. A politics is arguably something that the religious lineage cannot supply, and has probably done more to hinder, historically speaking, than to help. One might nonetheless imagine that, politically speaking, going universal as Butler does could be a winning move, capable of seducing some portion of the powerful into an alliance with the powerless by reminding them that the power they hold, like the lives of those who have so little of it, is also precarious. The ambiguity of the concept of precarity–true of some versus true of all– is what has made the possibility of such alliances seem worth investigating.
This ambiguity is mobilized politically, for example, in Guy Standing’s The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class (2011), though it is not openly acknowledged there. The quintessential members of the precariat, for Standing, are migrants and refugees. In the older vocabulary of economic and political inequality, migrants and refugees would largely fall into the category of the powerless. But Standing clearly also wants to include people who would not fall into the category of the powerless. “The precariat is also the first class in history,” he writes, “expected to endure labour and work at a lower level than the schooling it typically acquires” (vii). Here he is talking about people who have enjoyed privileged access to higher education. Their lives may be “dominated by insecurity, uncertainty, debt and humiliation,” but in class terms they might nevertheless have to be placed on the side of the powerful, not the powerless. “Anger, anomie, anxiety and alienation” (33) are by no means restricted to those we used to call the poor. Cultural Marxists of an older generation will think back to “reification,” a once-fashionable measure of existential injury. One of its chief attractions was that it seemed equally injurious to those who did and those who did not suffer from severe economic deprivation–to workers on the one hand, and to university students on the other. It seemed like the undeclared basis of a future coalition.
Butler too includes among the precarious those who work in the humanities, which is to say people who have received a relatively expensive post-secondary education and are therefore (however buffeted by the cruel winds of the job market) at some remove from the bare life of today’s refugees trying to cross the Mediterranean. The identification makes a great deal of sense, of course, faced as humanists are with the neoliberal brutality of university trustees and presidents as well as taxpayers who reject as much responsibility as they can for all social services, educational or otherwise. And it would make even more sense if there could be an international enlargement, adapted to this rough identification, of the politics of the welfare state. “Defend the welfare state!” is still perhaps the most promising slogan capable of bringing together in a common movement the well-to-do who are educated and credentialled with the underprivileged and impoverished who are presumed to need their services and expertise. The right, defining itself at such moments as everyone who is neither empowered by credentials nor in need of rescue-by-expertise, has played up this alliance of its enemies with malevolent glee, underlining the sordid self-interest on both sides. Perhaps for that reason, champions of the precarious have not tended to invest much effort or emotion in the prospect of such an alliance. Or perhaps the problem is that, for the moment at least, even that alliance would remain limited to the poor within the nation’s borders and would offer no benefits to those still poorer who live outside them.
On the one hand, then, the word “precariat” signifies a new measure for old injustice. It keeps us from forgetting that those who suffer from economic deprivation also suffer in other ways, for example from the insecurity that is distinctive of global capitalism in the neoliberal era. On the other hand, “precariat” joins together those who suffer economic deprivation with those who do not suffer economic deprivation, or don’t suffer it to anything like the same degree. That would include for example all of us who suffer or stand to suffer from climate change—a universal condition, again, though one whose consequences are unequally distributed. There are reasons for not giving up on a category that (as in Butler, Standing, and others) vacillates between these different scales of application.
I am not so confident of the effectiveness of other arguments as to be able to reject out of hand the political potential of this one. And its universalizing is precisely what has made the concept of precarity seem so promising as the basis of a hypothetical cross-class coalition.
That said, however, there are also reasons for worrying about the likely political impact of any category that encourages us to ignore the divide between the powerless and the powerful.
Later in Precarious Lives, when Butler speaks of the detainees at Guantanamo and the Afghan and Palestinian victims of Israeli and American violence, it’s the powerless, not the powerful, who are clearly the subjects she has in mind. The same seems to hold when she turns in her final chapter to Levinas as a theorist who integrates precarity into what she calls a “structure of address.” And then, suddenly, the subject becomes a universal “we.”
The structure of address is important for understanding how moral authority is introduced and sustained if we accept not just that we address others when we speak, but that in some way we come to exist, as it were, in the moment of being addressed, and something about our existence proves precarious when that address fails. More emphatically, however, what binds us morally has to do with how we are addressed by others in ways that we cannot avert or avoid; this impingement by the other’s address constitutes us first and foremost against our will or, perhaps put more appropriately, prior to the formation of our will (130).
What “we” need to recognize, in short, is “the situation of being addressed, the demand that comes from elsewhere, sometimes a nameless elsewhere, by which our obligations are articulated and pressed upon us” (130). Here, mediated by Levinas’s unabashedly religious premises, the slide is visible from the powerless to everyone.
In this passage, Butler is reformulating precariousness as a structure of address. This rhetorical re-formulation provides another way of saying what I was trying to say in The Beneficiary: that when we who live in rich countries become aware of the deprivation suffered by people in poor countries, we should think of ourselves as addressed by them and under obligation to them. But it also brings out two things about my argument that were perhaps not as clear as they might have been, even to me.
The first is simply that precariousness is unequally distributed.
No, refugees do not all belong to the poorest of the poor. Those who can afford to pay the exorbitant sums demanded by people smugglers are not those who are starving in their home countries. As I argue in The Beneficiary, the same holds in the US even for poor Mexican and Salvadoran restaurant workers who are living on next to nothing, ten to a room, and yet somehow manage to send home remittances that, though small, make a huge difference to the well-being of their loved ones. Theirs is not, pace Wallerstein, absolute immiseration. It is not one of Levinas’s sacred mysteries, but it too in its way is politically unspeakable. Restaurant workers trying to organize in order to raise their salaries cannot say, in public, that they are already sending some of their meager income out of the country. Global inequality remains unspeakable.
Yet the proper name of the problem here is, in fact, global inequality–the inequality between the very limited access to goods and services in their home countries and the much more abundant access to goods and services that is taken for granted by those of us who inhabit the countries that refugees are trying so desperately to get into. The proper way to think about precariousness is as a non-monetary currency of suffering, a currency that allows us to measure the inequality with which, under the current economic system, suffering is distributed. Thinking that all lives are precarious makes it easier to forget this inequality.
The second insight I take away from Butler’s structure-of-address translation of precariousness is that addressing someone is less self-evidently virtuous that we tend to assume, and leaving that someone unaddressed is less self-evidently a matter inviting severe political critique. When Butler says “something about our existence proves precarious when that address fails,” she seems to be saying that feeling ourselves addressed does not ordinarily make us feel precarious; that effect only follows from the failure of address. From this perspective, it would seem that you do have an ethical obligation to address the other, because if you don’t, you will make the existence of the other precarious. And it would seem to follow that if you do address the other, you accomplish something of ethical value. You do something, perhaps even something decisive, to diminish the other’s precariousness.
I think I would have balked at that conclusion in any case, but I was highly motivated to stop and reconsider it by the argument I had just made in The Beneficiary–more precisely, by my definition of what I call “the discourse of the beneficiary.” Whether a mere offhand noting of global inequality or a full-throated denunciation of it, the discourse of the beneficiary shares two characteristics: 1) it is addressed to beneficiaries of that injustice, and 2) it is spoken by a fellow beneficiary. It does not involve direct address to the victims of global economic inequality. It does not involve an effort to bring the victims into a shared conversation with the perpetrators or beneficiaries. It is an appeal to action by the beneficiaries alone. By Butler’s structure-of-address criterion, then, the discourse of the beneficiary would seem to be making things worse, not better. Accusations of paternalism or related offenses seem inevitable.
Yet is it absolutely clear that direct address to the victim deserves to be a major or even an indispensable political criterion? “Eliminating racism in the white women’s movement,” the Combahee River Collective writes, “is by definition work for white women to do.” The statement does not say that Black women need to pursue dialogue with white women. Better to ask white women to get their own act together. What would it mean if, on the contrary, white women did demand input on racism from Black women? Wouldn’t that mean asking Black women to do their work for them? Doesn’t the same hold today for #MeToo? The movement is not asking for men to talk about the issue as much as possible. One has in fact heard the injunction to shut up.
The idea that political initiatives should establish and maintain lines of communication between the two sides seems desirable. But it encourages the mistaken notion that having a voice and getting that voice heard is crucial. That is a mistake of democratic formalism: a willingness to content oneself with appearance and to postpone indefinitely the question of whether substance will follow. (The emergent disciplinary formation of “World Literature” sometimes seems to have embraced this as its defining principle.) Dialogue, like self-expression, can be a fetish. The insistence on dialogue can be a ruse. The point is obvious as soon as you get down to specific cases. For the Israelis to demand of the Palestinians, say, that they engage in dialogue– not that Palestinians have refused such requests in the past, as perhaps they ought to have– is to demand equal respect for Israeli opinions. I agree to respect your views, and you agree to respect mine. It’s politely symmetrical. But the political situation is not symmetrical. On one side, the Palestinians are the victims of long-standing structural injustice. (I spare you the details, which are hard to abbreviate once one gets going.) On the other side, Israel has imposed that injustice. Do the opinions of the victim and the perpetrator deserve equal respect? To adopt the rules of politeness in such a situation is to guarantee that something very close to the status quo will be preserved– that structural injustice will continue, that justice will not be done. It would be strange if the guilty parties in such cases did not already have that outcome in mind when they made their sincere call for frank and open dialogue.
The point of calling the refugee crisis a crisis is to make it punctual, actionable, and urgent–something happening now that is at a decisive moment and therefore has to be dealt with now. The refugee crisis does seem to be a crisis in this sense. New Year’s Day 2018 brought news for example of refugees trying to cross the Alps from Italy into France in deep snow and sneakers and sweat suits. The authorities were quoted as saying they would be digging bodies out in the spring.
All this is true, but it is also true that as humanists, we are not the best qualified discipline in the world for dealing with crises. There are some things we know how to do with anecdotes and images (say, the viral photograph of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi lying on a Turkish beach), but we aren’t as good with statistics (say, numbers of drownings in the Mediterranean since 2015). Proposing and debating policy initiatives is not our strongest suit. To put it very coldly: we are better at digging up bodies once the seasons have changed.
In that spirit, then, and so as to avoid self-aggrandizing fantasies and stick closer to our areas of greater competence: perhaps we should try to think of the refugee crisis less as a crisis and more as part of a larger historical narrative, a grand récit. If we did manage to see it as part of a grand récit, our job would be to work on adjusting moral responses to that narrative while perhaps also, as required, modifying the narrative itself. The hope would be that our professional work (as distinct from whatever we push for as citizens, local and global) would have a long-term impact on the going notions of fairness and responsibility.
I propose, then, that we consider the “refugee crisis” less as a punctual sequence of events precipitated by military violence in West Asia and more as the structural result of long-term global economic inequality, which might be understood to underlie the military violence and which sets people in motion simply because they are so desperate where they are and because things seem and indeed are better in the places they are trying to get to. The evidence is of course inconclusive. But wouldn’t it have to be? Would we expect economic inequality to display its causal power in some flagrant, unmistakable, directly attributable way? It seems more likely that it would only reveal itself indirectly, in another language, in moments or “crises” that seem to be about something else, whether military intervention in country X (here, US intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan; European and American intervention in Libya) or authoritarianism (Eritrea) or civil war (Nigeria, Sudan), and so on. The variety of appearances in these different countries does not guarantee, of course, that there is a single deep structural truth underlying them all. But it seems worth floating the hypothesis, if only so as to test out and become familiar with hypothetical interpretations of the likely or hypothetical responses to it– responses to a future conjuncture that has the feel of inevitability.
In this time and place, the playing up of economic inequality does not seem like a smart move. Human rights law covers refugees, defined as fleeing a well-founded fear of persecution in their homelands. States are under a definite obligation not to send them back, though not, unfortunately, to integrate them. There is no such legal obligation to offer refuge to migrants, defined as economically motivated. To pursue this hypothetical is therefore to forfeit a large conceptual support for refugees– perhaps the largest, even if it doesn’t seem to be helping all that much right now.
Why propose forfeiting the best legal defense that refugees currently enjoy? Well, because (as Hannah Arendt said of human rights generally) it’s clearly inadequate. And because, like human rights discourse generally, it encourages the idea that while military violence and government persecution are human actions, hence controllable, economics is like fate–inhuman and uncontrollable. That seems to be why it is agreed in international law–to the extent that there is a theoretical “why” at all here, other than merely pragmatic considerations– that states have to do something in response to refugees (fleeing military violence or persecution) but don’t have to do anything in response to migrants (fleeing misery and hopelessness). It is time to take a shot at the assumption that economic inequality is fate.
Humanitarianism, as we currently understand it, has a taboo on suggesting that those appealed to for donations are causally responsible for the suffering they are asked to alleviate. In the case of Americans asked to donate to alleviate the sufferings of refugees from Iraq and Afghanistan, it is clearly that case that we are responsible for the military violence that set these people in motion. And that idea of causal responsibility already has zero traction in the US, which has allowed almost zero refugees in. So it seems like a non-starter to beef up the sense of causal responsibility by adding an economic dimension–that is, to trace the causal chains leading from deprivation abroad to relative abundance here. But this is the sort of humanitarianism 2.0 that I have been trying to imagine.
After September 11, 2001, it was much noticed among progressives that American public opinion declined to see any link between the terrorist attacks (which they were) and decades of American foreign policy in the Middle East, including support for Israeli occupation and militarism and Saudi Arabian authoritarianism. Today, we see a similar disconnect between American popular opinion and the causes of the refugee crisis–causes which obviously include the US military’s interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, two sources of the stream of refugees to Europe. What tends not to be noted is that now, in the refugee crisis, unlike then, following September 11, there is no insistence on US responsibility even among US progressives. Which is to say that for one reason or another (and the reasons would be worth pursuing) US progressives have failed to take up their responsibility to influence popular opinion, to the best of their ability at least, by getting Americans to acknowledge causal links with American foreign policy, whether so as to get the American state to open its doors to refugees or to change the foreign policies of the present and future, or both. We could certainly start there. But I would hope that, building up some momentum, we could go from there to a causality that is certainly more diffuse, more shared with others, more difficult to see as directly actionable, but that is just as certainly decisive in explaining the sufferings of our moment. I’m referring of course to global economic inequality.
I don’t think the refugee crisis can be re-coded as the final showdown between the hungry and the well-fed. But it is worth considering it as a rehearsal for that dramatic scene, and perhaps more than a rehearsal. It’s also worth considering that we may already have had rehearsals for it that we didn’t recognize as such, since there was no opening-night performance we were eagerly or anxiously awaiting.
 See https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/jun/18/foxconn-life-death-forbidden-city-longhua-suicide-apple-iphone-brian-merchant-one-device-extract
 Can these two senses be reconciled: the one a particular political diagnosis, an accusation of injustice aimed at some but not all, and the other universal and therefore not usefully political, perhaps even anti-political? During makes some effort to reconcile them, suggesting for example that the notion “that uneasiness and instability are primary to human existence is kept alive precisely under capitalism since it is a mode of production that, in effect, invests in insecurity and that therefore reaches a certain fulfilment in today’s global precarity” (61). But if I understand him correctly, it is literature, not politics, that in his view is best suited to understand or deal with precarity. The category of the precariat is an existential and anthropological condition as well as a material one, and its existential and anthropological dimensions trump its material ones. The precariat “joins the liberal-arts educated, theorizing rich to the dispossessed but does not do so politically à la 1968” because “this is a condition that literature can know best” (82). The question of “social justice” (83) drops out. “Precarity has no merely political solution” (84). But its “political and economic failures” may work “for literature’s benefit” (84) since it is precarity’s existential and anthropological dimensions that literature knows how to speak to. In other words, it’s the universal, not the politicized sense of precarity that ought to matter to us as the “theorizing rich,” or if you prefer as academics and intellectuals.
 Some of course try to escape without paying those sums, or being able to pay them.
 Even if the causality involved seems, on examination, too diffuse, it might be worth thinking of causal responsibility as a sort of folk paradigm of fairness that (though experience seems against) might be invoked to overcome the problem of favoring the local and not even recognizing the non-local except as threat or enemy.