By Laura Zuber
It is the 13th of April 2021 and the the call for writing a blog article on ‘Reimagining Communities’ for this year’s Security Studies conference reaches me in a vulnerable moment in my research process: six months into the PhD, I made the decision to change topic. Roughly, my original plan consisted of comparing the UK’s crisis management during Covid-19 and the Second World War. Naturally, the question I would receive from many a person coming across my research would be: “Why these two?” Concretely, “What is your understanding of crisis that made you come up with comparing these two completely different phenomena?” The truth is, although I was mostly able to provide a satisfactory answer to those asking, I had to quietly confess that I was not able to provide a satisfactory answer to myself, to the point that the molehill became a mountain that blocked from my sight the further path of the project.
A thought-provoking question. What do I mean by ‘crisis’? What does ‘crisis’ mean in general? This question came accompanied by a latent sense of shame, given that the word was prominently featured in my project title. Adding to this feeling, I did what most of us on the privileged side of the digital divide do in moments of fundamental ontological questionings of the world around us: I googled. Eventually, after hours of research, browsing through academic and various other sources, I still did not exactly know what, when and how a ‘crisis’ is, but I knew one thing: that it is tricky to figure out for others, too.
Thereby, we encounter this notion in every other news article, attached to words such as health, climate, migration, food, housing, or the economy. Does the meaning of ‘crisis’ impose itself so naturally? “That, now that one is a sound crisis! No no, that one, not the other, the other one is just a huge problem.” Or is its inflationary use rather a matter of quantity than quality? “Hah, we simply have too many of them, there you go, Ma’am, catch!”
Even though the latter might be sadly true, I would like to reflect on the first aspect, specifically on the political implications of using this notion unquestioningly. My aim is not to advocate for a narrow definition of the word – on the contrary. Rather, I would like to invite the reader to a broader reflection on the dangers and potentials of handling a remarkably adaptable and ontologically hollow notion such as ‘crisis’; an excercise that might prove useful for the next time we stumble across this little word in the newspaper.
To do this, I need to offer an outline of a much lesser known crisis phenomenon: Coming from feminist theory, my current research explores what is known, whithin feminist scholarship, as the crisis of reproduction. (Yes, that suspicious word again!) That is the increasing difficulty to engage in physical, mental, and emotional life-making and -sustaining activities within the microcosm of the everydays; from cooking, eating, sleeping, accessing potable water, to teaching, and giving and receiving care and love – activities that sustain ourselves and the extended community and kinship ties around us. According to Marxist and socialist feminists, the ultimate goal of these reproductive activities is to renew, day-to-day and generationally, the labour power we need to sell on the market to gain access to the finacial means to – again – reproduce ourselves and the capitalist modality. Life-making for profit-making. If this is part of the deal, why is the reproductive sphere in crisis, then? Ought it not be the most secure of all?
Seen through a critical lens, capitalism, especially in its neoliberalised form, reveals itself as a cosmology, a value-system that acts with a parasitic, that is an expansive and extractive relationality on those within its reach, with the goal of infinite accumulation of profit. This extractive relationality furthermore has an explicitely colonial and heteronormative patriarchal quality, which shines light on why the global reproductive sphere is disproportionally made up by precarious Women and people of Colour – as opposed to the primary beneficiaries of this system. In order to sustain itself, capitalism then needs to extract more and more – theoretically infinitely more – from human (and other-than-human) regenerative life-forces that are by nature finite. Capitalism’s progressive eating itself through finite life-forces – unevenly across lines of inequality – is increasingly palpable even in Western heteronormative societies. And suddenly, the crisis of reproduction is everywhere and nowehere.
The crisis of reproduction is everywhere, because it hides at the core of many of the crises we read and hear about in many a news article, talk and conference: the crises of climate, migration, debt, food or housing, not to speak of the manifold struggles brought about by the pandemic. The crisis of reproduction is seen nowhere, because the reproductive sphere and its racialised, gendered and precarious demography is produced as invisible. Because acknowledging the global reproductive crisis would mean declaring a (‘a’ – not ‘in’) crisis the current political-economic order, including the very colonial and heteronormative patriarchal relationships it is built upon and that permeate and uphold the insititutional grid of society. It would mean declaring a crisis competitive, hierarchical and cumulative systems of power and the way we organise life in them. It would mean for society to enter into a state of ontological insecurity.
Turns out, the question what is deemed to be a crisis is not a trivial one. The way this word is filled with meaning has a strategic function for the ontological security of societal and global structures protecting capitalist – including colonial and patriarchal – modalities. It is also of utmost importance for the livelihood of everyone living in and with them day-by-day. The question what a crisis is and the dominant value-system in which this question is subsequently interpreted have concrete political implications as to which life-threatening situations will be problematised or normalised, and thus whose lives will be protected or sacrificed. Moreover, the question of who is ontologically constructed as being, and the subsequent affirmation of who is valued in the dominant value-system, will have concrete political implications as to when a situation is declared or taken seriously as a crisis; depending on whose lives are in danger.
“But during the Covid-19 pandemic, there has been a revaluation of (white and Western) women’s reproductive activities, how does that fit in?”, some might wonder. While we cannot know with certainty what this revaluation might bring, feminist scholar Smriti Rao offers a rather disheartening outlook:
The terrible pandemic sweeping the globe caused capitalist accumulation to be temporarily suspended in order to address the threat to the production and maintenance of life posed by the virus. One could sense the impatience generated by this unprecedented move in an economic system that is designed to reverse that order of priorities. The suspension did not last long, precisely because of how poorly it fits our current political economy. From a feminist political economy perspective, this is a further reminder of the fundamental contradiction between a capitalist system that prioritizes profits, and a feminist ethic that prioritizes life-making or social reproduction. (Rao, 2021, p.18)
With this background, what should we reimagine communities for, given that they are the primary site of reproduction, whose struggle seems to be a lost case? To try to reproduce our labour-power better, until the ‘dragon’, as Audre Lorde named it, eventually devours itself and us?
If the community in capitalist societies is, as Silvia Federici explains, essentially an assembly line that (re)produces workers and labour-power, then reimagining communities would mean: reimagining communities that produce something beyond that. The world we live in is materialised cosmology – it is nothing but materialised cosmology. Before we feed any Lorde’ian dragon with our labour power, we must feed that dragon with our collective belief in it. Collective belief is the true source of ontological security.
The micro-level of community, then, is the primordial site where the conditions of possibility for the world we live in – in all its ontological, structural and cultural facets – is produced. This is what ‘reproductive activities’ ultimately are about: they are world-making activities that set the stage for any cosmology to materially unfold. Understanding the community as a site of world-creation shines light on why capital accumulation happens through a regime “in which all life forms are severed from the interdependence that nurtures life-making” (Hennessy, 2020, p. 5): severed, dismembered and alienated (or simply absent) communities cannot realise their full life-making, meaning world-making potential beyond the mere reproduction of labour power. The ontological threat is minimised. The community is stripped from its creative power that is free to be transfered to privileged political, economic and financial elites sitting on top of often violent hierarchies. These then appear as the only legitimate agents to endow such crucial notions as ‘crisis’ with meaning. Can we reimagine communities that are able to realise their full hidden potential?
An investigation into the etymology of the word ‘solidarity’ reveals that the french word solidarité designates a community of mutual responsibility, and itself stems from the words solidaire, meaning ‘interdependent’ and solide, meaning ‘solid’. Can solidarity be the key to restore solid and interdependent community ties? If yes, solidarity and interdependence need to be based on a sense of mutual responsibility – not on coercive or exploitative relationships. As decolonial philosopher Enrique Dussel tells us, respect and responsibility for the Other is a precondition for reimagining and remaking: “it is an almost metaphysical activity. […] It is the metaphysical anteriority of the new or future order. It is anteriority to ontological openness to the world; it makes it possible; it is its real a priori” (1985, p. 60, italics in original). Solidarity, interdependence and mutual responsibility are reflections of each other. Reimagining communities as sites of rooted and actualised solidarity is the precondition for them to engage in the task that is theirs only: to reimagine a world – or worlds – we want to live in. Perhaps it is due to the crisis of reproduction that images of these worlds-that-could-be are haunting so many of us. I see the call for reimagining communities as the call for cultivating solid ‘haunting grounds’ for them.
And here I am asking you, the reader of these lines: How do you feel? If everything and nothing can be a crisis, then what do you think is one? When did you have your last chat on ‘God and the world’, your pain, hopes and anger within a safe and nurturing community setting? Where do you wish for more of these settings, maybe in institutional and work contexts where ‘they do not belong’? Why don’t they belong? What could be done to challenge that? You don’t have time and energy for that? Why, where do they go? What is making you sick? What could be done to challenge that?
Reimagining communities is a security issue. In a crisis-ridden and self-devouring world, the community offers security of the most meaningful kind. Especially Indigenous, Black and postcolonial knowledges speak of this reality.
For my part, I wish that one day, when we are haunted by fundamental ontological questionings of the world around us, instead of turning to google, we can turn to healthy, thriving, nurturing and sustainable communities for the knowledge and strenght to provide ourselves with aswers. And in case I should be deemed mad for harbouring such heretic thoughts, I leave here the words of Black domestic servant Hanna Nelson: “I have grown to womanhood in a world where the saner you are, the madder you are made to appear.”
Laura Zuber (she/her) is a doctoral researcher at the War Studies Department of King’s College London. Her thesis explores the interrelation between the neoliberal crisis philosophy and the global crisis of reproduction. She furthermore researches into alternative philosophies and approaches to the governance of the reproductive sphere and its crises coming from social justice collectives.
This blog entry excerpts ideas and phrases from an unpublished doctoral thesis; please do reach out to the author via firstname.lastname@example.org if you wish to reproduce or cite.
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