Editorial – issue 51/52: In Humanity’s Wake

By Melinda Hinkson

This special issue of Arena Journal addresses the accelerating structural displacement of human participation in contemporary society. The conjunction of issues that coalesce in this theme have been primary concerns for Arena since its inception in 1963 — concerns with social transformations that go to the core of what it means to be human. In framing our call for papers we sparked some initial stimulation from an article we published two decades ago by Zygmunt Bauman, ‘The Work Ethic and Prospects for the New Poor’.[i] In that article, Bauman was concerned with the social implications of the post-industrial shrinkage of paid employment and with the problem of how, under these circumstances, a new ethos of inclusion might be generated. Revisiting his analysis in 2018 provides an opportunity to critically address the subsequent acceleration of the processes Bauman observed, but also the expansion of what we might call the exclusionary complex: the multiple forms of systematic exclusion that prevent people from being able to pursue a life with dignity and be recognised by others as fully human.

Our call for papers drew attention to Bauman’s observation that the ‘new poor’ were unlike their predecessors in that they had no role at all to play in the type of society that was emerging. This trans formation, integral to the workings of technologically accelerated capitalism, has now extended to large sections of humanity who struggle with the implications of economic and social redundancy. Some analysts now speak of the 80/20 society, a scenario in which 80 per cent of humanity will be deprived of any kind of ‘useful’ role in social life. Large sections of humanity are no longer ‘required’, in that global capitalism is able to function quite effectively without their participation. As well as ethical questions concerning the fate of these people, or structural considerations regarding the long-term viability of such a system, we highlighted pressing political questions, including the pervasive populisms that engage the anxieties of a disappearing middle class fearing the loss of further ground to those ‘below’.

While Bauman’s concern lay essentially with those classes of people who were excluded from economic participation in European societies, writing in the present one can scarcely ignore the way exclusion has expanded and is being vigorously enforced across a vast transnational terrain. Televised scenes of displaced people fleeing intolerable situations in their homelands have become sickeningly commonplace. The rising tide of displacement — UNHCR estimates there to be 68.5 million forcibly displaced persons worldwide in 2018[ii] — has gathered pace in tandem with the increasing zeal with which many liberal democratic nation states have moved to secure their borders against those seeking sanctuary.

In a networked regime American anthropologist Catherine Besteman describes in terms of ‘militarized global apartheid’,[iii] countries in the ‘global North’ seek to protect themselves from the insecure mobility of people in the ‘global South’. In Besteman’s analysis this new world order, which absorbs immense investments of capital and feeds a global security-industrial complex, has the double intent of creating an exploitable labour force while simultaneously containing classes of people regarded as expendable. The extent to which expendable labour forces are being generated varies markedly across countries, but we can readily identify the key sites of containment as detention centres, refugee camps and prison complexes. The related techniques of this exclusionary complex include the erection of walls, policing of borders and administration of identity documentation and classes of visa. Through this set of practices, the very conditions of inclusion and exclusion, of belonging — any of us, in any place — are enforced with military might.

Shrinking employment prospects, an expanding transnational economy in securitisation and the governance of mobility, and catastrophic climate conditions: these are three defining phenomena of our times — distinctive products of neoliberal global capitalism; elements of the contemporary human condition. But the relationship between them is rarely explored or understood. Bauman’s broad sweep across the European history of the exclusion of ‘the poor’ provides a limited but useful starting point from which to approach exclusion in the present. He begins by observing the ways in which exclusion operates in any society, through the interrelated operation of the concepts of order, norm and choice. Exclusion works, Bauman observes, by ‘sharpening the sights on the “improper”’ in such a way that exclusion is made to appear as a form of self-marginalisation. In other words, those to be legitimately excluded are rendered visible in a particular way: as different, as breaching order, not up to the norm, threatening. Being excluded, Bauman observes, in this way, is ‘represented as an outcome of social suicide’, of individual choice, not ‘social execution’. This move is vital in establishing the ethical basis of any exclusionary regime, the means by which those who assert order are deemed righteous, as ‘guardians of values and standards of decency’,[iv] while those who transgress are viewed as blameworthy and unfit to be free agents.

While Bauman observes that categories of difference are deployed as the basis for denying shared humanity in the workings of modern society, other scholars locate this classificatory separation more precisely in the logic and practice of settler-colonial dispossession. In his contribution to this issue of Arena Journal, Lorenzo Veracini reminds us that contemporary capitalism’s largescale disposal of workers shadows settler colonialism’s logic of elimination and its related practice of accumulation by dispossession.[v] Against interpretations that see the settler imperative premised on the exploitation of native labour, Veracini, like Patrick Wolfe before him,[vi] argues that the settler imperative ‘simply wishes people to vanish’. In this way, settler colonialism is distinguished from colonialism in that it renders its prior populations disposable — indeed it must do so in order to legitimise its newly emplaced regime. Micaela Sahhar, in her article in this issue, observes the same logic in Israel’s practice of ‘spacio-cide’ against Palestinians. Veracini’s contribution to the debates with which we are concerned is to suggest that under contemporary conditions this logic of elimination has gone global, as more segments of the population are rendered a problem, a threat, expendable; in Bauman’s terms, ‘an obstacle to order’.[vii] In other words, even if the exclusionary complex is now highly dispersed, we can locate its roots and its distinctive character in settler-colonial relations.

John Hinkson has argued that ‘innocence’ is vital to the ethical workings of the settler relationship, a cultural attitude that shields settlers from ‘knowingly dispossessing another people of their means of existence’.[viii] Innocence is a potent ingredient in the classification of indigenous societies as essentially worthless; it is instrumental in the denial of shared humanity. Just as there is an expansion of the classes of people deemed expendable under conditions of neoliberal globalisation, the workings of settler innocence also deepen and extend across the contemporary exclusionary regime. We see innocence at work in the defence of the status quo vigorously mounted by conservatives against the claims of climate scientists, and in the related insistence that economic growth must be pursued as the primary objective of governments.

We see it also in public support for the toughening law-and-order campaigns that have swelled prison populations as well as in what Fiona Jenkins in her contribution to this issue describes as the ‘privatised conception of national sovereignty’ that characterises liberal responses to offshore detention. Here claims to limited assistance are privileged over the bestowal of citizenship, while tough border-security regimes remain intact. Despite pervasive destabilisations that are reverberating through the global economy, looming as environmental catastrophe and experienced across so many related settings of contemporary life, a certain taken-for-granted way of being human, and the conditions of life that sustain it, continues to be seen by many as the only option worthy of contemplation. Indeed, for many it is a way of being human to be defended at all costs, even, paradoxically, as its core commitments put at risk the continuation of life itself.

Rather than reading these debates in terms of the volatile politics through which they are played out, members of the Arena editorial group have historically looked to understand the social processes at work in this confluence of developments. At the heart of the contemporary crisis facing humanity in a ‘distance’ society[ix] is an expanded role of distanced or abstract interchange in the interactions between persons and the world around them. In a series of articles that established primary analytic ground for Arena, Geoff Sharp traced the expanding role of abstraction as a distinctive mode of social interchange between self and other as a defining element of contemporary social life.[x] Briefly, Sharp described intellectual practice, that mode of writing-based work originally associated with small orders of religious clerics, as instantiating a constitutively distinctive social form.

In intellectual practice, a writer or reader is abstracted from the dense sociality of embodied co-presence with others — those interactional settings in which communication requires self and other to be fully sensually present and to engage each other in reciprocal interaction. Such a person stands outside of any particular place-based context in order to take hold of and analyse a situation (or develop a theory). One important historical instance of this expanding social formation is described by Benedict Anderson in terms of the emergence of the ‘imagined communities’ of the nation state[xi] — newly distinguished social assemblies composed of members who never meet or know each other interpersonally but recognise their shared investments and orientations to the world through the medium of the national newspaper.

As the place of print literacy expands historically and is made available to ever larger sections of society, this distinctive feature of intellectual labour becomes generalised, calling out a new self-active, autonomous individual who sits at the centre of processes of interpretation and social integration, a person-subject who is historically unprecedented, socially unique. With the pervasive transformation of bureaucratic and other forms of work by networked computerisation, Sharp, and other members of the Arena group, identified intellectual practice as having become so significant as to constitute a new social formation, one that demanded the rethinking of older Marxist categories and assumptions as it heralded an unprecedented transformation in the constitution of the human — in relationships of people to each other and the natural world.[xii] This analytic attention to social abstraction transcends the arc of social transformation traced by either Bauman or Anderson.

Today technological mediation and its related displacements have become so pervasive and diffuse as to be taken for granted in the flow of interpersonal communication, pulsing through a multitude of networked and mobile communications in entangled personal, governmental and corporatised forms. The workings of constitutive abstraction can be identified at the most intimate and personal of levels, such as in genetic modification, for example, through to the large-scale networked surveillance that governs the movement of populations. These processes of technological mediation constitute new relationships of persons to one another, to the environments in which we live, to our own bodies, and to understandings of the ever-dissolving limits of what it is to be human. These developments all point to seismic shifts in the organisation of human life such that the human itself is no longer the site of orientation for life and an end in its own right.

Contributors to this special issue come at the crisis of ‘surplus’ humanity from diverse perspectives; they are concerned with the shrinkage of employment and changing nature of work, as well as the rendering less-than-human of indigenous people, asylum seekers and the homeless, and the new forms of state-based biopolitical violence systematically deployed in their governance and containment. They revisit Bauman’s analysis and pose a series of wider, related questions. What kinds of exclusion are being practised in the present and to what ends? What conception of order is being propagated? What models of humanness and of the less-than-human are circulating in these times of global volatility? What paradoxes and contradictions inhabit these attitudes? And, finally, what transformative possibilities might be grasped and enacted amid the wreckage?

On this last point, Bauman again provides a springboard, arguing that liberal democratic societies need to let go of the work ethic, separate work from livelihood, and re-imagine the place of work in social life. In the post-capitalist imaginary proposed by Stephen Healy’s contribution to this issue, universal basic income would play a vital role in bringing a new social contract into being, one in which all members of society would qualify for a ‘rightful share’, a concept that would dissolve the humiliation, shame and undermining of self-worth integral to the work ethic. In the new political ontologies pursued by Naomi Smith and P. J. Holtum, the systematic de-territorialisation of work brought about by technological mediation needs to be addressed.

Fiona Jenkins reminds us that the images that mediate our experience of distant suffering play a central role in practices of exclusion, but equally as vehicles by which those same attitudes might be unsettled, destabilised. One of the political uses of surplus humanity, Jenkins observes, ‘is precisely to function as both a sign of the invincible border located at the edges of the nation state as well as a reminder of perpetual threat’, in the process undermining the very existence of public political space. Exclusion as a generalised state practice works to void public spaces of encounter, the very spaces that enable unexpected face-to-face interaction and transformative possibilities, including what Jenkins describes as a generous ‘ethos of displacement’.

If displacement is at work everywhere people are rendered surplus to requirements, the articles in this issue by Julian Reid, Lorenzo Veracini, Thalia Anthony, Micaela Sahhar and Gillian Tan remind us what is at stake in the place-based forms of association that are under attack, namely alternative orders of value and ways of seeing, and distinctive ways of organising relationships that establish reciprocal orders of work, responsibility and care for places and persons. In the present, dispossession proceeds on many fronts, including, as Reid points out, through the insidious enlisting of indigenous cultural practices in neoliberal projects promoting ‘resilience’. Paradoxically, at a time where exclusion is increasingly generalised, and indigenous cultures and communities are subject to increasingly intrusive and brutal regimes of governance, Veracini and Anthony highlight that the political struggles of indigenous peoples are becoming newly relevant to all progressive social movements.

* * *

Place-based cultural difference is under threat like never before, including from some surprising directions. In critical analysis concerned with revealing the workings of colonial and postcolonial domination, it is increasingly common for place-based difference itself to be dismissed as inextricably tied up with the legitimation of regimes of domination. Indeed, working with the paradigm of apartheid, Besteman has in her sights ‘an essentialized cultural logic that ties people to place through racial and nativist ideologies and discourses’.[xiii] Her critique of the global militarised securitisation regime homes in on a structuring inequality that allows the global elite to live highly mobile lives while those who are racially marked have their mobility cruelly contained. In this interpretation, incarceration and the policing of borders are understood as extensions of the operation of nation states that perpetuate and reproduce reified cultural categories and set limits on citizenship. Those who are fully human are free to roam around as they wish; those who are not fully human are subject to containment. Freedom of movement and its curtailment are front-line political concerns at a time when displacement is so widespread.

Yet crucially, what gets overlooked in this analysis that foregrounds human rights is the cultural form of global mobility itself. Concern to expose domination dispenses with questions of what is at stake in the variety of ways in which human life is organised and lived across place and time. The mobility of the global elite, as indicated in our discussion of abstraction and distance society, has a distinctive social character. The global mobile subject is born of the fusing of intellectual practice with capital; this is a subject whose orientation mimics the fluidity and hyper-mobility of techno-capital. Such a subject also tends to practise a now-normalised transient form of empathy for humanitarian causes, including those fleeing persecution. To make mobility itself the basis for a cross-cultural liberatory politics is to overlook the distinctive way of being human that distance societies give rise to — a way of life that turns upon the temporary contract, flexible relationships to place and an affinity with abstract modes of inter change. It is this same cultural attitude that in a double move first dispossesses indigenous peoples and then legitimises their dispossession throughout world history to the present time, either in terms of civilisational or developmentalist agendas. This same cultural attitude is at play in the conservative ‘myth of infinite adaptability’[xiv] that responds to ever-more pressing warnings of the risks of global warming.

In the feverish debates over forms of political subjectivity and identity that are part and parcel of these discussions, it is common to find openness and mobility contrasted positively against older bounded models of culture and difference. Attention to constitutive abstraction cuts through this binary impasse, insisting that we recognise the coexistence of more and less abstract social forms and their distinctive organisation in any setting. In identifying conjunctions of qualitatively different social formations we gain nuanced analytic insight into the way techno-capitalism now intrudes thoroughly into the organisation of nation states, families, work, and interpersonal communication writ large. But more importantly, such an analytic also establishes the ground for optimistic thinking and practice towards a differently ordered future.

A newly engaged politics of humanity need not reject abstraction and the technological forms that have become its vehicles. Rather, critical attention to them provides the basis for redirecting technological mediation away from its corporate and governmental manifestations and towards strengthening alternative ways of life through a different arrangement of local and global relationships. As the key contradictions that have brought humanity — unequally but collectively — to this precarious juncture become ever more pressing, what limits might we agree to set, as we contemplate what meaningful life might look and feel like, now and into the future?

[i] Z. Bauman, ‘The Work Ethic and Prospects for the New Poor’, Arena Journal, no. 9, 1997.

[ii] UNHCR, ‘Figures at a Glance’, UNHCR: The UN Refugee Agency, 19 June 2018, <http://www.unhcr.org/en-au/figures-at-a-glance.html>, accessed 1 November 2018.

[iii] C. Besteman, ‘Militarized Global Apartheid’, Current Anthropology, vol. 60, no. 19, 2018.

[iv] Bauman, ‘The Work Ethic’, p. 60.

[v] See also D. Harvey, The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2010.

[vi] P. Wolfe, ‘Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native’, Journal of Genocide Research, vol. 8, no. 4, 2006.

[vii] Bauman, ‘The Work Ethic’, p. 62.

[viii] J. Hinkson, ‘The “Innocence” of the Settler Imagination’, in J. Altman and M. Hinkson (eds), Coercive Reconciliation: Stabilise, Normalise, Exit Aboriginal Australia, Melbourne, Arena, 2007, p. 288.

[ix] Hinkson, ‘The “Innocence” of the Settler Imagination’.

[x] See especially G. Sharp, ‘Constitutive Abstraction and Social Interchange’, Arena, no. 70, 1985; G. Sharp, ‘Intellectual Interchange and Social Practice’, Arena, no. 99/100, 1992.

[xi] B. Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, London, Verso, 1983.

[xii] See especially G. Sharp, ‘Extended Forms of the Social’, Arena Journal, no. 1, 1993; P. James, Nation Formation: Towards a Theory of Abstract Community, London, Sage, 1996; S. Cooper Technoculture and Critical Theory: In the Service of the Machine?, London, Routledge, 2002; A. Caddick, ‘Feminist and Postmodern: Donna Haraway’s Cyborg’, Arena, no. 99/100, 1992; J. Hinkson, ‘Post-Lyotard: A Critique of the Information Society’, Arena, no. 80, 1987; and S. Cooper, J. Hinkson and G. Sharp (eds), Scholars and Entrepreneurs: The Universities in Crisis, Melbourne, Arena, 2002.

[xiii] Besteman, ‘Militarized Global Apartheid’.

[xiv] A. Petryna, ‘Horizoning’, in J. Biehl and P. Locke (eds), Unfinished: The Anthropology of Becoming, Durham, Duke University Press, 2017.

About the author

Melinda Hinkson

Melinda Hinkson is a social anthropologist, executive director of the Institute of Postcolonial Studies and an Arena Publications Editor. In March 2023 she appeared as an expert witness for the Parumpurru (Justice) committee of Yuendumu at the coronial inquest into the death of Kumanjayi Walker.

More articles by Melinda Hinkson

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