Governmental Precarization

The precarious represents both the condition and the effect of domination and security in historically different ways. In the broadest sense, it can be described as insecurity and vulnerability, as uncertainty and endangerment. The counterpart of the precarious is usually protection, political and social immunization against everything recognized as endangerment.On the different dynamics of protection 2010 and threat that confirm domination, which I cover in the term immunization, see Isabell Lorey | Figuren des Immunen. Elemente einer politischen Theorie | Diaphenes | 2011 Currently, however, the precarious and the immune are no longer only in a relation of opposites in post-Fordist societies, but rather more and more also in a relation of overlapping, tending, in fact, to become indistinguishable. The foundation for this development is that precarization in neoliberalism is no longer perceived as a phenomenon of “exception”, but is instead in the midst of a process of normalization, which enables governing through insecurity.

To unfold these theses, I would like to distinguish three dimensions of the precarious: precariousness, precarity, and governmental precarization.

Precariousness designates—and here I concur with Judith Butler’s ideas —an ontological dimension of life and bodies. Precariousness does not denote an anthropological constant, no trans-historical state of being human, but rather a condition proper to both human and non-human living beings. Most of all, however, precariousness is not something individual and nothing that exists “in itself” in a philosophical sense; it is always relational and therefore a socio-ontological “being- with” in the tradition of Nancy with other precarious lives.Jean-Luc Nancy | Being Singular Plural | trans. Robert Richardson, Anne O’Byrne | Stanford University Press | 2000 Precariousness denotes the dimension of an existential common of living beings; it involves an ineluctable endangerment of bodies that cannot be prevented, not only because they are mortal, but also specifically because they are social. Precariousness as precarious “being with” is a condition of every life, which is evident in historically and geographically very different variations.

The second dimension of the precarious, precarity, is to be considered as a category of order that denotes the effects of different political, social and legal compensations for a general precariousness. Precarity designates striating and segmenting precariousness as conditions of inequality, the hierarchization of “being-with”, which accompanies processes of Othering. This dimension of the precarious covers naturalized relations of domination, through which belonging to a group is attributed or denied to individuals. Precarity denotes social positionings of insecurity, yet the term implies neither the modes of subjectivation nor the agency of those so positioned.

The third dimension of the precarious is the dynamics of governmental precarization. It refers to modes of governing since the emergence of industrial-capitalist conditions and cannot be separated in occidental modern societies from bourgeois self-determination. Government al precarization means not only destabilization through wage labor, but also a destabilization of ways of living and hence of bodies.
Understanding precarization as governmental makes it possible to problematize the complex interactions of an instrument of governing with conditions of economic exploitation and modes of subjectivation in their ambivalence between subjugation and empowerment. A governmental perspective allows for precarization to be considered not only in its repressive, striating forms, but also in its ambivalent productive moments, as they arise through techniques of self-government.

None of the three dimensions appears alone, but rather always in relations that are differently posited historically. What can principally be said about the relationality between precariousness and precarity is that it evokes different forms of domination. The socio-ontological level is constructed as a threat, from which apolitical community must protect, immunize some. Legitimizing the protection of some generally requires striating the precarity of those marked as “other”. This distinguishes liberal governmentality to a very high degree. Threatening precariousness can be turned into the construction of dangerous Others, who are accordingly positioned within and outside of the political and social community as “a-normal” and “alien”. In neoliberalism, precarization is in the midst of a process of normalization, in which liberal ordering patterns of precarity continue to exist in a modified form, but existential precariousness can no longer be shifted entirely through the construction of dangerous Others and prevented as precarity; instead it is actualized in the individualized governmental precarization of who has been normalized in neoliberalism.


How can the rapport between precarity as a condition of inequality and existential precariousness be understood at a theoretical/systematic level? In her book “Frames of War”, Judith Butler offers initial ideas. Follow- ing her book of essays “Precarious Life”, she continues to pursue the political-philosophical question of when a life is considered grievable and therefore liveable. Although her ontological and existential concept of precariousness, inspired by Emmanuel Levinas, already entered the discussions of precarization as a political concept through Brett Neilson and Ned Rossiter in 2005,Brett Neilson and Ned Rossiter | From Precarity to Precariousness and Back Again: Labour, Life and Unstable Networks | In: Fibreculture | 2005

Brett Neilson and Ned Rossiter | Precarity as a Political Concept, or, Fordism as Exception | In: Theory, Culture & Society | 2008
the extent to which her ideas can be continued is first evident in “Frames of War”.

Unfortunately, the German translation of precariousness/precarious as “Gefährdetheit” and “gefährdet” makes the connection to international debates on the precarious invisible.Judith Butler | Raster des Krieges. Warum wir nicht jedes Leid beklagen | trans. Reiner Anséen | Campus | 2010

Judith Butler | Gefährdetes Leben. Politische Essays | Suhrkamp | 2005

Within only a few pages, in the introduction to “Frames of War”, Butler first introduces a second concept alongside precariousness: that of precarity,Judith Butler | Precarious Life, Grievable Life | In: Judith Butler | Frames of War. When is Life Grievable? | Verso | 2009

Judith Butler and Antke Engel | Politics under Conditions of Precariousness and Violence | In: Marina Gržinić and Rosa Reitsamer (Ed.) | New Feminism. Worlds of Feminism, Queer and Networking Conditions | Löcker | 2008
with which she takes over the neologism—which has yet to become established in English—that has been used for several years now, especially in the political-theoretical and activist discourses on precarization.In the discussion in the context of the European movement of the precarious (since 2001, the EuroMayDay-Movenment), not only the term “precarization” (“Prekarisierung”) is used in German, but also often synonymously, without the differentiation of terms developed here, “precarity” (“Prekarität”) or also precariat (“Prekariat”). Butler conceptualizes the general precariousness of life, the vulnerability of the body, not simply as a threat or a danger, which must necessarily be safeguarded against. She argues in favor of not reproducing the fear of precariousness and thus supporting traditional modern logics of domination, but rather conversely to posit the lack of recognition of fundamentally precarious life as the starting point for analyzing relations of domination. Precariousness as existential precariousness designates what constitutes life in general—both human and non-human. Butler formulates an ontology that cannot be understood detached from social and political conditions. These conditions enable historically specific modes of being, make it possible for bodies to survive in a certain way, which would not be viable without being embedded in social, political and legal circumstances. And at the same time, it is precisely these circumstances or conditions that endanger life. For this reason, according to Butler, it is important to focus on the political decisions and social practices, through which some lives are protected and others are not.

Precariousness becomes extensive at birth, because survival depends from the beginning on social networks, on sociality and the work of others. The fundamental social dependency of living being due to its vulnerability, due to the impossibility of a wholly autonomous life, also highlights—going beyond Butler—the eminent significance of reproductive work. Because life is precarious, it is crucially dependent on care and reproduction. Precariousness is thus by no means individual; it denotes the common existential vulnerability that is shared with others, the condition that connects us with others. At the same time, shared precariousness is also the condition that exposes us to others, that makes everybody, every life fundamentally dependent on others. This social interdependence can express itself both as concern and care or as violence. In other words: because they are precarious and hence finite, bodies are dependent on something outside themselves, “on others, on institutions and on sustained and sustainable environments”.Judith Butler | Precarious Life, Grievable Life | In: Judith Butler | Frames of War. When is Life Grievable? | Verso | 2009 Without protection, without security, no life can survive, and yet at the same time, it always remains exposed to risk and the danger of death. “No amount of will or wealth can eliminate the possibilities of illness or accident for a living body.”Judith Butler | Precarious Life, Grievable Life | In: Judith Butler | Frames of War. When is Life Grievable? | Verso | 2009

The assumption that life, because it is precarious and endangered, because it is exposed to an existential vulnerability, must be or even could be legally or otherwise entirely protected and secured, is nothing other than a fantasy of omnipotence. Living bodies can never be completely protected, specifically because they are permanently exposed to social and political conditions, under which life remains precarious. The conditions that enable life are, at the same time, exactly those that uphold it as precarious. Only an ontology that takes interdependencies into consideration, and not an “ontology of individualism”,Judith Butler | Precarious Life, Grievable Life | In: Judith Butler | Frames of War. When is Life Grievable? | Verso | 2009 is capable of discerning and recognizing the precariousness of life without defense reflexes.Judith Butler | Precarious Life, Grievable Life | In: Judith Butler | Frames of War. When is Life Grievable? | Verso | 2009 Butler underscores the rapport between precariousness, precarity and domination. She emphasizes the break that Hobbesian state theory signified for occidental modernity, conceiving the commonly shared sameness of precariousness primarily as a threat: namely as being fearful and frightened of the others and the vulnerability shared with them.See also Roberto Esposito | Communitas. The Origin and Destiny of Community | trans. Timothy Campbell | Stanford University Press | 2010 “Yet, precisely because each body finds itself potentially threatened by others who are, by definition, precarious as well, forms of domination follow.”Judith Butler | Precarious Life, Grievable Life | In: Frames of War | 31 Domination turns existential precariousness into a fear of the others who cause harm, who are to be fended off preventively to protect those who are threatened, and who must not infrequently be destroyed.Elsewhere I have called this kind of binary confirmation of domination juridical immunity. In this immunizing dynamic, the precarious constructed as threat can be fended off to an “outside”. However, the dangerous precarious can also be taken into a political community in the dynamic of biopolitical immunization and thus neutralized in their dangerousness and integrated—this dynamic of the

immune corresponds more to normalized governmental precarization (cf. Lorey: Figuren des Immunen, op.cit.).
The precariousness shared with others is hierarchized, judged, and precarious lives are segmented. This segmentation means at the same moment the “differential distribution”Judith Butler | Precarious Life, Grievable Life | In: Judith Butler | Frames of War. When is Life Grievable? | Verso | 2009 of symbolic and material insecurities that Butler calls “precarity”. Precarity as the hierarchized difference in insecurity arises from the segmentation, the categorization of common precariousness. The classification of social-ontological sameness produces inequality. Precarity can therefore be understood as a functional effect arising from the political and legal regulations that are specifically supposed to protect against general, existential precariousness. From this perspective, domination means the attempt to safeguard some from existential precariousness, and at the same time, privileged protection is based on a differential distribution of the precarity of all those who are different and considered less worthy of protection.


Let us now clarify the preconditions, in order to understand why it is in- sufficient for the problematization and analysis of current neoliberal forms of precarization to speak of precarity as inequality. Rather, the different modes of governing must be taken into consideration, which is why I speak of governmental precarization.

Under liberal governmentality Foucault covers the techniques of govern- ing that began to prevail in several European societies by the end of the eighteenth century, supported by the pillars of capitalism and the political and legal self-government of the citizens. What distinguishes modern liberal forms of governmentality is that the governability of each and every individual of a population is always also made possible by the way that he or she governs themself. The art of governing, according to Foucault, consists in conducting conducts. The power of governing is not one that is executed solely repressively from above. Instead, liberal governmental governing means actively operating on the conduct of others, the “possible actions”.Michel Foucault | Subject and Power | In: Michel Foucault | Power: Essential Works of Foucault | 1954-1984: Vol. III | ed. James D. Faubion, trans. Robert Hurley et al., | The New Press | 2001 The individuals, who move in power relations, who are conducted and governed in them, are always “acting subjects”:Michel Foucault | Subject and Power | In: Michel Foucault | Power: Essential Works of Foucault | 1954-1984: Vol. III | ed. James D. Faubion, trans. Robert Hurley et al., | The New Press | 2001 subjects with agency. In acting, they participate in the way they are governed.

Modern “subjects” embody liberal-democratic modes of governing through self-governing, through the way they live. Participation is the “motor” of this governmental biopolitics, but not in the conventional sense as political participation, but rather as fundamentally taking part through self-government. Specifically through the way in which they conduct themselves, govern themselves, individuals become socially, politically and economically controllable and regulable. The active participation of each individual in the reproduction of governing techniques, however, does not serve only subjugation. Self-conduct does not necessarily fulfill dominant discipline and subordination. In the ambivalence between subjugation and empowerment, self-government can always also enable immanent struggles over the manner of conducting.See, among others: Michel Foucault | What is Critique? | In: Sylvére Lotringer and Lysa Hochroch (Ed.) | The Politics of Truth: Michel Foucault | Semiotext(e) | 1997 Reducing (self) government to mechanisms of subjugation would mean not discerning this ambivalence and contradictoriness, suppressing social struggles, resistance potentials. Liberal governmentality needs not only a certain form of freedom, but also mechanisms of security.Michel Foucault | Security, Territory, Population | Palgrave MacMillan | 2007 Both, freedom and security, mutually forestall their absoluteness; insecurity is—due not least of all to this dynamic—immanent to liberal modes of governing.


Within the framework of its social welfare state paradigm of safeguarding, liberal governmentality was still based on multiple forms of precarity as inequality through Othering: on the one hand on the unpaid labor of (married) women in the reproductive area of the private sphere, on the other hand on the precarity of all those who fell through the nation-state compromise between capital and labor as abnormal, foreigners and poor people, as well as on extreme relations of exploitation in the respective colonies.Angela Mitropoulos | Precari-Us? | In: Josephine Berry Slater (Ed.) | The Precarious Reader | Mute | 2005 | In the positioning of the Others within liberal governmentality, this kind of precarized deviance has repeatedly disrupted the stabilizing dynamic between freedom and security and has frequently triggered counter-behaviour and struggles. The liberal mode of governing produces precarities as economic, social and legal relations of inequality through systematic categorizations and hierarchizations according to “body” and “culture”. At the same time, beginning in the nineteenth century, economic subjectivation and self-government did not take place independent from social techniques and institutions of assurance, which were intended to minimize social insecurity and to keep the risk of unemployment, illness, accident and social exclusion calculable for more and more people from the national majority.Robert Castel | From Manual Workers to Wage Laborers: Transformation of the Social Question | trans. Richard Boyd | Transaction Publishers | 2003

François Ewald | L’État providence | Grasset | 1986
However, the institutions of the precautionary state did not serve primarily the protection and the security of the workers, but rather to support economically productive self-governing techniques of obedient citizens making provisions, who insure themselves and precarize others at the same time.Michel Foucault | Truth and Judicial Forms | In: Michel Foucault | Power: Essential Works of Foucault | 1954-1984: Volume III | trans. Robert Hurley | The New Press | 2001 In this governmental dynamic, attempts are made to manage precariousness shared with all by striating the dangerous “others” and positioning them as precarious at the “peripheries”. In current post-Fordist societies precarization as a process of social and economic destabilizing is no longer to be understood as a marginal phenomenon of society, no longer as “a-typical” or “abnormal”. Precarization has long since arrived in the so-called social middle. Precarious living and working conditions are increasingly normalized at a structural level and thus become an important instrument of governing. Consequent to the normalization of precarization, the society we currently live in is by no means an insecurity society, it is indeed still a security society, but it is one that can be controlled through social insecurity. The state is not withdrawing from all formerly fundamental security institutions. Security in neoliberalism, however, no longer needs the extent of liberal social welfare state techniques of protection. Instead, the state increasingly limits itself to police and military security discourses and practices, which in turn operate more and more with control and surveillance techniques.Gilles Deleuze | Postscript on the Societies of Control | In: October 59 (Winter 1992)

Aldo Legnaro | Konturen der Sicherheitsgesellschaft: Eine polemisch- futurologische Skizze | In: Leviathan | 1997

Thomas Lemke | Dispositive der Unsicherheit im Neoliberalismus | In: Widerspruch - Beiträge zur sozialistischen Politik | 2004
At the state level, political and social assurances hold a balance: the more social assurance is minimized and precarization thus increases, the more pressure there is for a maximization of internal security. Especially migrant Others must demonstrate with conforming integration that they may belong to the collective of those who are still minimally assured, otherwise they can be declared a security risk. But in neoliberalism, the dispositive between freedom and security is shifted even more fundamentally. When (primarily) internal security discourses correlate with normalized social insecurity, then freedom and insecurity form the new couple of neoliberal governmentality: freedom is not principally limited by the state, the state does not principally fight against insecurity, but rather both become the ideological precondition for governmental precarization.See also: Isabell Lorey | Governmentality and Self-Precarization: On the Normalization of Culture Producers | trans. Dagmar Fink and Lisa Rosenblatt | In: transveral: Machines and Subjectivation | 11/2006

The process of normalizing precarization does not mean equality in insecurity, inequalities are not abolished. Neoliberal logic has good reasons not to want to end inequality, because it plays with hierarchized differences and governs on this basis. Yet the focus of this logic of governing is not mainly on the regulation of fixed identitary differences. The government of insecurity primarily regulates “absolute poverty”, which could tend to prevent individuals from playing the game of competition.Maurizio Lazzarato | Le gouvernement des inégalités. Critique de l’insécurité néolibérale | Éditions Amsterdam | 2008 At the same time, those who are further and newly constructed as extremely dangerous and different through racializing and ethnicizing attributions, continue to be exposed to the “liberal” mechanisms of precarity.


In neoliberal governing through precarization as insecurity, at the level of self-government a special mode of subjectivation of anxiety enters the foreground. This happens through an actualized confrontation with the dimension of the precarious that I call “precariousness” (“Prekärsein”). In the current dynamic of governmental precarization, it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish between an abstract anxiety over existential precariousness (fear that a body, because it is mortal, cannot be made invulnerable) and a concrete fear in the politically and economically induced precarization (fear of unemployment or of not being able to pay rent or health care even with employment); both of these negative worries overlap. As Paolo Virno writes:

“What we have, then, is a complete overlapping of fear and anxiety. If I lose my job, of course I am forced to confront a well defined danger, one which gives rise to a specific kind of dread; but this real danger is immediately colored by an unidentifiable anxiety. [...] One might say: fear is always anxiety-ridden; circumscribed danger always makes us face the general risk of being in this world. [...] [T]he loss of one’s job, or the change which alters the features of the functions of labor, or the loneliness of metropolitan life—all these aspects of our relationship with the world assume many of the traits which formerly belonged to the kind of terror one feels outside the walls of the community.”Paolo Virno| Grammar of the Multitude | trans. Isabella Bertoletti, James Cascaito, Andrea Casson, Forward by Sylvère Lotringe | Semiotext(e) 2004

The rapport between frightening precariousness (that a political community is supposed to protect against) and the precarity of the threatening Others (with which their exclusion is legitimized) is no longer in a position to establish social security for most of those “within” the community. In neoliberalism, fewer and fewer people are able to distinguish between the anxious worry about existential vulnerability and the fear that arises through precarization. There is virtually no longer any reliable protection against what cannot be foreseen, planned, what is contingent. Through the removal and remodeling of collective assurance systems, every form of independence disappears in the face of the dangers of precariousness and precarization; also those that were previously assured at the cost of national and global Others, lose social protection. From everyone now, regardless of gender, class or origin, an individualized risk management is required, with which a precariousness that cannot be assured can be actualized in different ways. The overlapping of anguish of precariousness and fear in precarization is evident in the unreasonable demand of privatizing risks. The new quality of insecurity arises, not least of all, through the demolition of workers’ rights, the restructuring of the social, health and educational system, all the way to the self-responsible prevention of illness and the loss of wages and pensions. Consequently, a neoliberal individualized self-government and self-responsibility is partly confronted with existential precariousness in a new way. Coupled with social, political and economic precarization, the privatization of risks and their prevention means for many nothing other than the individualization of precariousness.

In the neoliberal dynamic of governmental precarization, the illusion of individual security is maintained specifically through the anxiety over being exposed to existential vulnerability. In the permanent race for the hoped-for better assurance of one’s own life and that of the immediate social surroundings against competing Others, it is obscured that a lastingly better life cannot be an individual matter. In governmental subjectivations, however, the demands of a preventative, individualist self-protection, this self-immunization in precarization, are more affirmed than questioned. Social practices that are oriented not solely to the self and one’s own, but rather to living together and to shared political agency, recede more and more into the background and become less and less imaginable as lived reality.

At the same time—as various Postoperaist theorists have pointed out— the current transformation of labor itself makes the connection with/to others productive. This transformation of labor is not exclusively characterized by a growing capitalization of social life, but rather in (affective) contact with others also by the production of new socialities.Paolo Virno | Virtuosity and Revolution Isabell Lorey | Virtuosos of Freedom. On the Implosion of Political Virtuosity and Productive Labour | trans. Mary O’Neill | In: transversal: Creativity Hypes | 10/2008 However, affective labors, in the narrower sense, are frequently precarious and therefore do not lead to a greater appreciation of care work—on the contrary, care work largely remains the responsibility of women and proves itself in new ways to be economically and ethnically differentiated, hierachized and often transnationally organized.Luzenir Caixeta et al. | Hogares, Cuidados y Fronteras/Home, Care and Borders/Haushalt, Sorge und Grenzen | Traficantes | 2004 Encarnacion Gutierrez Rodriguez | Migration, Domestic Work and Affect. A Decolonial Approach on Value and the Feminization of Labour | Routledge | 2010

Precarias a la deriva: Was ist dein Streik? | trans. and int. Birgit Mennel and Stefan Nowotny | Turia+Kant | 2011


That precarity is spreading rather than minimizing means, according to Butler, that the ontological sameness of precariousness is not recognized and is therefore no affirmative starting point for politics. For this reason, Butler calls upon especially left-wing politics to recognize commonly shared precariousness and to orient normative obligations of legal equality and rights to universal protection to this, in order to minimize inequality in precarity.Judith Butler | Precarious Life, Grievable Life | In: Frames of War The recognition of commonly shared precariousness could then go hand in hand with the recognition of the connection with others and thus—this is the next step that Butler does not emphasize in this way—with a greater valuing of care and reproduction work. In this way, the connection with others, ineluctable sociality, would become the foundation for the political, rather than an individualized independence that must fend off the negatively connoted dependency of others.

But is it sufficient to remain within juridical logic and demand rights to protection and the recognition of an ontological precariousness common to all? Is it not also necessary to break open the binarity of security and protection on the one side and the dangerously precarious on the other? The relations that Butler posits only marginally and not yet systematically take into consideration practices of self-government and political struggles. Precariousness as ontology and precarity as identitary positioning primarily emphasize the aspects of being exposed and subjugation. Yet precarization goes beyond this and is in its governmental dimension decidedly productive: both as an instrument of governing and as a condition of economic exploitation, as well as a not only subjugating self-government, but also as a simultaneously incalculable and potentially empowering self-government. When precarization becomes a normalizing instrument of governing and thus has to be understood as a mode of existence across all groups and classes, then the conviction prevails again and again in the European movements of the precarious, such as the EuroMayDay or the Intermittents in France,Among others, cf. Gerald Raunig | A Thousand Machines. A Concise Philosophy of the Machine as Social Movement | Semiotext(e) | 2010

transversal | Precariat | 2004

Antonella Corsani and Maurizio Lazzarato | Intermittents et précaires | Éditions Amsterdam | 2008
that social and political struggles should not take part in separating and hierarchizing differentiations. Particularly against the background of the activists’ very different precarious modes of existence, various alliances emerge between precarious cultural producers, knowledge workers, migrant organizations, initiatives of the jobless, organizations of illegalized people or also unions. In order not to newly segment, separate and individualize the diversely precarious, critical discourses and resistive practices in the context of precarization in the past decade have repeatedly concentrated on what the precarious have in common in all their differences.

Not infrequently, alternative practices of knowledge production, such as “militant research”, have been used “to trace the underground, and frequently invisible, trajectory of everyday life uneasiness and insubordinations” and to use the productivity of precarious living and working conditions to change modes of governing, in order to refuse and elude them together.[30] Everyday practices of resistance, such as the political struggles of the precarious, have the potential to no longer allow themselves to be segmented and distributed for the assurance of some against the threatening Others. Their becoming-common is not exhausted in stating socio-ontological sameness, but is instead accompanied by ongoing explorations of what can be considered as common.Isabell Lorey | Becoming Common. Precarization as Political Constituting | trans. Aileen Derieg | In: e-flux | Searching for the Post-Capitalist-Self | 2010

First published on in 2011 and reproduced by authorisation of the author.

For a further development of the dimension of the precarious see:

– Isabell Lorey | State of Insecurity. Governement of the Precarious | Verso | 2015

– Isabell Lorey | Labour, (In-)Dependence, [7]– Care. Conceptualizing the Precarious | trans. [10]
European movement of the precarious (since 2001, the EuroMayDay-Movenment), not only the term “precarization” (“Prekarisierung”) is used in German, but also often synonymously, without the differentiation of terms developed here, “precarity” (“Prekarität”) or also precariat (“Prekariat”).

Aileen Derieg | In: Arianna Bove, Annalisa Murgia, Emiliana Armano (Eds.): Mapping Precariousness. Labour Insecurity and Uncertain Livelihoods: Subjectivities and Resistance | Routledge | 2017