Haiti and humanitarianism

I will begin this dialogue with a quotation from Caldwell in 2004:

The complexity of the relationship between bio-sovereignty and humanity is most evident in the issue of humanitarian interventions. If such interventions limit nation-state sovereignty, they serve as a ground for bio-sovereignty. Every potential case for intervention — whether or not it is acted upon — raises as a question the status of life, and calls for a sovereign decision on life. The post-sovereign world of bio-politics described by Foucault now takes on a new meaning. Foucault argued that in modernity, man’s politics placed his existence in question. If, as Agamben argues, sovereignty maintains its power by deciding on the status of life, then a world in which politics places life in question by retaining the power to decide its fate, is not post-sovereign. It is the open expression of the sovereign ban or exception.

Human rights, from this perspective, is the discourse of life in a state of permanent crisis. Moreover, human rights and sovereignty share the same referent: an indeterminate and precarious bare life. Agamben therefore asserts humanitarian organizations, “despite themselves, maintain a secret solidarity with the very powers they ought to fight” (1998: 133).12 Humanitarianism, speaking for the very life sovereignty grounds itself in, provides the justification for the “exceptional” measures of sovereign powers. Today’s “moral interventions,” exemplified in the work of NGO’s who categorize and call attention to human rights violations, prefigure “the state of exception from below” (Negri and Hardt 2000; 36). This complex situation, in which humanitarianism and sovereignty work together, should not be taken as a condemnation of humanitarianism. It is rather a sign of the failures of a tradition which requires humanitarianism while reducing its effectiveness.

The apparently emancipatory, law bound discourse of human rights thereby finds itself implicated in very old paradigms of domination. The relation is similar to the way that early modern discourses of rights proved complicit with novel forms of surveillance and regulation. The language of human rights does not stand outside the crises such rights are invoked to counter; it does not stand outside the sovereign powers that produce life as endangered. Neither natural nor exceptional, humanitarian crises belong to a “structure of permanent emergency” which has become “objectified in institutional arrangements” (Edkins 2000a: 146).

Taking this approach to Haiti yields an easy answer for us: ignore it because answering the pleas for help would merely reinforce the bio-political spectrum which allowed the Haitians to live in such vulnerability that this crisis could happen.  However, there are millions dead and more dying and this neglect is not justifiable. What then is to be done?  Some are bypassing governments and trying to go in as individuals and associations and work with individuals.  The US and the Haitian governments have asked for this to not happen.  And they are correct to do so.

There is an economies of scale problem for those of wishing to bypass the state.  The destroyed infrastructure in Haiti makes navigation and distribution nearly impossible without government support.  This is all without the usual problems of violence, protection and also the sheer overwhelming nature of magnitude.  How then do we overcome the scope problem and still not reinforce the Caldwellian dillemma?

Caldwell is wrong when she invokes the ‘permanent state of emergency.’  Not so much incorrect as needing a corrective.  Truly there is such a condition, in that, there is always some emergency somewhere.  But we could reconfigure this crisis in a way that denies the state’s ability to entrench the bio-political control.  The reason the permanent state of emergency works is that there are zones of emergency and zones of non-emergency.  Allowing a retreat into safety is what allows the state to reassert itself.  If, however, we were to reconfigure the map so that all zones are emergencies and no zones are safe then the government is seen less as a guarantor and more of a cause.

Here we stumble into ’emergence.’  It is always around and needs to always be massaged.  Caldwell’s real problem is not the state, per se, but rather the current configuration of the state.  Withdrawal from the state is not the answer but rather the, paradoxically seeming, embrace of the state.  Last Friday there were two callers into The Diane Rehm Show that shocked me.  These callers asked why it was our problem in Haiti.

Such callousness always shocks me.  It shouldn’t, and yet it does.  The true enemy for Caldwell is not the regime of bio-politics but rather the ideological formation that allows these questions to make any sense at all.

Caldwell, Anne.  (2004).  Bio-sovereignty and the emergence of humanity.  Theory and Event, 7(2).

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