I have just started, again, to look at the Northern Territory ‘intervention’, in part because I am writing an article which attempts a more coherent articulation of the project and its context than I have otherwise managed. The notes I intend to put in this blog, then, are not sections of this article-to-be, but fragments of my notes and efforts at clarification in its general direction. Fragments toward an understanding of the bio-economics of intervention.
At the moment I am trying in particular to think about the ways in which Centrelink, and related welfare bodies, will be required to manage people, and, necessarily, to define them. Which leads me to this note.
preliminary note on an aspect of method, if such a thing makes any sense
Though I make exceptions, I generally avoid using the word ‘community’. I don’t like the homogenising communitarianism, the covert racialisation or attempt to ‘positively’ spin an overt racialisation, or the very notion of this already-constituted sociality, the purposes of which usually seem to me intertwined with a certain political economy of representation, and of self-evidence, and as such often implicated in the border policing of a geopolitics of reification.
And I’m a vulgar-enough marxist to note the occlusion or ‘normalisation’ of what used to be called ‘class relations’ - and more specifically, ‘class struggle’ - in most versions of this concept, though these differences are never forgotten, always operative, in the functioning of the state . (Notions of a ‘working class community’ have their own problems, including quite often their own forms of covert racialisation.) More generally, borders are erected not merely in relation to those defined as outside, but in relation to those whose inclusion is subject to policing routinely and simultaneously effaced and enacted within representations of community. And, for the purposes of this initial note, one word will have to stand in as a faint reminder of an enormous and defining problematic: gender. There is no less deliberate intent in the title of the famous pamphlet of Mariarosa Dalla Costa, “The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community”, than there is irony in the title of Foucault’s lecture series, “Society must be defended”. (For the former see also this; for the latter, see below.)
In the case of the Federal ‘intervention’ into the Northern Territory, I have sometimes used the word ‘population’ or the term ‘Indigenous population’ - or ‘populations’, depending upon context - which avoids some of these connotations but reproduces many of the same problems.
The issue is more than terminological, and the stakes are especially stark in instances such as this, where the proponents of a new racialisation try to deploy the rhetoric of ‘positive discrimination’ and of concern for ‘communities’ as code-words to mobilise support for new forms of surveillance and control, for experiments in domination. And I say this even though most visible (to me) criticism and resistance has been equally centred on almost identical notions of ‘community’.
This is not a call to stop talking about/with/as Indigenous people, obviously, but rather reflects a desire to attend to this political economy of representation, both of visibility and of the possibility of the representative. Certainly to attend to the socio-institutional conditions of possibility of identity politicians, so that criticism and resistance does not itself act to unreflectively subsume resistance into the representative capacity and agendas of existing or competing ‘leaderships’, or of caring professions, or of professional mediators between ‘communities’, states and capitals, or even of ‘elders’ just for having acquired the position of ‘elders’. And, just as an axiomatic reminder, I don’t want to assume, ever, that I can actually see more than a fragment of mediation of what is happening, of how people are struggling and resisting - in addition because many forms of resistance and survival rely as much on forms of invisibility as on an insistence on appearance, on refusal of the presumed right of inspection as much as organisation of a claim to representation. The question of visibility should always entail the question, visible to whom? (Famously, the ’secret bombing’ of Cambodia wasn’t such a big secret to the very large part of the Cambodian population who suffered its effects.)
And there is the only-apparently other issue, that the impetus for new ways of defining or framing ‘communities’, or ‘populations’ for that matter, is not merely about claims to representation, or about making possible visibility, but about forming the object of discourse and action - creating and recreating, refining, the categories to be acted upon. Just as practicing urban containment at APEC makes possible new experiments in control and pacification in the future, so creating the socio-institutional apparatus of this ‘intervention’, appalling enough by itself, makes possible new experiments in racialised social control in the future. Or, of course, of ‘populations’ defined in at least nominally non-racial terms. And doing so requires the capacity to classify, to determine, and to prepare people for experiments in inescapable classification.
In his 1978 lectures on Security, Territory, Population, Foucault writes of the emergence of the idea of ‘population’ as an object to be acted upon, managed. In particular, he discusses the development of ‘political economy’ as it moved beyond a state-centred discourse concerned with finance and its control (pp. 76-7):
[…] when it became possible not only to introduce population into the field of economic theory, but also into economic practice, when it became possible to introduce into the analysis of wealth this new subject, this new subject-object, with its demographic aspects, but also with the aspect of the specific role of producers and consumers, owners and non-owners, those who create profit and those who take it, when the entry of this subject-object, of population, became possible within the analysis of wealth, with all its disruptive effects in the field of economic reflection and practice, then I think the result was that one ceased analyzing wealth and a new domain of knowledge, political economy, opened up.
Foucault goes on to discuss the “well-known opposition” between Malthus and Marx on ‘population’:
For Malthus, the problem of population basically has to be thought as a bio-economic problem, whereas Marx tried to circumvent the problem and to get rid of the very notion of population, but only to rediscover it in the no longer bio-economic form, but in the specifically historical-political form of class, of class confrontation and class struggle. That is the source of their disagreement: either population or classes, that is where the split occurs, on the basis of an economic thought, a political economic thought, that was only possible as such with the introduction of the subject-population.