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Marc Abélès “Globalization, Power and Survival: An Anthropological Perspective”

Abélès, Marc 2006. Globalization, Power and Survival: An Anthropological Perspective. Anthropological Quarterly 79(3): 483-508.

“Globalization as a concept refers both to the compression of the world and the intensification of our consciousness of the world as a whole” (Robertson 1992:8). For Westerners, this notion ofaselfcontained world expresses itself in a strong feeling of insecurity. It only needs asector of the economy, for example, to show signs of weakness, for the possibility ofrelocations to emerge. (483)

In practice, the compression of time and space can be perceived as a threat, not only because it accentuates the pressure of the invisible hand of the omnipotent market system, but also inasmuch as it makes possible a violent intrusion of alterity into our world. (484)

The whole “modernity” position, though, was based on the idea of there being an irreducible difference between all that represents civilization and fits into the scheme of progress and these Others who, while being part of humanity, were nonetheless doomed to the inertia of beings without history. (484)

Perhaps it is time to realize the obsolete nature of a system of government that proved itself throughout the last century. The nation-state, based on the isomorphism between people, territory and legitimate sovereignty, is profoundly called into question by globalization. The proliferation of deterritorialized groups and the “diasporic diversity” that we see almost everywherehave the effect of creating new, translocal solidarities. We see identity constructions emerging thatgobeyond the national framework. In their own way, state policies play a part in fostering this situation by giving rise to migratorymovements. The anthropologist Arjun Appadurai (1996) has underlined the highlyheterogeneous natureofsuch movements. Refugees, workers, specialists from companies or international organizations and tourists are very different types of migrants. But, in every case, widespread movement is at the root of new, subjective referents that are making forms of identification linked to territoryand the state increasingly anachronistic.Refugees, tourists, students, workers and migrants all form, in their way, a delocalized “transnation.” (487)

The political displacement is determined by a global redefinition of the meaning and aims of political action. This redefinition not only has a cognitive dimension, it shows up in ways of acting and in organizational and institutional constructions—and also in the position of issues that will be a focus for public debate and in the construction of the type of place where this debate will happen. This theory is heavy with consequences: it effectively implies that the emergence of a new, transnational stage is the effect rather than the cause of a profound transformation of our relationship to politics.This means that, in research, the institutional process must give way to an investigation of our perception of politics. It is here that the displacement, whose most visible effects we have spotted, is really happening. (490)

We might well wonder if this harmony between pastoral power and the centralizing state hasn’t disappeared today. It is as if, now, a dislocation were taking place in our perception and experience of the political dimension between what comes under citizen/individual and what relates to biopolitical subject. […] We have to look atthe current disjunction between the biopolitical point of viewand the citizen/individual point ofviewin its own dynamic. In fact, we can actually speak of a real switch-over, with the rise in power ofpolitical representation that puts the preoccupations of life and survival at the heart of political action, while the issue of the city and the relationship ofthe individual to sovereignty is relegated to the background. The displacement of issues can find another expression, in a simple question that we all ask: that of “what will our world consist of tomorrow?” It is this fundamental anxiety that not only alters our relationship to politics but also determines the space that can be allocated to this activity and the new places in which it is best exercised. (492-493)

A sense of powerlessness has become the backdrop for political action. It is as though the citizen’s capacity for initiative were going through a more or less explicit reassertion of this admission of powerlessness, tied to the awareness of a radical reappraisal of our terms of belonging. The other side of this position is a projection towards a vaguer collective interest relating more to survival (survivance) than to the artof“harmonious living together” (convivance). (494)

What was disappearing atthe end of the 20th century was “this capacity to control the future ”that had characterized the triumph of the welfare state during the years of economic growth following WW2, with hope for social progress as a correlate (Castel 2003). In the new configuration, this very system—that guaranteed the possibility of some consistency between “my present life” and “my future”—is becoming fuzzy. (495)

In other words, the subject of harmonious living together (convivance) is not relevant here and political theory is off balance in the face of a questioning focused primarily on subjects’ relationship to the future. This is what the survival (survivance) issue bluntly raises, for there is now an element of uncertainty lodged in people’s minds, coexisting tensely with the hope—created by technical and scientific advances—that it is possible to live better and longer. (496)

I purposely use the idea of “survival” (survivance), in contrast to the analysis of survival (survie)—which was given by Elias Canetti (1962). Survival (survie) implies a fundamental antagonism between I and others. It is associated with power. On the battlefield, the more corpses of my friends and enemies are piled up around me, the stronger I feel. “The survival moment is the moment of power.” (1962:241) The quintessence of survival (survie) is invulnerability. Death is behind us and no longer presents a threat, because we’ve defeated it. The issue of “survival” (survivance) reaches into a different temporal realm: we are not in the future, in the pleasure of the present felt by those who have overcome the gravest peril, expressed, according to Canetti, in a feeling of strength, of sovereignty and “a feeling of election” (1962:242). Here, on the other hand, everything relates back to insecurity, to the uncertainty of a possibly futureless tomorrow. With the damage caused by progress, thanks to insecurity and all its many forms, the future is transformed into a threat. (496)

The economy of survival carries within it the issue of sustainability. We see this clearly in the area of the environment, where catastrophes regularly give us cause to evoke the responsibility of a productivist development model centered on profit. (497)

Between the nation-state and global politics we find the same polarity as that which exists between the system of harmonious living together (convivance) and the system of survival (survivance). Today, global politics is, to a high degree, dependent on the strategies of nation-states. However, as the impact of initiatives dealing with the economy of survival show, it imposes its own system and puts under pressure those powers that control it only imperfectly. (504)

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