In my neighborhood, in el Barri de GraciaThere are several graffiti in Barcelona, but there is one that I always look out for. The graffiti says that “fragility is the soul of the revolution” (see picture above). The first time I bent down and looked at it closely, my first thought was that the graffiti seemed to challenge two assumptions that prevailed in popular and theoretical discourses. The first is that fragility is the opposite of revolution and cannot be considered part of that practice; The second assumes that fragility requires and implies the need to protect and strengthen paternalistic forms of power at the expense of collective forms of social transformation.
Feminist scholars have already challenged the basic assumption that fragility and revolution contradict each other. For Judith Butler, it is exactly what makes us human, what makes us vulnerable and dependent on other people, as she explains in her book Precarious life (2006). Butler speaks of the vulnerability of explaining the fragility of human life, which at all times depends on others and on the material and awkward conditions that surround it. She puts her approach to the question of human fragility into politics and makes it a central aspect of democratic life. At the same time Paul B. Preciado in his text The courage to be yourself published in the French newspaper liberation has a reputation for being weak and despicable. He says: Because I love you, I wish that you were weak and despicable. Because the revolution works through fragility (Preciado 2014).
Butler and Preciado take up some ideas of the philosopher Michel Foucault (1996), who had already suggested fragility as an element showing the external conditions that subdue the subject and its transformative potential. For Foucault, any analysis of present conditions requires an exercise that:
It is not about a simple characterization of who we are, but rather – according to fragility lines in the present – to understand why and how what it is can no longer be what it is. In this regard, any description must be made according to this type of virtual break, which expands the space of freedom, understood as space for concrete freedom, of possible transformation (121-122).
In this sense, while fragility can be affirmed as an existential human condition – as we are all exposed to accidents, illnesses, and attacks that can wipe out our lives fairly quickly – fragility is also presented as part of the meaning or act of the possibility of social transformation itself. However, humans are not a neutral category at all. We are not one and the same. As the feminist philosopher Rosi Braidotti (2020, p. 28) argues:[h]Umanity is more of a selective and exclusive category that monitors access to rights and entitlements. “Man” is defined both by what he excludes and what he includes in the golden circle of his privileges and in the structural differences that support him. And yet there is still a we.
This collective “we” is a heterogeneous collection that connects “us”. (…) It is time to accept the interdependence between several species not as a wound or as a form of exposed vulnerability, but as a strength and mutual enforcement form of solidarity. Equality must not be a prerequisite for justice, respect and solidarity. Differences do not have to create dialectical opposites and hierarchies – they can be a measure of virtual possibilities of mutual dependence and common ways of getting together (Braidotti 2020, pp. 29-30).
In light of this, I believe the graffiti suggests that by appropriating fragility, man can be reformulated towards a heterogeneous and collective gathering – “we” – in which various forms of the common are activated (rather than a “crippling fragility.” “caused by the supposed death of the subject and the ubiquity of consumption and simulakra). Revolution, as I understand it here, is not about a single event that will forever change the course of history (a post-historical world) or a mere takeover of political power (a post-political world), but rather about collective reappropriation of life . So the revolution is about resistance, or as Braidotti (2020) would say: active activism, a commitment to create positive values. So when we think fragility and revolution together, we can move away from ideas of authenticity or come into contact with our feelings or a new moral value in order to engage in politics, as fragility enters freedom of choice and fragility vs. Revolution binary has been reversed.
Fragility has also been used in problematic ways. For example, when nations advertise their fragility to new immigrants, or when the fragility of “white people” constructs black people as a threat to their very existence. Recourse to fragility in such cases can become the basis of racist policies aimed at excluding or containing black people and minorities. These calls for “fragility” that Butler’s work use here are a form of racist violence and active performance of invulnerability (Butler 1990/1999). It is about closing a certain understanding of our relationships with others as well as closing certain features of ourselves, including our fragility and vulnerability.
The graffiti has been around for a while. Although we often hear, read, and speak of fragility these days, the graffiti was there before the pandemic. I have to admit that I was surprised that many of us, including scientists, artists and the UN Secretary, said: “The coronavirus pandemic has shown how fragile everyday life is.” I was wondering what realities we know when we say this. Do we not have dependent elderly people in our families? Don’t we live with disabled people or people with mental health problems? Don’t we know the very vulnerable reality of many neighborhoods and areas in our cities? Aren’t we suffering from the effects of cancer and other diseases caused by ecological, economic and social factors? For most, fragility is already there every day, as an everyday reality. For many indigenous peoples on earth, for example, widespread epidemics, systemic expropriation and environmental destruction were the signs of the colonial appropriation and destruction of indigenous cultures by the Europeans. Disasters of this magnitude are an everyday reality for many people on earth, and because so many of them survived them, Europeans can learn a lot from them as we all learn to get better at anti-racism and anti-colonialism.
I accept the challenge of thinking together the fragility and revolution caused by graffiti, and I will consider this question in terms of one of the most dominant political discourses today: international development. In this way I will structure the article into two sub-questions: 1) Why is it now easier, perhaps useful, to talk about fragility? And I’ll close by approaching 2) What happens when we change perspective and let fragility question us? What happens when we live fragility with more dignity and not with terrifying fear?
Why is it now easier, perhaps useful, to talk about fragility?
Fragility informs about the commitment of development in countries that are considered “fragile”. Fragile states play a key role in foreign policy decisions about which countries are seen as a threat to international security or which countries are sanctioned. In this frame
Fragility is seen as the basis of violence and as a problem in its own right that sometimes even needs to be corrected forcibly. Fragile states are seen as a “breeding ground for terrorism” (Kaplan, 2008: 4), a cause of underdevelopment and a “threat not only to [their] their own people, but also their own neighbors and indeed the world ”(former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, quoted in Grimm et al., 2014: 200); (Saeed 2020, p. 768).
Both security and development come together when one speaks of fragile states, a label whose origin is largely attributed to the World Bank (Osaghae 2010). In development circles, development work on fragility is responding to increasing concerns about the effects of fragility on stability and development, particularly in connection with the global 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the international promise to “leave no one behind”.
For example, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OCDE) has been producing reports on fragility since 2005. Reflecting the World Bank, the United Nations and other development agencies, the OCDE declares: Fragility is where states and contexts reside or groups have a weak ability to perform basic functions of governing a population and its territory and are not able to develop mutually constructive and strengthening relationships with society [thus] Trust and mutual obligations between the state and its citizens have become weak ”(OECD-DAC 2011, p. 21). The OCDE reports are intended to help mobilize the flow of aid to “fragile states”. It has increased every year since 2014. According to OCDE (2020), fragility is increasing and causing economic, political and ecological costs. Although there is no consensus in development circles about what fragility itself means, in 2018 US $ 76 billion in bilateral development aid for overseas (ODA) flowed into fragile contexts – more than ever before (OCDE 2020).
OCDE report from last year States of Fragility 2020 underlines that
(…) A focus on fragility is more necessary today than ever before. (…) Putting people at the center of the fight against fragility should be the starting point. Fragility undermines our well-being and people’s legitimate aspirations for education, health, community, representation, peace and security in clean and sustainable environments. (3)
But who has the responsibility to determine when states and contexts are no longer fragile? After the publication of the OECD report, three experts from the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) examined in October last year whether fragility according to Covid-19 is a valid concept. In a contribution entitled “Fragility: Time to Rethink”, the experts celebrate that the OCDE report refers to “fragile contexts” instead of “fragile states” and that it has sensibly reconfigured fragility as “global and dynamic” (ODI 2020 ). The experts concluded that fragility goes beyond fragile contexts and that development actors should place a much stronger focus on opportunities rather than just fragility. But why is fragility something that needs to be conquered, overcome, or even shyly withdrawn into privacy?
If we decolonize the current development discourse, we see that the image of fragility is historically in line with the global south. Fragility is here associated with weak, soft, underdeveloped, illegitimate, poor, irrelevant, feminine, strange, uprooted, villainous, collapsed, passive and failed. As the political scientist Eghosa E. Osaghae (2010) argues, fragility in development indicates that deviations and deviations from the dominant and supposedly universal (but western) occur [and modernist]) Paradigm that played a key role in the development of capitalism ”(282). Under Western eyes, the global South was therefore produced fragile in the same sense as Said Orientalism, ie the “enormously systematic discipline with which European culture was able to administer and even produce the Orient” (Said 1978, p. 3). In this sense, the global south was portrayed, regulated and disciplined as fragile.
In this context, resilience has become a protagonist in addressing the fragility of international development institutions and donors. In conjunction with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, the World Bank is increasingly promoting resilience as a means of tracking and increasing the prosperity of the poor (WB 2021) – perhaps here lies the development promise of leaving no one behind. Resilience, explains the feminist scientist Sarah Brake (2016, p. 52), is a powerful idea, the use of which spans the macro level from ecological and economic systems to the micro level of oneself and the complex circles of power that connect and form them, spanning different levels of social reality ”. Bracke (2016) focuses on how the development category “resilience” is neoliberal and represents a new moral code that counteracts fragility through gender-specific notions of subjectivity and freedom of choice in order to generate the idea of a subject that is ready to deal with conditions of increasing precariousness (see also) Butler 2006). In this sense, resilience functions as a government and development tactic aimed at overcoming resistance and hiding poverty.
In making gender and development a reality, equality and the advancement of women are seen as the elixir of combating fragility. According to UN Women (2016), development actions – better governance, improved economic outcomes, better child health, the holy grail of economic growth – should put women at the forefront of poverty eradication and strengthen the resilience of fragile communities and states. Women (from the Global South) and the fight against fragility are becoming a means of securing those economic outcomes that help “deliver” to development. Here inequalities and oppression against women lie in the fragility of the state, but never in the actual politics of the state, development and the economy. The reconfiguration of state relations that takes place in the fragile discourse of development is a view of the “state” as a universal ahistorical and apolitical normative ideal of a proper (western modernist) institutional unit for social organization (i.e. nation state) which it represents as an autonomous and homogeneous technology of institutions. What this discussion seems to ignore is the need to understand the state, women and gender as heterogeneous and mutually constitutive terrains of debate, as well as the differences, complexities and heterogeneities of people’s lives in a given context. In this way, the desire for structural change is increasingly constructed as not only irrelevant, but also culturally insignificant for the so-called fragile contexts and groups.
As soon as contexts and groups within the development discourse are marked as “fragile”, these groups and contexts are condensed as definitely “fragile”, fixed in a political position of powerlessness and lack of freedom of choice and labeled as “in need of protection” or “empowered”. All power belongs to the state, the international development agencies and their experts, who are now supposed to offer them protection and advocacy. Such paternalistic and colonial movements tend to underestimate or actively extinguish political decision-making powers and resistance that arise in “fragile” contexts. In addition, these measures also expand the biopolitical forms of regulation and control. When such development strategies are in abundance, (Western) development interventions and experts position themselves as non-fragile, self-sufficient, immune, invulnerable, if not impervious and without such need for protection. If fragility is understood as something that has to be conquered, overcome, this characterizes a form of thinking that is based on mastery. In order to counteract this untenable framework, the fragile duality and stability must be understood as politically produced, unevenly distributed through and through a different power operation.
Appropriate fragility would then suggest a criticism of the narrative and reproduction of the frail as a retreat from the individual, the narcissistic, the regressive. In this sense, we would have to think about what the graffiti claimed in order to understand different types of resistance and social transformation: how revolution and fragility work together, which the paternalistic and colonial development model cannot, since it opposes them. And back to our question: why is it more useful now to talk about fragility in development policy? We need to take a critical look at the most important international development economy model: the green economy / green growth.
The OCDE 2020 report claims that fragility undermines our wellbeing and people’s legitimate aspirations for education, health, community and a sustainable environment (OCDE 2020). Is fragility what causes human, political, economic and environmental costs? Similar to the OECD report, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres urges countries to do one in a recent opinion piece entitled “A Time to Save the Sick and Save the Planet” for the New York Times organizing green economy based economy in economic growth (Guterres 2020). Green economy approaches insist that the future of the planet and people depends on the market system, economic growth and the advancement of new technologies for geoengineering and nuclear renewal energy. But how can the same system that has damaged the planet and the majority of people save and save the planet and all people?
It has become clear that the now less fashionable green capitalism (now renamed green economy / growth) – including development initiatives like carbon taxes, dematerialization of the economy, cap-and-trade systems, debt-for-nature swaps, industrial agriculture, market-oriented green design, hybrid cars and biogas have failed completely (for empirical evidence, see Hickel and Kallis 2019). With the increasing destruction of land and water, the collapse of our food and agricultural systems, and the uncontrolled growth of greenhouse gases, the green economy has only brought us closer to an irreversible ecological catastrophe. In this economic post-Covid dimension, the hope of development for the planet lies in an ecological-industrial revolution triggered by technological innovation and guided by the signals of the market as a “new” magical elixir for continuous growth. Technology can undoubtedly help reduce inequalities in some cases, but there are already many studies and reports that confirm that we cannot trust that technology will maintain the current high-consumption system at a time when natural resources are depleted (Klein 2014 ; Hickel and Kallis 2019). . In response to the statement of the development “Fragility brings more human, economic and ecological costs”, I answer: To what extent does the privatization of life through individualization, the individualization of decisions and perceptions, make us more fragile about what we can do?
With this in mind, and to summarize our first question, I would like to highlight 4 points on how developmental discourses make it easier / more useful to address fragility in order to enable developmental interventions:
- Wrong conception of objectivity: As we have seen, fragility in development discourse is understood as a rational, negative or even neutral factor that is supported by empirical methods and development techniques (such as the list of fragile states of the World Bank or the fragility framework of the OCDE; see WB 2021 or OCDE 2020). This has led to a double erasure: the erasure of certain contexts by classifying them as inferior (“fragile”) on the one hand, and the erasure of the cultural hegemony of development work, which privileges the historical context of Western modernity in different regions of the world other. In this sense, the implementation of development projects and programs in “fragile” contexts embodies not only the institutional and financial power of their proponents, the improvement of living standards and the modernization of the productive and institutional apparatus, but also the cultural weight and discursive authority of development . Development of binary thinking (fragile versus stability / development versus developed) is therefore accumulative and expansive in relation to life.
- A linear fiction: Fragility in developmental discourse creates a linear fiction about an unknown and terrible present in terms of the promise of stability / development. So fragility is the condition that needs to be corrected, removed, or exploited. In this modernist-colonial framework, fragility is associated with fear: either the enemy must be defeated or the resource must be exploited.
- Experts: Development portrays the present as terrible, which can only be understood as something that development professionals must evaluate in terms of risk and protection. Experts are therefore needed to “fix” the fragility and bring “hope”.
- Adaptability: The fascination for the apocalypses is the dominant narrative of our time and has strongly influenced the sphere of development (Garcés 2017). With the impossibility of imagining possible futures and understanding the future as a scarce good, development narratives are, in my opinion, a trap and describe the philosopher Marina Garcés (2017), the apocalypse salvation code. This apocalyptic code of salvation creates opportunism through a system of rule (which is capitalist, colonialist and patriarchal) where the best response for the “client” / fragile country, state, group or context is the one that better adapts to “green” Answers adapts to the changing fragile living conditions. This fascination for the redemption through the apocalypse thus continues a feeling of impotence, which is connected with the impossibility to deal with one’s own living conditions and to intervene in them. Isn’t it precisely our attitude of surrender that could actually bring our species to the brink of sustainability? If we look closely at the green narratives of development, we can see that this green approach is being used to attract interested investors, much like a bank or investment company would. Green approaches not only pave the way for the privatization of public assets and shared pool resources, but also offer entirely new market opportunities. By positioning “fragile” groups and contexts as the “resource” and the donor as the agent able to bring that “resource” to life, the green economy campaign casts development as both extractivist, capitalist and colonialist settler enterprise that attacks life.
I find the assertion of the writer, thinker and indigenous leader Ailton Krenak (2019) relevant here: “We should be brave enough to be radically alive and not have to negotiate forever for our survival”. Fragility is a quotidian that the virus has amplified, but it is life that dominates the idea and not the other way around. Life is not abstract, rather life is the life of the planet, it is the life of people. Human life is not self-sustaining; it has to be maintained on purpose. So human life is not a certainty, but a possibility. With this in mind, if fragility is not a requirement of a dilapidated future or in need of redemption, but rather a space to activate the power of life against a developmental system that attacks life, we can work out life as personal and with others a frequent one Problem.
What happens when we change perspective and let fragility question us? What happens when we live fragility with more dignity and not with terrifying fear?
When we switch perspectives and let fragility question us, we have the opportunity to stop thinking of a framework that attacks life, but to realign the subjectivities and practices that make life, fragile and finite, a priority . By putting life first, we can now ask what the consequences of our fragility are in a localized way (rather than the fragility as a result of not attaining the modernist paradigm of developing “opportunity”) – we can now imagine, think , Creating and appreciating ways to decide about our fragility (i.e. not to be powerless in front of our life). Human and ecological fragility set the limits: the limits of the unbearable, the limits of dignity, the limits of growth, the limits that we can recognize and therefore indicate. We can now respond with dignity and not through fear and impotence. This, in my opinion, is the basic critical skill in decolonizing development.
Fragility can create the conditions for resistance measures and counter-hegemonial knowledge that work towards better, more equitable and more sustainable societies, as shown in many current interventions such as post-extractivism in Central and South America (e.g. Gudynas 2020). Afro-ecofeminism in sub-Saharan Africa (e.g. Tamale 2020) or degrowth in Europe (e.g. Kallis et al. 2018). Resistance to unjust and violent regimes therefore mobilizes fragility as part of its own exercise of power. This gives us another way to think about historical events, actions, and fragility in terms of resistance and social transformation. It seems that, as earlier revealed by the graffiti in my neighborhood, without being able to think about fragility, we cannot think about revolution, and that it is us when we think about revolution (i.e. think about the collective reappropriation of life) already underway to precisely dismantle resistance to fragility to resist.
This article is based on a lecture given by the author in the Doing Gender lecture series at Utrecht University on December 2, 2020.
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