“We are the people who do not count”: Thinking the disruption of the biopolitics of abandonment | Abahlali baseMjondolo
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“We are the people who do not count”: Thinking the disruption of the biopolitics of abandonment

Anna SelmecziThe Human as WastetheoryThesis

“We are the people who do not count”: Thinking the disruption of the biopolitics of abandonment

PhD Thesis by Anna Selmeczi, April 2012

Starting from the observation that today the urban emerges as the main site for the production and abandonment of surplus life – a life whose capacities cannot be rendered useful and is therefore not to be fostered – in this thesis I offer a re-politicized reading of abandonment by drawing on my field-research with the largest South African shack-dwellers’ movement, Abahlali baseMjondolo. Grounding this re-politicized reading in the problem of excess freedom that emerges on the horizon of governmental rationality between the political inclusion of the surplus population and their obstructive uselessness, I begin the inquiry by asking how the current order of neoliberal urbanism contains the surplus population when the establishment of the educative trusteeship of development is no longer pertinent.

Focusing on where the neoliberal urban order is contested, I approach practices of abandonment – the splintering of infrastructure and forced relocation – as coinciding with governmental technologies that render the poor unequal as political and/or economic subjects. Locating, to start, the epistemological conditions of abandonment in Michel Foucault’s rendering of liberalism as the framework of biopolitics, followed by a discussion of the spatial and juridical technologies of government that materialize the power to disallow life alongside discourses that distance the surplus population from the fostered (bio)political community, the first part of the thesis concentrates on the processes of rendering unequal. Turning, then, to the disruption of this order, I present Abahlali’s politics as a three-fold politics of proximity. I argue that in constructing their politics as 1) a space of speaking and listening, 2) a form of knowledge that maintains the shack-dweller as the subject and the knower of politics, and 3) a legal struggle to claim their place in the city, Abahlali disrupts the biopower that lets die.

Based on the resonance of Abahlali’s political practice with Jacques Rancière’s conception of politics, I offer an account of the disruption of the biopower to let die in terms of the appropriation of excess freedom as the equal capacity of everyone to expose the contingency of the order of rule to which s/he is subjected. Building on the centrality of the shack-dwellers’ assertion of equality as thinking and speaking beings, as well as rights-bearing citizens, I juxtapose this account of political subjectification against the notion of everyday resistance as it is deployed in the poststructuralist literature on poor people’s politics. Whereas this approach relegates struggles of marginal populations to a sub-political realm where the equality of all, as inscribed in the rights of the political community, do not apply and where, due to their precarious and abject position, the poor cannot aspire to openly challenge their unequal allotment, as the second part of the thesis shows, poor people’s politics materializes in the transgression of the spatial and discursive boundaries within which their “everyday” struggles are supposed to remain; the crux of Abahlali’s struggle for a place in the city is to say, do and think what surplus people are not supposed to. When, where, and in what terms they find the freedom to do so might give hints for thinking the political subject that challenges biopolitics.

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