Tadeusz Rachwal. Precariousness: correcting the system of social “bubbles”

The culture of danger

The French philosopher and sociologist Michel Foucault (2008) had defined “the culture of danger” as a type of culture inherent to liberalism. Therefore, a system in which danger is not perceived as something external but as internal is constantly felt in daily domestic practices and life experiences. It is precisely from this reflection, developed in the 2022 Report of the European SUPI Network on Social Precarity, that the analysis of Polish sociologist Tadeusz Rachwal*, professor at the University of Social and Humanitarian Sciences in Warsaw, on the structure of our social fabric and the unexpected arrival of Covid-19 begins. “Living dangerously,” the motto that, according to Foucault, distinguishes one of the essential elements of liberalism, means that individuals are constantly exposed to and conditioned by this feeling of fear in their present life and their future projection, by an all-internal culture that constantly induces them to build up certainties, especially economic ones. “We are not faced with fears of an apocalyptic catastrophe, or even with the fear of death,” explains Rachwal, “but instead with the fear of economic loss, perhaps of a lack of success.” 

Everything has the form of an enterprise

And why is the economy at the center of everything? Because, as Foucault explains, according to the culture of liberalism, the basic units of the social fabric are not built to encourage direct contact between the individual and nature – a contact which is extraneous to any economic logic – but instead to take the form of a business. “What is a private property if not a business? What is a house if not a business? What is the management of these small neighborhood communities […] if not other forms of enterprise?” Rachwal expands this metaphor of enterprise even further and applies it to individuals who, increasingly distant from their relationship with nature, end up becoming like so many individual enterprises, enterprises bordering on other enterprises, in a totally economized system.

Living in “bubbles,” self-enclosure, and social fragility

Today’s world society increasingly presents this clear distinction between the inside (the economy) and the outside (the natural environment). Whether employed or not, all individuals progressively involved in the culture of enterprise and the related feeling of risk and danger are directly or indirectly induced to participate in the construction of a large economic building in which they enclose themselves, as in many apartments. The word – apartment – recalls precisely the meaning of this separation. Apartments, Rachwal adds, recalling an image of the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, which are like bubbles in a foam, many worlds in themselves, impenetrable to one another, living in their own closed and unshareable space. The separation between one bubble and another excludes any relationship or kinship; the bubbles share only their contiguous membranes and the precariousness that comes from their fragility.

In this system that continually reinforces itself without an external force, an “outside,” capable of rationally guiding everything, contacts are superficial. Sharing is non-existent; everything aims to take care of oneself, and one’s bubble rather than the other. The source of the widespread precariousness in our communities is precisely linked to the emergence of this culture and process of social life.

Covid Terrorism

If the outside of the bubble is seen as the danger and the inside instead as the basis of our safety, Covid-19 has come to change this paradigm. Before the pandemic, the air was seen as an outdoor element, belonging to the dimension of “outside.” Then came the face masks, the disease, the transmission, and the contagion: the idea of the “inside” as a guarantee of safety from the “outside” vanished, we were forced to share our spaces with the virus, with what we perceive as a terrorist, or at least as a terrorist-like creature.

A Tale of Two Fears

There are many points of similarity between terrorism and the Coronavirus, analyzed in an article on the web page of “European Eye on Radicalization”: “A Tale of Two Fears: Comparing Terrorism and the Coronavirus” Marone, 2020. Among these similarities, we find the aspect of secrecy because viruses are invisible, mysterious to anyone who is not a specialist, so elusive as to start conspiracy theories about their origin. Another similarity, even more insidious, is their ability to transform love and trust for neighbors into the precariousness of fear. If ISIS aimed to spread terror among the “crusaders” until “every neighbor will not be afraid of his neighbor,” the Covid went to increase social insecurity by making us see in the figure of the other a possible vehicle of contagion.

Correcting precariousness: behaving like a relative 

Is it possible to resist in some way this process of increasing precarity linked to the spread of closed “apartment individualism” and progressive segregation in “bubbles”? Polish sociologist Rachwal tries to answer this question with two references. The first is to an American philosopher, Donna Haraway, and her call to “behave like a relative” (2015), to rethink deeply and positively our coexistence with our neighbors. Whoever these neighbors might be, we should act going beyond the bounds of our narrow family circles and social groups to try to “join” with others, all creatures of the world in which we are given to live.

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Nomadland: learning to experience closeness with others

As a second reminder to overcome an increasingly precarious individualism, Rachwal refers to the message in the book Nomadland by Jessica Bruder, from which the film by Cloé Zhao (2020) is based. The book tells the story of American inhabitants who have chosen to live in vans, campers, caravans, constantly moving from one place to another. People who are not “homeless” but who to be called “houseless,” a nomadic social group that expresses its idea of freedom, even from the care of the State. Individuals who are alone, but who nevertheless live situations of closeness in the continuous encounters in parking lots, casual encounters but rich in human exchanges. According to Jessica Bruder, it is like the birth of a new and original social space: “something great is happening,” she wrote in the book. She foresees the possibility of a clear correction of the precariousness connected and diffused to the prevalence of the decisive factor of the economy, to the fixed idea of property and possession. The experience of Nomadland is a signal, modest and limited as it may be, challenging to theorize, according to Rachwal. Still, it indicates the need to take on a new point of reference in social experience: the idea and the ability to experience closeness with others.

*Tadeusz Rachwał,Sociologist, Professor, University of Social Sciences and Humanities, Warszawa – Poland. Reference: SUPI European Network on Social Precarity 2022 (Berlin-Rome).

**Eurispes International Dept.

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