latest from the magazine
latest journal issue
he coronavirus pandemic has thrown into sharp relief the racialization that characterizes contemporary capitalism’s uneven distribution of precarity across the working population. The pandemic has also accelerated this distribution’s deadliness for those disadvantaged by it. Workers whose conditions are most precarious, whether due to underpayment or terms of employment, are also at highest risk of contracting the virus as they are obliged to continue working to make a living (and/or to help others live, as in the case of healthcare and social care workers)—while also lacking the privilege to work from home. In this essay, I expound the racialization characterizing both the uneven distribution of precarity in question and the pandemic’s acceleration of its deadliness. I do so by drawing on relevant critique from the past several months as well as aiming to advance its approach to the spatiality of the pandemic’s racialized impact on work. I argue that such critique might benefit from an approach to spatiality that attends to the relationship between the different spaces and spatial scales across which the pandemic’s impact on working populations has unfolded, rather than simply considering space in the singular or multiple sites of work in isolation from one another. Through examples from the UK (where I live and work since 2011) and Turkey (where I am from and continue to do research), I point out an empirical focus that necessitates the sort of approach to spatiality I advocate: industrial products that traverse various sites and spatial scales of work where the pandemic’s related racialized effects unfold. I suggest that this focus helps to not only analyze the pandemic’s politically regressive effects but also to grasp the progressive potential of new aid and solidarity initiatives that engage with products of this sort–but evidently do so for political ends different from those of racial capitalism.
The Necropolitics of Lockdown
The ways in which contemporary capitalism shapes the relations between work and home have become the subject of much debate since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. The pandemic-inflected debate has so far revolved around two foci, one empirical and the other theoretical. The empirical focus has been on the fallout from the way governments have or have not restricted movement and gatherings. The theoretical focus has been on biopolitics, through both its well-known Foucauldian formulation and its critical reformulations such as Achille Mbembe’s necropolitics. Renowned European thinkers like Bruno Latour and Giorgio Agamben have been quick to opine that their respective governments’ responses to the pandemic have turned the entire citizenry into quintessential figures of biopolitics. To recall Foucault’s (2003: 241) classic formulation, whereas prior to the late eighteenth century sovereignty meant the power to kill and let live, from that point onwards a new and different power—biopower—was born, which consisted in making live and letting die. Those challenging this emphasis on biopolitics have drawn on necropolitics as theorized by Mbembe (2019), for whom sovereign power and biopower have not only continued in modern times to operate in tandem, but have also been distributed unevenly across the world—where this unevenness has had a racialized character. Those disadvantaged most by this uneven distribution have always continued to suffer from a kill-and-make-live policy, even as others have become subjected to make-live-and-let-die. Echoing this point particularly perceptively in an essay published last summer, Paul Preciado wrote that the pandemic has only expanded the necropolitics that the West or the Global North has long inflicted on the rest. Just consider Europe’s violent border politics, suggests Preciado: “Lesbos now starts at your doorstep… Calais blows up in your face. The new frontier is the mask… The new frontier is your epidermis. The new Lampedusa is your skin.”
I believe arguments as Preciado’s are indispensable for situating the pandemic in longer and ongoing histories of violence that have had a racialized character and that entangle colonialism, capitalism, nation-state building and post-national globalization. But I also doubt whether necropolitics and biopolitics lend themselves to as neat a territorialization and a teleology as Preciado implies. By territorialization, I mean the ascription of a certain political force, be it necropolitics or biopolitics, to a given territory. By teleology I mean the idea that a crisis like the pandemic is effectively the West or the Global North experiencing what the world’s marginalized have long experienced—or, in other words, simply a case of necropolitics’ gradually taking over from biopolitics as the power that controls Western or Global Northern lives. In this essay I would like to reconsider these understandings of the temporality and spatiality of racial capitalism’s impact on the relations between home and work in the time of pandemic.
There are empirical as well as theoretical reasons for problematizing the understandings in question. Take the case of Leicester in the UK, the city that emerged last summer as a major Covid-19 hotspot, despite months of a nation-wide lockdown that did help curb the virus’ spread elsewhere. In late July, as restrictions were eased in much of the country, a new localized lockdown was declared for Leicester alongside a few other cities in northern England. Health Secretary Matt Hancock tweeted the measure on July 30th, at the start of Eid al-Adha, one of the two major holidays Muslims observe. Hancock’s tweets, moreover, did not just announce the measure but also speculated about the root cause of the spread, suggesting that it was “largely due to households meeting and not abiding to social distancing.” Given that the city of Leicester and others placed under this new localized lockdown host some of the UK’s largest Muslim populations, and that the measure was announced just hours before a major Islamic holiday, Hancock’s tweet was widely interpreted as associating the virus’ spread with Muslims. Thus, it was followed by a flurry of commentary on far-right social media that blamed the scale of the pandemic in the UK on its Muslim population.
Necro/biopolitical Traversals of ‘Make Work and Let Buy’
To be sure, the reasons that made Leicester such a hotspot were different. One such reason, as a Guardian report had revealed earlier on in the summer, concerns the city’s garment industry that supplies mainly to fast fashion companies. This is a microeconomy formed in recent years, comprising crammed sweatshops in crumbling buildings where an illegally underpaid workforce makes about 3 to 5 pounds an hour. During much of the Spring lockdown, this already unscrupulous business not only continued unabated but also expanded, with workers virtually locked indoors even as workshops displayed “closed” signs. Both Leicester’s highest number of cases at the time and its garment industry are in the city’s east, where people of color and members of religious minorities are among some of the highest in the UK—and the garment workforce comprises a similar demographic. In the Leicester of last summer, then, the racialization that already characterized the pandemic on a material level was being doubled on a symbolic level by accusations targeting Muslims for its spread. Meanwhile, the fast fashion retailer Boohoo, whose suppliers comprise much of Leicester’s garment district, recorded almost 50 percent year-on-year revenue-growth last spring and summer. This increase in revenue was owed to what the industry praised as the “flexibility” of the company’s rapid response to Covid-19, in reorienting its product line towards loungewear, appealing to those stuck at home.
I would like to take seriously the kind of product that is at the center of this story and that traverses various spaces and scales. I believe this sort of networked and multiscalar traversing is something on which spatial thinkers might want to focus their thinking. That such a networked and multiscalar traversing is key to the biopolitics-oriented debate on Covid-19 is evident in Joshua Clover’s critical response to the debate’s fixation with Foucauldian biopower or the power to make-live-and-let-die. Echoing those emphasizing the continuing importance of necropolitics, Clover argues that “make live and let die is simply a tool among others” in the longstanding socioeconomic order that has only intensified over the recent months. The power that actually upholds this order, suggests Clover, hinges on “a ratio of make work and let buy” that puts people into work but only on condition that they give what they make back to the capitalist economy, thereby sustaining the extractivism that underpins it.
What needs grappling with, then, is not only work-from-home but rather the ways this ratio of make-work-and-let-buy is sustained through objects that traverse various spatialities. Fast-fashion loungewear appealing to those stuck at home is one example of such objects. Another and potentially even more widely appealing one is canned and frozen food that a Turkish company called Dardanel produces. Dardanel recorded 96 percent year-on-year revenue-growth during the pandemic. Alongside its phenomenal growth, two other reasons put the company in the spotlight over the past few months. First, in late July, as Dardanel’s home city (the otherwise small and quiet town of Çanakkale in Turkey’s northwest) became a coronavirus hotspot, several workers at one of the company’s factories tested positive. The company followed by quarantining all its workforce on site, naming this strategy “quarantine under surveillance” and “closed-circuit work.” Workers were asked to pack up and come to the factory to live and work there for two weeks. In defending the measure as a government-approved one, the company alluded to a recent project that a consortium of three ministries and a business people’s association had launched a couple of months into the pandemic. This was a project that had initially been conceived seven years ago with a focus on building midsize industrial zones but was now reoriented towards what the authorities called “Isolated Manufacturing Hubs,” touted as a response to the pandemic and a step towards normalization by rendering manufacturing pandemic-proof. The idea is, that these “Isolated Manufacturing Hubs” host workers and their families 24/7 and that they are pandemic-proof thanks to on-site testing facilities and even their own bespoke cemeteries. The project, then, proposes a model of living from and potentially dying at work rather than one of working from home.
Deep Poverty and ‘Transform from Home’
The second time Dardanel made headlines was just about six weeks ago when half a dozen women’s job applications there were allegedly rejected on grounds of their being members of Turkey’s Roma population. The Roma are among those hardest hit by the pandemic in Turkey, due not only to the deep poverty that has long affected many of them, but also to the sorts of work they have taken up in cities over the past few decades, such as collecting and sorting out rubbish for recycling—in a country that until recently had yet to institutionalize recycling. If anything, many in such line of work have recently become obliged to travel even longer distances to collect rubbish, due to the wave of urban renewal projects that have displaced them from centrally located neighborhoods to so-called “affordable” housing estates built on the urban periphery, albeit with little or no concern for how this would impact their work. Therefore, this rehousing of Turkey’s urban underclass overlooked work’s significance to dwelling and was particularly detrimental to the livelihood of parts of the Roma population as they now had to cover ever-longer distances to city centers for their daily bread. They have had to continue doing so throughout the pandemic, too, having fallen through the cracks of the little government support that has been available. The obligation to continue to pound the streets for work has not only exposed the Roma to the pandemic but also exacerbated their being stigmatized as an unhygienic and reckless people whose very bodies are virus hotspots. Hence the racist rejection of the applicants at Dardanel, whose being Roma became a pretext for unemployability under the current conditions.
Leicester and Çanakkale paint a particularly sinister picture of a potential post-pandemic world where a racialized workforce, whether locked up in factories or pounding the streets, work to death manufacturing the products that those working from home browse through and buy (or recycling the packaging), often in close proximity to where the production occurs. This, moreover, is a world where, as Dardanel’s alleged rejection of applicants on a racist basis indicates, even the very ability to make lesser-evil choices—to choose, for instance, carceral factory work over deep poverty—itself is racialized. But, echoing those imagining a progressive biopolitics in the time of pandemic (see also Rawes et al., 2016), the past few months have also thrown up networks of aid and solidarity that attempt to forge a different link between those working from home and those living/dying from work. There is one such network in Turkey whose work is particularly pertinent to the Roma population: The Deep Poverty Network. Volunteers of this network have launched a campaign called “Transform from Home” that, as evident in the emphasis on “from home,” is largely an appeal to the kind of homeworkers who feature prominently in biopolitics-oriented analyses of the pandemic. The campaign’s volunteers have used home 3d printers to produce masks and distributed these to Roma populations in, for instance, Istanbul, who have to be out on the streets to make a living but cannot afford protective equipment and so remain vulnerable to the virus. Alongside the masks, they have also distributed TV sets and tablets that have become important due to a distance-learning platform that Turkey’s Ministry of Education has hastily developed in response to the pandemic. While the government touted the platform as evidence of the country’s leadership in information technologies, its assumption that everyone has the same level of access to the necessary infrastructure was soon thrown into disarray. The various tragedies that resulted from this assumption are too numerous to mention here but suffice it to say that children have even died falling from heights whilst looking for a signal.
The “Transform from Home” volunteers not only provide what may be termed pandemic survival infrastructure, such as masks and tablets, but also conduct a public discourse to clarify the politics of their campaign. Through press statements and interviews, they stress that the campaign is driven not by charity or generosity but rather by a political objective: to show that the government is failing its most basic duty of providing the tools its most underprivileged populations need in order to survive the pandemic, that these tools are in fact so easily providable as by a network of middleclass volunteers, and that the authorities must therefore live up to their responsibility by righting this wrong. If “sovereignty, discipline, biopower and biopolitics, and liberal governmentality are neither the only nor always the most important forms of power shaping our lives” (Hannah et al., 2020) then such politically motivated aid and solidarity campaigns as “Transform from Home” hold progressive potential. Intervening in the uneven distribution of the pandemic’s effects, such campaigns link homeworkers and racialized workforces differently from the ways ‘make-work-and-let-buy’ has linked them, and contrast with the inevitability that characterizes teleological and territorialized understandings of the fallout from the novel coronavirus.
The pandemic has thrown into sharp relief the nonlinear, multidirectional, multiscalar and not easily territorializable character of contemporary racial capitalism’s necro/biopolitics. The past year has engendered or reinvigorated aid and solidarity work that comprehends this character. That this work is not simply one of homeworkers aiding other workers out of poverty but careful to index who must be held responsible for poverty’s existence in the first place will inform the post-pandemic task of connecting homes, workplaces and streets to one another in ways that challenge racial capitalism.
 In problematizing these understandings of the temporality and the spatiality of the relations between “the West” and “the East” or between “the North” and the South,” I echo recent work in critical globalization and new imperialism studies (Narayan and Sealey-Huggins, 2017; Turner, 2018; Danewid, 2020).
This essay is based on a keynote lecture delivered at the Bartlett School of Architecture symposium “Homework: Lived Experience through Architectural Histories” on the event’s second day, 6 November 2020, which was themed “Globalised Digital Capitalism.” The author would like to thank Charmaine Chua, Sylvia Cifuentes, Tariq Jazeel, Peg Rawes, Paul Steeples, Ken Qiu Sun, Abdulrahman El-Taliawi, Dhruv Shah, Falak Vora, Josephine Waugh, and Anna Alexandra Seress.
Danewid I (2020) The Fire This Time: Grenfell, Racial Capitalism and the Urbanisation of Empire. European Journal of International Relations 26(1): 289–313.
Foucault M (2003) Society Must Be Defended: Lectures at the College de France. London: Picador.
Hannah MG, Hutta JS and Schemann C (2020) Thinking through Covid-19 responses with Foucault – an initial overview. In: Antipode Online. Available here (accessed 18 January 2021).
Mbembe A (2019) Necropolitics. Durham: Duke University Press.
Narayan J and Sealey-Huggins L (2017) Whatever Happened to the Idea of Imperialism? Third World Quarterly 38(11): 2387–2395.
Rawes P, Loo S and Mathews T, eds. (2016) Poetic Biopolitics: Relational Practices in Architecture and the Arts. London: I.B. Tauris.
Turner J (2018) Internal Colonisation: The Intimate Circulations of Empire, Race and Liberal Government. European Journal of International Relations 24(4): 765–790.
Eray Çaylı, PhD (UCL, 2015), studies the spatial and visual politics of violence in Turkey and beyond. His first monograph Victims of Commemoration: The Architecture and Violence of “Confronting the Past” in Turkey (Syracuse University Press) and the volume Architectures of Emergency in Turkey: Heritage, Displacement, and Catastrophe (Bloomsbury/I.B.Tauris) he coedited are due to come out later this year.