Julian Huertas | The Precarity of the People

By Julian Huertas

When Judith Butler published her Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly (hereinafter Notes) on 2015, she had in mind recent events like the Occupy Movement, Tahrir Square protests, Puerta del Sol, Gezi Park and the like. Since then, the world has changed in many ways. The first big event not addressed by Butler is, of course, the election of President Trump and the social and constitutional upheaval of these almost three years. Similarly, Brexit and its ongoing crisis has revealed an unknown aspect of the perils of populism in a democracy that has met several challenges in previous centuries. Bolsonaro in Brasil and Duterte in the Philippines have added to the group of authoritarian leaders that have electorally succeeded in their own countries. Along with that, Trump’s election revealed the dark side of social media and its potential as a manipulation tool by foreign and local “hackers.”

Nevertheless, the world remains the same in an important sense. Specifically, people continuously invade the streets to claim for their rights.  Demonstrations in many countries have continued, and the causes for many pre-2015 protests are still present and will hardly disappear. Accordingly, the need for a reflection on assemblies is necessary today as it has been for many decades. Several reflections have been presented from an economic, cultural, legal perspectives, but Butler’s contribution adopts a more general—perhaps eclectic—view. She relies on a critical political-philosophical perspective to provide some ideas, defend some proposals, and more interestingly, to pose pressing questions about us as individuals and as a society.

Her effort focusses on the politics of the street, the difference between presence and language, the issue of representation, the environmental conditions required for leading a good life and a large etcetera. Therefore, I would like to focus in this introductory note on a few but relevant elements of the book. In the first place, the emphasis on the needs that lead to the formations of assemblies; then, some characteristics within and in connection with those assemblies; and finally, the moral basis that explain and justify those assemblies.


  1. Assemblies, precarity and the basic requirements of the body

The starting point of Butler’s Notes deals with the physical needs of the body. One of the aspects in which the world has not changed dramatically since 2015 is national and global inequality. Occupy Wall Street was a desperate mobilization born out from the rage of seeing how a few people possess too much; and how, in an extremely wealthy society like the United States, many people live in poverty or barely make ends meet. The people that came to the streets marched for many reasons: equality, good jobs, healthcare, and in countries like Egypt and Turkey, freedom of expression and democratic elections, which can also be considered as basic needs. Many people feel that they have been “left behind” from a train that was so hard to catch. Many people feel that they have been defeated by the system, by life itself, and fear that their children will not face a bright future. However, they refuse to disappear, to lose their “right to appear.”

That group of sorrows, rage and fears is in the origin of assemblies. Citing Hanna Arendt, Butler points out how many people seem to struggle even for the right to have rights. Although she does not address the situation of refugees and immigrants, it is not difficult to extend this description to fit their critical situation. They, as well as other groups of people, lack the most basic needs and live in what could be described, using Agamben’s expression, as “bare life”. The people come to the streets because they want an answer from the state. Living under a formal democracy, several persons understand that they have rights in the Constitution and laws, but that is not enough.

Driven by basic corporal needs, assemblies can also be seen as a metaphor of the society as a whole. Everyone is precarious: we depend on one another. Moreover, this makes us equal (this argument will appear in the third section of this reflection). Precarity exposes our sociality, the fragile and necessary dimension of our interdependency. But at the same time, precarity is dependent upon “the organization of economic and social relationships, the presence or absence of sustaining infrastructures and social political institutions.” (P. 119). This is why Butler calls the reader to rethink the meaning of mobilizing vulnerability. Precarity and vulnerability can serve as a uniting force for political action.

However, it is necessary to avoid confusion regarding the use of these words. Butler is clear when she argues that vulnerability is not a term that should only be employed in gender-based struggles or on feminist projects. All the social movements that argue for a more humane and equal world should unite and take the universal character of vulnerability as the starting point for a broader and equal movement. Every person is vulnerable unless the state sets the conditions (rules, institutions, policies) for a livable live. Thus, Butler’s work on the politics of the street poses neither a legal nor an exclusive political (institutional) effort. Her focus is on the bodies, the essential need, and only after that, political demands: the basic requirements of the body are “publicly enacted prior to any set of political demands.” (P. 182).


  1. Why (and how) to assemble

Vulnerability and precarity are some of the essential reasons why people take the streets and protest. While Butler’s conception of the needs demanded by people is material (physical), her notion of space is less corporeal. In her proposal, she states that the space for the assembly is the union of bodies, the space between bodies, which leads to the question about “virtual assemblies”. In a certain way, Butler is an optimist regarding social media. Different from traditional media, those “networks” cannot be censured by economic powers… or can they? Because of the time when it was published, the Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly was not able to predict how this supposedly free and citizen-driven media could serve non-democratic interests. Following the 2016 election and the Brexit, English newspapers revealed the instrumental role played by Facebook in mobilizing anger and frustrations against liberal policies and the promotion of authoritarian options. With adequate expertise and resources, social media can be worse than traditional media. It can be manipulated to promote racist agendas too.

Besides the “spatial” nature of assemblies, Butler offers a distinction between speech and assembly. In actuality, no verbal speech is needed because even without speech the assembly is powerful. Protests are done with bodies, which are the ground and the aim of politics. When gathered in the streets, the people claim for their rights but also want to send a message: “If we are in the streets, is because we are bodies that require public forms of support to stand and move, and to live a life that matters.” (P. 138.) A life that matters relates not only to cover basic needs but to enjoy more humane values, like fairness. In an interview with anthropologist David Graeber, The Economist asked if the success of populist parties can be a consequence of “bullshit jobs”. For Graeber, “[t]here is an almost perfect inverse relation between how much your work directly benefits others, and remuneration. The result is a toxic political culture of resentment.” (See Bullshit jobs and the yoke of managerial feudalism). Basic needs are essential, but they are not the only value worth fighting for. Similarly, in a recent opinion in the Washington Post, Samuel Moyn makes the point that if liberal governments provide its citizens with better social services, perhaps populist movements would not thrive globally (See If the liberal world offered more economic security, maybe authoritarians would lose their appeal).

Now, another problem of identity emerges when people assemble to protest. Are they “the people”? Do they represent “the people”? Does it make sense to use this foundational category or should we accept that it is just a rhetorical weapon? For Butler, the assembly “may be called ‘the people’ or it may be one version of the ‘people’—they do not speak in one voice or even in one language” (P. 160). The author of the Notes draws a critical distinction between popular sovereignty and state sovereignty. “The meaning of popular sovereignty has never been fully exhausted by the act of voting.” (P. 161). The people (whoever that may be) exceeds its representatives. Popular sovereignty legitimizes (or it should legitimize) state sovereignty, but the former retains the real power.

Although Butler does not mention it, it is perhaps inevitable to remember at this point the distinction between constituent and constituted power presented by Carl Schmitt. The constituent power (the people) is the one that operates as the founding power, while the government would work as the constituted power. But Butler also underscores a scenario that should be impossible in a democratic society: “As long as the state controls the very conditions of freedom of assembly, popular sovereignty becomes an instrument of state sovereignty”. (P. 163). Can the state really do that? The question is not presented in normative or ideological terms—since, of course, a democratic society would not allow that—but in factual terms. Can the state control the conditions of freedom of assembly? Again, the Schmittian analysis can shed some light. The constituent power is in itself a juridical entity, represents a minimum of constitution and is not a “simple question of force”.

Even though Butler presents an interesting political analysis here, the intended lack of the legal (not legalistic) dimension in her reasoning leads her to miss the opportunity of confronting the question of popular sovereignty more profoundly. Certainly, not every social reflection has to adopt a legal-constitutional vantage point, but it is Butler who delves into the relationship between the people and state sovereignty, a question that necessarily must deal with constitutional law elements. In any case, Butler’s answer to the question about the state controlling the conditions of freedom of assembly is developed from two different institutions: the prison and the market. “[F]reedom of assembly is haunted by the possibility of imprisonment” (P. 173) or, furthermore, “prison is the ultimate way of barring access to public space.” (P. 186). Along with the prison, the market seeks to privatize the public physical space—and therefore the public sphere: “privatization seeks to destroy public space” (P. 186). Even worse, the union of prison and market leads to a prison industry that is managed to regulate the rights of citizenship under a marked racist bias, at least in America. As a consequence, and returning to Arendt, the conjunct work of prison and market operates not only to decimate and appropriate the public space, but also the right to appear (P. 174).

Under this dark panorama, Butler signals some possible paths to confront the current state of affairs. One of these principles is “non-violence”. Another one is solidarity. More than tactics, these are principles in a general sense. However, why should we bother to conduct a demonstration, unless it is for our own immediate and individual interests? Why should we care about the people who cannot even enjoy the basic requirements of the body? Butler presents an answer that takes inspiration from Levinas and Arendt.


  1. The question about the “other”

Butler’s Notes can be appreciated as a contemporary journey for understanding and justifying the concern for others, not in an individualistic or neoliberal fashion, but in a more social, collective way. Why worry about people on the other side of the globe? Faced with the option of fighting only for our own clan, tribe or community, Butler contests that moral obligations are only possible in the context of established communities within borders (P. 103). She draws on Levinas and Arendt: both philosophers criticize the individualistic liberal contractual theory. Liberalism assumes that we decide to enter into certain relations and contracts, with the necessary consequence that we are responsible only for those who we want to deal with.

For Levinas, ethical obligations do not depend on belonging to a particular community. “We are bound to those we do not know, even those we did not choose, (…) and that these obligations are, strictly speaking, precontractual” (P. 107). Reciprocity cannot be the basis for ethics since ethics is not a bargain (P. 108). For Levinas, no ethics can be derived from egoism; indeed, egoism is the defeat of ethics itself. Likewise, Arendt brings a compelling answer to the liberal position. We have an obligation to live with those who already exist in this world (planet, region, country, community, etc.). “The unchosen character of earthly cohabitation is, for Arendt, the condition of our very existence as ethical and political beings”. (P. 109). We are obligated to protect the lives and the open-ended plurality of those we live with.  This comes with the “obligation to safeguard the equal right to inhabit the earth and so a commitment to equality as well” (P. 114). Arendt has set the ground for justifying the concern for the other.

Even though she questions some points presented by Levinas and Arendt, the truth is that both authors’ insights appear across the Notes. For Butler, the ethical obligation must be grounded on precarity. However, precarity cannot be understood as personal or individual precarity. In the last chapter of the book, Butler brings to our memory a statement proposed by Adorno in absolute terms: “wrong life cannot be lived rightly”. Butler wants to problematize this reflection and lead the reader to question if one can lead a good life in a bad life. The question refers to individualism against social concerns, or as she presents it, to the “relation of moral conduct to social conditions” (P. 194). Living own’s life without regard to others is not a personal choice, but a social one. As every person is interdependent in a world filled with precarity, the question at issue translates into a more pressing one: Whose lives matter? (P. 196). The classic liberal morality cannot deal with this dimension of life since it assumes the self-sufficiency of individuals who have accepted responsibility for the obligations they have consented to acquire. It is not possible to live a good life when others are deprived even from their basic needs.

Finally, we should conclude that Butler’s effort does not attempt to provide a formal study of assemblies, but to re-ignite some of the values that make us truly human. The assemblies and demonstrations remind us about the precarity of others, the ethical obligations towards people we do not know, nor do we love. Maybe the protesters on the assemblies do not entirely represent “the people”, nor our personal preferences, but they are still there. They refuse to hide, to leave, to die. They are showing, even before speaking or chanting, that they refuse to exist beyond legal and economic protection, that they refuse to lose their right to have rights.