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Global Discourse: An Interdisciplinary

Journal of Current Affairs and Applied
Contemporary Thought
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Some thoughts on precarity of place:

a reply to Banki
Wanda Vrasti
Published online: 11 Mar 2014.

To cite this article: Wanda Vrasti (2013) Some thoughts on precarity of place: a reply to Banki,
Global Discourse: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Current Affairs and Applied Contemporary
Thought, 3:3-4, 464-466, DOI: 10.1080/23269995.2014.881156

To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/23269995.2014.881156


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Global Discourse, 2013
Vol. 3, Nos. 34, 464466, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/23269995.2014.881156

Some thoughts on precarity of place: a reply to Banki
Wanda Vrasti*

This is a reply to:

Banki, Susan. 2013. Precarity of place: a complement to the growing precariat
literature. Global Discourse. 3 (34): 450463. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/
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Susan Bankis piece introduces the concept precarity of place to stand alongside the
more traditional labour precarity and, thus, offers a more nuanced, one might say
intersectional, understanding of the nature of uncertain life in these times of neoliberal
globalization. The greatest problem with the concept of precarity, as Banki already notes,
is that it has never been able to provide a satisfactory language for describing life in the
core and the periphery of global capital. Are flexible workers in the North, who lack
security in the workplace, are hounded by personal debt, and cannot hope to ever acquire
all the fabled comforts of the American Dream, precarious, whereas workers in informal
markets of the Global South or in the new satanic mills of export processing zones are
best described as poor? What is the difference between the two, conceptually and
experientially? The final word (or any word really) on the subject still remains to be
Banki does not solve her puzzle. Instead, she directs her attention to a different vector
of precarious existence, namely residence and locality, and in so doing reminds us that the
developed and the developing world are never quite as distinct as we would like to
believe. The marker of the neoliberal phase of capital accumulation is not only a certain
measure of globality (or integration) to circuits of production and distribution, but also the
coexistence of seemingly contradictory processes, such as neoliberalism and colonialism.
Certainly, these are enduring features of capitalism, but in its accelerated phase, we find a
sharpening of special asymmetries of power and resources (uneven development) and a
much greater contrast and contact between what we know as the developed and
developing parts of the world. Undocumented migrants, driven out by conflict or natural
disaster, teetering on the edge of post-industrial economic hubs, unseen and unwanted
yet crucial for the reproduction of our standard of life are a case in point: core and
periphery can exist inside one another or alongside each other. More than that, capitalism
always needs an outside, whether it is the colonies, the domestic sphere, the global
lumpenproletariat or various forms of dissent to feast upon. There spaces of unregulated
exploitation and the sexual and racial division of labour that go along with them are what
allow capital to maintain a legal face under the mantle of liberal democracy.
But the interest of Banki is not exactly in how capitalism survives through the
production of space (Harvey 2003, 87). Rather, she approaches this subject from the
bottom-up. She devises the concept precarity of place to understand how migrants and
refugees experience the spatial (and legal, social, economic) asymmetries that make up

*Email: wandavra@googlemail.com

2014 Taylor & Francis

Global Discourse 465

global capital flows. The distinctive feature of this experience is, as Banki explains it, the
looming threat of deportation. Precarity of residence does not suggest imminent
deportation from a country, but its very real possibility (1). Banki is very clear about
the minimalism of this definition. Precarity of place is not about deportation or detention
per se (the threat of vulnerability realized), nor is it about the struggle to obtain rights and
residency permits (vulnerability overcome), nor the inability to emigrate or cross borders
(vulnerability denied). It is the in-between state of permanent vulnerability, of living in a
state of limbo with no papers and no end in sight. Precarity of place occurs in residency,
in physical residence, to be precise.
As we already know from undocumented migrant struggles in North America and
Europe in recent years, to reside in a country without papers (or the correct kind of papers)
is a form of social death. It is belonging with all the responsibilities (and more), of making
a living, paying bills, respecting the law, learning the language, yet without any of the
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rights. The result is a complex mesh of invisible borders at all junctions of everyday life.
Etienne Balibar (2002) has argued that the border is world-configuring, not just territor-
ial, referring to the way in which borders proliferate even inside a sovereign territory to
keep out the undocumented, the poor and the delinquent from various state services and
infrastructures. Bankis minimalist definition of precarity of place is perfectly attuned to
this reality although it approaches it from the other end. Vulnerability to removal or
deportation from ones physical location (4) is what bars access to services, housing, jobs
and even informal social and solidarity networks, such as those described by Banki in her
case study of Burmese migrants in Thailand. Just like in the case of labour precarity,
precarity of residence, defined as the fear of deportation, is once again an effective tool of
governmentality to reduce the redistributive mandate of the state and instil an ethos of
individual responsibility (based on fear).
I salute Bankis seemingly narrow focus. In privileging residency over citizenship, and
access to specific services, sites, infrastructures and communities over legal legitimation
and inclusion into a polity, as a proper measure of belonging, precarity of place begins to
draw the contours of a social justice politics for our time. It is the physical residence of
people that gives shape to the world we inhabit. It is physical residents whose lives prop
up the lives of other residents: through legal work, undocumented work, child care,
elderly care, and simple, daily interactions (3), a point made clearly in the French
documentary, We Work Here! We Live Here! We Stay Here. I believe we can find here
the foundations of a transnational ethics of care and hospitality that runs counter to the
opportunistic impulse of exploiting spatial asymmetries and the global division of labour
in the spirit of capitalism.
Banki does not go that far, but I believe precarity of place could be an extremely
useful analytic tool for strengthening a politics of sanctuary. Just like basic income is the
favoured conclusion of most conversations about labour precarity (ours not being a world
where wage labour is a sufficient measure of worth or mode of redistribution anymore), so
sanctuary could be the appropriate response to residential precarity. The activist group No
One Is Illegal defines a sanctuary city as one where all people, regardless of immigration
status, can live without fear of detention or deportation (http://toronto.nooneisillegal.org/).
Same with basic income: it is a wage paid out to all people regardless of their contribution
to the productive economy. Just like in a post-Fordist economy based on the debt of
creativity, collaboration and communication, it becomes impossible to measure peoples
contribution to work (what about the work of producing life, for instance?), it is also
impossible to measure who contributes to a city and who doesnt. As Banki rightfully
466 W. Vrasti

recognizes, those who live in a place, and thus have a stake in the future of that place
(3) should be, if not properly included or represented, then at least protected by the polity.
My only suggestion is that the concept be further strengthened to better fit an
intersectional research agenda by including greater attention to differences of race, gender
and class. Further, it could be made into a moving concept, that is, used to understand
how different migrants gain access to various services or cross various borders depending
on how they are positioned within the intersectional matrix. In other words, precarity of
place ought to be understood as a moving scale rather than a fixed marker. A female
migrant of colour will have greater difficulties residing in a place, for instance, than a
male worker from Eastern Europe, even if both lack necessary documentation. And
finally, and relatedly, greater attention could be paid to the sexual division of labour
and how this intersects with and reinforces the global division of labour. Patriarchy and
colonialism are related parts of the hidden foundation of capitalist civilization and
precarity of place phenomena are bound to reflect that.
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Balibar, Etienne. 2002. What Is a Border? Politics and the Other Scene, 7586. London: Verso.
Harvey, David. 2003. The New Imperialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.