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Re-thinking Global Grammars Of Enterprise in the COVID-19 Crisis (Part 4)

Authors: Diego Carbajo and Peter Kelly

Event Horizons and Re-thinking

In our first post in this series we used the analogy of COVID-19 as an ‘event-horizon’. To briefly recap, the concept of an ‘event horizon’ comes from astrophysics, but has travelled, ‘metaphorically’, into more popular usage. In astrophysics an event horizon describes that point at which matter enters a black-hole. Importantly, in this astrophysics work at the limits of ‘knowability’, an event horizon, by definition, produces profound uncertainty in the crossing of that threshold. We suggested that COVID-19 creates an event horizon, a threshold, beyond which lies profound, ‘unknowable’, uncertainty. 

The notion of the event horizon helps us to bear in mind that many of the processes that structure what we have been calling global grammars of enterprise exceed the ‘limits’ of economy. Indeed, they affect most dimensions of life, of what it means to be a person in a globalising neo-liberal capitalism, and, they are not uniformly distributed or experienced. 

After some months of living in the pandemic the general trend that can be readily identified is that, for young people, there has been an amplification of the problems, tensions and inequalities that they were already living with. Even though the disease itself has not massively affected them as it has done with other, older segments of populations, the unfolding social, economic, political and policy crises that that pandemic has triggered have altered most dimensions of their lives, provoking, as we have argued, new debates about the ‘problem of generations’. As reflected in many research, policy and advocacy reports, these impacts can be identified in relation to young people’s education, training and employment pathways and opportunities, their mental health and well-being, and in restrictions to previously taken for granted rights (movement, assembly, sociality).[1]

OCDE report

1. COVID AND THE PROBLEM OF GENERATIONS: ZOE/BIOS VS THE ECONOMY

As we write this blog in November 2020, much of Europe, the UK, the Americas, central and south Asia are dealing with the resurgence of a second wave of the pandemic, and an exponential increase in infection numbers, hospitalisations and deaths.

Political leaders and governments of different stripes, policy makers and advisors, academics and commentators, epidemiologists and other disease scientists, members of the public, conspiracy theorists and assorted ‘fringe-dwellers’ are again thinking about, debating, arguing, protesting, and/or resisting calls for actions to lock down, or to not lock down the ‘economy’ in order to ‘flatten the curve’, to stop health systems becoming overwhelmed, and to reduce the number of deaths. In these debates these public health imperatives continue to be weighed against the economic, social, and community costs of shutting down the ‘economy’ and social, cultural and political life.

In an earlier post at the beginning of the pandemic we discussed the ‘moral economy of COVID-19’ and tried to think about what a life was worth, whether some lives were more important than others, and what criteria should be in play in these debates.

What we want to add to this earlier discussion is the sense that in these debates and decisions about what different lives are worth, and what should be done to protect lives and the ‘economy’, it can be productive to engage with the following key themes:

  • Zoe and the vitality of Human and non-Human Life; 
  • The necro-politics of neo-Liberal capitalism.

These themes, we suggest, further complicate the ways in which youth studies might engage with COVID-19, with ‘bare life’, with the problem of generations, and with the problem of the economy and of enterprise.

Zoe and the vitality of Human and non-Human Life

In Rethinking Young People’s Marginalisation: Beyond Neo-Liberal Futures? we developed a detailed discussion of Rosi Braidotti’s posthumanism and her attempts to move beyond anthropocentrism in understanding the necro-politics of neo-liberal capitalism (Kelly et al 2019 pp.107-108).

As part of her posthuman thinking Braidotti develops the concept of Zoe – an ontological and ethical position (and a theoretical framework) that seeks to sketch the character of a posthuman subjectivity. For Braidotti the ethical goal to be pursued through this concept of Zoe is to develop an ‘affirmation of one’s interconnectedness to others in their multiplicity’ (Braidotti, 2013, p.194). As Braidotti (2013, p.60) explains:

Zoe-centred egalitarianism is, for me, the core of the post-anthropocentric turn: it is a materialist, secular, grounded and unsentimental response to the opportunistic trans-species commodification of Life that is the logic of advanced capitalism.

So the starting point for Braidotti is resistance to the capitalist driven commodification of trans-species life itself. In order to critically engage with the logic of advanced capitalism Braidotti proposes Zoe as an alternative imagining of Life itself, of ‘bare life’.  Zoe is code for the posthuman and stands for ‘life in its nonhuman aspects…for the mindless vitality of Life carrying on independently, regardless of rational control’ (Braidotti, 2011a, pp.98-99). From this perspective Zoe makes us ‘vitally’ aware of the commodification of life, and offers another way of viewing ourselves, our behaviours and our lives, our human value, in relation to, and in opposition to, the frames of bio-genetic capitalism, and the world in which we live. And those – human and more than human – that we share it with.

The productivity of this approach becomes clear when we consider the ‘mindless vitality’ of the ‘virus’, and the damage it can do to the human organism, and to the systems and relations of production and consumption, the logics of advanced capitalism, the ‘necro-politics’ of these ways of life that have been ‘humbled’ in the face of the pandemic.

Here, we can suggest that it is not so much a virus that travels, that acts or behaves (in much commentary it is given ‘human properties’ and anthropomorphised in several ways), but that it is (in) us. It has a certain agency through us, we are part of its agency. The diverse, bio-political regulations over how its ‘human’ hosts travel, act and behave in order to avoid the virus spreading, reveals the (scary) indivisibility of us from nature that Zoe expresses.

The pandemic compels us to unsettle our understanding of the human centred, independent individual together with our understandings of the social. Following Butler (2006), the COVID-19 crisis has revealed to us the precarity of all human beings as bodies, precisely because we are social, and we depend on a whole, often incommensurable, network of (political) relations between us. Not only as social beings, but also as ‘bare life’, as Zoe. From this standpoint, if we are to cross the COVID event horizon, and not repeat the same ‘errors’ that have brought us to where we are, certain dichotomies that structure our western thinking —that determine our understanding of nature, of the human (being, agency, the individual, the social)— have to be reviewed urgently.

The necro-politics of neo-Liberal capitalism

Because the aim of this political exercise is to estimate a given population’s chance of survival or extinction, the bio-political management of the living is not only transversal across species and zoe-driven, but also inherently linked to death. This is the death-bound or necro-political face of post-anthropocentrism and the core of its inhuman(e) character: ‘it permits the healthy life of some populations to necessitate the death of others, marked as nature’s degenerate or unhealthy ones’…(Braidotti 2013, p.118)

Our interests here involve thinking more deeply about the questions of who lives, who dies, what is the ‘value’ of a life (human, non-human), who/what is a resource and how can that resource be exploited, by whom and for what purposes.

Again, the work of Braidotti provides an entry point to these sorts of concerns that she and others take up – often building on Foucualt’s work on bio-politics, and moving this work beyond the limitations of its  ‘anthropocentrism’.

Briefly, for Foucault, until the XVIII century ‘European’ absolutist sovereign power operated in the logic of “make die and let (people) live”. Beyond the Ancien Régime, under the emergence of the notion of biopolitical power, Foucault traced a shift to “making life and letting die” (Foucault, 2008; Agamben 1998). A number of authors would now argue for a further shift in which our current  time would be the one defined by necro-politics (Mbembe, 2003; Braidotti, 2013). In this frame the premise of power would be currently changing from “giving life and letting die” to a more selective logic of “who may live and who must die” (Mbembe, 2003: 17).

It is important to stress that these three principles do not evolve gradually from one to another but overlap. They acquire more visibility depending on the historical and geopolitical context.  In the ‘necro-politics’ of COVID-19, in order for some populations to survive, some “others” should die or, at least, would need to be exposed to death. In western countries, at the worst of the pandemics’ first wave, many young people (especially, female, immigrants, etc.) working in essential work-places, on diverse health “frontlines”, or in care facilities, have been and are still being, exposed to the possibility and materiality of death. 

However,  if we take into account that the concept of ‘necro-politics’ goes beyond the logic of two individual human agents that are competing for life, then lives that are understood as disposable would be also included as the ones that could or should die (Bauman 2003, Evans and Giroux 2015, Butler 2006). In this sense, as we have suggested elsewhere, the sort of moral economy (Sayers 2004) of COVID that regulates the relation between death and life would include people defined or valued as non economically productive (that is to say, aging people, people with disabilities and/or chronic diseases, etc), as being ‘disposable’, as being redundant, unneeded, of little or no use.

2. YOUNG PEOPLE, COVID AND THE RETURN OF THE ‘STATE’

In this crisis the ‘State’ – understood in different ways, and in ways that we and our colleagues have made problematic in Neo-Liberalism and Austerity: The Moral Economies of Young People’s Health and Well-being) – has again, in many of the neo-liberal democracies, emerged as a crucial actor in various attempts to exercise ‘sovereign power’.

You will stay at home. You must close down your business. You cannot travel more than 5kms from your home…

 At the same time, drawing on Fouacult’s work on disciplinary and governmental understandings of the ‘State’, various agencies of the State have been central in diverse attempts to guide and manage the behaviours of populations, in acquiring medical materials, through investing in research, by handling financial problems, by providing significant forms of income support, and by intervening in markets. And again, what this looks like in different contexts, in different jurisdictions is very different – think Australia, think the US, think the UK, think China, think Pakistan…

This new global crisis has also revealed, in new, and also in some quite long running ways, the tensions and limits of sovereignty that define the ‘limits’ of any State.  In some countries of the Asian continent (for example, China) the governmental apparatuses of the sovereign State have been developed to unknown limits. The approach developed in others has shown certain fragilities even in regions, such as the EU, that were supposed to be ‘integrated’. In this sense, it can be useful, at an introductory level, to establish a continuum that goes from the most authoritarian, intervening  states that have been able to control the spread of the virus in the ‘hard-way’, to those more laissez-faire States (for example, the UK) who have intervened over many areas of social, economic and cultural life, but are still handling huge deaths and contagion rates while ‘waiting’ for an effective vaccine. In between, there would be States (from Asia and Oceania – including New Zealand and Australia) that have been able to lower down to 0 their contagion rates, and to talk about the ‘eradication’ of the virus, by strict, but time-limited, lockdowns of the rights of the liberal democratic subject.

3. YOUNG PEOPLE, COVID, AND THE FUTURE OF WORK: ENTANGLEMENTS OF DIGITAL DISRUPTION, SURVEILLANCE, SKILLS AND DECENT WORK

In an earlier blog we wrote about the Australian government’s ‘reform’ of higher education in the midst of the pandemic. The government claimed that it was trying to ‘direct’ young people’s Higher Education course/degree choices into those degrees that promise to produce Jobs Ready Graduates. This direction took the form of tripling the annual fee costs for arts, humanities and other non Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) degrees, and reducing the fee costs for degrees for the so-called ‘jobs of the future’. As the Education Minister Dan Tehan claimed at the time of announcing the reform package:

“We are facing the biggest employment challenge since the Great Depression, (…) And the biggest impact will be felt by young Australians. They are relying on us to give them the opportunity to succeed in the jobs of the future.”

In many jurisdictions, the COVID-19 crisis, and what it has amplified in terms of young people, precarious labour markets and ‘gig’ work, has lead to a relatively urgent and intense focus on improving working conditions, on the quality of employment, and on expanding labour and social rights for those who have been revealed as most vulnerable and unprotected in the labour market. At the same time as there has been a significant loss of jobs in certain sectors where young people are overrepresented (hospitality, retail, food services, tourism and leisure services). The massive synchronisation that has occurred around communication and digital technologies has accelerated the turn towards digitalisation of certain sectors – with uncertain, emerging consequences for employment, and youth employment.

The OECD, for example, stresses, in fairly banal terms, that ‘governments should adapt existing strategies and formulate new ones to ensure that the youth work sector is ready to deal with the fallouts of the COVID-19 crisis and address emerging areas such as digital youth work’ [2]

In this final section we want to briefly examine the ways in which the ‘futures’ of work beyond the COVID event horizon ‘hint’ at surprising new entanglements of enterprise, resilience, skills, disruption, and the need for rethinking the roles of agencies, governments, businesses and individuals in responding to the challenges of COVID normal youth labour markets. We will do this by introducing two different, though related logics:

  • the logic of rescue and restitution;
  • the logic of reconsideration and redefinition.

The logic of rescue and restitution

On the one hand, in certain discourses that start from the premise that we are on the way out of the crisis, that ‘hope’ that the technical fix provided by an effective vaccine will lead to a return to a pre-COVID economy and world, we can observe how, with a certain halo of altruism, an all too familiar refrain that the crisis recovery is a ‘business opportunity’.

Here, the COVID-19 crisis is presented by certain agents of entrepreneurship as a favourable context for the emergence of entrepreneurs who can satisfy new demands and needs of clients and users.

These opportunities include developing and scaling new applications, on-line services and technical solutions to health and care problems, or to new needs that are arising from the “economy of distance”. Embracing the notion of resilience, this approach is mainly grounded in the presentation of different examples that, across the globe, have developed isolated solutions to the diversity of problems that COVID has produced.  These COVID grammars of enterprise appeal once again to innovation, adaptability, or creativity in order to face the traumatic moment of COVID. In short, the entrepreneur, and entrepreneurial thinking, are presented as solution providers to the effects of a humanitarian, economic and social catastrophe without accounting for the philosophical, ethical, economic and political roots of capitalism – as earth system – that has generated it. The logic here, we argue, is one of the rescue and restitution of a disrupted normality.

In the ways that it calls for a strong, comprehensive policy making, and for government investments in certain economic areas in order for “entrepreneurs to flourish”, the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor can be located in this logic. The principles on which it bases the claim of intervention by the state do not differ, greatly, from those claimed on a global scenario without COVID, including: facilitating financing and liquidity of projects; articulating clear and concise policies; being innovative in policy making, simplifying policies for new entrants; and preparation for new crisis scenarios. [3]

Global Entrepreneurship Monitor Report

One significant difference from this enterprise orthodoxy lies in the stress that the GEM places on the importance of reinforcing and giving continuity to the contextual or ecological aspect to entrepreneurship. Decentring their more traditional focus on the single individual-entrepreneur, and paying attention to collective projects, GEM now emphasise the need for a holistic and multi-dimensional approach of the policies, in which long-term thinking, and identifying the gaps in the entrepreneurial ecosystem, become crucial.

The logic of reconsideration and redefinition

At the same time, and in some ways entangled with a logic of rescue and restitution, there are an increasing number of voices and discourses that can be located in what we are calling a logic of reconsideration and redefinition of the conditions that have given shape to the youth labour market in the neo-liberal democracies over the last 40 years. This logic coincides or overlaps with a logic of rescue and restitution in that it gives greater importance to the socio-ecological dimensions of the measures and regulations that should be implemented for a COVID normal economy.

International Labour Organization Report

This incipient trend can be identified in some reports from the OECD, where we can identify certain changes from an individualistic-psychological understanding of resilience, to a more collective and socio-ecological (institutional environment, organizations, associations) approach. In one way or another, and with ambivalences, many of the targets from the UN SDGs, seem to be producing some effects – at least at the level of policy discourse in the OECD. [4]

But what marks the difference in giving shape to this logic of reconsideration and redefinition is the reinforced emphasis on notions such as fair, decent or quality work – for all. [5] For example, the European Youth forum claims that governments must:

  • Heed the lessons from 2008: Make sure that policy responses do not relax labour legislation to stimulate high employment, but rather make the creation of quality jobs and social rights central.
  • Make sure social policies target all social rights: Move towards a more holistic approach to social inclusion beyond employment. Social policies must include a balanced focus on all social rights, from housing to education and health, to tackle all root causes of poverty and exclusion.

The case of the European Youth Forum is important because they point to a review and redefinition of core economic indicators that have shaped the current state of affairs:

  • It is vital that our responses do not seek simply to go back to the status quo and “relaunch” GDP growth, reducing market regulations for the sake of “flexibility” and imposing austerity measures to curtail public debt.
European Youth Forum Document

In Australia the Foundation for Young Australians (FYA) also foregrounds the need for “ensuring that any jobs created constitute both quality and secure work should be at the forefront” (FYA, 2020: 4 The Good Work Standard). From this perspective, instead of insisting on the individualistic (entrepreneurial) skills approach —in which the ‘problem’ of youth labour markets was located on the ‘supply side’, where individual young people had to adapt to an almost ‘natural’ or immutable work order— FYA have been involved in processes of ‘rethinking’ that stress the need for change of the structural elements of the labour market. This rethinking is evident in the four main claims of its recently released The Good Work Standard:

  • Access and inclusion to work: as the ability to secure work through an equitable approach to hiring/contracting and the protection against discriminatory practices.
  • Protection and wellbeing: as the access to income security in case of unforeseen events  and the provision of support for personal or community events.
  • Quality and control: as the ability to earn a living wage through fair wages, fair agreements, contracting and processes for work. Also, as access to opportunities for connection through work, representation and advocacy.
  • Growth and development: As access to work progression including ways to build skills and networks and the increase portability of skills across work.
Foundation for Young Australians Report

In this sense, it can be argued that among different agencies and stakeholders who are speaking to this logic of reconsideration and redefinition, there is a general claim for new forms of regulation of the new work orders that the pandemic is shaping. [6]

Focused on the context of work, and a more socio-moral-ecological understanding of resilience in a working life, the ‘sustainable goals’ of decent work and quality of employment pushed by initiatives such as the Good Work Standard seeks to re-imagine the burden to be carried by individuals. This re-imagining implies going back both to the (entrepreneurial) skills perspective and to a flexicurity framework.

4. BEYOND THE ‘EVENT HORIZON’

Arguments that the State should take a more active role in achieving these objectives may signal an emerging moment in the evolution of globalising, neo-liberal capitalism, which has been marked for the last 40 plus years by largely unfettered, unhindered processes of individualisation, privatisation, commodification and capital accumulation.

The COVID-19 ‘event horizon’, and the profound unknowability it produces, creates different opportunities and circumstances to rethink, and profoundly modify, the economic, social and political model that propelled the planet to this ‘moment’. Youth studies has a part to play in that ‘re-thinking’.



[1] https://www.youthforum.org/youth-covid-19-impacts-jobs-education-rights-and-mental-wellbeing

https://read.oecd-ilibrary.org/view/?ref=134_134356-ud5kox3g26&title=Youth-and-COVID-19-Response-Recovery-and-Resilience

https://adobeindd.com/view/publications/63d25b48-efdb-4d63-8b0a-a2e25e85602b/6bq5/publication-web-resources/pdf/blueprint.pdf

[2] https://read.oecd-ilibrary.org/view/?ref=134_134356-ud5kox3g26&title=Youth-and-COVID-19-Response-Recovery-and-Resilience

[3] https://www.gemconsortium.org/reports/covid-impact-report

[4] https://read.oecd-ilibrary.org/view/?ref=136_136726-x5msnju6xg&title=Biodiversity-and-the-economic-response-to-COVID-19-Ensuring-a-green-and-resilient-recovery

[5] https://www.oecd-forum.org/posts/generation-l-how-covid-19-affects-young-people-s-jobs-and-what-we-can-do-about-it?badge_id=1420-tackling-covid-19

[6] Given the instability of jobs, these claims revolve around the debate triggered by the notion of flexicurity in the first decade of the 21st century in Europe (Keune and Serrano, 2014). Even though the notion was well intended, and it tried to balance the personal security in a flexible world of work, it ended up fostering a view in which the basic assumption was to continuously increase the flexibility of individuals while it understood security as a move from social protection to self-insurance or individual adaptability.

By Diego Carbajo

Postdoctoral Researcher. Dept. Sociology 2. University of the Basque Country.

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