The Death of Humanitarianism

By Brad EvansNovember 26, 2018

The Death of Humanitarianism
THIS IS THE 24th in a series of dialogues with artists, writers, and critical thinkers on the question of violence. This conversation is with Mark Duffield, Emeritus Professor at the Global Insecurities Centre, University of Bristol, and Honorary Professor, School of Government and Society, University of Birmingham, United Kingdom. Outside of academia, Mark was Oxfam’s country representative in Sudan during the latter half of the 1980s. He has extensive experience of conflict and humanitarian disasters in Africa, the Balkans, and Afghanistan. His books include Development, Security and Unending War: Governing the World of People (Polity, 2007), Global Governance and the New Wars: The Merging of Development and Security (Zed Books, 2014), and Post-Humanitarianism: Governing Precarity in a Digital World (Polity, 2018).


BRAD EVANS: For many decades you have been writing about the dangers of humanitarian interventions, especially the way in which aid has become complicit in the politicization of very particular notions of endangerment and how this leads to the de-politicization of containment of populations. What do you think have been the most significant changes when dealing with such issues in recent times?

MARK DUFFIELD: The world has changed. Or at least, late capitalism arrived with the comprehensive penetration of all aspects of social, economic, and political life made possible by information and logistical technologies. We know that global interconnectivity has been accelerating for decades. What’s new — or late in the case of this stage of capitalism — is that the digital world no longer requires the direct intellectual mastery, management, or even the skilled labor it once relied upon. Humans are out of the loop, as it were. But rather than resist, we seem to be exchanging what autonomy we had for — at most — the promised security of a social-robotic future. This is not the world of science fiction. It is the exclusionary violence of our digital present.

My current work has been examining the global implications of this computational turn. In particular, I have been interested in looking at the leapfrogging of mobile telephony into the vast informal economies of the Global South. While important differences remain — not least in terms of the speed and reliability (including surveillance) of technology — North-South distinctions have narrowed and blurred.

With China’s Belt and Road Initiative as an example, huge privately financed continental, even transcontinental infrastructural mega-corridors are emerging globally. These logistical conduits interconnect transnational archipelagos of smart-hubs, high-bandwidth portals, and fast inter-connectors. Special economic zones have stretched into multi-juridical ribbons stretching across and between the Global North and South, while integrating commodity chains with growing hinterlands of grounded production, assembly, distribution, and marketing infrastructures. We cannot underestimate the impact this is having on all aspects of our shared planetary existence.

Matching this revolution in business logistics (which has been championed for some time, just think for example of Bill Gates’s Business @ the Speed of Thought that also has a disturbing chapter on war), a global precariat has emerged to service these sites and infrastructures. Global precarity marks the advent of what could be called a post-social world. Associated with the casualization and disappearance (if not outright obliteration) of formal work and its contractual protections, precarity now thrives in an economy that has become a site of permanent emergency. An economy that seamlessly shifts from crisis to crisis. So compared to our modernist past that at least offered some semblance of equilibrium, volatile market forces are unmediated by any national-, public-, or company-based forms of collective social protection. The zeitgeist of this re-wilding is resilience.

Mega-corridor investment bypasses the precariat. Or at least, the growing hinterlands of urban decay, slums, camps, and ruins that have no access to a fixed-grid of services. It works by constructing the physical network that is necessary for a connected world, while excluding most humans from its processes. In particular, the boundary architectures that distinguish corridors of international mobility from hinterlands of terrestrial immobility. These corridors simultaneously demarcate and interconnect the smart city and the wired slum, so to speak.

How does all this force a reconceptualization in the understanding of “underdevelopment,” which, although often reduced to economic concerns, has more often been a catalyst for political intervention?

As you point out, in the past, the vast informal economies in the South were seen as epitomizing “underdevelopment.” Given that poverty was argued to increase the probability of violence, the parallel economy was often depicted as a source of endangerment. Development was about the formal incorporation and regulation of informal behavior. This is no longer the case. Slogans like “inclusive capitalism” or the “gig economy” have helped positively revalue the casualization of work. As one of its greatest achievements, late capitalism has captured connectivity and repurposed it to exploit precarity itself.

All of this has been made possible with the introduction of smart technologies, which have the ability to fold downward, if you will, into the social fabric of society. Smart-design adapts to and personalizes the inequalities, speed differentials, and mobility entitlements encountered on the ground. What we also see is how connectivity continually unearths new behavioral profiles while building smart-architectures to contain and exploit them. Rather than eliminate precarity, it encodes and reproduces it. And in doing so, it normalizes insecurity across the planet.

These broad structural changes are the foundations of a design-driven post-humanitarianism. Rooted in the business sector, it is concerned with trialing the technologies and nomadic infrastructures that can govern and support life in an off-grid post-social wilderness.

In separating itself from the failure of past development efforts, post-humanitarianism changes the meaning of “indignation” and “community.” The political scorn once directed against want has been transferred to indignant automated humanitarian technologies. Rather than reconstruction, they aim to resolve the absence of fixed utilities, services, and social protection through the medium of personalized smart survivalist solutions. If the state won’t save you in times of crises, there is an “app” fit for purpose. Whereas communities once aspired to local self-management, smart technology creates “user” communities permanently enrolled in prototyping their data-dependent governance. While this post-humanitarianism may be logoed, glitzy, and smart, it has to be questioned.

In mapping out the changing nature of humanitarianism — not least the advent and legacies of humanitarian warfare and the violence carried out upon and yet mobilized in the name of the globally dispossessed, you have shown how the concept has, through its own hubris and enthusiasm to govern global populations, put itself into crises. I am thinking in particular here of the ways aid policy remains racially coded and continued to operate by seeing “Others” as a problem to be solved. How do you think this all connects to the history of colonialism and so-called “enlightenment” principles?

The world we have inherited has been shaped by colonialism and the struggle against it. Since the mid-20th century, each new generation has continued to think and respond to that struggle anew. Today, colonialism is popularly depicted by referencing its violent and exterminatory episodes, like King Leopold’s infamous Belgian Congo. In answering your question, this understanding has to be enlarged. Importantly, there is an enduring relationship between colonialism’s exterminatory impulse and what 19th-century liberals celebrated as an enlightened “new imperialism.”

Liberal imperialism during this period defined itself as morally superior to the exterminatory excess of the time. While willing to use force, it publicly embodied a more enlightened, even progressive, evolutionary and paternalistic tutelage. Liberals imagined the colonial future as a process whereby representatives drawn from the “better” racial stock (those capable of being trained and “ordered”) would incrementally assume — in the fullness of time — more self-management responsibilities.

When anti-colonial struggle was at its peak in the 1960s, the disappearance of old colonialism overlapped with an expanding aid industry. Many former colonial officers, especially those wanting to give something back, transferred to the new UN agencies and NGOs. Liberal imperialism was reborn as an even more “enlightened” education-based developmental tutelage. Through the pastoral teacher/pupil categories of information, skill, and technical know-how, old race, class, and gender divisions were reworked and reimposed in the nuanced distinction between “development” and “underdevelopment.”

In response to the multiple expressions of resistance in the Global South, more recently an assertive liberal interventionism emerged. Compared to the past, however, this was different. Rather than promote or impose “civilization,” it was a call to defend a civilization now felt to be exposed to widespread new threats. Is it possible to read in this loss of confidence a defeat? Does it explain why late liberalism appears to have reached back, as it were, and become more exterminatory?

When one takes into account the vast destruction of urban infrastructure, social dislocation, and associated blowback (the refugee crisis being an obvious example), the violence and political bankruptcy of liberal interventionism has been extraordinary. Working through a range of forces, since the 1980s, modernizing countries like Lebanon, Iraq, Libya, and Syria have been, counter to the political proclamations, subject to urbicidal de-development. Mixtures of physical destruction, punitive sanctions, and external intervention have scattered their professional and scientific classes, collapsed public life, destroyed fixed services, and shortened life expectancy. Established multicultural milieus have been torn and divided into their competing component groups.

This violence seems intrinsic to a polarizing world, a world that is pulling apart just as connectivity is deepening. Borders are being entrenched, architectures of containment are spreading while, at the same time, xenophobic currents are mobilizing around the expulsion of difference.

If there is today a connection between colonialism and enlightenment principles, it is that these principles have died. Or at least, they no longer hold back the exterminatory techno-barbarism that was always lurking within modernism. While there are many dangers, however, it is also a call and opportunity for recalcitrance.

While you have always shown a healthy suspicion with the triumph of technical modes of thinking, more recently you have been addressing the explicit technologization of humanitarian interventions to show how we are becoming increasingly remote from the intimate realities of suffering at an all-too-human level. Why does this focus on the technological now concern you as a critical theorist?

My worry is that the possibility of critical theory and critical agency is being eliminated. Technology is usually thought of as prosthesis. It is seen as a force multiplier for human will and effort. With humans out of the loop, this is difficult. Moreover, reflecting the rise to dominance of a cybernetic episteme, the different historic potentialities of knowledge and data are now becoming clearer.

Knowledge is framed by deductive narratives of history, causation, and reciprocity. It can be used for good or ill — from the most remarkable cultural and scientific achievements to genocides and unspeakable evil. Knowledge is essentially ambiguous because it is not closed on itself. It allows doubling-back, reflection, and critique. Since knowledge can reorder the past in order to call forth the future, it is political. Unlike a machine, even the slave can dream of freedom.

Data is different. As an aid to sense-making, it privileges inductive reasoning and algorithmic pattern recognition. Thinking becomes calculation. Let’s not forget that cybernetics emerged in the mid-20th century as a New World solution to the ideological catastrophes of the Old World. To achieve mathematical objectivity, ambiguity was designed out of an increasingly black-boxed human-machine interface, as pessimism regarding the human condition grew.

Reinforced by the shock of the Anthropocene, the “necessarily ignorant” neoliberal subject has replaced the rational homo economicus to become our new guide to the connected world. Save for our own backyards, it is a world now deemed too complex for human comprehension.

The rise of an empirical and behaviorist post-humanism within the academy reflects this renunciation of knowledge. Necessarily ignorant individuals exist in a direct and unmediated cognitive relationship with the signals and alerts of their unique environments. The only knowable world reduces to what, when, and where of an individual’s changing network connections.

Post-humanism casts doubt on the distinction that knowledge draws between a lived reality and a shared world. Without this separation, there is no space for a political commons of contrasting life chances, disputed histories, and resolution mechanisms that are essential for sharing the world with Others. Rather than see this as a departure or a new beginning, for me it feels more like arrival and an end point. Instead of freedom, what we are witnessing is the advent of a new authoritarianism. And this reflects the logic of late capitalism’s long downturn. A desperation to squeeze the last from a dying system, even to the extent of embracing precarity and uncertainty, in order to survive.

One of the principal lessons I take from your work is the idea that those of us still living in relatively prosperous zone of affluence no longer see ourselves in a system of progressive completion; rather our fears are born of the dystopian notion we might all be going “South.” I have also been thinking about this with the case of Haiti, which, enduring catastrophe upon catastrophe, seems to offer a prophetic model that could be illustrative of all our collective futures.

Such fears point to a tension within late capitalism. An existing compulsion for risk has now embraced catastrophe and disruption as necessary for survival itself. Shocks eliminate the useless while helping “the resilient” bounce back better, as it were. A line has been crossed between believing disasters promote adaptive renewal and a dependence upon them to reinvigorate an otherwise disappointing human condition.

Capitalism is now bent on finally eliminating all autonomy and opposition to itself. Rather than governing through freedom as such, late liberalism harnesses freedom to the uncertainties of its own survival. Shocks and disruption are needed, even celebrated as essential, in order to better mediate, exploit, and direct their impacts. To this extent, as a model for our collective future, the dystopia of permanent emergency has to be resisted.

This challenge has appeared at a time when the possibility of revolution has long passed. We know from the Frankfurt School, there is no natural law of progress. While early capitalism may have battered down Chinese walls, late capitalism is more likely to degenerate into an entropic techno-barbarism. Now faced with such a reality, rather than revolution, the more urgent and practical task is that of resistance, of helping something new emerge by holding back the gathering shitstorm.

The disruption that late capitalism has unleashed presses disproportionately on a contained global precariat. There is no renewal or betterment through disaster — just cumulative loss and abjection. This negative outcome, however, is occluded and suppressed by a positive techno-design culture. This denial reveals the depth of liberalism’s detachment and retreat.

Pacing the celebrated densification of the electronic atmosphere — terrestrial border fences, check points, holding areas, biometric portals, and secure enclaves have globally exploded. International space has striated into surveilled and automated fast, slow, and stopped lanes as grounded architectures of containment have spread.

To conclude, as someone who has spent considerable time working in zones of crisis and conflict, I’d like to ask: How do you think all this has transformed the role and possible engagement of the researcher?

One evident example relates to the difficulties of completing face-to-face research in today’s challenging environments. Increasing university risk aversion, insurance requirements, and ethical demands have seen travel restrictions and safe-channeling grow. This limiting of circulation is reinforced from the other end, as it were.

Difficulties in obtaining entry visas, travel permits, and independent access have also increased across the Global South. During the 1980s, for example, NGOs in Sudan could travel relatively widely — but their use of short-wave radio was controlled and restricted. Given the computational turn, however, non-liberal states now struggle to limit connectivity. Today, they instead control the ground and restrict circulation that way. While the ability to geo-spatially sense the Darfur crisis from outer space was celebrated by techno-science — you can no longer independently “go there.”

Late liberalism’s turn to catastrophism is a response to global recalcitrance. A quarter-century ago, an emergent liberal interventionism boasted that the age of absolute sovereignty was over. As a result of pushback, however, such exceptionalism has evaporated. Coupled with the downturn, liberalism seems but one among many competing powers and truths. Greeted with alarm in the West and dismissed as so much backward or populist reaction, we have to be more open to the run of the present.

If the computational turn has allowed a post-humanist vision of a world that is smaller than the sum of its parts to consolidate, then late liberalism has authored a realist ontopolitics of accepting this world as it is — rather than worrying how it ought to be. It is a connected world of disruptive logistics, mobility differentials, data asymmetries, vast inequalities, and remote violence: a world of precarity.

Populism is seemingly an inevitable response to an unwanted future through the reassertion of autonomy. As a political model, it is instructive. Resistance requires the active recreation of autonomy. During the 1960s, large areas of social, economic, and cultural life still lay outside capitalism. The university campus, the shop floor, and the “Third World” as it was termed, already existed as areas of effective autonomy. For the New Left, this made them potential sites for liberation and revolution. In a connected world, such nurturing autonomy no longer exists.

Political pushback involves the recreation of autonomy via the repoliticization of ground and place through their imbrications with history, culture, and the life that should be lived. It is a resistance that seeks to renegotiate its position and reconnect with the world anew. And so the question we confront is: Can we reassert a progressive autonomy, or at least a humanitarian autonomy based on a resistance to the dystopia of permanent emergency?

When post-humanism holds that design has supplanted revolution, perhaps it’s time to imbue a new humanitarian ethic based on resisting design. A resistance that privileges more the sentiments of spontaneity, circulation, and necessary difference. We cannot imagine the yet to be. We can, however, encourage its arrival by resisting the negative loss and abjection of precarity through a politics of humanitarian critique.


Brad Evans is a political philosopher, critical theorist, and writer, who specializes on the problem of violence. He is the founder/director of the Histories of Violence project, which has a global user base covering 143 countries.


Artwork: Chantal Meza, Segment from “Since the Beginning” (2018, Mixed media Tapestry 2mx2m)) 

LARB Contributor

Brad Evans is a political philosopher, critical theorist, and writer, who specializes on the problem of violence. He is author of over 17 books and edited volumes, including most recently Ecce Humanitas: Beholding the Pain of Humanity (2021) and Conversations on Violence: An Anthology (with Adrian Parr, 2021). He leads the Los Angeles Review of Books “Histories of Violence” section.


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