Carol Gluck: I’ve been thinking about disposable life and the meaning that might have in societies today. And I decided that the kind of disposable life that most concerns me is the kind that we either resolutely don’t see, ignore, or neglect. Or the kind that we do see but can’t seem to deal with.
So I’m not talking about the kinds of life that is disposable in obviously clear instances like genocide, or massacre, or famine—often state-induced, or civil war even. So this is not about Rwanda. This is not about Syria at the moment, either. It’s about what I’ve come to think of as structural disposability. In other words, the people who get caught in the cracks in the system. They are not necessarily themselves ignored as a problem. They are not intentionally necessarily, either, neglected. But nonetheless their lives become disposed of. They become disposable.
And I came to this from two very different examples. The first is the plight of the survivors of the earthquake tsunami and nuclear accident in Japan in March 11th, 2011, where some 20,000 lives were lost. But some 300,000 people were displaced. And tens of thousands still living in temporary housing. Many of the hundreds of thousands of people, actually, will not be able to go home—there is no home to go back to. They are elderly. They are poor. They are often the grandmothers and grandfathers of fishing families.
And then there is the larger group of people who are affected by the nuclear explosion, who have been told by the government that of course it’s safe. Now, this is a very wide area—this is not just the area around. So all of the people who have been told by the government and by the scientists that it’s safe to—not to return home, but safe for people to eat the fish and the produce grown in Japan or caught in the waters.
And all of these people are actually the object of a great deal of policy. A great deal of civil society attention. A great deal of international aid. A great deal of what you would call—what I would call, anyway—social attention. These are not people who have been ignored. Nonetheless, their lives have become disposable. They are living in what one of my colleagues the other day called a “permanent parenthesis,” an endless present.
So my question is, how do these people’s lives become disposable? When there is social attention, when there is international attention, when there is humanitarian attention. And my answer is that it’s a combination of structural conditions. A lot of them long-standing, some of them new. It’s easy to say, “Well, the state will always insist on solidarity rather than—” and the famous Japanese word, you just keep on going; the encouragement.
But it’s not just the state. The state is obviously a problem here. But it’s also lots of other social rules, regulations, habits, customs, attitudes, that are in place and that are not necessarily held by one person or another. In fact, structural disposability means you can’t really find the agents or the forces responsible. That’s the definition, I think. It is diffused. And when they talk about building a huge sea wall off the coast to prevent a tsunami (which everyone knows will not prevent a tsunami), one has to go way back to see why the construction companies would be the interests they are. Why some in the locality would favor it even though they know it won’t work. In any case, this is a whole systematic scheme or entanglement that will explain, I think—or that you have to look at to explain why these lives become disposable.
Now, this is an obvious example and you can give lots of others like the millions of refugees now who will never be able to go home again from their civil war or strife-ridden societies. It’s not that they’re not attended to. They are, but the problems and the numbers are so great that their lives have become disposable. And that’s true of the uneducated uninoculated poor in global society. It’s true of the so-called precariat in advanced societies— Anyway, we all know about these things.
My other example comes from a place where we don’t actually talk about disposability. And that is the example from the United States. Everyone’s been reading that the new Affordable Care Act isn’t working because the web site’s not working and people can’t register. That is really the tip of the iceberg when it comes to people in the United States who are entitled to care—medical care. Or social programs. Or other kinds of policies that are there to help them but do not have the capacity—the ability—to let’s put this way: access (meaning the computer word), log on, find a fax machine. Even the help that’s there is inaccessible to them. You have to be practically a researcher in order to claim the insurance benefits that are due you even if you are insured.
And so this is an example of structural disposability. Now, a lot of people get caught in this. You’re reading about them now because of the healthcare—the numbers of stories of the uninsured. But it’s not only that. So here I see an advanced society which has…a very low level, but still—social programs and possible care, in which people’s lives become disposable because there’s no way for them to literally, in the computer sense, access their benefits.
Now, that’s not so obvious, I think. I mean, that’s not one we talk about. But anyone who lives here who has gone through these processes knows that there are many—there are millions of people who cannot do this.
So, that’s what got me started on structural disposability. And then I started to think, well how do we justify, how do we…what are the logics of disposability? Or the ideologics, if you want, the ideologies of it? Because when you start to look at social and political thought, obviously you don’t find this kind of thinking in the great political thinkers. They…equity, yes; liberty, yes; things of that sort. But not… They don’t— I mean, the critics, yes, but not the people who generate the thought on which most of our societies are based. And I don’t only mean Western society.
So, how does this work? How do we live with this? How do we live with this… How do we live with it passively? How do we let this happen? Even to ourselves, this happens. This is not just to other people. So what makes the system function and leave all these people behind, in lives that are never labeled disposable. Never. They’re not. But are disposed of nonetheless?
Well one explanation is the providential one. That is to say you find it in several varieties. In other words, these things are inevitable. These people are undeserving. They don’t help themselves. Or capitalism works through creative destruction, and there are going to be people left behind in it. So the rhetoric of self-reliance is very often used that way. That people, if they were self-reliant then they wouldn’t fall between the cracks.
But all of this has to do with a kind of providential explanation that suggests that there’s inevitability or self-responsibility here. And that is a justification that explains things away. And in the old days it explained things away with a phrase that was very well-known in my grandmother’s generation in the United States, which was “Man proposes, God disposes.” And in effect that’s what the providential explanation says: “not our job.”
The second way we talk about it has to do with the ethical thinking that talks about moral distance. I don’t know if you know there’s a story by Ursula Le Guin called “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas?” It’s a story of a perfect society. Omelas is a perfect town, where everyone is joyful, where there’s no crime, there’s no guilt, there’s just festivals and happy children and flute players. And it’s a constant festival, if you like. And she paints quite an incredible scene of joy.
And then she tells us about the child in the basement. There is a small child locked up in a cellar. And has been locked up—is deranged, and dirty, and completely unkempt. Fed through a slit in the floor. And everyone in Omelas knows the child is there, because they are taken to see that child. And then they go back to their lives. They all know it’s there, and they all know that their happiness is premised on the misery of that child. And occasionally, there are people who after they see the child, walk out of the cellar and walk away from Omelas.
That’s a story—it’s based on the Dostoyevsky story about the scapegoat, right. It’s a utilitarian story about what kind of bargains we make. I mean, we all have children in the basement. The global children in the basement are in the developing countries, and by children I mean the developing countries themselves. Our well-being (And it could be any “our.” Any society has an “us,” a “we.”) is built on the backs of others. And these social bargains, these utilitarian bargains where we’ll trade the misery of one child for the so-called better good of all, is another way that disposable life becomes acceptable.