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The Political Life of Illiberal Death

[Living quarters of Thai workers in Taiwan hired to build Kaohsiung's mass rapid transit system. Image from zonaeuropa.com] [Living quarters of Thai workers in Taiwan hired to build Kaohsiung's mass rapid transit system. Image from zonaeuropa.com]

During the summer of 2015, India suffered an extreme heat wave. Over 2500 people—primarily from the southern states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana—lost their lives, either directly from heatstroke or from lack of access to water or healthcare. Many of these people were from the poorest strata of Indian society, already malnourished or reliant on day labor in order to survive. The Indian state’s response was weak at best, and in many cases, it was individual citizens and charity organizations that assisted in easing the suffering of those most impacted. This is not a surprising scenario, given the Indian state’s increasingly neoliberal orientation. Indeed, the state has almost entirely moved away from a sense of obligation to the poor, replacing political discourse around poverty (garibi) with rhetoric about entrepreneurial citizenship and ties between the public and private sectors. Narendra Modi’s campaign for prime minister, his popularity among well-to-do non-resident Indians (NRIs), and his recent “Make in India” initiative seem to have cemented the newly liberalized country’s alignment toward global capitalism and the West.

While there were a handful of news and opinion pieces about the disappointing response to this national tragedy, mostly from within India, the national and international media overwhelmingly represented the attendant deaths as the result of a “natural disaster.” This representation underplayed how state policies, ongoing caste stratification, and a widening gap between the rich and the poor are responsible for who lives and who dies in the country. This was a tragedy indeed, but one evacuated of necropolitics, or the ways that states produce sovereign power through the management of death.[i]

As I followed the events in India from my home in the United States, I could not help but compare the news coverage of the heat wave with the ongoing representations of heat-related deaths in Qatar—primarily impacting construction workers building the stadiums and other infrastructure for the upcoming 2022 World Cup. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have expressed great concern over deadly labor conditions in Qatar’s extreme heat, and a series of articles by the Guardian under the heading “modern-day slavery” have estimated that deaths from World Cup construction will total in the thousands, averaging from one a day to a dozen a week until the games. In the news coverage and activist discourse about labor in Qatar—and in other GCC countries—the state and the small citizenry are portrayed as the sole harbingers of these deaths: an authoritarian regime and its decentralized, citizen-run migration sponsorship system (kafala) breeding the conditions for hyperexploitation of the world’s subaltern masses, who descend upon the Gulf looking for economic opportunities that they cannot find in their home countries. A large majority of these workers are South Asian, primarily Nepali and Indian. Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, which suffered the most casualties as a result of the 2015 heat wave, are two of India’s largest labor-sending states for GCC countries.

That representations of heat-related death would be so different in India and Qatar might not seem that strange to most readers. On the one hand, we have a migration system that many have labeled “modern-day slavery,” and on the other hand, conditions of extreme poverty that many consider tragic but commonplace in the “developing world.” There is an irony here, however, that is hard to ignore: given slightly different circumstances, the men who die building Doha’s modernity could easily be among those who perish in India’s natural disasters. Yet, those who stay put under conditions of extreme poverty in the “world’s largest democracy” die deaths that carry little national or international import, whereas those who live and die under the sun of an illiberal state have become beacons for international media coverage, activism, and scholarly critique.

Is an illiberal death different than a liberal one? In an era of neoliberal citizenship, what is the political life of illiberal death? I want to suggest here that the sensationalization of exploitation, suffering, and death in the Gulf obscures similar conditions of daily life in parts of the world that are not at all disconnected from these so-called authoritarian contexts. As I and many who work on the interconnectedness of South Asia and the Arabian Peninsula have argued, labor, family, religion, and identity on both sides of the Persian Gulf are produced within overlapping transnational networks of capital, kinship, ethnicity, and citizenship.[ii] Not only are multinational corporations, expatriate employers, and middlemen recruiters central to producing the conditions of possibility for migrating to the Gulf and for “staying put,” but the Indian state itself participates in citizenship regimes and nationalist projects that exceed the territorial boundaries of India and reach into the Gulf, both historically and in the present day. In many cases, those who are able to migrate to the Gulf have economic and social capital that allows them to escape the poverty their compatriots suffer at home, even as it propels them into new forms of constraint as well as opportunity. What erasures are required for us to turn conditions of relative privilege—the ability to become diasporic—into narratives of exceptional dehumanization? It seems imperative, particularly in an era of neoliberalism, privatization, and a receding state, to pay closer attention to which deaths become necropolitical (i.e. within the purview of the state’s responsibility) and which remain merely tragic, and even normalized as part of everyday existences in the Global South.

Few remember the earthquake in the state of Gujarat that claimed almost twenty thousand lives in 2001, or the deadly pogroms against Muslims in the same state in 2002—pogroms that led Modi to be classified as a war criminal by the US state, a classification that was only recently lifted in order for him to make his much-celebrated tour of the United States, meet the president, and face adoring crowds of Indian middle-class diasporics. These large-scale events bookended the World Trade Center attacks in 2001, but they remain local, while 9/11 has become a global catastrophe. I am of course not the first person to suggest that some deaths matter more than others. Postcolonial, feminist, ethnic studies, and queer theory scholars have made similar arguments for many years, employing a range of examples from around the world, both contemporary and historical. I want to add to these observations by exploring how states that are classified as liberal and democratic are increasingly absolved of the life and death of those who reside within their borders in ways that illiberal states—and illiberal organizations, most often labeled “terrorist”[iii]—are not. Describing quite similar everyday lived experiences in such disparate ways reinforces the idea that the world is divided into two seemingly opposing spaces, forms of power, and even temporalities (one developing, one hypermodern). These representational practices obscure the violence upon which “liberal” states have emerged and the ways that they continue to exercise power over death in uneven and highly undemocratic ways. In the process, they also center the neoliberal subject and displace that subject’s complicity in structures and processes of inequality that can never be contained within the territorial borders of any state.

In the Gulf, it seems that there are two distinct forms of migration: exploited and mercenary, usually categorized as “migrant” vs. “expat.” Thus, when activists and scholars refer to “migrant labor” and its problems, my scholarship—previously with Indian middle classes in Dubai, and now with students and educators in Doha’s Education City—does not fall into this category. However, my research in Doha has provided the lens for the questions I pose in this piece, and in particular, it was the content of my interviews with faculty and staff at American branch campuses, which I was in the process of transcribing in the summer of 2015, that led to my desire to explore how literal and metaphorical death operate in conjunction to recuperate particular myths of liberalism and its others.

My interlocutors were quite aware of their position as expats and not migrant laborers: “migrant labor” tested their liberal values, while also shaping their daily lives in Qatar. North American faculty and staff represented themselves as simultaneously privileged and powerless. They recognized the luxuries that working in Qatar afforded them while acknowledging and being troubled by the country’s dismal labor conditions; but given an illiberal and repressive state, what could they possibly do to produce change? Some entirely exempted themselves from complicity in the system, employing nannies and maids they claimed to treat better than the Qataris, who they blamed for labor abuses. Others brought migrant labor issues into their classrooms for discussion, but within the framework of Gulf exceptionalism. Only a handful discussed with me the similarities between Gulf hierarchies and those in liberal contexts, noting the exploitation of undocumented workers or structural racism in the United States, for example. Expatriate discourses around labor conditions highlighted their lack of privilege as non-citizens, the expectation that they are transient subjects, and the belief that illiberal power is more repressive than liberal power; in the process, they absolved themselves of responsibility in reproducing and benefitting from a system that they found distasteful. These are some of the pleasures of temporary illiberal belonging; one can remain a liberal subject while participating in a status quo that allows in many cases for greater class and race privilege than available at “home.”[iv]

For their peers in the metropolitan academy, the political life of illiberal death extends to metaphorical death—it is the context of the necropolitical authoritarian state that marks the impending demise of liberalism itself. Activists for migrant labor rights in Abu Dhabi, for example, have found hypocrisy in a New York University campus offering a liberal arts education in a place where migrant laborers have no rights and academic freedom is not guaranteed. Faculty at Yale’s main campus have expressed similar concerns about the university’s branch campus in Singapore, another presumably illiberal context, which, like the Gulf and China, is seen as threatening to the freedoms attributed to higher education in the West. During the height of opposition to the Singapore campus, for example, Seyla Benhabib wrote:

If our purpose is to set a model for a liberal arts education, why not engage India, the country with a free and contentious public sphere and an extra-ordinary intellectual life both in India and in the Indian diaspora? Experiments in democratic education are best performed with in genuinely open, multicultural and multi-faith democracies, such as India, rather than in the artificial, boutique-like security of places like Singapore or Abu Dhabi.

There is an artful forgetting that allows for such a celebration of India in contrast to Abu Dhabi and Singapore. The present climate at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi, one of the country’s most prestigious institutions, where student activists have been subject to arrest, violence, and accusations of being “anti-national” in their critiques of state policies, directly contradicts the supposed freedoms that the Indian state claims to provide its citizens. While the events at JNU will likely be folded into a narrative of Indian democracy-in-action, what narratives would emerge if similar state crackdowns took place at Qatar University, NYU Abu Dhabi, or Yale-NUS? 

This is not an exceptional situation for India, and yet the forgetting involved in representing the country as “genuinely open” is one that recuperates the life of liberalism while furthering what Gyanendra Pandey has called a “politics of indifference” to actual life. This indifference allows states and citizens in liberal democracies to simultaneously naturalize the idea that they care about the poor while doing nothing to actually alleviate poverty. Herein, India and the United States emerge unsoiled by the kinds of practices that authoritarian illiberal states employ, and their ongoing projects of slow and fast death continue to be exempted from the mythologies of liberalism as a form of freedom, equality, and civilization.

Additionally, through the act of critiquing illiberal death, the scholar/journalist/activist is not only absolved of complicity at home, but also gathers forms of cultural and material capital; there is therefore liberal profit built into the political life of illiberal death. In her new book, The Intimacies of Four Continents, Lisa Lowe explores how liberalism was produced in conjunction with the violence of slavery, settler colonialism, and indentured labor, and that the forgetting of these intimacies reproduces violence in “liberal humanist institutions, discourses, and practices today.”[v] The continued representation of Gulf exceptionalism and the distinction of illiberal death in contemporary discussions across a range of disciplines and media erase the intimacies that scholars of the Indian Ocean have tried to bring forward. These erasures are not natural disasters, but rather performances of ongoing violence that implicate us all.



[i] Necropolitics, as a theoretical framework, interrogates how states not only provide conditions for stratified life existences (by race, class, gender, etc), but also—and more importantly—how they legitimize and perpetuate forms of death.

[ii] See for example Koch, Natalie (2015). “Gulf Nationalism and the Geopolitics of Constructing Falconry as a ‘Heritage Sport’.” Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism 15(3): 522-539; Limbert, Mandana (2014). "Caste, Ethnicity, and the Politics of Arabness in Southern Arabia." Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 34(3): 590-598; Onley, James (2009). “The Raj Reconsidered: British India's Informal Empire and Spheres of Influence in Asia and Africa.” Asian Affairs 40(1): 44-62; Osella, Caroline and Osella, F. (2012). “Migration, Networks and Connectedness Across the Indian Ocean” in Kamrava, M. and Babar, Z. (eds.), Migrant Labour in the Persian Gulf. Columbia University Press; and Vora, Neha (2013). Impossible Citizens: Dubai’s Indian Diaspora. Duke University Press.

[iii] Here I am referring to the very different representations of deaths in the Middle East due to US military interventions and drone strikes versus those attributed to the Islamic State or al-Qaeda.

[iv] This is not meant as an accusation of expatriate colleagues in the Gulf, but rather a way to explore how we all participate in contradictory practices and discourses wherever we live. I include myself in this group of expatriates as well, and address my own complicities and subject position in my overall scholarship, including during my stints as a visiting professor in Education City.

[v] Lisa Lowe, 2015, The Intimacies of Four Continents, 4

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