The Performative Economy of the Racial Speculative


This paper focuses on the conjunctures between contemporary financial speculation, national security and border control systems for what these can illustrate about changing practices of race and racism. 

Pivotal to these systems are procedures that emphasise potential and unspecified threats that may occur in the future alongside an understanding of uncertainty as the condition of economic value. This paper emphasises the interlocking character of racialised panic and economic value that sets about transforming the present in the guise of an imagined future. 

For the panel: The State of Race I: Postracialism and its Limits.  Co-panelists: Alana Lentin, Gilbert Caluya, Yassir Morsi. 2014 Australian Critical Race and Whiteness Studies Association Conference, Brisbane, Queensland, 4-5 December.

As the legal scholar Sumi Cho puts it, one of the central tenets of postracialism is a belief in racial progress or transcendence. What I would add to this is that postracialism’s insistence that it is possible to overcome the material force of the past is closely aligned with, on the one hand, the temporal coordinates of financial speculation and, on the other hand, the similarly future-oriented terms of current national security doctrine and migration detention.

In this sense, postracialism does not only exist only at the level of the law. Or, put another way: it is not only a set of ideas about race that have some important legal consequences regarding affirmative action, compensation and so on. Rather, it points to a wider set of historical transformations involving, among other things, an increasing indistinction between the law—or the state—and economic or financial processes.

What postracialism has in common with contemporary financial systems, national security doctrine and mandatory detention is a shared emphasis on a potential future in excess of any predictable pattern based on knowledge of the past.

What I find curious about postracialism is the extent to which it is resistant to arguments about the persistence of racial divisions or discrimination, the statistics which can easily illustrate the ongoing salience of racism, the materialities of race, and so forth. Postracialism articulates a unverifiable faith in a future unencumbered by the material constraints of the past. It is a form of idealism in the philosophical sense, disavowing its own materialities and determinations, elevating ideas as both causative and cut adrift from history at the same time. Its speculative dimension accounts I think for some of its appeal. But it also mistranslates arguments about the social construction of race into a voluntaristic claim about the insignificance of material differences, and more starkly, into a denial of the ways in which the taxonomic processes of the racial speculative—of which I think it is a part—give rise to, or materialise, race in the present, and therefore in the future.

The racial speculative is a performative economy in the sense that the philosopher of language, J L Austin defined the performative utterance. The performative statement is, strictly speaking, neither true nor false. It is a statement about the future, which is to say, it is future-oriented and future-contingent. The idea of progress, taken in its performative sense, does not require verification. For instance, it can resolve down into a meritocratic statement that explains the persistence of inequality as a consequence of individual failure or exterior to social relations and processes.

It is a performative economy in the sense that it is a dynamic system preoccupied with the generation of a surplus that has economic, financial and social value. The association between theories of human capital and postracialism is one example of this.

Another is the preoccupation of postracialism with the excessive. In an essay on postracialism, Alana Lentin remarked on the ways in which postracialism—as a response to the perceived failures of multiculturalism—is preoccupied with “an excess of culture of the ‘wrong kind’.” It is I think possible to extend this insight and note that in the context of finance, accounting and economics, ‘excess’ generally means surplus, or more specifically: above-average profits or losses.

The emphasis on a surplus means that much of this is not, quite, an instance of the reign of a calculative or instrumental rationality. Racialised panics about what might happen in some indefinite but calamitous future have the particular advantage of evading the strict terms of the cost-benefit analysis. They exceed utilitarian formulations. The transfer of taxation revenue to private companies in the fields of national security, for example, is not subject to any kind of cost-benefit assessment because it is impossible to account for the cost effectiveness of the absence of an imagined future threat to transpire in the present. Furthermore, this is not an economy characterised by equilibrium but by volatility and uncertainty. And uncertainty about some indistinct but dire future has a payoff in the present, irrespective of whether that imagined future comes about. Indeed, when threats fail to transpire it is possible to claim that they have, due to the preemptive efforts of various agencies, simply been averted.

In this respect, it might be noted that the official terrorism threat assessment was recently raised by the Federal Government not because there was any actual evidence about imminent threats, as the Defense Department and the police both made clear, but because such threats were deemed to be “more likely.” The turn in national security doctrine in the US and now Australia, Canada, Europe and elsewhere from a methodology of the verifiable threat to conjectures of likelihood and strategies of preemption was founded on a claim about the inscrutability of an enemy whose actions exceeded the calculable and predictable terms of the rational choice theories that, before this, been the conventional method for determining national security strategy.

But it is important to point out that these changes to national security doctrine have been accompanied, and to some extent, predated by transformations in the organisation of national security, national borders both figurative and real, and government action more generally. The first iteration of “Team Australia” was not, in fact, the Australian Prime Minister’s recent, finger-pointing announcement on national security and terrorism. Well before this announcement was made, “Team Australia” was the name of a public-private consortium between the Australian Department of Defense and Foreign Trade and a number of companies involved in the production, research and global sale of military technology. Google “Team Australia” and you can see a listing of the companies involved.

Similarly, national “border protection” is not only a political matter but a vast economic enterprise. It is a multi-billion dollar industry, garnering some $10 billion in recent years for private companies. Since 1997, all migration detention in Australia has been organised on a for-profit basis. Australia is the only country in the world where all migration detention is for-profit. As a result, it has the highest numbers of people in for-profit confinement in the world, a high and over-represented proportion of which are not, to put it bluntly, Anglo-Celtic and therefore part of the settler colonial majority.

Moreover, as a recently-leaked report from Serco—which operates all of Australia’s onshore detention facilities—illustrated, the procedures for ascertaining risk in migration detention are preemptive, concerned not with what detainees have done in the past but with whether they have—in the words of the report—the desire and capacity to become troublesome or assets in the future. Along with the adoption of a speculative definition of risk inside detention centres, the largest companies that are contracted to run migration detention are publicly-listed companies that trade on the stock exchange. Company shareprices are not governed by simple formulations of the current accounts, of existing assets and liabilities. Nor for that matter, and increasingly, are the accounting systems in use by either governments and corporations. Both of these involve estimates about potential, future values—in other words, they are speculative. Speculations on increased revenues (that is, conjectures regarding the numbers of people interned in some nebulous future) can often boost the similarly speculative terms of a company’s shareprice—as has been the case in the United States recently with the GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America.

Moreover, detention is not based on what someone has done but on what they might do, or what they may incite others to do in the future. All detention is, legally speaking, preventative. In the first instance, detention is neither punitive nor corrective but preemptive—which is not to say that punishment and behavioural correction have been supplanted. But these persist as techniques of management rather than as organising principles. But unlike imprisonment which emphasises punishment for a crime that has been comitted and correction, migration detention is based not on what those detained have done in the past but what risks they are thought to pose in the future, such as abscond from processes to determine their legal status, spread diseases or, in instances where deterrence is cited, encourage the unauthorised migration of others. It amounts to speculation on a possible future that nevertheless generates material effects in the present time. In this sense, it transforms both the present and the immediate future.

The point is not simply or even that privatisation and outsourcing have blurred the otherwise salient distinctions between governments and corporations, or politics and economics. Such distinctions make very little empirical or analytical sense given the preponderance of public-private partnerships through which everything from national security to welfare is now organised. In any case, the mundane technical and organisational procedures of national security and migration policy have been completely reshaped by the precepts of financial speculation and, at the same time, the concept of race has come to be defined less in terms of origins or the past than through speculations about potential and vague threats that may occur in the future.

These convergences have given rise to a socio-technical system. They are not indicative of an ideology or free-floating ideas that only pertain to legal, political or cultural domains.

Within this system, postracialism is the utopian flip-side of national security’s dystopian imaginings. The threshold between these two registers is, simply put, the border; which operates less as an absolute barrier than a filter or taxonomic system, sifting the ostensibly good from bad risks, or the entrepreneurial migrant from the unassimilable, and so on. And just as the sharemarket can be described as booming or depressed, so too the racial speculative involves both optimistic and pessimistic dimensions. And it is in that context that I think postracialism has materialised and can be analysed critically.

Angela Mitropoulos


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