Becoming precarious through regimes of gender, capital, and nation

What follows is the presentation of a critical event in the recent genealogy of “becoming precarious”: an event that has been one of the critical precursors to the current crisis and to challenges to neoliberal log(ist)ics in contemporary Greece. Above all, this event –simultaneously an event of crisis and ofcritique—bespeaks the intersecting powers of racialization and feminization that have historically structured the condition of “becoming precarious.” Before being recognized as a generalized consequence of neoliberal crisis and policies of financial austerity, precarity—as the normative violence that determines the terms of subjectivity and liveability—had been already established (albeit not recognized) as a profoundly gendered and racialized mode of differential exposure to injury, violence, and poverty.

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Athena Athanasiou, October 31, 2011.

As she was going home after work on December 23, 2008, Kostadinka Kuneva, a Bulgarian migrant woman who was working as a cleaner for the public transportation system of Athens municipality, was attacked by two unidentified men who ambushed her outside her home and threw sulphuric acid in her face, forcing it down her throat. The brutal attack took place a few days after a 15-year old student Alexis Grigoropoulos was murdered by a police officer in Athens, an event which sparked the December 2008 revolt. 

Kuneva was working as a cleaner for a subcontracting company that hired out workers, mostly migrant women, to public institutions and services, such as hospitals, schools and mass transit. An active trade unionist, she was, at the time of the attempted murder, deputy secretary of the Trade Union of Cleaners and Housekeepers in Attica District. She had received life threats over her union activities, which included fighting to improve working conditions for subcontracted cleaners and, later, opposing a pension system reform. Despite the pressures and the threats, she continued to stand up against the slave trade of thousands of immigrants who offer cheap cleaning services to organizations of the public and private sector, under utterly exploitative, precarious, and inhumane conditions.

Kostadinka remained a whole year in the hospital, a few days in a coma fighting for her life and then several months in serious condition in the intensive care unit.  She was blinded in one eye and from being forced to swallow the acid she sustained serious internal injuries, particularly to her vocal cords, throat and stomach. She was discharged from the hospital on December 22, 2009, exactly one year after the attack. To this day, the perpetrators remain unidentified.

Despite the initial attempts of mainstream mass media and police authorities to downplay the affair by invoking the gender-stereotyped, naturalizing device of a “crime of passion,” and despite the ensuing official gestures of moral/istic, de-politicizing idealization of Kuneva as an “exceptional” and “heroic” individual, the event of the attack sparked an unprecedented and long-lasting countrywide movement of political solidarity and public protest by feminist, anti-racist and left-wing collectivities. Through different means of collective action, ranging from fundraising and mass demonstrations to public discussions and concerts, the solidarity mobilization sought to open a public discussion of the wider social, economic, and political conditions that made the attack possible. Three days after the incident, the first solidarity event toook place, when a feminist group gathered and stood silently outside the hospital. On December 29, a demonstration of support took place at the subway station in the port of Piraeus, where Kuneva worked as a cleaner. A few weeks after the attack, police used tear gas in downtown Athens to disperse a rally by more than 1,000 people who protested against the government’s toleration of systematic violations of labor legislation regarding cleaning workers’ salaries, insurance, and work conditions. In the several rallies that took place in Athens, demonstrators demanded justice for Kostadinka Kuneva and her colleagues, carrying banners reading “Kostadinka, you are not alone,” “Stop violence against immigrants,” “Stop the modern labor trade,” “Women, immigrants, unionists: We shall not be silenced,” and “We are not intimidated – We are outraged.”

“Women, migrants, unionists. We will not be silenced.”      

Feminist Initiative of Solidarity to Kostadinka Kuneva

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Athena Athanasiou, October 31, 2011.

What does the violence against Kostadinka Kuneva signify for the implications of class, gender and nationality through which current constructions of citizenship are produced and enacted in Europe? What does it signify for the production and enactment of the experience of precarity?  And what does it signify for the intersecting powers of racialization and feminization that structure precarity? The premeditated attack has been eloquent in its torturous materiality, which sought the disciplinary marking of Kuneva’s body: most significantly, the elimination of her face and voice. It was an act of silencing, an act of banishing her “foreign body” from the body politic as defined by exclusionary norms of gender, capital, and nation. In her face, the perpetrators had seen a threatening rupture in the convenient regime of silence and invisibility that surrounds the subcontracting system for cleaning services. Kuneva had to be punished for talking back.

“We are not intimidated, we are outraged.” 

Ifanet, Thessaloniki

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Athena Athanasiou, October 31, 2011.

The attack, but also the cynical silence that ensued, reminded the world that the lives of those working in the cleaning sector, which is socially disdained as par excellence female and migrant labor, are precarious, dispensable, and disposable. In these neoliberal times, cleaning falls outside what is intelligible as public service; instead, it is systematically relegated to the realm of private subcontracting and its regime of precarious labor. In designating the politically-induced condition in which certain people and groups of people become differentially exposed to injury, violence, poverty, and death, the power of “precarity” works by rendering certain subjects, communities or populations unintelligible, by eviscerating for them the possibility for life itself. This is indeed related to socially-attributable disposability (a condition which proves so fundamentally central to current neoliberal regimes) as well as various modalities of valuelessness and abjection: social death, abandonment, impoverishment, racism, homophobia, sexual assault, militarism, and workplace injuries. It is related, after all, to the norms by which human intelligibility is conferred through producing disavowed losses.In such contexts, which are governed by the link between sovereignty and exposure to death, vulnerability is not only about the normative and normalizing violence that determines the terms of subjectivity, survival, and liveability, but also, at the same time, about the vital potentiality of transforming such injurious interpellations. Kostadinka Kuneva survived the murderous attack against her neither as a docile body denuded of its political subjectivity nor as a sentimentalized tragic victim of violence, but as the political face and voice of what it means to live in critical relation to the norms of intelligibility. To be sure, the Kuneva affair was a critical event in the recent history of “crisis”: one in which sovereign exposure to death turned into a way of opening to modes of courage, collectivity, and critical practices for those who fight, unarmed, against the injustices and injuries inflicted by neoliberal regimes of precarious labor and their concomitant sexist and racist modes of subjugation.

Athena Athanasiou teaches social anthropology and gender theory at Panteion University, in Athens. She is currently working on a book on the politics of affect, mourning and memory in the Serbian feminist movement "Women in Black."