Perpetuating Externalization

by Katrin Trüstedt

Pp 185x205-pad 210x230 f8f8f8.lite-1u3Our way of life is based on externalizing its costs and living at the expense of others. Hard and cheap labor, the consequences of climate change, the diverse forms of trash our lives produce – we cannot just not know that we put all these burdens on those in the global south who cannot afford the very way of life they make possible for us. And ultimately, we seem to outsource even our acknowledgement of this outsourcing. People coming from the global south into the northern developed countries seem to appear as a consequence of our outsourcing and as a threat to our way of living – "they are coming to take what is actually rightfully theirs". In a strange dynamic, this perceived threat does not seem to lead to recognition of its cause, however, but rather to its avoidance. Because migrants from the global south appear as the embodied threat to our way of living and externalizing, we seem to block the acknowledgement of our part in this system, and instead turn it against them: It is those fleeing the crisis we have produced in their countries that actually are the parasites, living off of our work, taking, or seeking to take, what is rightfully ours (our jobs, our welfare, created by our hard work).

For the meat that Westerners eat, vast areas of Latin America (and other parts of the world) have been turned into rapidly eroding agricultural monocultures to produce the soy used to feed our animal industry complex. The ubiquitous use of agrochemicals in these monocultures severely affect the environment and the inhabitants in these countries, with higher cancer and infant mortality rates. People who used to live from the lands have to move, and they migrate to ever growing slums around the cities. In his book Around us, the deluge: The externalization society and its cost ("Neben uns die Sintflut: Die Externalisierungsgesellschaft und ihr Preis"), the German sociologist Stephan Lessenich traced such developments under the term externalization as an organizing principle of our world order. What is externalization? Economically, it means that "external costs" – as e.g. the pollution caused by a factory and the costs of its consequences – are not included in the calculation of the actual price of the product. The modern capitalist work structure based on the bourgeois household serves Lessenich as a paradigm for externalization insofar as the costs of housework and childcare that enable the male worker and make it possible for him to devote all the time to his work remain hidden and unaccounted for. In contemporary societies in which more and more women work, the costs are now externalized to underpaid care worker in the global care chains who often have to leave their own home and take care of a foreign family at the expense of their own. Externalization means that most of our products are only as affordable or as profitable because certain costs are unaccounted for and covertly shifted to others. The cotton industry in Asia that produces cheap clothes for the world exploits workers, destroys and consumes the local environments and lets others pay the actual price of the product we design, market and wear. The smartphones we use depend on cobalt that is extracted from children working in mines in the Democratic Republic of the Congo under life-threatening conditions. And the leftovers of all the unnecessary and underpriced products we consume pile up in the waters and lands of the global south. It is not that we have achieved a standard of living that most people around the world unfortunately have not achieved yet. It's that we have this particular standard of living because most other people don't.

All this is in some way known, or, more precisely, all this could in principal be known. The records are out there. This is not some arcane knowledge. And yet, despite so many attempts and initiatives, it seems that there is an ambivalence regarding this possible knowledge that seems to hinder it from becoming effective. The inkling of this knowledge rather seems to reinforce the situation of re-externalization. Tendencies in the various areas are pointing to an intensification of the externalization circle; in the environmental externalization as well as in the reinforced restrictions on migrants and asylum seekers from the global south throughout Europe (Germany's "days of welcoming" are over). How is this possible? Lessenich attributes the lack of acknowledgement and change to convenience, habit, and the fear of losing what we are used to, that makes us repress the costs that we conveniently usually don't see. But maybe there is a more complex dynamic at work that has to do with a certain sense of guilt, with defense mechanisms against it, and with what is called externalization not in an economic but in a psychoanalytical context.

In White Man's Guilt, James Baldwin writes with regard to the race situation in America: "[White Americans] are dimly, or vividly, aware that the history they have fed themselves is mainly a lie, but they do not know how to release themselves from it, and they suffer enormously from the resulting personal incoherence. This incoherence is heard nowhere more plainly than in those stammering, terrified dialogues which white Americans sometimes entertain with the black conscience, the black man in America. The nature of this stammering can be reduced to a plea. Do not blame me. I was not there. I did not do it. My history has nothing to do with Europe or the slave trade. Anyway, it was your chiefs who sold you to me. … White people carry in them a carefully muffled fear that black people long to do to others what has been done to them … No curtain under heaven is heavier than that curtain of guilt and lies behind which white Americans hide." The curtain that Baldwin points to seems to also be applicable to the current world order that is called an externalization society. Much has been said about the racism borne out of resentment; out of a fear of "the other"; out of the way in which the creation of a "we" depends on excluding an opposing "they". Much has been written about the economic hardship of post-industrial areas, ignored by neo-liberal "left" politics that have supposedly nurtured racism. But it seems that part of the toxic contemporary situation is also due to the particular dynamic that is triggered where a certain kind of knowledge about a massive systematic exploitation – a knowledge that is partial, abstract, latent – does not lead to a resolution of the situation, but rather to its reinforcement and the violent rejection of knowledge and responsibility. The half-conscious awareness of a past or ongoing guilt does not have to be the beginning of a change or making amends, but can in fact rather strengthen and consolidate the exploitation system. If this is true, then the externalization of guilt functions as a self-perpetuating vicious circle, just like the externalization of work, costs and risks that lies at the basis of this guilt.

In the massive mobility asymmetry that is part of the externalization structure, the few people of the global south who do actually make it into the northern hemisphere, not only face all kinds of challenges. They also cannot just try to live a better life despite all these challenges. If these migrants and asylum seekers become visible, they are ascribed a certain role. We seem to externalize our repressed guilt onto them, so that they in their sheer existence must take on that role to confront us with this hidden guilt, to give it a face, and because they do (because we ascribe this role to them), we reject this guilt and so reject them and ultimately turn on them again. In a sudden shift, it appears that they are indebted to us and living off of our work, not the other way around. To see refugees as helpless victims, not (yet) on our level of development, who are in need of our Christian charity, can be a variation of such a turn. Cultural defense mechanism such as depicting migrants as living off our work or as the beneficiary of our good deeds need particular ambivalence competences to find other ways of letting the repressed return. Literature can offer such expertise.

In Freud's analysis of Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice and King Lear ("The Theme of the Three Caskets"), the latent knowledge of death and the connected fear to acknowledge it, is externalized and projected unto "the third woman". When Bassanio is forced to choose between three caskets to win Portia as his bride, he chooses the third, the leaden casket, not the gold or the silver one. The third woman that Bassanio thereby chooses in Freud's reading is a representation of death. By connecting this casket choice to other literary scene, Freud suggests that Bassiano is choosing the goddess of death that is itself already an externalization of our dealing with our own death that we now attribute to the Goddess. In the Merchant of Venice and in King Lear, the role of a death goddess is projected unto the third woman or daughter (the lead casket or Portia in the Merchant; Cordelia in Lear). In King Lear, this externalization can be traced unfolding a defense mechanism, when Lear's eventually dimly acknowledged guilt towards Cordelia keeps him from acknowledging (actually "seeing") her further: "the poor distressed Lear's i' the town; / Who sometime, in his better tune, remembers / What we are come about, and by no means / Will yield to see his daughter. … A sovereign shame so elbows him; his own unkindness, / That stripped her from his benediction, turned her / To foreign casualties … Detains him from Cordelia" (4.3.37-46). In Shakespeare, we can see how the necessity to acknowledge death – and, one could add, in Lear's case, his own guilt that resulted from his incapacity to acknowledge death in the first place – is itself being rejected, blocked and turned. In the "comedy" of the Merchant, the Goddess of Death is therefore partly replaced by her opposite, the Goddess of Love, and the situation is being turned from the necessity of death in the myth of the three fates to the motif of choice in a marriage comedy.

The residues, however, remain visible, not only in the unfolding tragedy of King Lear. When Bassanio in the Merchant motivates his choice for the lead basket: "thou meagre lead, / Which rather threaten'st than dost promise aught, / Thy paleness moves me more than eloquence" (3.2.104-06), the death goddess – following Freud's interpretation – remains visible in the goddess of love and in the replacement of the fate of death with choice. Portia remarks in the last scene: "This night, methinks, is but the daylight sick. / It looks a little paler. ‘Tis a day / Such as the day is when the sun is hid." (5.1.123-35) This scene seems to point not only at the ambivalence of death and the replacement of it with its opposite, but also at the costs of such double binds, haunting Portia and the marriage that is supposed to cover up the unavoidability of dying. In literature, we can see the complex dynamic of a perpetuating externalization with its violence, its shifted costs, and ultimately, its uncontrollable potential to backfire.