[On March 27th, 2018 the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory hosted the lecture “The Open Secret of Racial Capitalist Violence” by visiting scholar Jodi Melamed (Marquette). Below is a response to the lecture by professor Mimi Thi Nguyen (Gender and Women’s Studies and Asian American Studies).]
Response to Jodi Melamed’s lecture “The Open Secret of Racial Capitalist Violence”
Written by Mimi Thi Nguyen (Gender and Women’s Studies and Asian American Studies)
I found Jodi Melamed’s “The Open Secret of Racial Capitalist Violence” to be incredibly expansive in its scope and generative in its provocations. For today, as a transnational feminist scholar of war and liberal empire, I want to think alongside two insights from Melamed’s rich conceptualization of managerial, administrative violence. The first insight is about what she calls settler capitalist logisticality. As she illuminates so well, the unimpeded flow of racial capital necessitates multiple forms of violence, and a variety of agencies are recruited here–highway patrols, corporate mercenaries, intelligence agencies, legislators, and we might add data miners and data brokers, among others— to ensure command and control of those flows and to criminalize others. In doing so, settler capitalist logisticality claims the whole planet for its jurisdiction, “subtended by intense paranoia and militarism.” As such, every flow must be securitized –through borders, gateways, zones, and corridors— in order to continually safeguard comprehensive infrastructures of accumulation and “ownership.”
Toward these ends, Melamed elaborates upon what she calls their geoeconomic strategies, including the collaborations between agencies of legal and extralegal violence in Palestine, and also at Standing Rock. Melamed describes so well the marshaling of local and federal law enforcement and counter-intelligence operations as well as private security firms to protect privately owned “critical infrastructure” in the name of “national security.” (TigerSwan, known for conducting counterterror operations overseas, applied its militarized tactics in North Dakota, and described water protectors as “generally follow[ing] the jihadist insurgency model.”) These forces are also cooperating to create new categories of crime and criminality to prosecute political protesters. Since Black Lives Matter and Standing Rock, at least sixty measures have been proposed, and a handful approved, to expand the definition of criminal trespass, raise the penalty for a riot conviction, classify the obstruction of traffic or railways as a felony, restrict public assembly on public land and schools, protect drivers who “unintentionally” hit protesters with their cars, and punish journalists for “obstruction of government functions.”
I want to consider such campaigns as Melamed discusses in her elaboration of settler capitalist logisticality as concurrent with an intensive detention and deportation regime funneling humans into an archipelago of private prisons; the authorization of ICE along a hundred-mile zone contingent with the U.S. borders with Canada and Mexico; repeated anti-Muslim travel bans which also heightened our security theater at all points of crossing; and anti-trafficking measures masquerading as moral crusades – these are all aimed at creating new categories of crime and criminality to further control the movements of bodies and capital. Our colleagues Naomi Paik and Lisa Cacho have elaborated eloquently about the first three; to consider another example of racial capitalist violence disguised herein as humanitarian governance, I will focus for a moment on anti-trafficking measures, described as the new abolition by its proponents to fight “modern day slavery,” which do nothing to address structural impoverishment, governmental debt, or labor abuses, and instead criminalize the movements of those who perform labor deemed unlawful. We might easily observe that the new abolitionists hail from those imperial states for which human trafficking laid the foundations for racial capitalism; or as Sarah Hunt writes about the Canadian state discourse of trafficking of indigenous girls and women, “trafficking discourses largely draw attention away from the role of the state in colonial violence toward indigenous peoples and instead appeal to the state for a more powerful legal response to trafficking.” In the last few years, we have seen an uptick in the criminalization of sex work under cover of anti-trafficking campaigns, including the militarization of the police in concert with dozens of law enforcement agencies and nonprofit organizations in Superbowl cities ahead of the annual event, most recently in Minneapolis in January 2018; and, a month later, the raids by the New Orleans Police Department, the Louisiana Alcohol and Tobacco Control, and the Louisiana State Police on strip clubs on Bourbon Street, ostensibly to combat human trafficking but leaving hundreds of dancers without work right before Mardi Gras. These raids are part of a mayoral effort to gentrify the red light district into a more “family-friendly” destination. With the aid of developers and a chain of non-profit, Catholic-affiliated homeless shelters, such raids are part of the administrative securitization of borders and their “crossings,” criminalizing sex workers as trafficking in themselves.
We see a similar carceral logic in FOSTA (Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act) and SESTA (Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act). Passed in the last few weeks with strong bipartisan support, FOSTA /SESTA are Congressional bills that amend federal law to hold websites criminally responsible if they assist or facilitate sex trafficking. Already, classified ads site Backpage has been seized after a years-long legal battle about its sex trade advertisements. But also, Craigslist removed its personals, and Google and Microsoft have banned the sharing of sexually explicit materials (preventing sex work performers from sending direct-sales videos) on its platforms, including Drive and Skype. What unfolds through these and other anti-trafficking acts is both border control and also the attenuation of livable spaces for sex workers’ autonomy. Without being able to screen clients themselves, FOSTA/SESTA will push sex workers into more dangerous street work; increase police harassment and violence, including theft and rape; and further criminalize trans and queer people of color, and persons who live in neighborhoods designated as “high crime” profiled as “doing” sex work, for something as simple as carrying a condom. It is not rescue if your livelihood is destroyed, and you are incarcerated and deported!) These measures furthermore flatten distinctions between trafficking and migration, and trafficking and sex work, while doing nothing to address the violence of racial capital – indeed, these measures augment national security and capitalist interests via humanitarian governance. Consider the first anti-immigration act, the Page Act of 1875, which prohibited the migration of all Chinese women for probable prostitution to prevent male laborers from creating immigrant communities, or the Palermo protocols, adopted by the United Nations to supplement the 2000 Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime, which bundles human trafficking with illegal arms trading as criminal concerns, rather than as labor rights. Thus, like deportations and travel bans, anti-trafficking measures also escalate administrative violence while also facilitating the militarization of the police and the authorization of other legal and extralegal agencies (such as the Department of Homeland Security, ICE, and non-profit Christian evangelical organizations) with police powers.
It is on this note–that with settler capitalist logisticality comes the intensification and proliferation of power and violence—that I want to turn to the notion of “the lethal interlude,” or what Melamed identifies as “the time between theoretical conquest and actual conquest, between claims of discovery and ownership and the always incomplete and resisted establishment of settler state sovereignty.” Here Melamed cites Nicholas Brown, who writes, “Indigenous theory calls attention to a fundamental paradox, whereby violence has not ended, yet invasion has not succeeded, signaling both the failure of settler colonialism as it highlights the continuous character of dispossession.” In this lethal interlude, Melamed observes, the entanglements of “legal and extralegal violence […] flexibly attain on the ground an authoritative political, social, and economic ordering of space,” because the rule of law or capital (and their coupling) is not completed.
But what would be its completion? Which is to say, I am interested here in the notion of failure, because I am not sure that failure is what it is. In the present we find that as states (and some empires) concede the impossibility of achievable security, resilience and risk as paired concepts build crisis into the administration of life, proposing that unforeseeable, and likely inevitable, disruptions are our “new normal,” and promising the intensification of capacities to adapt to this disturbing order. We also know well now that the indeterminacy of terror became the motor for the preemptive exercise of war powers, but also for their expansion – which we face on new fronts (or fronts made new again, as the Korean War has never been declared over) with the appointment of John Bolton to National Security Advisor. I observe this because if risk to “critical infrastructure,” for instance, is rendered as pure potential, realizable at any coming moment, then risk becomes a continuous state, a permanent and pervasive crisis saturating all aspects of life, requiring more and more administrative governance. I am thinking here of the last preemptive wars launched during the Bush administration, in those places –Afghanistan, Iraq—to which the United States military forces and private mercenaries promised freedom. Transition (like interlude, a pause) is the assurance US forces will usurp illegitimate powers for a time, and following a timetable for occupation, will bring an end to such rule. Transition is deeply logistical – it produces and is produced by socio-technical assemblages and management systems for identification, assessment, and mitigation; constant regulation and surveillance regimes are put in place to account for transition objectives, target strengths, and predictive estimates of return. Understood in this way, transition belongs to a calculative infrastructure that borrows from colonial measures (of governing, of civilizational being) and accelerates, rescales, and refines these measures with new instruments, to promise an end to rule without delivering it. As the NATO Secretary General cautioned in 2010, “We need to be clear about what transition means and doesn’t mean. Transition means that Afghan authorities take the lead, and we move into a supportive role. But it doesn’t mean a rush for the exit.”  Indeed, last July, Erik D. Prince, founder of the private military company Blackwater Worldwide at the request of Steve Bannon, Trump’s then-chief strategist, and Jared Kushner, his senior advisor and son-in-law, submitted a proposal that the war in Afghanistan be handed over entirely to a mercenary fighting force, led by a viceroy who would report directly to Trump. (He cites the British East India Company, a private company that was the instrument of British colonization for centuries, as a model.) In the meanwhile, more (and more permanent) bases have been built as command posts for drone strikes across Pakistan’s borders. So perhaps it is not that settler capitalist logistics aim to end the lethal interlude, and conquer all risk to its operations. As Melamed has illuminated so well, the failure of the interlude to end because risk to critical infrastructure, to capital mobility, to military adventures, is ever-present, inevitable, and profitable (as we see in Tigerswan’s motto, “solutions to uncertainty” does not aim to end uncertainty, but to sell the need for its “solutions”), is the reason for the intensification and proliferation of lethal forms – and so perhaps this is not a “failure” at all, but the aim.
 Zoe Carpenter and Tacie Williams, February 16, 2018, “Since Standing Rock, 56 Bills Have Been Introduced in 30 States to Restrict Protests,” The Nation: https://www.thenation.com/article/photos-since-standing-rock-56-bills-have-been-introduced-in-30-states-to-restrict-protests/
 See Naomi Paik, 2016, Rightlessness: Testimony and Repress in U.S. Prison Camps since World War II (University of North Carolina Press), and Lisa Marie Cacho, 2012, Social Death: Racialized Rightlessness and the Criminalization of the Unprotected (University of Minnesota Press).
 Sarah Hunt, 2015/2016, “Representing Colonial Violence: Trafficking, Sex Work, and the Violence of Law,” Atlantis 37.2 (1): 32.
From an article on Jezebel.com by Nessa Moreno, “the state of Louisiana defines trafficking, and how it translates materially to sex workers who are under 21 (or perceived to be by law enforcement): you’re working within a group, it’s technically considered trafficking. You’re driving yourself from place to place or an Uber, you have a space you’re working out of, that’s trafficking. If you’re working in a place like a strip club, where management holds on to your money, that’s their definition of trafficking.” https://jezebel.com/in-new-orleans-an-anti-trafficking-initiative-is-a-cle-1823608583
 Moreover, some sex workers report that pimps, who do engage in trafficking and labor abuses, are hoping to capitalize on such changes that render sex workers more vulnerable.
 NATO press release, 23 April 2010.
 Sean McFate, July 17, 2017, “The ‘Blackwater 2.0’ Plan for Afghanistan,” The Atlantic: https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2017/07/afghanistan-erik-prince-trump-britain/533580/