Humanitarianism, according to Didier Fassin, is “a relatively recent invention” that has become “a potent force of our world” that is “global and yet uneven.” It has come, he asserts, to occupy “a key position in the contemporary moral order.” It is “mobilized in the practices of our societies, from the treatment of poverty, asylum, and endangered children to the justification of public actions, political causes, and even wars.” Moral sentiments, he claims, “have become generalized as a frame of reference in political life.” A new “moral economy,” he writes, “centered on humanitarian reason … came into being in the last decades of the twentieth century.” Present in different contexts but with similar features, it has consisted in “the deployment of moral sentiments” in the form of “humanitarian government,” and it has “reconfigured” the “politics of precarious lives.”
Fassin is an anthropologist and sociologist from France (where, happily, the distinction between them matters less) and a professor at the Princeton Institute of Advanced Study’s School of Social Science. Trained as a physician and for long a practitioner of the political anthropology of health across the world, who worked for a time with Médecins Sans Frontières, he is now focusing on morals and, in particular, as he writes here, on “the point where it is articulated with politics.” Humanitarian Reason offers a broad claim about our newly configured politics as “humanitarian government” and a searching analysis of its contradictory implications through a series of closely observed ethnographic studies in France and across the globe. The work neither celebrates nor denounces humanitarianism but examines, from the social scientist’s “critical” standpoint, what it means to the actors involved and what it hides from them. Fassin’s claim (to which we will come) is that his approach is “analytical rather than normative,” that he is “simply trying to recognize the phenomenon for what it is” and that it is for readers “to draw the normative conclusions they consider to conform to their ethical and ideological view.”
Fassin’s analysis of humanitarianism’s internal complexity and political ambiguities starts from the familiar Nietzschean insight that the politics of compassion is a politics of inequality.
What exactly is “humanitarian government”? Fassin’s account uses terminology in ways that are less than familiar and so requires some explanation. From the historian E. P. Thompson, he adopts the phrase moral economy and elaborates it to mean “the production, dissemination, circulation, and use of emotions and values, norms and obligations in the social space: they characterize a particular historical moment and in some cases a specific group.” The new humanitarian moral economy, in which attention is “focused on suffering and misfortune,” elicits the response of “humanitarian government,” where government is to be understood in “a broad sense” (that deployed by Michel Foucault) as referring to the “techniques and procedures designed to direct the behavior of men.” (Foucault speaks of “government of children, government of souls or consciences, government of a household, of the state, or of oneself.”) Thus it refers here to procedures and actions that “manage, regulate, and support the existence of human beings and goes beyond the intervention of the state, local administrations, international bodies, and political institutions more generally. It involves nongovernmental organizations, international agencies, states, and individuals.” Its “sites of action” are “clinics for the poor and refugee camps, a social administration where undocumented immigrants are received and a military garrison where earthquake victims are treated.” As a mode of governing, in the broad sense, it concerns “the victims of poverty, homelessness, unemployment, and exile, as well as disasters, famines, epidemics, and wars—in short, every situation characterized by precariousness” (a term increasingly prominent in the social sciences as it becomes more and more salient in our own lives). In describing humanitarian politics as a politics of precarious lives he refers to “the lives of the unemployed and the asylum seekers, the lives of sick immigrants and people with AIDS, the lives of disaster victims and victims of conflict—threatened and forgotten lives that humanitarian government brings into existence by protecting and revealing them.” It does so by deploying moral sentiments that conjoin emotions, primarily compassion, and reason, linking together Menschlichkeit, or the regulative idea of mankind (sharing a common human condition and leading today to the call for human rights) and Humanität, or the sympathetic emotion of humaneness (inspiring altruism and the drive to help our fellow humans, especially those who suffer).
Fassin’s analysis of humanitarianism’s internal complexity and political ambiguities starts from the familiar Nietzschean insight that the politics of compassion is a politics of inequality and that its gifts can elicit no counter-gift but can generate instead indifference and even aggressiveness in the giver and shame, resentment, and even hostility in the receiver. What makes his analysis sociological is the attention he pays throughout these nine case studies to the structured ways in which the egalitarian aspirations implicit in the idea of the common human condition and the unrestricted altruism of humane treatment get repeatedly subverted. What he eloquently calls “the fantasy of a global moral community that may still be viable and the expectation that solidarity may have redeeming powers” is, in case study after case study, shown to meet severe limits. And what makes this analysis anthropological is, as he rightly claims, the focus on “precise inquiries” of an ethnographic kind into a small number of situations. His in-depth study of these focuses on such evidence as “letters of application for financial assistance, medical certificates for the undocumented, testimonies published by humanitarian organizations, a support service in a housing project, or a military intervention after an earthquake.”
what is at issue here is not the motivations of individuals but rather the mobilization of collective representations in the form of moral sentiments.
What these studies all exemplify, Fassin argues, is, on the one hand, the presence of the sacralization of human life and the entry of suffering into political life. All lives are viewed as equally sacred and all sufferings seen as deserving to be relieved. Thus “humanitarian government has a salutary power for us because by saving lives, it saves something of our idea of ourselves, and because by relieving suffering, it also relieves the burden of this unequal world order.” He cites both of these ideas, and indeed their coupling, as an inheritance from Christianity that has survived secularization and “the general decline of the Christian faith.” (No word here about American exceptionalism, or indeed about the huge and, it seems, ever-growing popularity of evangelical Christianity, especially in Latin America and Africa. The focus here is on the givers rather than on the receivers of humanitarian aid.) He also cites Reinhart Koselleck and Hannah Arendt in support of the view that these ideas are distinctive of modernity. The claim that they are prevalent amounts, it seems to me, merely to speculation about motivations, frames of reference, and “moral sentiments” held to be widely at work in contemporary politics. But this raises the question of the extent to which they express beliefs that motivate, rather than rhetoric that conceals and consoles. That is indeed a hard question to answer. Perhaps Fassin would respond, as Durkheim might have done, that there is no need to do so, since what is at issue here is not the motivations of individuals but rather the mobilization of collective representations in the form of moral sentiments.
What the case studies do clearly establish, however, is how proclaimed humanitarian good intentions get subverted. So we read, for example, of the poor in France being subjected to arbitrary and contingent distribution of financial aid, of undocumented immigrants, whose legalization is supposed to be based on medical grounds being subject to ever greater restrictions, of asylum seekers being compelled to recount their stories but meeting ever greater skepticism, of the ambivalent and furtive hospitality offered to the unwanted asylum seekers at Sangatte in Northern France, of the post-earthquake situation in Venezuela when “pre-existing inequalities of conditions are exposed and the complacent indifference of the privileged classes towards the victims is revealed” and of the differential valuing of human lives, even within humanitarian organizations, as between expatriate volunteers and local staff.
The inequalities resulting from humanitarian government are, moreover, at work on the global scale, as evidenced by the contrast between refugees, gathered, protected, and assisted in huge camps in the South, and asylum seekers, subject in the North to decisions “parsimoniously made about which of them may be granted protection under the law.” For this to work the territorial and moral boundaries between the two worlds must be tightly sealed and policed, for example, “preventing refugees from the South from claiming the prerogatives granted to asylum seekers in the North.” As for the latter, if they are admitted, it is on humanitarian grounds rather than as of a right.
However, the heart of Fassin’s critique of humanitarian reason lies, not in the exposure of the disjunction between fantasy and harsh realities, but rather in the analysis of the ways in which humanitarian discourse functions to render this disjunction less visible and less troubling than it might otherwise be, thereby inhibiting possible effective practical and political interventions. Indeed, there is the suggestion here that moral discourse itself may serve to displace a more adequate understanding, deflecting attention from the deeper and wider sources of misery and suffering, thus rendering action to reduce them less feasible.
We need, Fassin writes, “to understand how this language has become established today as the most likely to generate support among listeners or readers, and to explain why people often prefer to speak about suffering and compassion than about interests or justice, legitimizing actions by declaring them to be humanitarian.” The social sciences are themselves part of this story, lending credit to the new political discourse by focusing on exclusion and misfortune, suffering and trauma, providing “the new lexicon of moral sentiments” that “has perceptible effects both in public action and in individual practices.” What, he asks, “ultimately, is gained, and what lost, when we use the terms of suffering to speak of inequality, when we invoke trauma rather than recognizing violence, when we give residence rights to foreigners with health problems but restrict the conditions for political asylum, more generally when we mobilize compassion rather than justice?”
Rather than just the moral economy of orphans, which relies on “psychological interpretations that essentialize behaviors and blame the victims,” Fassin argues, “we need to focus on the political economy,” but that “would risk the compassionate consensus losing its edge through the effects of social criticism.”
The general answer offered here is that the effect is “to make precarious lives livable and elude the social causes of their condition” and that by “eluding the complex reality, which makes moral judgments less certain and solutions less univocal, compassion may paradoxically prove to be an emotion that spares those feeling it from having to take more demanding action.” Thus, in the tragic case of AIDS policy in South Africa, the focus of international aid programs on orphans and children separated from their families deflected attention from “historically constituted structural inequalities.” Rather than just the moral economy of orphans, which relies on “psychological interpretations that essentialize behaviors and blame the victims,” Fassin argues, “we need to focus on the political economy,” but that “would risk the compassionate consensus losing its edge through the effects of social criticism.” Likewise, in the case of aid workers dealing with Palestinians facing the Israeli army, when attention is focused on experiences and violence is reduced to trauma and the subject to victim, the “singularity of trajectories and situations as well as the specificity of processes and issues are erased: camp and kibbutz, refugee and citizen, occupied and occupier become identical in a “lived experience” of pain that is supposed to be “shared by all.”
Fassin refers in one of his many (too many) footnotes to a recent book by the historian Samuel Moyn, The Last Utopia, which argues, in parallel fashion, that the ever greater prevalence of the discourse of human rights dates from the 1970s. Moyn is also critical of the use of moral language in politics, but the critiques of the two authors are interestingly different. For Moyn the human rights bandwagon is harnessed to too many horses: beginning with prisoners of conscience and Soviet and East European dissidents, it is by now the language of choice for any and every political cause, a politically empty successor to the contending political programs for human betterment of the past. For Fassin, humanitarian reason draws us away from an adequate understanding of the social world and from an effective, let alone transformative politics, by simplifying and foreshortening our view of the structural and causal conditions of suffering and, through its focus on victims, by reifying the condition of victimhood, “while ignoring their history and muting their words.”
Both critiques carry considerable conviction but more elsewhere in the world (especially France) than in the United States, where ideological contention seems alive and well and humanitarian concerns relatively muted in domestic politics, though plainly in evidence as a ground for armed intervention abroad. Both critiques are scrupulously analytical and yet both are, it seems to me, plainly political—or, as we say these days, “normative.”
Fassin, however, is concerned to deny this, maintaining that his approach is “analytical rather than normative,” concerned with the “problematization”—that is, the way in which humanitarianism gives violence and injustice a distinctive meaning for us. His approach derives from Foucault, focusing on how “the totality of discursive and non-discursive practices … introduces something into the play of true and false and constitutes it as an object for thought.” In taking humanitarian attitudes and actions, generally viewed as good, as his object of study, he questions this moral self-evidence and claims to avoid both relativism and cynicism. He hopes to straddle the familiar dichotomy of translating from the inside (as with Geertz) and unveiling from the outside (as with Marx), suggesting, in a favored metaphor, that critical thinking is best located “at the frontiers—on the threshold of the cave in Plato’s image, where the light is outside and all that is visible are the shadows on the walls within.” He claims, with justice, to have “tried to grasp what this humanitarian reason means and what it hides, to take it as neither the best of all possible governments nor as an illusion that misleads us.” He acknowledges and relies on “the lucidity and reflexivity of actors” while exploring “areas to which they are blind.”
This is as subtle, sophisticated a defense of such objectivity as the social sciences can hope to attain. But even a hasty perusal of the quotations cited in this review of this richly rewarding book plainly indicates that it goes beyond the analysis of an object introduced “into the play of true and false.” It is difficult to read as anything other than a powerful critique of the cognitive limits and political dangers of humanitarian reason.