To Live is to Swerve

By Ann Deslandes, 13 November 2013
Image: John Henry Foley's Asia, for the Albert Memorial, 1872

A Review of Angela Mitropoulos’s Contract and Contagion: From Biopolitics to Oikonomia, Minor Compositions, New York, 2012, by Ann Deslandes


At a time when left liberals mourn the unravelling of the welfare state and other such deals, Mitropoulos demonstrates the continuity of contract with political strategies of containment. Contract and Contagion unravels the ‘apologia’ of political economy itself, taking route through a dazzling constellation of thought including, but far from limited to, genealogy, gender, labour, Marx, biopolitics, wagers, infrastructure, production, contagion, citizenship, neoliberalism, family, social movement, shapes, patterns, fractals, service, welfare, profit, crowds, movement, debt, flight, and clinamen.


To begin, Mitropoulos follows Lucretius into Machiavelli, who arrests the political subject in intimate self-management – ‘that combination of equality and hierarchy’, property in one’s self, possessive individualism – which is constituted in oikonomia, the law of the household. This is a subjectivity that capitalises uncertainty: opportunistic, chameleonic and reliant on a fictive genealogy. Machiavelli’s slicing and dicing of the political world appears as a cruel imitation of Lucretius’ ‘swerve of atoms’; that unsummoned tilt that ‘can change everything.’


Machiavelli is ghosted by the fourteenth-century European plague, through which, Mitropoulos argues (after Federici, and with shades of Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine), capitalism violently imposes itself on uncertainty. This occurs through the bonds of scriptural agreement between people as properties-in-self: ‘contract becomes the answer to a problem that can only be posed from within capitalism’; the problem of the uncertainty of intimate self-management.


The book insists on a politics that does not re-found contract which appears, from the time of plagues, in forms that, whilst it may range between covenants and ethics, nevertheless is unable to open into more than false oppositions. Such a politics might queer rather than foreshorten the categories of oikos/politics, male/female, slave/free, man/animal. In this vein Mitropoulos distinguishes and rejects the contemporary zeitgeist of ‘neocontractualism’: encompassing calls to return to the welfare state, anti-usury discourse, and nationalist economics; as well as identity categories and claims to commons and commonality.


There is something in this book for anyone who thinks in the ascetic spaces of humanities and social science and anyone for whom such thinking spills into their politics. As a thinker in feminism and solidarity I would highlight the way out that Mitropoulos offers to the criss-crossing of identity categories that so often appears as a pile-up at the intersection. Contract and Contagion poses intersectionality as an instance of ‘oikonomics’; caught in the fractal logic of infinite contractualism. As a welfare worker and policy researcher I welcome the book’s account of contractualism as Marx’s proliferating limits of capital: this is an explanation of service provision from the ‘fatal assistance’ of foreign aid in Haiti to the funder/purchaser/provider model of deferred responsibility that governs my relationship to ‘clients’ as much as the wages I sign for.


As for activism, Mitropoulos continues her challenge to the ‘work’ of social-movement-as-labour-movement by offering a reading where we might choose what we inherit from them and that sees its continuity with contract, which is to say with insurance. ‘The question’, she writes, ‘is not whether workers might be afforded protection […] but the ways contracts seek to allocate uncertainty.’ This reframes many of the struggles conceived of between labour and capital; not least those around unpaid work. It challenges activists to read thinkers like Foucault and Arendt in ways that do not ‘restore the foundations’, say, of the noble household, something both those philosophers are shown to do.


Instead, Mitropoulos recalls Arendt’s infrapolitical: that which lies between, that which might escape the bonds of contract. Thought of in this way, activism becomes 'the provisioning of infrastructure for movement': acting on, against, and instead of the bricks and mortar of the financialised state. With infrastructure, the genealogical set of 'subjectivity, identity, demands, promises, rights and contracts' is bypassed for a direct engagement with 'how worlds are made, how forms of life are sustained and made viable.' As the grants-driven academy is coming to appreciate (if not exploit), infrastructure is the location of thought and struggle in a world so occupied.


Production is one way of generating forms of life. Contagion is another. In such a way, Mitropoulos writes a politics composed not so much of problems to solve as yokes to dissolve.


Ann Deslandes <ann.deslandes AT> is a writer, researcher and community services worker in Sydney, Australia. She blogs at