Governing Through Resilience: Implications for Solidarity and Political Action

The second guest post in our solidarity and resilience forum, this time from Tudor Vilcan. Tudor is a doctoral candidate at the University of Southampton. He seeks to critically investigate how discourses of resilience are put to use as ways to govern society. He is also interested in complexity theories, new materialism and critiques of neoliberalism.


This contribution represents a sum of reflections about solidarity and political action in the context of resilience policies based on a presentation given at the Political Action, Resilience and Solidarity Workshop organized at King’s College London in September 2014. I suggest that there is room to think about political action and solidarity in the context of resilience policies. Political action and solidarity are developed through encouraging individuals and communities to take ownership of their own risk management and build generic adaptive capacities. I argue that the meaning of political action and solidarity is changed in this context, as it provides a localized social engagement that at the same time evacuates political concerns from consideration. For resilience policies to succeed in properly connecting with individuals and communities, they need to find a level of engagement that is not just social, but also political.

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Resilience has become an important idea, especially in the last few years. It has been developed and applied in the context of the environment, threats and hazards, development or thinking about change. More importantly, it has started to make its way into policy making, becoming one way in which society can be governed. At its core, resilience proposes to be a property or capacity of groups, communities or societies to cope with disruptions and still maintain their basic functions.

There is an acute absence of contributions that seek to draw links between resilience on one side and political action and solidarity on the other. This might be because we are told that resilience is about the strengthening of society as a whole to better tolerate shocks and rebuild if necessary. It appears to go beyond concerns with formal politics and deliver a model for governing society that is more appropriate to the interdependent and complex world in which we are living. Such a model emphasizes the need for connections, diversity, broadened participation or devolved governance. It signals a move away from the centralized approaches to policy making to emphasize that society must be seen as a large array of networks, systems and critical infrastructures whose disruption or failure can have catastrophic domino effects. When resilience is conceptualized in such way, political action and solidarity can be seen to represent atavisms of a time when static, concrete political and social categories were popular. In today’s complex and fluid world, they don’t appear to have the same purchase.

For the most part, such highly theoretical and abstract conceptualizations of resilience have been inferred from academic bodies of literature and official policy documents. Attending to how academics and elite policy makers think of resilience paints a specific picture of it, usually a broad one, but I argue that there are many more fine nuances to be gathered by attending to the implementation of resilience policies. I suggest that by looking at the level of policy implementation we can have a more engaged discussion not just of resilience itself, but also of the nature and role of political action and solidarity in the context of resilience policies. I seek to argue this point with a case study of resilience policies in flood risk management.

Resilience Policies in Practice

The Flood Community Resilience Scheme was initiated in 2012 by Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). It is a pilot scheme which aims to ‘quantifiably’ and ‘demonstrably’ improve the resilience of communities in relation to flooding. While resilience has been in many forms a part of various policies in flood risk management, it occupies a central role in this particular policy scheme. At the level of official documents, the Flood Community Resilience Scheme aims towards a more holistic engagement with the issue of flooding. Building on the realisation that the governmental structure of flood risk management has become broader and more varied in the last decade, it seeks to coagulate the response to flooding mainly at the level of the community. The delivery of the policy is aided by partners like the Environment Agency (EA) and National Flood Forum (NFF), but it is concentrated at the level of local authorities aided by private and third sector partners. The scheme aims to provide a dynamic response to flooding by summoning the interest of actors on the ground to take responsibility for their own flood management. It regards actors, whether public, private, third sector or individuals themselves as active and ready to be engaged with. Building resilience therefore is a long term process which requires a wider, flatter policy chain and which aims to empower individuals and community to take charge of their own flood risk management.

At the level of implementation, delivery of the scheme involves a milieu of activities predicated mainly on behaviour change and alteration of material and structural arrangements. This is consistent with a gradual shift in flood risk management away from engineering approaches (building hard structures) to include social approaches (like raising awareness, creating flood groups, etc.). This scheme is only initiated at the top of the policy chain but instantly descends at the local level where it connects horizontally with a plethora of agencies, institutions and various groups for delivery. The aim is to alter the service delivery system for individuals to better engage with the state and private actors and enact a shift towards more sustainable communities.

The transfer of resilience from the level of policy documents to the level of implementation is a process that implies avoidances, resistances and recalcitrance which in turn are bound to alter the content and delivery of the policy. One of the first set of challenges relates to policy contextualization at the level of local authorities, which need to adapt the content of the official documents in a manner specific to the locality in which they are to be implemented. This means that a series of material, structural, organizational and subjective arrangements will become redundant, require restructuration or change their role and purpose. Every such process entails recalcitrance and resistance and generates feedback loops which alter the initial conditions set up through the official documents. Furthermore, there will be natural and political challenges to the implementation (like floods or decrease of funding due to other political necessities). Individuals, groups and businesses are assumed to be willing to take up series of practical measures and internalize proactive attitudes in order to create communities sustainable in relation to flooding. Early evidence suggests that these processes are much more complex than anticipated and if they are to work they will need long timelines and constant maintenance. Also, resilience policies appear to be unaware or to ignore the tensions and contradictions between different groups that are present in communities. In contrast, they employ a ‘romantic view of communities’, which are assumed to be benign, have their own stable identities and homeostasis-like internal dynamics. In sum, it is not enough to look at the level of policy documents but also at the level of implementation (what resilience policies actually manage to achieve) in order to give a comprehensive account of the content and effects of resilience policies.

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Implications for Political Action and Solidarity

What implications does the governmentality of resilience bear for political action and solidarity? I suggested that by attending to the level of implementation, we ought to draw more nuanced conclusions about solidarity and political action than by attending to the official documents. This is largely because, as observed in the examples from flood risk management above, it is very important that these policies manage to achieve on the ground what is intended in official documents. For example, many policy documents encourage individuals to ‘build’ resilience or ‘take responsibility of their own risk management’. This is not necessarily the case since both of these can be avoided and resisted in practice. This implies that to some extent individuals exercise political agency, but the question is to what extent they are engaged in an exercise of effective political agency. The latter would be the type of agency that questions, challenges or alters certain norms by which society is governed. The aim of resilience policies is to encourage individuals to enable social networks and groups in their communities for solving practical and immediate concerns but they will fail for the most part to see the link to policy immediately. Resilience policies are proposed to be long-term or sometimes even indefinite solutions. Individuals are nudged to look inwards at their capacities to liaise with each other for overcoming circumstantial disruptions to their wellbeing. Acting politically, towards influencing this particular norm, is never part of the discussion.

Given this disconnect between the immediate environment and the wider governing norms, it makes sense to link issues of political action with issues of solidarity between individuals. Intuitively, solidarity means a certain type of unity of individuals in relation to a specific cause. Solidarity in the age of resilience appears to have been redefined though. What resilience policies seek to achieve is a sense of solidarity which is not teleological but processual. While teleological solidarity can be said to be associative towards a common goal, processual solidarity is directed in relation to an ongoing goal (a continuous goal, with no specified ending). More precisely, we can use the heuristic concept of dynamic social solidarity to characterise a process whereby individuals are encouraged to develop generic associative response capacities through repeated engagements with critical events. They develop links and associations with each other but in a manner which is not static, geared at a common cause at a point in time, but dynamic, directed towards any potential threats at any time in the future. The more exposure to critical events and threats, the more it is assumed that the associations and connections between them will grow deeper. But as I just pointed out, this is only a social kind of solidarity, not political, since it does not attempt to look outwards and challenge the norms and power relations structuring society, but inwards at harvesting the associational capacities of individuals themselves in front of challenges and perturbations they are increasingly told are an inevitable part of their life.

Overall, I suggest that thinking about political action and solidarity in the age of resilience policies prompts us to reflect about the level where meaningful political, not just social engagement lies. Proponents of resilience suggest it signifies a move away from the centralized approaches towards communities and individuals, who desire the move and know better how to organize themselves and act against hazards and threats. The examples above highlight the kind of discrepancies and disconnect between such localized engagement and the wider ruling norms. The quest ahead then is finding a level of engagement that bridges this gap and involves meaningful political participation of individuals and communities that resilience only promises but (for now at least) fails to deliver.

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