[This article is drawn from a discussion of three papers presented the Vulnerability, Infrastructure, and Displacement Symposium (2019), as part of the panel on “Vulnerability and the (Built) Environment.” Click herehere, and here for the articles based on papers presented at the same panel.]

The question around which this panel pivots is how to constitute refugee vulnerability in ways that take account of the social links, economic disparities, and political relations that form the context of refugee life in the Global South more broadly and in Lebanon more specifically.  I want to use the framework offered by Hanna Baumann to think through manifestations of infrastructural vulnerabilities in two neighbourhoods in Beirut where I myself used to live.

Hanna offers a very thoughtful re-formulation of vulnerability in ways that can help us see that the reduction of the concept to individualised need, or even categorical deprivations necessitating aid, does not allow us to address the structural conditions that shape inequality, deprivation, and vulnerability.

Looking through this lens, we see Samar Kanafani and Nadine Bekdache’s presentations as astute analyses of the broader conditions under which both refugees and elderly Lebanese citizens live precariously, and suffer inferior and insecure housing conditions. In this response, I show the spatial/historical continuities of the condition of vulnerability within Lebanon—between refugees, migrant workers, and impoverished citizens—and highlight a number of common themes that emerge in the three papers.

First and foremost, what distinguishes Lebanon from most other states in the Middle East and beyond is that long before the concept of “neoliberalism” became a mainstay of political economy analyses, the Lebanese state displayed neoliberal characteristics. It was a state at the service of the bourgeoisie, guaranteeing free movement and the free flow of capital across the Syrian-Lebanese border, and a more restricted conduit for the flow of labour across the same border. The Lebanese state’s support for the bourgeoisie and the orientation of its resources toward entrepreneurs is a further characteristic of neoliberalism. Lebanon’s neoliberal characteristics since its inception have meant that there have always been workers, migrants, and refugees who have had neither the protection of citizenship nor ownership of property.

A second element seemed particularly salient to me: the discussion of how Syrian workers/migrants squatted in precarious and often derelict ruins. When I first lived in Lebanon more than twenty years ago, what really struck me was that it was difficult to tell whether buildings were ruins or in the process of being built. What also struck me was that in so much of Beirut, and particularly in Ras Beirut, so many of the Syrian workers that were helping rebuild post-war Beirut actually lived on-site, and used tarpaulin and mudbrick to turn these ruins/half-built habitations into places they could inhabit until their employers no longer allowed them to do so.

In some ways, this provides a segue into Nadine’s research. She shows us how these processes of capital accumulation constructed around property and housing do two things simultaneously: they are processes of dispossessing significant parts of the population and they consolidate regimes of private ownership. Sometimes, they consolidate privatisation of public spaces; at other times they provide new property regimes which create property out of thin air (i.e., building permits which allow the construction of additional floors on top of pre-existing buildings).It seems to me that this same precarity is a condition of life in Beirut today, where landowners maintain marginal spaces of squatting and derelict housing in reserve, in ways that guarantee the accumulation of capital. If, in the past, such spaces had served to accommodate a disciplined and deportable labour force, today construction workers essentially hold a building in reserve until it can become the object of property speculation. What distinguishes the displaced from the phalanxes of migrants and refugees is their routine encounter with experts and vulnerable groups, and the constant exposure to an outside gaze.

That developers use property deeds to demarcate ownership—and with it belonging and personhood—is significant in some places. Think of, for comparison, Palestinians fighting the invasion of their homes by Israeli settlers. However, it is important to note that the property deeds can also be a means of upward redistribution of wealth or means of consolidating systems of capitalist ownership, accumulation, and development. This begins with John Locke, who sees in property ownership alone a fundamental and necessary condition of civilization. It continues in Hernando De Soto, whose solution to radical inequality and poverty in informal settlements in Latin America is the provision of land deeds (and presumably privatisation of state lands) to the poor.

Today, these particular views promote a technical solution to questions of reconstruction; they enshrine private property ownership as a natural or naturalized process. What they ignore is the very things that Samar’s and Nadine’s papers have highlighted: the unravelling of social relations, the erosion of the kind of convivial human relations that are crucial to survival in a neoliberal city, the hardening of communitarian divides, and wildly uneven urban planning approaches in two neighbourhoods separated by a road or a cemetery. This characterizes, for example, Tareek al-Jdeede. This also results in the strengthening of the power of sectarian institutions, which act as nodes of redistribution of social welfare.

I think what Samar’s and Nadine’s papers show in generous and textured ethnographic detail, and which Hanna exhorts us to understand is that the forms of vulnerability generated here are not individual. They are not even categorical, or “inherent to certain groups” as Hanna writes, whether these groups are elderly women without social security or Syrian migrant squatters. Rather, on the one hand, these vulnerabilities shine a light on longer-standing forms of structural injustice, and on the other hand, on the aggressive neoliberal solutions offered to these inequalities and injustices, including the pernicious discourse of resilience which Hanna spoke about.

[This article was originally published by Jadaliyya on 19 December, 2020.]