Changing the Subject: On The Priority of Injustice

The third theme that I have noticed running through The Priority of Injustice in my own re-read through of the whole thing follows on from the themes of ‘spatial grammar’ and the imperative of not seeking to correct other people’s flawed ontologies that I have already mentioned. I have come to view with deep distrust views of the task of Theory as a means of laying bare the aesthetic or affective or cognitive devices that reproduce people’s subjection. The idea that ‘people have been got at’, as Alan Sinfield once put it, is a recurring theme of a great deal of contemporary critical thought, especially when influenced by traditions of ideology critique – an influence that can be traced from theories of ideological state apparatuses through ideas about discourse and representation through to current fascinations with affect and atmospheres and algorithms. Across this range, the idea that politics – both of the sort one doesn’t approve and of the sort one hopes to support – works through changing the subject is a constant.

My interest in the theme of the ordinary is in no small part shaped by an effort to find a way of thinking that escapes the scholastic frame of reference that underwrites the ‘changing the subject’ paradigm. The ordinary is a theme that one can find in various thinkers – in Raymond Williams or Charles Taylor, for example, it is used as a counterpart to ideas of the privileged or the elect qualities of culture. This sense does have some presence in the more specific, but also somewhat elusive, sense of the ordinary that is indebted to Stanley Cavell’s work, elaborated, for example, in the writings of Veena Das. Ordinariness, in a Cavellian spirit, is a matter of affirming that the experience of the distance between the given and the possible is not an extraordinary one – it does not require a crisis, or a rupture, or some disruption of routine for this distance to be felt or apprehended. One reason that this affirmation is important, in relation to theories of subjectivity and subjectification, is that it throws into new relief the interpretation of contingency, whether of meaning or identity. The trick of being able to see all settled or inherited patterns of meaning as arbitrary (and interpreting arbitrariness as basically the same as ‘changeable’) easily leads to a scholastic temptation, as defined by Pierre Bourdieu, of projecting back onto practices under investigation the distance (social and analytical) that enables them to be objectified in the first place, and then transposing the revealed distance between the theoretical possibility of change and practical acceptance into a theory of power (i.e. power works by fixing and naturalising what are in fact fluid and contingent relations). Invoking Cavell, I would argue that this whole way of thinking misplaces “the vulnerability to doubt” that is one of his phrases for the ordinary, by failing to see that skepticism is a constant standing possibility of life, or, as I put it in the book, by not accepting the fact “that the world as we know it is not all that it may seem is an ever-present condition of action”.

Reflecting on all this as I have re-read my own book has made me think that there is actually a really interesting shift evident in the way in which change is figured in social theory over the last couple of decades (a shift that is really a line of important division, not a succession from one way of thinking to another). Explaining social change is, of course, a fairly basic concern of all sorts of social science, and usually involves some genre or another in which action is placed within a broader frame of context, or conditions, or constraint. Various traditions of thought, from the historicism of Weberian sociology to dialectically informed Marxism to theories of resilience, all tend to take it for granted that change is an intrinsic feature of social life – what’s a stake is how it is manifested. But with the ascendancy of subject-centred theories, under the sway of poststructuralist theories and the turn to ontology in particular, one can see the emergence of a different interpretation of change. In these strands of thought – whether it in theories of hegemony or of the distribution of the sensible or ontological politics or assemblage – it is presumed that the task of theory is to account for the stabilisation, ordering, or fixing of life into patterns of serial reproducibility. Change, in these accounts, is extraordinary – the objective is to establish theoretically the very possibility of change itself.

The difference here – between thinking of change as an ordinary feature of life that is manifested in various ways, or thinking of change as a rare event that interrupts orderly routines and stable patterns – seems to me now to be quite central to the contrast that I work through in The Priority of Injustice between action-oriented styles of social theory and subject-centric theories (which would include theories that remain fixated on demonstrating the illusory qualities of ‘the subject’). The latter traditions of thought are strongly attached to images of change as a punctual event – the echoes of classical ideas of revolution remain clear – that disrupts otherwise settled, more or less fixed habits. In the book, I suggest that this range of theory shares in an “unexamined idea of time: political time consists of a kind of punctuated equilibrium, where moments of dramatic and wholesale transformation of entire fields of action interrupt periods of durable and predictable routine.”

The set of relations between concepts of subjectivity-as-subjectification, ontologies of order, and images of change is in turn related to a remarkably resilient, shall we say, notion of the tasks of critique, understood primarily as a practice of denaturalization of apparently naturalized phenomenon – of demonstrating the theoretical possibility of the change-abilty of practices that are, apparently, lived and experienced as eternal and inevitable (the assumption that this is how life is ordinarily lived and experienced is, to reiterate, best thought of as a necessary projection of the methodological protocols derived from ontologized theories of subjectification).

The difference between action-oriented theories and subject-centric ones is partly related, in my discussion, to different attitudes to what Maeve Cooke calls “the justificatory dilemma” facing any avowedly critical theory, referring to the responsibility to justify that existing relationships both can and should be changed. To cut a long story short, subject-centric theories tend either to elide the problem of validity (justifying the vision of alternative futures that underwrites critique) into demonstrations of the plausibility of change, or, if more honest, they elevate openness to change and defamiliarization as the highest normative aspiration available to us (as the very essence of democracy, for example). The difference between these two styles of theory is the central narrative device in The Priority of Injustice – in particular, I use a simple contrast made by Axel Honneth to organize my discussion and evaluation of various strands of democratic theory. Honneth suggests that there are two broad paths out of what he calls the ‘productionist paradigm’ of critical theory (i.e. classical Marxism), in which substitutes for the lost faith in the universalizing agency of the industrial proletariat are found either in more pluralised accounts of rationalities of action (i.e. there’s more to life than labour), or in the search for deep ontological sources of the principle of negativity once invested in the working class (i.e. in antagonism, in abundance, lack, or even more perfectly, in the very gaps and fissures of ontological difference itself).

As you can probably tell, I am drawn towards the action-oriented strands of thought that Honneth points towards, and this informs my attempt to redeem something of value from the increasingly predictable literature on ‘the political’. If there is something distinctive that defines ‘the political’, then it’s not found in some irreducible force of antagonism, or in us/them relations, or in the ever present fact of violence. I commend Mary Dietz’s argument that what defines politics is an irreducible dimension of strategic action – this Machiavellian perspective helps us see that Foucault is the exemplary theorist of politics for our times, because Foucault is fascinated by strategic forms of action (that’s what Habermas and other similar thinkers haven’t liked about his work, and this dislike is what helps us see Foucault as first and foremost a theorist of action rather than ‘power’ -or, that what’s interesting about what he has to say about ‘power’ is the parts which are couched in the vocabulary of action). And all of this just means that rather than thinking of the distinction between politics and the political on the layer-cake analogy derived from political readings of Heidegger, it’s best thought of as directing our attention to the analysis of the different ratios between action and its conditions (that’s a reference to Kenneth Burke that I don’t make in The Priority of Injustice, but which I am thinking of developing properly in my next book).

Another thing to say about all of this is that the contrast between overly ontological readings of ‘the political’ and more ‘phenomenological’ versions that I prefer almost, but not quite exactly, maps directly onto the related contrast between realist/disassociative interpretations of the political and idealist/associative interpretations – my claim is that the significant choice is not between a grim and realist view of politics versus a rosier, more collective view; it’s between more social-theoretical traditions of action theory versus more culturalist-philosophical styles of subject-centric thought.

This argument about concepts of action and the subject is important because it goes to the central issue of how to understand democracy as a mode of the sharing of rule. There are different images of ‘sharing’ available to us, after all – it can be understood in terms of the singular will of all, or on the model of naturalistic consensus found in anarchism, or of being duped into acceding to rule by identifying with available distributions of the seeable and sayable, or, if you prefer, in terms of being bound to respect decisions to which one was at least in some respect a party. Subject-centric views of political life tend to rely on rather wooly ideas about consensus – consensus tends to be used to refer to any and all occasions in which action can be shown to accord to or attune with various background conditions, so that it isn’t even the name for a process of agreement. The relevant value in democratic theory isn’t really consensus anyway (not even in old uncle Habermas), it’s consent, which isn’t the same thing – consent has to be sought or won, and is almost certainly always grudging anyway, but the importance of holding this contrast open – between straw-figures of consensus and ideas of consent – is that it roots us back towards the importance of analysing the relations between ‘the politics of power’ and ‘the politics of support’ (I discuss all of that in Chapter 4 of the book, The Scandal of Consent, in which the dividing line between action-oriented theories and subject-centric theories is located within broadly poststructuralist strands of thought, so that Stuart Hall and Partha Chatterjee are shown to be much better guides to the dynamics of democratic politics than Laclau and Mouffe or Ranciere).

There is a geographical dimension to this strand of my argument too, in case you were wondering. A chain of associations derived from the subject-centric strand of thought has come to define a veritable paradigm of spatial politics in human geography, urban studies, and related fields:

  • the image of political time that contrasts images of settlement and order with moments of interruption and rupture lends itself to a view of proper politics as best exemplified by dramatic disruptions in and of public space;
  • it underwrites the view that proper politics inhabits margins and fissures, offset against mainstreams and the status quo;
  • it is closely associated, as we have seen, with a view of critique as a process of defamiliarization;
  • and it supports and is supported by understandings of how people’s subjectivities are functional effects of mediated systems of malevolent power.

Here then, the long shadow of Althusser’s notion of interpellation is still evident – it is the master-metaphor that one so often still finds governing the political interpretation of all sorts of other theory or theorists, all the way from Foucault to psychoanalysis and various points between. This combination of associations finds expression in an explicitly spatial model of politics as changing-the-subject:

  • subjects are formed, in this paradigm, by being ‘enframed’, by being set-in-place (before a painting, a chain of signifiers, a field of perception, a structure of address, or just immersed in an atmosphere);
  • throw in an orthodox interpretation of the relational formation of subjectivity, in which any collective identity as ‘We’ is constitutively posited against an abjected ‘Them’ (an interpretation of favoured sources that is just wrong), so that subject-formation appears as form of exclusionary territorialization;
  • and you arrive at a framework for analysing any and all practices as scenes for the reproduction of various exclusions and/or always potential sites for the creative reconfiguration of the imaginary identifications before which people remain, in the last instance (as they say), necessarily enthralled.

That, then, is what I am trying to work through, particularly in Part 2 of The Priority of Injustice, although these themes run across the whole thing. As I say, the contrast between action-oriented and subject-centric theories, which you may or may not find too stylized for your own tastes, captures for me something important that allows me to differentiate between strands of thought often bundled together in discussions of poststructuralism, or Continental philosophy, or political ontology – basically, I use this distinction to peel off various thinkers from that broad grouping, and draw them closer to strands of thought working a Habermasian vein with which they are normally not be associated. But I’ll say a little more about that re-arrangement next time.

Advertisements

Two Cheers for Structural Analysis: On The Priority of Injustice

I have already admitted that I love the cover of The Priority of Injustice, but I should also say that I am delighted to have a book about democracy that is actually published in Athens, and not Athens in Greece, but Athens in Georgia – a place that resonates in different ways for me, as the home of the B52s and REM of course, but also where my sister’s dog Betty Boop was bionically reconstructed and where I spent the oddest Valentine’s Day of my life and where I once bought an original copy of the Warren Commission Report for $1.

The associations with particular places that this admittedly rather abstract book has for me brings us to another theme running through The Priority of Injustice which I need to remember and affirm, namely the degree to which the value of universality depends upon rather than being ruined by the acknowledgement of the situated qualities of life. Now, universality is one of the most denigrated terms of contemporary TheoryLand. One of the presumptions of my book is that academic fields which spatial theorists are often rather sniffy about – thought of as suffering from ‘anaemic’ spatial imaginations – might be sources of smarter styles of geographical analysis than is acknowledged. They might, for example, be much better at thinking carefully about the difference between universality and generality, or between particularity and specificity, than traditions of critical spatial theory, which tend too often to think that critiques of universalism in philosophy, for example, pertain primarily to the problem of whether certain concepts, ideas or principles can be applied everywhere.

I suggest in the book that discussions of universalism need to more carefully distinguish between a sense of universality as referring to an ambition to impartiality and a sense of universality as animating spirit of claims for inclusion (an argument drawn from, amongst others, Seyla Benhabib and Carol Gould). Part of the point of making the distinction is because it draws into view the variety of ‘genres of reasoning’ through which universality is articulated in passionate, partial registers. This argument is linked to an elaboration of the revised idea of ‘criteria’ to be found in Stanley Cavell’s work – where they are understood not as principles under which phenomena are placed and evaluated, but as means of ‘going on’ in new situations. The broader significance of this view of criteria is that it underscores how the proposition that ‘meaning is use’ is best understood as taking on its full force by reference to the idea that meanings change as they are applied to new situations. I discuss all of this in Chapter 2 of the book, Criteria for Democratic Inquiry, which covers, amongst other things, Hannah Arendt and Derrida on exemplary thinking and judgment as well as Cavell on criteria and Gallie on essentially contested concepts, all in order to outline what I take to be the notably geographical problem of how to understand democracy’s translability across different contexts (a problem that is actually neatly resolved by Charles Tilly in the best ever extended analogy between lakes and political life you will ever come across). Thinking of the meaning/use relation in terms of application – thinking that using concepts is precisely about using them in new situations – is also a way of underscoring the sense of the ordinariness of political concepts that I try to elaborate in the book, in so far as the theme of the ordinary in Cavell especially directs us to a sense in which newness is not a dramatic rupture from settled patterns, nor an extraordinary departure from established norms, but just a matter of ‘moves in new directions from what we have done before’ (to paraphrase Cora Diamond) in the course of ‘going on’ with action (to refer back to Cavell).

In the second half of the same chapter, via that analogy from Tilly, I link the philosophical account of the ordinariness of democracy as a concept to some more social scientific work that treats democracy in the same spirit – as ‘enacted’ in various forms and as ‘ethnographically emergent’, again stealing ideas from others (Mike Saward and Julia Paley respectively) – my book is as much a paean to my own favourite thinkers as anything else; it’s the work of a fan.

I use this line of argument to recommend a remarkably simple idea, culled from Albert Hirschman’s work on the lessons to learn from post-war modernization programmes (a precursor to his more famous account of the importance of analysing different combinations of exit/voice/loyalty to understand the dynamics of organizational fields). Hirschman suggested that one look into the “structural characteristics” of different projects, by which he meant the forms of leverage and the limits and path dependencies that determine the degree of what he calls “latitude” and “discipline” imposed by situations on the scope of discretion available to participants (this is all part of a more famous story about the “hiding hand” and why ‘development’ does not require preconditions already to be in place). The point of all this, in my book, is to suggest that political analysis should avoid presuming in advance that the causes behind observed conflicts are self-evident, by falling into the trap of  theoreticism, again, in which one always already knows in advance that expressions of discontent are indices of some ‘underlying’ structural cause (‘neoliberalism’, etc., etc., etc.). That sense of ‘structural’, the one that comes so easily to forms of critical analysis, might well underplay what Bernard Williams called “the significance of conflict”, which directs attention not only to an appreciation of causes and conditions but also to what conflicts mean to those involved, from the inside.

The concern with ‘structural characteristics’ in Hirschman is, then, a matter of demonstrating a certain sort of contextual sensitivity to the qualities, one might say (in order not to say ‘materialities’), of situations without lapsing into particularism.

And all of this, in Chapter 2, is then a precursor to the argument presented in a later chapter, Chapter 5 (The Significance of Conflict), when Hirschman returns, alongside Jon Elster and Helmut Dubiel, to help me outline a much more ordinary way of thinking about the much vaunted ‘irreducibility’ of contestation and antagonism in political life (who, after all, doesn’t recognize that?). My argument there is that rather than wallow in the odd worlds of ontological layerings and becomings, it might be more productive to follow a path of analysis focussed on making sense of ‘rationalities of action’, suggesting here that a series of conceptual distinctions found in various strands of thought – between distribution and recognition (Honneth, Fraser, Tully, etc.), or communicative and strategic action (Habermas), class and status (Fraser, again), arguing and bargaining (Elster, and Hirschmann, and Dubiel), perhaps convincing and persuading too (Habermas, and Rorty, and Diamond, etc.) – are best understood as aspects of any and all forms of action which can be combined in different ways (again, this is meant as a kind of heuristic redemption of ideas often taken in too categorical a way even when they are not explicitly ontologized). And all of this – this whole way of working out a sense of why looking at the ‘structural characteristics’ of situations might be important – is meant to culminate in the recommendation that one dimension (one of three) of a geographical analysis of political life would involve the diagnostic investigation of “the types of influence to which particular patterns of the exercise of power are susceptible”.

The distinction between thinking of ‘structural’ in terms of a contrast between the contingently observed and real causality, or, by contrast, in terms of a sensitivity to the latitudes and disciplines characteristic of situations, is crucial to differentiating between two models of ‘critique’ (another running theme of this book). In one, being critical is all about revealing that ‘power’ always lies behind observable phenomena, in a kind of debunking manoeuvre (this is far and away the most taken-for-granted understanding of the critical vocation in self-consciously ‘critical’ social and cultural analysis). In the other, being critical is simply a matter of clarifying the pressures and limits that orient possibilities of action in particular situations (which means that people who write drama might be better guides to the art of criticism than theorists trained in the skills of deducing the effects of cultural works).

From this second perspective, an operative concept of structure is a basic requirement of any form of social science analysis, however reluctant people might be to use the idea of structure itself (here is Roberto Unger explaining why). This relates back to an issue I touched upon last time, concerning the degree to which debates about the meaning of the distinction between politics and the political turn on the interpretation of the relationship between observed actions and their conditions.

Iris Marion Young, one of the stars of The Priority of Injustice, once made the point straightforwardly enough, pointing out that a ‘structural’ form of analysis is concerned with identifying the factors that position people in relationships that in turn help to shape their understandings, their capacities, their desires (on this reading, structure is a concept of possibility, not of necessity – that’s Unger’s point too). Young’s point is that ‘structural’ analysis is a characteristic of a certain sort of genre, a particular type of story. And this view of structure goes back to E.P. Thompson’s polemical revision of the notion of determination as ‘the setting of limits’ and ‘the exerting of pressures’ on action, an idea that is now finding a new life, mediated via the recovery of Raymond Williams’ allusive notion of “structures of feeling”, in non-representational theories of affect and atmosphere. Which just goes to show how that basic intuition about the structuring of action is not abandoned in avowedly post-structuralist theories – it’s just sublimated into ontological narratives of being and becoming, or suturing, or undecidability, or magmas of signification, and so on (that is, sublimated into the search for THE source of negativity or excess that allows one to posit the certainty of the possibility of change), as well as into the general fascination with functionalist accounts of how ‘subjects’ are made and re-made in all sorts of ways by forces that lie beyond them. More on that topic next time.

What are the humanities good for?

SMAGThere is, apparently, a ‘war against the humanities‘ going on in British higher education, according to a piece in The Observer this weekend. The piece cites as its primary evidence for this ‘war’ the perspectives of scholars from the humanities, of course, lamenting the effects of changes to funding regimes but also the culture of management in British Universities on the proper pursuit of scholarship.

I always worry when ‘the humanities’ is used as a catch-all to encompass the social sciences as well as more ‘arts’-type fields. It is true, of course, that both arts and social sciences disciplines have suffered from the same funding changes since 2010, but I’m not quite sure that the standard ‘whither the humanities?’ style of criticism of higher education policy over this period necessarily sheds much light on what is really going on, or on how best to evaluate it. The piece in The Observer shares various features of a broader genre of criticism of higher education transformation in the name of ‘the humanities’:

First, as already noted, it conflates a range of different disciplines, but presents next to no insight from anyone who looks or sounds like a social scientist. No doubt we could argue about whether the social sciences counts as ‘humanities’ or not, but in this sort of piece, it turns out that ‘the humanities’ really means literary and arts-based fields and forms of analysis. Therein lay the values most under threat from funding changes and top-down management styles and impact agendas. Amongst other things, one effect of this elision of social science is a tendency to present ‘the sciences’ as the more or less unwitting bad guys in the story. Two cultures, all over again, one of which is always a bit too uncultured.

Second, the lament about the squeezing of ‘humanities’ is often enough made in the name of the values of criticism and critique, but I do wonder whether we should really look for our models of these practices from ‘the humanities’ anymore? To be fair, there is a ‘social science’ version of the same lament. John Holmwood, for example, has written in much the same vein recently about the apparent marginalisation of the critical voice of social sciences in British public debate. Holmwood worries that social science is being shaped too pragmatically, in such a way as to displace attention to social structures. I dare say that an appeal to the value of social science as lying in access to knowledge of structures and possibilities of change bears some structural similarity to the form of discerning insight that ‘the humanities’ are meant to have. In both cases, ‘critique’ is the magical practice that is best able to articulate with public worlds by maintaining a certain sort of distance from them.

The genre is remarkably resilient, it seems, even resurgent. Unhappily, it turns on quite conventional oppositions between (bad) instrumental knowledge and (good) critical knowledge. Somewhere in between, the scope for thinking about different versions of instrumentality gets lost, and the critical voice gets snared in its own contradictions, being forced to disavow various public entanglements (the impact agenda, most obviously, or treating students as adults, rather more implicitly), in the name of a weakly expressed ideal of the worldly force of ‘really useless knowledge’.

There is much to lament about the state of British higher education. And there is, of course, a ‘campaign for social science‘, which has recently managed to produce a deeply embarrassing representation of the value of social science that might well confirm all one’s suspicions about the selling-out of social scientists to ‘neoliberal agendas’ (we are in ‘the business of people‘, apparently). Social science is, of course, a divided field, as Holmwood implies. So too, one might suspect, are ‘the humanities’. The resilience of the ‘two cultures’ genre has been evident since 2010, at least, when arguments in the defence of the ‘public university’ took off in response to Coalition policy changes. It was evident, for example, in the controversy around the AHRC’s alignment with ‘the big society’ agenda (remember that?). That episode illustrated the division within the humanities I just mentioned, rather than an impure imposition of pernicious instrumentalism from the outside. It turns out, of course, that the humanities are really good at being instrumentally useful, at knowing how to ‘sell-out’; not least, humanities fields have been at the forefront of legitimizing the impact agenda both in principle and in practice (as evidenced by evaluations of impact submissions and indicators in the 2014 REF exercise).

The ‘two cultures’ genre is always a trap, not least in the current conjuncture when the defence of ‘the value of the humanities’ is made alongside sweeping references to neoliberalization of higher education. Like it or not, the restructuring of higher education in Britain, and elsewhere, is explicitly made in the name of public values like accountability and social mobility; as a result, the defence of ‘the humanities’ always already suffers from a populist deficit when articulated from within the confines of the two cultures genre, however refined that has become in the hands of Stefan Collini or Martha Nussbaum. ‘Neoliberalism’ is, of course, a social science concept, but not a very good one, especially in this context, because in its most sophisticated varieties, it doesn’t allow you to recognise that contemporary political-economic processes involve the reconfiguration of the means and ends of public life, rather than just a straightforward diminution of public life (here represented by ‘the humanities’) in the face of privatisation, individualism, and competition.

Herein lies the real problem with the elision of social science into a precious view of ‘the humanities’ as the repository of irreducibly qualitative values: the defence of the humanities is generally made via a simplistic conceptual vocabulary of ‘the market’, ‘the state’, ‘bureaucracy’, and other hoary old figures of the forces of philistinism. There is a critique, certainly, to be made of trends in higher education in the UK, but it probably requires better social science, better social theory, than the prevalent defence of ‘the humanities’ seems able or willing to muster. It would require, amongst other things, giving up on the idea that critique is a special preserve of ‘the humanities’, or indeed that it requires discerning access to structural analysis.

Is governmentality a dirty word?

What difference, I wonder, has the publication in English of Foucault’s lecture course on The Birth of Biopolitics, which aren’t, after all, actually about biopolitics, made to ‘hegemonic’ theoretical accounts of the rise and spread and future of neoliberalism? The newly available ‘voice’ of Foucault in these and other lecture courses might well support the established interpretative conventions under which neoliberalism appears as an object of critical approbation.  

There is plenty there that will be grist to the ‘neoliberalization’ mill, providing a further impetus to the instrumentalization of ‘governmentality’ and ‘biopolitics’ as the descriptive adjuncts to a recidivist Marxist narrative in which ‘the State’ has come to directly voice the interests of a singular capitalist class, and to diffusionist accounts of the spread of ‘neoliberal reason’. Foucault can easily be made to seem remarkably prescient in focussing so much attention, way back in 1979, on the cusp of the Thatcher and Reagan ascendency, to the topic of neoliberalism. There is a sense of inevitability that the publication of these lectures will just give further impetus to the trend analysed by my colleague John Clarke, for ‘neoliberalism’ to become an object without which the contemporary academic left just could not live.

Is Foucault criticizing neoliberalism in these lectures?

On closer inspection, of course, Foucault’s account of ‘neoliberalism’ is not straightforwardly a critique of a free-market, laissez-faire ideology at all: Foucault’s ‘neoliberalism’ isn’t just about ‘free markets versus the state’ for a start; and it might not even be a critique. His account reconstructs economic liberalism as a line of thought in which markets are conceptualised as a model for limited government, a model which does not appeal to ideals of a subject naturally endowed with rights. In this respect, in the emphasis on thinking about neoliberal thought as a quite specific tradition of thinking about legitimation, the state, and law, there are some interesting overlaps with Raymond Plant’s recent account of neoliberal thought. This emphasis makes quite a lot of difference, I think, to how an assessment of what’s wrong with neoliberalism in theory and practice could even get off the ground (it means, for example, restoring to view the philosophical issues at stake in 1920s and 1930s debates about ‘socialist calculation’, in which issues of empiricism, rationalism, and the possibilities of imagining and institutionalizing genuinely democratic governance of economic relationships were central; the elision of this dialogic context from which neoliberalism emerges is symptomatic of a rather important silence in existing critical accounts of neoliberalism when it comes to thinking seriously about alternative models of democratic politics and policy).

Foucault’s lectures on neoliberalism certainly bear the unmistakable trace of their own moment, a context of distinctively French debates, for example, about the state, channelled through a reflection on the trajectory of the post-war German SPD. Foucault presents the SPD’s Bad Godesburg moment as indicative of more than simply a submission to electoral logic, but more ‘positively’ as one moment when socialist politics acknowledged the imperatives of governing.  

It’s this interpretation of the trajectory of twentieth-century left-wing political thought that is one of the most interesting aspects of these lectures. Two thirds of the way through the year’s course, Foucault gives two reasons for spending so much time on this particular intellectual constellation of economic liberalism, one methodological (trying to test whether the analysis of relations of power rolled out the previous year translates to this subject matter); and one related to what he calls ‘critical morality’. It’s this second reason that is both a direct index of one aspect of the historical context of the lectures, but which also provides perhaps the most interesting interruption, as it were, to contemporary formations of the political significance of ‘Foucault’.

A recurrent theme in the lectures is the ‘phobia of the state’, and the suggestion of a link, an elective affinity of sorts, between right-wing neoliberal ideas and left-wing critiques of the state as capacious, bureaucratic, omnipotent, violent, paternalistic. This feature of the lectures presents a puzzle – Foucault is hardly a friend of the state, after all. The consistent theme in Foucault’s political thought of de-centring the state from the imagination of power is not only a theoretical claim, it’s clearly a normative position too, implying the need to decentre the state as the privileged locus of attention in imagining political action. The puzzle becomes a bit less puzzling when Foucault talks about the way in which state phobia encourages what he calls ‘the interchangeability of analyses’ – how it makes possible the running together of different sorts of analysis into a general critique of ‘the state’. State phobia turns out to be a mirror image of statism – both fail Foucault’s ‘test’ of genuinely innovative thought about power, as it is articulated in these lectures at least, which is to face up to the challenge of thinking positively about the exercise of power rather than simply denouncing it (the sense of governmentality as the unthought dimension of left-politics in these lectures is surely a challenge to those attempts to re-claim Foucault for an old-fashioned revolutionary image of politics).

Is this just a 70s thing?

There is an interesting coincidence between Foucault, identifying this ‘critical’ intention behind his treatment of neoliberalism, and Stuart Hall’s canonical analysis of Thatcherism, which dates from the same time – 1978, 1979, and 1980. What both accounts share is a polemical background in which it is the habits of left politics and theory that are a constant target. As Michael Berubé has argued, Hall’s conceptualization of Thatcherism/neoliberalism was directed as much, if not more, to developing a critique of established conventions of left-thinking as it was with analysing right-wing conservative politics per se. Berubé’s point is actually that this aspect of Hall’s analysis has largely been overlooked, in the US context in particular, with the result that many of those theoretical-critical habits remain prevalent, with some unfortunate consequences.

Foucault’s critique of left habits of criticism is less sustained in these lectures than was Hall’s, amounting to a few passing, suggestive remarks. But the same question arises as that raised by Berubé in his defence of the continuing relevance of Hall’s thirty year old analysis of Thatcherism, of whether the challenge his account of neoliberalism presents to inherited habits of left criticism will be acknowledged or glossed over.

The relevance of this dimension of Foucault’s neoliberalism lectures does seem to be attracting attention amongst some commentators. Colin Gordon, for example, has suggested that the ‘critique of critique’ contained in the 1979 lectures might require ‘wide swathes’ of contemporary critical thought to be re-assessed. Paul Patton, who has been writing some interesting things about how Foucault might turn out be ‘more normative’ as a thinker than we are meant to believe, picks up on the same element of the 1979 lectures – to raise question of what sort of critical project is performed by this analysis of neoliberalism. Michael Behrent goes even further, arguing that Foucault actually seems to be ‘strategically endorsing’ neoliberalism, and for reasons which are quite consistent with a long-standing anti-humanist perspective.

I think the most forthright response to the sorts of challenge which Gordon, Patton and Behrent identify in Foucault’s lectures on neoliberalism comes from James Ferguson, who has a new essay on ‘Toward a left art of government’ in a special edition of History of the Human Sciences dedicated to assessing Foucault’s impact across disciplines. There is no mention in this collection of Foucault in Geography, but Ferguson’s account of Foucault in anthropology overlaps with and certainly resonates with the world of geography. Indeed, this piece is a more succinct version of an argument on ‘the uses of neoliberalism’ that Ferguson elaborated last year in Antipode. In that piece, Ferguson articulated the reasons why the running together of Marxist accounts of neoliberalism and those inflected by Foucault’s account of governmentality hides from view a quite distinctive political sensibility which might be retrieved from the analytics of governmentality. Ferguson identifies a standard style of critique as denunciation of exploitation, inequality and oppression, but suggests this might be rather limited: “But what if politics is really not about expressing indignation or denouncing the powerful? What if it is, instead, about getting what you want?” This latter question, he continues, “brings us very quickly to the question of government. Denunciatory analyses often treat government as the simple expression of power or domination—the implication apparently being that it is politically objectionable that people should be governed at all. But any realistic sort of progressive politics that would seek a serious answer to the question “what do we want?” will have to involve an exploration of the contemporary possibilities for developing genuinely progressive arts of government.”

The challenge of developing progressive arts of government that Ferguson is presenting in these pieces is, it should be said, not necessarily dependent on a claim to the textual authority revealed in the ‘new and improved’ Foucault (for one thing, the fundamental normative break indicated by the notion of governmentality, around thinking about freedom as a real and not illusory dimension of the exercise of power, is already clear in the first volume of The History of Sexuality and other pieces available for two decades now – the really interesting question to ask is why this shift has been so difficult to acknowledge from within the confines of contemporary left theory – the exceptions might be some strands of queer theory, and a pragmatist strain of cultural policy studies that flourished in Australia in the 1980s and 1990s).

Ferguson’s arguments draw as much from the empirical work he has been involved in Southern Africa (and for that reason, his ambition to develop “a truly Foucauldian politics” seems to me to be rather irrelevant). Ferguson recommends the cultivation of a political sensibility of ‘empirical experimentation’ rather than of denunciation and resistance. This recommendation draws on his work on the politics of development and poverty alleviation, not least in South Africa. Now, South African social policies have become one paradigm for the established narrative of neoliberalization, focussing on the privatization of services through cost recovery schemes in water, electricity, housing and related sectors. The degree to which these observable empirical processes actually confirm a ‘neoliberalization’ narrative has been challenged, however, for example by Jenny Robinson and Sue Parnell – they argue that the developmental imperatives at work in Global South contexts like South Africa might be much more ‘determinative’ of the politics of travelling policies than the putatively ‘neoliberal’ content of any specific market-related mechanism. Ferguson’s story is along the same lines, arguing that the observable trend for the expansion of social payments to the poor across much of the developing world demands more than an analysis based on suspicion and denunciation. Ferguson suggests that the difficulty that left-academic analysis has in acknowledging these forms of governmentality as potentially progressive arises from a problem identified by Foucault in his lectures of neoliberalism, namely the failure to develop what he called, way back then in the 1970s, a ‘socialist’ rationality of government. Ferguson’s implication is that you can in fact find in certain fields of contemporary development policy the outlines of distinctively left arts of government.

One thing that Ferguson’s argument asks of us is to rethink the long-standing tendency to think of ‘technical’ or ‘administrative’ procedures and practices as vehicles of de-politicization. Of course, this assumption is basic to a standard style of critical analysis: demonstrating that such procedures and practices are really political, not merely technical, is the first trick of critical analysis; then pointing out that they are doubly political because they also effectively de-politicize or cover over their own political status, that’s the second, more advanced trick. Here is Ferguson, on this critical procedure in anthropology, but which is familiar too in geography, cultural studies, and so on:

the characteristic strategy is to use Foucauldian analysis to reveal the way that interventions, projects, etc., which claim to be merely technical or benevolent, really involve relations of power. This is a perfectly reasonable thing to do, but too often, in this field, such a simple demonstration is apparently seen as the end of the exercise. Power has been ‘critiqued’, an oppressive system has been exposed as such, and that seems to be taken as a satisfactory end to the matter.” (2011, p. 62).

Ferguson suggests that this model of critique is actually closely related to a more fundamental predicament of the left:

The predicament is that the left seems increasingly to be defined by a series of gestures of refusal – what I call ‘the antis’ (anti-globalization, anti-neo-liberalism, anti-privatization, anti-Bush, sometimes even anti-capitalism – but always ‘anti’, never ‘pro’). The current world system, the politics of the ‘anti-’ points out, rests on inequality and exploitation. The global poor are being screwed, while the rich are benefiting. The powerless are getting the short end of the stick. This is all perfectly true, of course, if not terribly illuminating. But such lines of argument typically have very little to propose by way of an alternative ‘art of government’. Governing is exercising power over others, which is what the powerful do to the downtrodden. It appears as something to be resisted or denounced, not improved or experimented with.” (2011, p. 62).

Ferguson is on to something here, in identifying the degree to which received models of ‘Foucault’ support a style of critique in which the exercise of power is understood to be inherently dubious, at best an unfortunate necessity, and in which subjection to external norms is understood to be a fundamental source of harms.

Of course, Ferguson’s own work might be one source of the critical attitude he is analysing here. The Anti-Politics Machine is a story all about how development projects have de-politicizing effects, and it stands in a line of empirically grounded work on such topics as ‘the will to improve’ and ‘the will to empower’ which exemplify a style of analysis which demonstrates the political effects enacted through bureaucratic and technical practices undertaken with good intentions. More recently, Ferguson’s contribution to the analysis of ‘transnational governmentality’ and the critique of ‘state verticality’ might also easily lend itself to the standard interpretation of governmentality as a really sneaky way of extending disciplinary power. But in fact, this latter strain of work seriously undermines some of the assumptions underlying the critical conceptualization of neoliberalization, in so far as it unpicks the presumptions about the historical formation of welfare states, generalised wage labour, unionization and the like which underlie that conceptualization. Actually, critical theories of neoliberalism and neoliberalization might exemplify what after Raewyn Connell, we can call ‘Northern Theory’. The institutional norms presumed by those theories, in developing their historicist accounts of rolling-back, privatizations, accumulation by dispossession, and the diffusion of mobile policies, might be really quite peculiar. Once you notice this, processes theorised under the rubric of neoliberalism might look a little different, thought no more rosy necessarily. For example, Ferguson’s attention to the proliferation of social assistance programmes chimes with Partha Chatterjee’s analysis of the changed dynamics of political power in contemporary India. He suggests that the proliferation and extension of agencies distributing education, health, food, water, electricity and other services is an index of a quite specific democratic imperative to correct for, to compensate for, the effects of ongoing ‘primitive accumulation’. This process is, on his analysis, mediated by the demands and negotiations of ‘political society’ (it’s therefore far from merely technical or administrative, but political all the way down in its mundane, everyday qualities of negotiation, claims, and representation), and this dimension might well underlie the politics of corruption, anti-corruption, populism and anti-populism evident in India and other places. From Chatterjee’s perspective, it seems that what geographers and others have theorised in terms of ‘accumulation by dispossession’ is ‘overdetermined’ when set in the context of existing democratic settlements, and can generate an expansion of certain sorts of public, redistributive functions of the state, not their diminution – and that this needs to be understood as an extension of the political field, not as an index of post-politicization.

What has critique got to do with governmentality?

Ferguson’s argument about ‘left arts of government’ is a challenge to received understandings of Foucault as a kind of critical theorist. There is a long-standing history of attempts to redeem Foucault as providing a worthy model of political critique. But most of these end up restricting the ‘affirmative’ dimensions of Foucault’s genealogy of modern critique to the practice of cultivating alternative aesthetics of the self, a tendency that only tends to underscore the broader idea that the normative horizon of proper critique is shaped by the will not be subjected to the norms of others, by the will not to be governed. Now, I think Ferguson’s argument about this issue stands up irrespective of whether you can find a textual source in Foucault’s works to support it. But he certainly does help draw into focus those moments when Foucault does seem to extend the affirmative dimensions of ‘critique’ beyond this narrowly aesthetic model of the care of the self (Pierre Hadot once perceptively  suggested that this dimension of Foucault’s later work, if taken too seriously, threatened to authorise ‘a new form of Dandyism, late twentieth-century style’ – a point, I take it, that helps us to see the inherent dangers of constructing critique as a vocation that rests on unacknowledged conditions of social distinction).

There is an interesting section of Foucault’s 1978 lecture on ‘What is critique?’ which Ferguson’s piece made me go back and look at – recently translated in the Semiotext(e) collection The Politics of Truth. Here, as in the much commented up essay on Kant’s ‘What is Enlightenment?’, Foucault locates his own ‘critical’ vocation as an inflection of distinctively modern, liberal models of critique – and in particular marries up critique to the historical trajectory of ‘governmentalization’ he discerns. On one level, this reads like the standard story about how critique is internally related to governmentality, not a transcendental viewpoint outside power, and so on. The governmentalization of individuals and society is, so he argues, related to the emergence of the question of ‘how not to be governed’, the question at the heart of liberalism, and of a distinctively modern ‘critical attitude’. Foucault specifies the nature of this relationship of critique to processes of governmentalization quite precisely, in a passage that repays a slow reading:

Facing them head on and as compensation, or rather as partner and adversary to the arts of governing, as an act of defiance, as a challenge, as a way of limiting these arts of governing and sizing them up, transforming them, of finding a way to escape from them or, in any case, a way to displace them, with a basic distrust, but also and by the same token, as a line of development of the arts of governing…” (2007, pp. 44-45).

This is Foucault’s summary of a general cultural form of ‘critique’, defined as “the art of not being governed or better, the art of not being governed like that and at that cost” (2007, pp. 45). An awful lot might depend on how you interpret the hesitation, ‘or better’, and the clarification that follows. Foucault ends the passage with a line about critique being about ‘the art of not being governed quite so much’. But the more interesting focus is not on the quantity, let us say, of government to which one might be subjected, but its quality – the recurring emphasis in this essay is on critique being related to not being governed ‘like that’. Again, this sits easily within a received model of Foucault as recommending a situated model of critique. In the Q&A published alongside this essay, Foucault clarifies further, saying that critique is not animated by the will not to be governed at all – he disavows the stronger impression attached to the idea of not being governed at all, and does not endorse what he calls the ‘fundamental anarchism’ that is totally resistant to any governmentalization.

Ferguson’s argument makes you notice the second part of the quote above – the bit which opens ‘but also and by the same token’… Before that, critique is still easily read as being a corrective, a mode of more or less resistant engagement – a view that still informs a model of critique as ‘a series of gestures of refusal’, a practice of “voluntary insubordination” and ‘de-subjectification’ that seems to confirm Hadot’s warning about dandyism. In a few words, Foucault then says that critique is also ‘a line of development of the arts of governing’. That seems a much more interesting suggestion, one which might well support Ferguson’s call. It seems to suggest that critique is not just a suspension of the ‘programmatic’, but requires a ‘reconstructive’ moment, if you will. If it doesn’t, in fact, if it’s only a shred, then so be it – as I said, Ferguson’s argument carries its own force, and is not best read I think as an argument about how best to interpret Foucault. But I do think there might be something about ‘being in the true’ of received interpretations of Foucault that make those moments like this which support an interpretation like Ferguson’s really difficult to acknowledge.

Ferguson does call on Foucault’s authority, of course, in developing the argument about the need to develop progressive arts of government. In particular, he refers to the line in the 1979 lectures in which Foucault talks about socialism lacking not a theory of the state but a governmental reason, ‘a definition of what a governmental rationality would be in socialism’ (this theme was a topic of an unfinished project with Didier Eribon, reported in Eribon’s biography of Foucault and in David Macey’s too, and is another index of a particular moment in French political culture). In his Antipode essay, Ferguson focuses in on the claim that this absence is the mark of a failure of the left to answer the question of power and its exercise’ as a positive aspect of left politics. For Foucault, this absence if revealed most clearly in ‘the relationship of conformity to a text’ that defines left politics in the twentieth-century – in the concern with Theory, and with thinking of politics in terms of ideology, and by extension, to a subject-centred model of left-politics (which raises some interesting questions about the degree to which the continuing focus of left-analysis on Theory, not least Foucault’s, and often in terms of subjectivity and subjection, is a sign of the ongoing failure to address questions of ‘governmental reason’ in a pro-active fashion).

In Foucault’s story, it’s the absence of a socialist account of governmentality appropriate to itself that accounts for the ease with which in practice socialism had been attached to diverse types of governmentality: “here it is connected up to this governmentality and there is it connected up to another, yielding very dissimilar fruit in both cases and, in the event of course of a more or less normal or aberrant branch, the same deadly fruit”. Herein lies the basis of Foucault’s argument about the relationship between the SPD and the ordo-liberals – this is a contingent attachment to ‘neoliberal’ governmental reason, the significance of which is to illustrate the general point about the absence of a socialist one ‘properly’ its own (I think this is an interesting line of thought, not least in relation to understanding how a set of debates in the UK in the 1980s and early 1990s around market socialism, for example, collapsed and seemingly disappeared in the embrace by ‘New Labour’ of certain strains of ‘neoliberal’ thought).

Ferguson reads this aspect of Foucault’s argument to support his case that ‘neoliberal’ techniques might be ripe for appropriation, for re-use for progressive purposes: “Techniques have no necessary loyalty to the political program within which they were developed, and mechanisms of government that were invented to serve one purpose can easily enough be appropriated for surprising other uses.” I’m broadly sympathetic to this argument, but I wonder if there isn’t a danger of conflating ‘techniques’ and ‘governmental reason’ going on here. The idea that re-using neo-liberal techniques – market mechanisms of various sorts – is a response to Foucault’s challenge about the absence of left arts of governmental might get things the wrong way around – such re-use might, in the absence of an articulate ‘left governmentality’, be symptomatic of the very absence Foucault diagnosed. It’s not ‘techniques’ or ‘technologies’ that are the problem (I leave aside the question here of whether and why one should consider all market mechanisms to be meaningfully described as ‘neoliberal’). What Ferguson’s appeal to Foucault here suggests is that just what is meant by ‘governmental reason’, or ‘governmental rationality’, might require a little more careful clarification – arts of government might not be quite the same as technologies, however broadly the latter term is understood.

Where can I find ‘progressive arts of government’?

Ferguson’s argument about ‘progressive arts of government’ actually reminds me of Erik Olin Wright’s work on ‘real utopias’ which I have posted about previously. But not just because I read it a little while ago. The connection might seem strained – Wright is no Foucauldian; Ferguson is not an analytical Marxist. But the connection is, appropriately, empirical – both focus on experiments with basic income schemes and social grants as models of alternative political and policy engagement. In fact, there are some interesting overlaps between Wright’s interest in basic income schemes, Ferguson’s focus on social assistance programmes and cash transfers, and Chatterjee’s reference to poverty alleviation projects – not least, these all seem to share a focus on de-linking government supported consumption from wage labour, and in that respect, have rather interesting overlaps with Milton Friedman’s model of the ‘negative tax’, a model discussed by Foucault in the 1979 lectures, which also provides for cash handouts to the poor irrespective of behaviour, of ‘desert’. Foucault did not deny the obvious politics of this model in terms of not addressing causes, not redistributing, not interfering with markets – but he seemed to be most interested in the fact that this model was ‘much less bureaucratic and disciplinary’ than classical forms of ‘liberal’ intervention.

Ferguson asks us to look upon these sorts of experiments in social assistance in a more positive light than received models of critical analysis might suggest, and not least to consider seriously the degree to which they represent genuinely alternative forms of governmentality – that is, of progressive political imaginations that do not eschew institutionalisation or governing as unhappy moments of selling-out or compromise. What Ferguson presents as the appropriation of ‘neoliberal’ mechanisms for different ends, theorists of neoliberalization would see as proof of the mutantly capacious quality of neoliberalism. The difference is, at the end of the day, a conceptual one –Fergusondoes, as I have said, remind you of the degree to which the conceptual frame that sustains the capacious interpretation is tied to certain normative blindspots about the experience of Western Europe and North America. It should also be said that the idea that anything touched by neoliberalism is therefore infected all the way through with neoliberalism rests on a power of influence never adequately theorised by its proponents. To suggest, as Robinson and Parnell do, that there might be more powerful influences at work in many contexts than ‘neoliberalism’ doesn’t mean everything is rosy – it just might mean accepting there are worse things in the world, politically, than neoliberal ideas, techniques, and rationalities.

I guess that I like Ferguson’s argument because it presumes that politics can take new forms – that the political meaning and effects of practices cannot be read-off from their origins, nor indeed from their ‘content’. Presuming that they can, that ‘neoliberal’ practices are always and everywhere tending towards the same political intention or outcome for example, is one mark of a style of thinking about politics in an excessively ‘textual’ or ‘theoreticist’ way.

Can governing ever be properly political?

The question which Ferguson raises, about the possibility of developing distinctively left or progressive arts of government, doesn’t really arise under the influential interpretation of politics in terms of the categorical, ontological division between politics and the political. In its different more-or-less poststructuralist variants, this conception of ‘the political’ effectively disavows the exercise of power as a properly political activity – this is rendered a matter of ‘police’, of ordering, of mere governing, of the instrumental and the programmatic, whereas ‘proper politics’ is reserved for the activity of disrupting and challenging settled conventions (not all usages of the notion of ‘the political’ have this kind of inflection of course – Habermas has an interesting recent essay in a collection on religion in the public sphere in which he suggests that the concept of ‘the political’ that has come back in to fashion under the influence of Laclau, Agamben, Lefort, Nancy and others does have some use, although for him this is primarily as a type of empirical concept – a usage that requires, as he puts it, that philosophers give up any special claim to competence over the realm of ‘the political’ compared to mere politics and policy studied by social scientists: ““The political” no longer appears to constitute a serious philosophical topic alongside “politics” and “policies””. Of course, the reassertion of ‘proper’ senses of politics and democracy under the influence of a priori concepts of ‘the political’ represents precisely the opposite of this acknowledgement – it is an assertion of the privilege of a certain model of philosophical reason to expound on aspects of ‘the political’ that remain covered over by merely ‘ontic’ fields of social science enquiry).

As I suggested, governmentality has become widely associated with this same disavowal of the exercise of power under the imperative of ‘critique’. It is a concept that has routinely been collapsed back into an essentially ‘disciplinary’ imaginary of the critique of power, used as a smart word for ‘social control’ . On this view, critique is certainly understood as an ‘ethos’, as James Tully puts it, and as arising from within situated practices of the exercise of power, but is still understood in terms of the imperatives of suspicion.  Recent Foucauldian accounts of critique in terms of desubjugation and voluntary insubordination  continue to emphasise the sense of critique as primarily a personal vocation shaped by the ethical imperative of resisting the force of externally imposed norms.  

Ferguson’s argument about left arts of government implies a more affirmative attitude towards the exercise of power, as the flip-side of the conditional concern with not being governed like that – a concern which seems to imply the possibility of articulation of how one might prefer to be governed, like this. Other people have touched on the same theme as Ferguson – Nikolas Rose ended his Powers of Freedom with a few suggestions about analysing the governmentalities of radical and alternative social movements, and Arjun Appadurai has discussed the theme of counter-governmentalities. These ideas also suggest that left politics is best understood as a modality for the exercise of power, not its transcendence (I once flirted with the idea of ‘bottom-up governmentality’ but never really pursued it). But these themes remain undeveloped – when they are acknowledged, for example in ideas such as ‘civic governmentality’, it is normally to support a further round of ultra-critical vigilance in revealing the unfortunate by-products of governing or subjectification associated with such movements. In so far as the ‘new’ voice of Foucault comes to support the regime of truth around which the imperatives of academic critique are already formed, and not least to support a model of critique centred on the problematization of subjectivity (one’s own as much as other people’s), then nothing much will have been added, and the sorts of questions which Ferguson raises will likely continue to find expression only on the margins of this intellectual field.

Rancière at criticism


Via Continental Philosophy, here is an audio of Jacques Rancière, talking about the relationship of critical theory and contemorary social movements. It’s only 20 minutes long, but it’s a concise little summary of his position, mainly being rude about what he sees as the sellinof out of the emancipatory promise by current critical theorists, though its unclear sometimes exactly who he has in mind. There is a swipe at the ontological flights of fancy of Sloterdijk, and a slightly more sustained reference to Boltanski and Chiapello’s account of the spirits of capitalism.

His basic argument is that various facets of classical critical theory are now deployed in an inverted way, so that the main objects of criticism in analyses of consumerism or commodity culture are now the subjects of these processes, ordinary people themselves. The main object of critique, Rancière suggests, has become the ignorance and culpability of ordinary people.

This rings true for me, I think it is a feature of a great deal of contemporary theory, forced to find some ‘political’ purchase for its culturalist analyses, to end up focussing on how people have been ‘got at’ in one way or another, and to lament their susceptibility (this is also a feature of many ‘moralised’ fields of social science, on climate change and environmental issues, on behaviour change, on global poverty).

Rancière proposes an alternative, quite old fashioned model of critique, derived from Kant – critique as the reflection on and elaboration of the conditions of possibility of emancipatory action. That’s much the same concept of critique you find in ‘third generation’ big-C, big-T Critical Theorists like Nancy Fraser and Axel Honneth.

Rancière’s version of this Kantian model of critique is notable of course because of the emphasis he places on the principle of equality of intelligence or competence, specifically of aesthetic judgement. This is the principle contravened by scholastic disdain for ordinary consumer entertainments and commodity cultures.

Rancière’s point against Boltanski and Chiapello seems, however, to replay an older division between a more sociological take on aesthetic discourse, that emphasises aesthetics as a discourse of distinction and differentiation, and a more populist affirmation of the universality of aesthetic competence (in Anglo cultural studies, see Paul Willis or Tony Bennett might stand for different positions on this). Rancière implies that the identification of two styles of critique of capitalism, a social and an aesthetic one, by Boltanski and Chiapello replays a bourgeois disdain for the aesthetic competencies of working people. I’m not sure this is convincing. The sociological analysis of the differentiating deployment of aesthetic values is normally animated by exactly the sort of universalist, egalitarian commitment that Rancière affirms – it’s perhaps less prone to the philosophical presumptions that his egalitarian account of aesthetics reproduces.