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.

Theory in the streets

A feature of much of the instant commentary on political events from Tunisia to Egypt, Bahrain to Libya has been a focus on those aspects of these processes that can be grasped even if you don’t know much, if anything, about these places. This is partly what is going on around all the discussion of the role of new media in facilitating and translating contestation across the Middle East – this is the aspect of these events can is familiar even from a distance. Indeed, it’s the aspect that makes these events accessible in new ways, in certain respects, while occluding aspects that are not so amenable to being communicated through these mediums.

So, rather than focus on what is most comforting about these events – the degree to which they might confirm a certain predisposition amongst a digitally wired intellectual strata of the importance of being digitally wired, I wonder if there aren’t things about them that might unsettle received wisdom. I wonder in particular if they might unsettle at all any of the conventions of contemporary ‘Theory’? This might appear a rather obscure concern, but it’s been interesting me this week as the figure of Gene Sharp, political theorist of non-violence, has been profiled in a range of after-the-fact reflections on political upheaval in Tunisia and Egypt in particular.  Sharp was mentioned in a New York Times article about these revolutions, and was then the subject of a follow-up profile. Interviews and blog notices about his influence  in shaping the non-violent strategies of protestors and with links to key publications have followed.

I particularly liked the blog posts which wondered aloud who Gene Sharp was, since he doesn’t seem to figure in a canon of contemporary political thinkers. In fact, Sharp is often a focus of attention when non-violent political action shakes more or less dictatorial, more or less authoritarian regimes around the world – he is credited with influencing non-violent political movement from Burma to Zimbabwe, Iran to Eastern Europe (there is an ultra-leftist riff on the blogosphere that Sharp is just an agent of the CIA, on the grounds that the events in which his influence is so often found tend to be supported also by the US government or US-based democracy promotion programmes).

What is interesting, theoretically, about Sharp’s analysis of non-violent political action, which informs the practical strategies picked up in such diverse contexts, is a conceptualization of power as being based on consent and obedience, not premised on violence. This might sound familiar – it is a Gramscian shibboleth to contrast coercion and consent after all. But in Sharp’s work, it is the basis of a pluralist understanding of the different ways in which power structures seek and secure consent – without reducing all of these to some fundamental substance in violence and coercion. It’s this difference between power and consent that underlies Sharp’s strategic understanding of the potential of non-violent action, which has clear resonances with Arendt’s account of concerted public action, as mobilising a fundamentally different register or mode of action than that of authoritarian or dictatorial regimes. The sense that power is not reducible to violence is also found in Arendt, even in Foucault. But its remarkably common in contemporary political theory and cultural theory alike to elide this difference, and to presume that in fact violence is the substratum of all power relations, or that apparent consent is really just the product of manipulation and manufacture – i.e., just a cover for coercion, which is not, one might suppose, what Gramsci was actually getting at. The failure to think through the political implications of the fact that consent has to be won is the focus of Michael Bérubé’s book The Left at War, and John Brenkman’s The Cultural Contradictions of Democracy, great books which seriously think through the limitations of conventions of current theoretical genres in light of the spiralling politics of violence of the last decade.

The influence of Sharp’s work, and the examples of non-violent political action with which his name is often associated, is a powerful rebuke to the metaphorical over-inflation of ‘violence’ in so much contemporary theory, whether in notions such as ‘symbolic violence’, or the ontologization of violence that runs from Sorel through Fanon to Agamben. It also stands in contrast to the current excitement around The Coming Insurrection, the anarcho-communist text that has become central to the case of the Tarnac 9 (0r 10) in France since 2008, and garnered lots of attention, and a translation with Semiotext(e), as a startling new and original conceptualization of the ‘politics of neocommunism’, as one contribution to a renewed Marxism-beyond-class (what would be the point of Marxism without class?). Interpreted by the French authorities as a manual for terrorism, it’s also been described as ‘elitist revolutionary strutting‘ and identified as really just a symptom of the absurdities of a failed lineage of left theory. It’s certainly odd to find a text which identities a new subject of political revolution – ‘youth’ – but has recourse to such a resolutely middle-aged, crotchety analysis of generalised alienation. It is also notable, in contrast to the theory of non-violent political action currently being enacted in the world, how far this style of political analysis depends on drawing symmetries between the modes of action of ‘the powerful’ and those who challenge them – the theoretical significance of the rhetoric of war, attack, and confrontation in this document lies here, I think, in this moral and political failure to be able to think of politics outside of a logic of mimetic hostility. And of course, whereas Gene Sharp’s name keeps coming up when it is realised that non-violent political action is strategic and organised, the analysis of a communism-to-come that is a purely immanent resonance with the current system requires no attention at all to the hard work of political action.

Geographies of Labour

Becoming a parent is one of those occasions when one gets to see a lot of ‘the state’ – engaging with doctors, nurses, hospital administration; becoming a welfare recipient, through signing up for child benefit, or the now defunct child trust fund; visits from health visitors; registering a birth. Of all the professional people we have engaged with in this process, twice now, my heroes are the midwives. ‘We’ have had very different experiences of maternity care, first in Bristol, now in Swindon. In Bristol, with our first child in 2006, we were part of a progressive so-called ‘domino’ system of midwifery care, attached to a midwife-led maternity unit – this system is distinctive because the same midwives provide continuity of care through antenatal, intrapartum and postnatal stages. We were enrolled into this practice through one of our neighbours, at a summer street party actually, when she and one of her colleagues convinced us of the benefits of this approach, compared to the model in which community midwives provide antenatal and postnatal care, while different midwives are responsible for care while in hospital. The Bishopston midwife practice was, in fact, full of properly feminist midwives – Mary Stewart, our neighbour, was both a practicing midwife and a part-time PhD student at UWE at this time, and she is now an academic at Kings College London. I didn’t know this back then, but she is the editor of an important primer on feminist approaches to midwife care. I remember having a conversation with her, after the birth of our first child (she wasn’t actually the attending midwife at the birth), about her use of Judith Butler and qualitative methodologies in her PhD to understand midwives discourses about performing vaginal examinations during labour. The speed-reading I have done in this area, just by tracking Mary’s publications and where they lead, reveals an interesting and unexpectedly close relationship between high-falutin social theory – lots of Foucault in particular – and very practical concerns of how to enact, as they say, feminist principles of empowerment in contexts where midwives are mediating all sorts of imperatives, from surveillance of women, doing things to them, and sharing their experience and expertise with them.

One surprising thing about being part of this midwife practice was that we were quickly converted to the idea of having a home birth, which would previously have seemed like a bizarre thing to do. In the end, our first daughter wasn’t born at home, but the decision to start from a home birth as a first preference was an important aspect in ‘empowering’ and building confidence for my partner around the process of labour and giving birth. This second time round, in Swindon, things have been a little bit different. No domino system, and the Great Western Hospital in Swindon does not yet have a birth centre either (it opens later this year, and my partner couldn’t hold on). While not impossible to have a home birth, it was not in any way encouraged. Before Christmas, just as my partner started maternity leave, there was a rush of national news stories about funding cuts to midwife care and heightened risk to mothers in labour, and about ongoing controversies about the safety of home births. So we found ourselves in a context of renewed debates about medicalization of child-birth, and campaigns to protect maternity services in an age of ideologically-led austerity. But in the end, the birth of our second daughter involved two great midwives at the hospital, in and out in one day, and no sight of a doctor at all. And whereas we had planned to use a birth pool at home first time (I never even got to inflate it in the end), this second time ‘we’ did a have a water birth.

Two children in two different towns, both born in hospital but under different organizational arrangements. There is a large aspect of comparison to the practice of parenting – comparing one’s own conduct to peers and cohort groups, or to parents or sisters; and now, it turns out, comparing the second time to the first time. And then you remember there is something irreducibly singular about each birth, each child, each nappy. So I’m not going to generalize on the basis of our experience, not least because while in Bristol we got the ‘theory’ right, in Swindon we have had as nice, and in some respects even nicer, and as ‘empowering’ an experience despite being in a more classically ‘medicalized’ system. There is, of course, lots of serious social science about the geography of labour (though not really much in Geography), in at least two respects: the different arrangements available in different parts of the country; and at a different scale, but closely related to this, the differences between births planned at home, in midwifery units, or obstetric units. Our former neighbour Mary, since completing her PhD, has been working on a major Department of Health research programme, the Birthplace programme, looking at whether there are significant differences in outcomes for mothers depending on where births are planned. The results of the programme are due to be published later this year.

The politics of behaviour change

Another plug, this time for a Theme Issue of the journal Environment and Planning A, on the topic of Ethical Foodscapes. I was asked to write a short commentary on the papers in this collection, and ended up using this an excuse to try to say something coherent about ‘the politics of behaviour change’ – the papers in the collection all engage, in different ways, with ongoing attempts to influence individual patterns of consumption by fiddling with the backgrounds of food practices. This is just one field in which the issue of how and whether to influence people’s conduct to achieve various ‘public goods’ has become central to contemporary politics and governance. There is a great research project investigating this phenomenon, based at Aberystwyth, on the time-spaces of soft paternalism. Behaviour change is all over the place these days – in climate change debates, in obesity agendas, amongst the Research Councils who fund science and social science in the UK – it’s all the rage in policy circles, not just in government but also amongst think-tankers and NGOs. The House of Lords Select Committee has just announced an inquiry into how ideas about behaviour change are working in government. What I find most interesting about all this is the challenge this seems to present to styles of ‘critical’ social science analysis – Elizabeth Shove has an interesting reflection on this issue, also in Environment and Planning A earlier this year, which focusses on how ‘attitude-behaviour-change’ models of governance tend to marginalise insights of social theory. It is interesting, certainly, to track the ways in which certain scientific and social scientific fields are being ‘sourced’ for authoritative models of how to intervene to bring about social change – the most obvious example being the selective use of neuroscience, along with the popularisation of behavioural economics by Thaler and Sunstein’s Nudge. There is a cross-over here between academic research fields and popular discourse too; think of Malcolm Gladwell’s books, the success of Freakonomics, or my favourite, Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski’s Soccernomics – a book which uses simple statistical analysis to develop some interesting explanations and make some entertaining predictions about how success in national and international football is determined (interestingly, this book was published in the UK under the title Why England Lose: And other curious phenomena explained – the difference in the title between the UK and US version is indicative of the current popularity of this style of popular social science beyond any particular specialised interest).

There is an easy default position that this style of thinking about influencing people is inherently sinister, since it explicitly seeks to get at people through less-than-fully-rational means – by either designing change into infrastructures, or by deploying affective styles of communication. This seems to circumvent a basic principle of persuading people of the reasons to change through rational argument. Behaviour change initiatives are all about ‘manipulating’ the contexts in which people exercise choice and discretion. They seem to be designed to confirm the model of ‘governmentality’ developed by Michel Foucault, of a mode of power which works by shaping the contexts of individuals’ conduct without directly intervening in that conduct. Of course, the question that Foucault doesn’t  necessarily help us with is how to know when it is a problem that your conduct is being configured, ‘nudged’, in certain ways, and when it isn’t. There is a tendency of course to read Foucault as a theorist of social control, but I think the proliferation of behaviour change initiatives is one occasion to re-visit the ‘politics’ of using Foucault. The anthropologist James Ferguson has recently argued that  there is a real political stake at play in seemingly arcane differences between conceptualisations of neoliberalism as a hegemonic project of class-power, informed by Marxist theorists such as David Harvey, and  neoliberalization as a contingent assemblage of varied ‘arts of government’, informed by governmentality theory, in the work of Aihwa Ong for example. One reason not to reconcile these approaches – not to think that Foucault provides a nice micro-analysis of the ‘how’ of neoliberalism, while Marxism still holds the secrets to explaining the real interests driving the ‘why’ (an argument made by Bob Jessop) – is because the governmentality approach draws into view the ‘critical’ imperative to think through the possibilities of alternative ‘arts of government’. Quite a lot of sexy theory these days doesn’t like to do this, preferring stylized images of contestation and disruption.  This is why the default reading of behaviour change, as a sinister way of controlling people’s actions in the interests of more neoliberalism, more consumerism, more responsibilization, doesn’t seem convincing to me – it seems to close down the more difficult form of analysis which would ask about the possibility of using devices and discourses of ‘behaviour change’ for different purposes, or in more democratically accountable fashion.