Bite Size Theory: Religion and Rationality

“I only want to say that the evidence of my relation to a theological heritage does not bother me, as long as one recognizes the methodological difference of the discourses: that is, as long as the philosophical discourse conforms to the distinctive demands of justificatory speech. In my view, a philosophy that oversteps the bounds of methodological atheism loses its philosophical seriousness.”

Jürgen Habermas, 2002, Religion and Rationality: Essays on Reason, God, and Modernity, Polity Press.

Bite Size Theory: Between Facts and Norms

“Democratic procedure, which establishes a network of pragmatic considerations, compromises, and discourses of self-understanding and of justice, grounds the presumption that reasonable or fair results are obtained insofar as the flow of relevant information and its proper handling have not been obstructed.”

Jürgen Habermas, 1996, Between Facts and Norms: Contributions to a Discourse Theory of Law and Democracy, Polity Press.

Approaching public life

Via Thomas Gregersen at Political Theory, news of a special issue marking the 50th anniversary of The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, and of a couple of reviews of Nancy Fraser’s Scales of Justice. The latest issue of Contemporary Political Theory has a section on Cavell’s political theory, too. Not sure I’ll ever have time to read any of these myself.

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.

Brains, breastfeeding, and behaviour change

It’s been an interesting couple of weeks if you are interested in the popularisation of behaviouralism. A couple of weeks ago, there was the wonderful news story that seemed to suggest that babies who are breastfed suffer from fewer behavioural problems later in life than those who are bottle fed (this was quickly collapsed into a story about breastfeeding being the route to better behaved babies – not true in our case at the moment, since our breastfed baby is currently refusing to have anything to do with a bottle, which just isn’t good behaviour at all). This science story was fantastic precisely because the causality involved in the correlation was open to entirely different interpretations – it could be something to do with acids in breast milk; or bonding between mother and child.

This week, The New York Times’ pundit David Brooks has been in the UK, promoting his book The Social Animal, which makes strong claims about the importance of neuroscience, psychology and behavioural economics in establishing the non-rational factors which explain decision-making (in fact, Brooks’ version is really a rehashed version of the low-level conservative anti-rationalism that runs from Burke to Oakeshott; it also seems in part to be shaped by a concern to account for the failure of the US punditocracy of which he is a leading figure to notice that invading Iraq might not work out too well, oh, and that unfettered financial speculation tends to lead to catastrophic banking crises). Brooks got to trail his argument in The New Yorker earlier this year, where the Churchlands and David Eagleman have also been profiled recently – if nothing else, neuro-thought seems to have become something like the ‘spontaneous ideology’ of a certain field of academic-policy-punditry discourse in which the discovery that people don’t conform to the most abstract of models of rational utility maximizing seems to have come as a surprise (while we’re on the topic of The New Yorker and economists’ models of rationality, there is a fascinating series of interviews, from last year, by John Cassidy with various economists from the Chicago School – including Gary Becker, Richard Thaler, and Raghuram Rajan – which provides interesting insights into just where the differences between different understandings of rationality and non-rationality lie within this world).

The attention, and credulity, extended to Brooks this week reminded me of a line from a blog by Alice Bell which I think I have mentioned before, in which she refers to Nikolas Rose’s observation to the effect that neuroscientists themselves are highly sensitive to the mis-representation of their field, and that “if anything, the further away from researchers you get, the less reflexive you get”.

But anyway, what was my point? One of the features of the popularisation of brain-led behaviouralism in public culture – through more or less selective reference to cognitive psychology, evolutionary biology, behavioural economics, or neuroscience – is the degree to which it reproduces a deep, underlying individualism even as it seems to disavow certain understandings of individual rationality. This is most evident in the claim that various forms of action which, ordinarily, don’t seem that odd at all actually stand as proof of the fundamentally irrational, or non-cognitive, or emotional, or unconscious dynamics of human decision-making. This framing is indicative of the way in which the associational dynamics of action get folded back into an individualised model of action in specific academic fields, and certainly in popular representations of these fields. This is not my thought – it’s a recurring riff throughout Viviana Zelizer’s recent collection of greatest hits, Economic Lives, which I was speed-reading on a train a while ago now. Zelizer is keen to distinguish economic sociology and its attention to the social relations in which economic action is embedded from the approach of game theory and behavioural economics, which also breaks from excessively ‘rational’ models of rational utility. As she puts it, “game theory and behavioural economics involve modification, but not elimination, of economic models’ deep individualism” – and this is evident in the way in which categories such as emotion or irrationality effectively condense the relational contexts of action back into psychologise-able, model-able figures of explanation (Diane Coyle has an interesting, sceptical response from the perspective of an economist to Zelizer’s own project).

I’m still trying to work out how, exactly, to approach this whole set of debates in a way that doesn’t reproduce the in-built prejudices of ‘constructivist’ social theory (which would include most styles of self-styled ‘materalist’ approaches), which sees in all this simply the machinations of ‘power’ and or bad-ontology; and which acknowledges that a critical social science that doesn’t think it has anything to learn from these fields about rationality is probably doomed to moralistic irrelevance. I am beginning to get a sense of where exactly my discomfort lies, not only in relation to the popularisation of all this behaviouralist discourse, but also in relation to the established norms for being sceptical towards it. I was helped by attending part of, but sadly not all, of a workshop on the practice and theory of ‘nudge techniques’ at the OU earlier this month. This included an excellent introduction to the Mindspace report developed by The Cabinet Office and The Institute for Government in early 2010 which provides the framework for behaviour change initiatives in public policy in the UK.

One staple feature of these popular and policy discourses around behaviour change, nudging, and the like, is the claim that there are two systems shaping behaviour – a rational, reflexive, cognitive system; and an automatic system, of unconscious motivations. One interesting division within this field of policy discourse, it seems, is just how the relation between these two ‘systems’ is understood: one version of nudging assumes that government can manipulate ‘choice architectures’ not so much behind people’s backs, but by prompting them to re-interpret their actions in new ways – it assumes that beliefs, habits, feelings, can be apprehended cognitively as a route to changing them (and others presume that the in-built, automatic systems which guide people’s behaviour can be ‘attacked’ directly, without routing through any rational ‘system’ at all).

Nick Chater, of Warwick Business School, gave a very good Keynote at this workshop, in which he basically argued that effective nudging is quite difficult – on the grounds that the logical conclusion of an emphasis on the intuitive, unconscious, less-than-rational dynamics of human decision-making is that most beliefs and attitudes and habits are enmeshed in webs of relations with other actions, habits, and commitments, which makes changing any one really difficult – this is why nudging tends to focus on behaviours and decisions which are not strongly connected or embedded (e.g. rare decisions like organ donation or investing in a pension). Chater’s emphasis, then, was on the efficacy of nudge techniques, not their ethics. Of course, the ‘ethical’ worry shaping this debate follows in large part from the bifurcation between ‘rational’ and ‘automatic’ – the concern is shaped by worries over covertly shaping people’s choices in directions they might not otherwise have taken by doing things to them ‘under the radar’, as it were.

I think it’s interesting that this intuitive ethical worry is so central to debates about the use of behaviour change approaches, because it seems to get at an aporia at the heart of the ‘theory’ behind much of this discussion. Chater’s talk exemplified this – it focussed on that the sense that there is introspective depth to human behaviour was an illusion. Now, the substance of his account of the self is really about the temporalities which relate behaviours, habits, beliefs, attitudes, reflection, and so on – but the rhetoric of illusion, the sense of an inner self endowed with a rational will is a fiction, is telling nonetheless. It’s never quite clear in much of the discussion around these issues what attitude is held to the everyday, intuitive sense that we do tend to have of ourselves as having inner selves, able to introspectively reason about our actions (actually, sometimes it is clear, there is a strong strain of explicitly eliminationist neurophilosophy that sees all this as mere folk psychology ripe for correction). Am I in error to hold this belief about my actions, my behaviours and attitudes? Or, shouldn’t this same range of theoretical work be able to provide an account of how such beliefs and attitudes actually help constitute the intuitive, unconscious, embodied, non-cognitive capacities that they otherwise champion? Old uncle Habermas has pointed out the degree to which arguments which collapse normativity into simple models of scientific naturalism end up having to present the self-understanding of acting subjects as mere epiphenomena (see the essay ‘Freedom and Determinism’ in Between Religion and Naturalism).

There is a range of broadly ‘genealogical’ analyses of the emergence of these new styles of thinking about governing behaviour – I can think of Rose’s work on the brain sciences and the new susceptible subjects of public policy, the Soft Paternalism project at Aberystwyth, or work informed by affect theory which discerns the emergence of new anticipatory logics in security apparatuses or urban design. These types of study are good at identifying new political rationalities, if by that we just mean the ‘causal’ understandings of behaviour that shape various attempts to intervene in different social fields.

But the difficult question is what to make of the emergence of these new fields of neuro-enhanced, behaviouralist intervention, once the genealogical description is done. Here, I think there is a division amongst critical social scientists: you can interpret all this as rather sinister, being drawn into a trap laid down by the reflective/automatic binary, adopting an inadvertently rationalist ‘ethical’ position that one might not, otherwise, be inclined to endorse at all; or you can affirm the basic understanding of the non-rational, non-intentional, non-cognitive dimensions of action that informs behaviour change ideas, but with the help of a dash of affect theory, more or less inflected by psychoanalysis perhaps, but draw up a distinction between good and bad affect – extending credulity to the rhetorical deflation of intentionality and rationality in the new behaviouralism, but finding therein untameable resources for disruption and creativity. Both these styles of ‘critique’ end up leaving intact the claims of scientific authority upon which behaviour change discourse depends.

This is why I have found the Ruth Leys intervention in debates about affect theory so refreshing and though provoking – it does two things which seem to me to provide important resources for thinking through what a sustained critical engagement by social scientists and the humanities with a whole range of new scientific fields of the mind would look like: it identifies some key questions about experimental design, inference, and generalisation that should be asked of any scientific field when its’ ideas begin to travel; and it locates this style of questioning within broader philosophical debates about the relationship between normativity and naturalism. My sense is that this second set of philosophical debates in particular – ones in which the status and value of the concept of action is quite fundamental (not behaviour, not subjectivity, but action) – is where the deep ethical and political issues at stake for a critical engagement with the (social-)sciences of behaviour change, really lie. I’m not convinced that the current conventions of theory-formation in critical social science as I have learnt them are well placed to engage with these debates – conventions in which mention of intention, rationality, or reason are met with quizzical looks or confident dismissal. I’m still trying to unlearn these conventions.

Religion and critique in the public sphere

From Columbia University Press, The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere, with  contributions from Habermas, Judith Butler, Cornel West, and Charles Taylor. The audio of the symposium in 2009 from which the first of these derives is at The Immanent Frame site. Interesting for all sorts of reasons, including Habermas taking on the genealogy of the concept of ‘the political’. A related collection, Politics of Culture and the Spirit of Critique, has a set of dialogues with Butler, Fraser, Honneth, Kymlicka, Benhabib, and others.