Seeing Like a Market and its Problems

UntitledFinally, a paper co-written by myself and Nick Mahony entitled ‘Marketing practices and the reconfiguration of public action‘ is published, in print, in Policy and Politics. It was made available online almost exactly a year ago. One of the odd things about the drawn-out rhythms of academic publishing is the tendency to be presented with previous versions of your own self. The paper arises out of a small research project on market segmentation methodologies that Nick and I worked on together when both at the OU. The Report from that project was published by the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement.

The new paper develops a more theoretically oriented argument about how to interpret the increasingly widespread use of a range of marketing technologies in non-commercial fields, including the public sector, by charities, by political consultants, and in the third sector. So, in that respect, its part of an ongoing argument I have been making (both in publications and on this blog) about the limits of standard ways of using concepts such as governmentality and neoliberalism in critical social science.

It is also, I can now see, now it is finally done and dusted, one of a series of ‘occasional papers’ in which I have tried to make use of the idea of  ‘problematization‘ to reframe the ways in which one might pursue the vocation of ‘critique’, including pieces on ideas of security and public life in Dialogues in Human Geography, a more  theoretical treatment of how this idea helps us read Foucault in, and an ongoing effort to use the ideas to make sense of the proliferation of urban concern across any number of fields.

So, anyway, one more time, here is the abstract of the Policy and Politics piece:

“Market segmentation methodologies are increasingly used in public policy, arts and culture management and third sector campaigning. Rather than presume that this is an index of creeping neoliberalisation, we track the shared and contested understandings of the public benefits of using segmentation methods. Segmentation methods are used to generate stable images of individual and group attitudes and motivations, and these images are used to inform strategies that seek to either change these dispositions or to mobilise them in new directions. Different segments of the population are identified as bearing particular responsibilities for public action on different issues.”

Marketing practices and public action

segmentNick Mahony and I have a new paper published in Policy and Politics, on their ‘fast track’ page, entitled Marketing practices and the reconfiguration of public action. The paper draws on a project for the NCCPE and ESRC that Nick and I worked on a while back when were both at the OU, on the use of segmentation methods in the public sector, charities, and campaign sectors. This paper seeks to open up some interpretative space for exploring what is going on when marketing practices get used in non-commercial sectors, without presuming in advance that what is going on is something to be called ‘neoliberalism’. It is a light-touch elaboration of some ideas about problematization developed in different ways in my piece on that topic at as well as a forthcoming Article Forum on ‘security’ in Dialogues in Human Geography.

Here is the abstract of the Policy and Politics piece:

“Market segmentation methodologies are increasingly used in public policy, arts and culture management and third sector campaigning. Rather than presume that this is an index of creeping neoliberalisation, we track the shared and contested understandings of the public benefits of using segmentation methods. Segmentation methods are used to generate stable images of individual and group attitudes and motivations, and these images are used to inform strategies that seek to either change these dispositions or to mobilise them in new directions. Different segments of the population are identified as bearing particular responsibilities for public action on different issues.”

What are the humanities good for?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bad Foucault

IMG_0545I just came across an interview with Daniel Zamora, via a flurry of Twitter excitement, trailing his new book, apparently due to be translated into English next year, which ‘dares’ to develop a critique of Foucault. It’s available at Jacobin, and also at nonsite. The focus is on how Foucault displayed an unseemly interest and sympathy for ‘neoliberal’ ideas in the 1970s. I’m not sure this is a terribly new observation. I say so since I have managed to write a couple of blogs on this, a few years or so ago now, reflecting on how the concept of governmentality is always thought of as a name for the suspect exercise of sinister power, and also on how some thinkers, at least, have been developing rather more precise usages of the term neoliberal in light of Foucault’s thoughts on this theme. I say this not in a “I’m great” sort of way, but rather in a “If I knew all about this, it can’t be that shocking a discovery” sort of way. There is already plenty of discussion of this theme in Foucault’s work, by Colin Gordon, by Michael Behrent, amongst others.

Zamora’s line seems to be that Foucault’s ‘indulgence’ of ideas such as Friedman’s negative income tax’  reflects badly on him, politically. The rhetorical force of this argument rests on a fairly standard trick of drawing homologies between various leftish arguments against statism, or for a bit more freedom, and ‘neoliberal’ free-marketery. I’ve always found that sort of argument lazy, even when advanced by thinkers I otherwise like a lot, such as Nancy Fraser. Above all, it tends to leave in place fairly standard ideas of what ‘neoliberalism’ is and what ‘neoliberalization’ has been. It seems to me that the affinity that Foucault appears to have displayed might be just as well taken as an occasion to rethink both of those ideas. That’s the spirit, for example, of James Ferguson’s discussions of left governmentality. Zamora’s arguments also depend on identifying some new homologies I have not come across before – such as the idea that a defining feature of neoliberal policies is a concern to alleviate poverty (since that leaves deeper issues of inequality in place, you see). I have no great concern to defend Foucault’s honour, but it seems to me a bit limited to suggest that a commitment to providing a minimum level of income is somehow a mark of right-wing neoliberalism. That would be a bit of a surprise, I suspect, to lots of people all the way from Thomas Paine through to Erik Olin Wright and many others.

I suspect that there is plenty of scope for reconfiguring the ‘political’ interpretation of Foucault’s work buried in all those recently published lectures, but it doesn’t seem very creative to do so by simply re-inscribing it into a static terrain in which the constant negative pole is an object of repulsion always called ‘neoliberalism’.

Bite Size Theory: The Sources of Social Power (Volume 4)

“Neoliberals, like socialists, must compromise with power realities to achieve any of their goals. So within what is often called the neoliberal movement I distinguish four tendencies: principled neoliberalism elevating markets and individualism, the interests of capitalists, the interests of political elites, and a conservatism that uses the state to enforce morality, law and order, nationalism, and militarism. Though there is overlap among all of these, it is useful analytically to separate them.”

Michael Mann, 2013, The Sources of Social Power: Volume 4, Globalizations, 1945-2011, Cambridge University Press.

On the underdetermination of ‘neoliberalism’ by evidence

stopDialogues in Human Geography has a debate forum discussing the relevance of the concept of neoliberalism, revolving around a piece by Sally Weller and Phil O’Neill titled ‘An argument with neoliberalism: Australia’s place in a global imaginary‘. They call into question attempts to refine the concept of neoliberalism/ization in terms of ‘variegation’ and related notions, suggesting that it might just be better to think with different concepts entirely. In the course of the debate, I discovered that I have apparently invented a new genre, called ‘neoliberalism in denial‘. Who knew! Does this make me the Bob Dylan of neoliberal studies? (and if so, does it mean that Noel Castree, who apparently followed my lead, is the Donovan of neoliberal studies?). I wonder if social science theories are the sorts of knowledge-formations that you can actually properly be ‘in denial‘ about – they aren’t quite of the same order as explanations of climate change or the etiology of AIDS, are they?

Anyway, the Weller and O’Neill piece is well worth the read, here is the abstract:

“This article argues that the uncritical application of the lens of neoliberalism closes off opportunities for more rigorous analysis of actually existing socio-economic change. We ask whether Australia’s developmental trajectory over the last three decades can be described as neoliberalization and whether the outcome is a variety of neoliberalism. Instead of stitching together a story about variegated neoliberalism, we find an alternative narrative based around the notion of a developmental project more compelling. We document the spatial and political realities that have inhibited the roll-out of neoliberal ideas and practices in the Australian context. We think that instead of expanding the varieties of variegated neoliberalism to accommodate all manner of events and processes in all sorts of places, our task should be to recognize those instances where social, political, cultural or economic changes settle capitalism’s contradictions in ways that diverge from neoliberal frameworks and expectations. Our central point is that the role of academic research is to explain the lived world and to develop abstractions to aid that explanation, rather than to design an abstraction (neoliberalism) and then fit the lived world to its contours.”




Cutting neoliberalism down to size


There has been a flurry of reviews of new books on the history of neoliberalism recently – including books by geographers Jamie Peck and Jason Hackworth, as well as Daniel Stedman Jones’ Masters of the Universe. One the peculiarities of much of the debate about neoliberalism that this publishing burst reminds me of is the persistent tendency to focus on neoliberal ideas, and then to conjure up more or less elaborate accounts of how ideas have ended up shaping the world. Concepts of hegemony, discourse, the ideational, materialisation, governmentality, and the like have to do an awful lot of heavy-lifting in these stories. Excavating the histories of neoliberalism and neoliberalisation continues, it seems, to be an occasion for the circulation of some very weak social theory (for example, governmentality has come to be used as a name for a very specific form of power, more or less synonymous with neoliberalism; this may or may not be how it emerges from Foucault’s writings, but seems much less interesting than using this notion as a kind of analytical frame for asking questions about how power is exercised, rather than presuming in advance that it will conform to one of three or four archetypes identified in scattered pieces by Foucault).

Meanwhile, via Foucault News, here is a discussion by Terry Flew of the range of meanings of ‘neoliberalism’ – he identifies 6 different senses in which the term is used in contemporary critical theory. And he also discusses the degree to which invocations of ‘Foucault’, in the wake of the translation of his late 1970s lectures on biopolitics and neoliberalism, really support any of the rather expansive meanings that circulate. Colin Gordon raises a similar warning in his response to the interesting discussion between Gary Becker and Francois Ewald: “It is of course always helpful to be clear what one means by a term such as neoliberalism, if indeed it is not being used simply as a floating signifier of evil, a new signifier of the inveterately evil nature of capitalism, catering to the moral comfort of those no longer sure of their faith in the historico-economic victory of capitalism’s foe. For many Left commentators, neoliberalism seems nowadays to primarily denote the combined phenomena of deregulation, privatisation and globalisation – often perceived as developments dating essentially from the 1980s. None of these themes happen to be central to Foucault’s discussion: even Foucault was not prescient enough to cater for all our later concerns, or to leave us a full genealogy of the decades since his death”. The emphasis of both Flew and Gordon, like that of Stephen Collier, is on using the term neoliberal in a much more specified way, understood as a much narrower phenomenon, and a much less determinant one in turn.

Anyway, the Gordon and Flew pieces have got me thinking that one day it would be fun to undertake a genealogy not of neoliberalism, but of ‘neoliberalism’: a genealogy of the ways in which left-thinking in various contexts and across various traditions has been shaped by this notion, and of the methodological, conceptual, and strategic closures that have been determined by the taken-for-granted force of this preconstructed entity.

Neoliberalism as radical political economy

118In the intellectual world I grew up in and to a large extent still inhabit, the phrase ‘political economy’ is often just another way of saying ‘Marxism’. I’m not sure if it’s ‘ironic’ that this tradition of work has come to be so focussed on the conceptual object ‘dubbed’ neoliberalism, which is theorised as the real world realization of ideas emanating from the post-WW2 revival of ‘political economy’ of a different sort. The status of neoliberal ideas as variants of political economy is often overlooked, primarily because of the investments in simple state/market dualisms that shape critical conceptualizations of neoliberalization.

One of the founding figures of contemporary political economy is James Buchanan, who died last week. Buchanan is one of the unsung heroes/villains of neoliberalism, if there is such a thing – above all through helping to invent public choice theory, a framework for applying certain sorts of economic ideas to the analysis of state actors, bureaucracies, and other organisations. More broadly, Buchanan illustrates the degree to which ideas about the rule of law, constitutionalism, rule-following, and the like provide a positive theory of the state and the public realm rather than simply a straightforward preference for the market over the state (like other thinkers associated with the canon of neoliberal ideas, perhaps with the exception of Richard Posner, Buchanan took the financial crisis of the last five years as largely confirming his own views). Buchanan is as good a place as any to start the task of understanding how states and markets have been reconfigured around new models of public value, rather than by a straightforward shift simply from good public values to bad private ones. Stephen Collier has elaborated on Buchanan’s importance as a ‘minor’ figure in the genealogy of neoliberal practice, in ways which suggest a need to rethink the conventional framework for the critical analysis of neoliberalism more generally.

Buchanan is famous for the line about thinking about ‘politics without romance‘, which rapidly devolved into a deeply cynical view of public actors as rent-seeking parasites. It’s interesting to read the appreciations of Buchanan in places like the FT, The Economist, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Bloomberg News, The Daily Telegraph over the last week – you can glean a sense of how public choice theory supports a certain sort of right-wing insurgent self-image, speaking in the name of democratic choice (as revealed preference) against the usurping inclinations of elites. It reminded me of the argument made by John Dryzek some time ago now, in which he argued that public choice theory did indeed share some important affinities with Frankfurt School-style critical theory.

Appreciating Buchanan’s work is important not least because, whisper it, belonging as it does to a tradition of thought that is embedded in particular understandings of democracy, it does address difficult issues of collective action, institutional design, and accountability that conventional left social theory struggles with, oscillating as it does between proto-anarchistic suspicion of ‘the state’ and nostalgia for stale social democratic settlements of the public good. Disentangling and differentiating accounts of ‘rationality’ might be an imperative to rethinking the democratic potentials of emergent forms of contemporary public action – and being able to tell the different in the political valence between Buchanan, say, and Mancur Olson, or Kenneth Arrow, or Amartya Sen, or Jon Elster, or Elinor Ostrom, seems an important task along this road (the differences turn on the degree to which theories are able to account for the rationalities of co-operation as something more than merely aggregation or secondary). Not all styles of rational choice theory are equally pathological, perhaps.

Neoliberalism: the latest news

Aditya Chakrabortty set off a bit of fuss by complaining recently that non-economist academics (he meant sociologists, poor souls, leave them alone) weren’t doing enough work on ‘the crisis’ – proving, mainly, that all journalists, irrespective of political stripe, have a standard article template which they roll out every so often complaining that academics work on absurd topics, talk only to themselves, and ignore things that really matter (my favourite recent version of this type of piece is a column by Nick Cohen last year, lambasting Judith Butler for being an obscurantist – it took him fully more than a decade to recycle the story about her ‘winning’ a bad writing contest, and then oddly presented this as if it were an ‘objective’ judgement of academic fact. Read the piece, it’s an exemplary case of the broader genre).

Anyway, I’m getting distracted – the Chakrabortty piece/debate made me think, again, of how pervasive the notion of ‘neoliberalism’ has become as the basis of the standard alternative discourse, the exception as it were that appears to prove the wider absence of a critical alternative analysis that he claims to identify.

In so far as this is the case – certainly in academic circles, the vocabulary and wider theoretical understanding shaped by more-or-less Marxist accounts of ‘neoliberalism’ and ‘neoliberalization’ have become widespread – then this seems to me to compound the problem that Chakrabortty discerns – of a lack of thought about the current conjuncture and its alternatives.

A couple of months ago, I posted one or two things about conceptualizations of neoliberalism and governmentality, biopolitics and the like – including a recommendation of a new book by Stephen Collier. Collier has a new piece in the journal Social Anthropology, a contribution to a ‘debate’ set off in the same journal by Loic Wacquant. It’s well worth a look if you are at all interested in finding ways out of the straightjacket of what currently passes as critical orthodoxy in geography, anthropology, urban studies and related fields.

What I like in particular about Collier’s piece is the way in which he identifies a particular tendency in ‘structural’ narratives of neoliberalism to expand the concept to include all sorts of things, once it is found that neoliberalism in a narrow sense (conventionally defined, rightly or wrongly, as a range of state-shrinking and/or market friendly policies) tends to be found alongside other processes and trends – state-sanctioned violence, or securitization, or counterintuitive extension of state provision in certain areas, and so on. He also has a nice critique of the geography variant of this methodological and conceptual trick, which is to affirm that neoliberalism is ‘variegated’, where that means any variation is only ever recognised as movement anchored to a static norm, combined with a convenient line about ‘contradictions’ and a flawed understanding of ‘family resemblances’.

Collier argues instead, briefly, but it’s the argument of his book on post-Soviet biopolitics too, that actually the concept of neoliberalism should be used much more restrictively, and he again appeals here to Foucault’s lectures on biopolitics and neoliberalism (or not) that have attracted so much attention. The basic point comes down to a suggestion that neoliberalism might not be all there is going on in the world, nor even the most important, most determinative thing, all the time, everywhere. And, a little more fundamentally, it’s an argument about the extent to which rather than presuming to know what ‘neoliberalism’ refers to, it might be fun to follow Foucault and keep open a sense of puzzlement about just what sort of ‘power’ a quite specific mutation in economic thought was and is an index of. 

Collier’s argument about the expansive tendency of neoliberalism-talk, whereby everything becomes a facet of neoliberalism that ever comes into contact with ‘it’, reminded me of a piece, also just published, by Matt Hannah on Foucault’s ‘German Moment’ (Matt sent me a copy of this paper around the time of those previous posts, I didn’t have time to read or respond back then – I’m doing so now, publicly, sort of, and  I’m not sure if this is rude or not). It’s an interesting piece about the context in which Foucault’s mid-1970s work developed, specifically his engagement with German politics around the time of the Red Army Faction, the German Autumn, etc. It provides really useful background to these debates, including some context to Foucault and Deleuze’s ‘falling out’. 

Hannah’s larger point is a claim about the significance of Foucault’s account of neoliberalism which emerged from this ‘German moment’, which included a strong emphasis on extra-legal state violence and securitization, compared to the more narrowly ‘economistic’ account of the 1979 lectures. Others have identified the same shift, but interpreted it differently (to cut a long story short, it all turns on how far one is prepared to think that all forms of state power are reducible to ‘fascism’). 

My thought is why this shift should be presented, as Hannah does, as a loss – why does the more narrow account of neoliberalism represent a retreat, rather than, say, a specification. Along with Collier (I like his argument, and not only ‘cos he cites me), it seems to me that the later and narrower focus on the ‘laissez-faire-ing’ of subjects as Mark Driscoll has put it, as a quite precise modality of power, is preferable to the expansive account which would insist on adding in some necessary relation between this modality and, say, securitization – to read the shift as a loss is to close down the question that Foucault seemed to open up in the 1979 lectures by narrowing the focus.   

Part of the scandal of the ‘late’ Foucault in his ever-changing incarnations has always been and remains the degree to which he ends up saying much less radical things than he is meant to be saying, given the construction of what ‘Foucault’ is meant to be saying as a central figure of the left-academic canon. What if less is more, when it comes to talking about neoliberalism – what if the term really should be used quite narrowly, and what if doing so might help prise open questions long since closed down – questions that can’t be asked by banging on about hybrid variations, or even articulations, for as long as these formulations maintain a happy consensus about what ‘it’ was and is in the first place. 

I’m rambling a bit now – read Collier, he’s more articulate than me.