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.

Neoliberalism after governmentality

A good crisis is usually bad news for rigorous thinking, and so it seems as the term ‘neoliberalism’ ossifies into a catch-all popular phrase to describe all the things that right-minded lefties don’t like and blame for current troubles. Oh well. I suspect the systematic mis-representation of the past 40 years or so of politics, policy and economics which the ‘critical conventional wisdom’ on neoliberalism sustains (in both Marxoid and Foucault-inflected variants) is a hindrance to the development of creative alternative visions of democracy and economic life. The ‘critical conventional wisdom’ line is from a new book by Stephen Collier, Post-Soviet Social: Neoliberalism, Social Modernity, Biopolitics. Collier is an anthropologist, and has developed a similar line of critical thinking about ‘neoliberalism’ and the use of Foucault to that of James Ferguson – Collier has an excellent 2009 paper in Theory, Culture and Society on the need to move beyond analyses of governmentality that just extend old-style models of ‘power’ (on a related note, Michael Warner’s recent piece on the past and future of queer theory is another reminder of the degree to which political readings of Foucault tend to rush over the problems of thinking about normativity, towards simpler ideas of the power of ‘norms’; or, to put it another way, conventional accounts of governmenality and neoliberalism are remarkably ‘straight’ in the ways in which they think about subjectivity, power, and the like).

The book is a detailed empirical analysis of the restructuring of ordinary spatial infrastructures in Russia over the last two decades, but one which seeks to challenge a series of settled understandings about The Washington Consensus, neoliberalization, and the like. It’s very ‘geographical’, partly in its focus on urban and regional scale issues, but it also has a much more interesting line on how to think about the geographies of ‘neoliberal technologies’ than the standard diffusionist line peddled by many geographers. There are various notable features of Collier’s analysis:

– it looks at ordinary practices of governance, how they arise as problems in specific situations, rather than tracking circulations of policy discourse;

– related to this, he focuses (at last, someone has, one might think), on a set of ‘neoliberal’ thinkers beyond Hayek, Friedman, etc – in this case, James Buchanan and George Stigler; theorists of government, law, regulation, the state, institutions, not ‘markets’; as I have suggested here before, the insistence on thinking of ‘neoliberalism’ as a theory of markets-against-the-state is factually wrong and analytically short-sighted;

– he insists on thinking of neoliberalism as a precise range of ideas and practices, in line with the quite restrictive sense that Foucault deployed in his 1978-79 lectures on biopolitics, and resists the ‘hegemonic’ interpretation which insists that everywhere neoliberalism turns up it must and does become the dominant dynamic (i.e. neoliberalism might not be the most important thing that has been going on, always, and everywhere, once one stops calling all sorts of things ‘neoliberal’);

– and he develops the intriguing thoughts of Foucault on socialist governmentality, focussing ‘methodologically’ on thinking about socialist biopolitics from back in the 1920s, and in terms of the analysis of ‘problematizations’ rather than coherent systems of ‘governmentality’.

The thinking that Collier, Ferguson and others are doing about these issues strikes me as really important – it’s not just ’empirical’, but cuts to the heart of some prevalent ways of doing theory which have arisen around topics such as neoliberalism, concepts such as governmentality and biopolitics, and imperatives for academics to be ‘critical’.

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.

Libertarian paternalism: where’s the harm?

A newly published critique of behavioural economics by Gilles Saint-Paul looks interesting, The Tyranny of Utility: Behavioral Social Science and the Rise of Paternalism. It seems interesting because it’s a ‘right-wing’ critique of the rise of paternalistic theories of policy informed by behavioural thinking in economics and other fields – ‘right-wing’ in so far as it is informed by a Hayekian conception of the inviolability of individual liberty and of limited government. Judging by the four-page intro that you can download from the publisher’s site, the main focus of the critique is on the ‘do-gooding’ that lies behind utilitarian approaches to government – the assumption that the state can make things better. There is some heady rhetoric in these four pages and the blurbs endorsing the book – behavioural economics and associated paternalist approaches might well be ‘dangerous’ “for those who believe in individual freedom and limited government”, in so far as they support intrusions into private decisions lives on the grounds of protecting people from themselves. All this is presented as a possible precursor to dictatorship: “If current trends continue, I foresee a gradual elimination of individual freedom as “social science” makes progress in documenting behavioral biases, measuring happiness, and evaluating the effects of coercive policies, while information technology provides ever more efficient tools of control to the government.”

Ho hum. But what does seem interesting is Saint-Paul’s identification of the sundering of the conception of a unitary self as the key challenge presented by behavioural approaches to neo-classical  assumptions that underwrite laissez-faire models of government, policy and state action. Despite the rhetoric, this does look like a serious engagement with the philosophical issues behind the proliferation of these approaches, coming from a particular perspective. And it should also interupt simple accounts that see soft paternalism and libertarian paternalism as just another moment in the rolling out of ‘neoliberalism’.

And one reason this perspective might be worth taking seriously is because of the uncomfortable convergence between this Hayekian critique, in the name of inviolable liberty, and the default anarcho-inflections that lie beneath a great deal of left suspicion of these approaches, not least those critiques informed by Foucault’s analytics of governmentality. These critiques sometimes seem to be caught in a bind of their own, between a libertarian reflex that is suspicious of the paternalistic bit in ‘libertarian paternalism’ and an inadequate conception of democracy as only ever about contestation, and which forgets the bit about ‘rule’. So this book looks like it might be worth engaging with, although it also makes me want to have the time to re-read Goodin on ‘permissable paternalism’ and Elster on adaptive preferences and models of the forum and various other things on the difference between thinking of democracy in terms of the aggregation of preferences and in terms of the collective, deliberative transformation of preferences (and it makes me want to know more about Sunstein’s trajectory from this latter sort of position to the libertarian paternalist position – and where the difference between them lies).

Things I now know about credit rating agencies

The downgrading of the USA’s credit rating last week, amidst more general financial chaos, has elicited a flurry of commentary on the authority of the credit rating agencies. Paul Krugman suggests that they deserve no standing – these are the people who systematically underestimated the risks involved in sub-prime mortgage lending, didn’t spot anything wrong with Enron, and so on.  It seems, also, that they might have got the maths wrong in their calculations about medium- and long-term US debt projections. On this view, the problem revealed by the downgrading is the unfettered power of the credit ratings agencies – there is plenty of discussion of what to do about them, echoing previous moments when this question of the accountability of rating agencies has arisen.

On the other hand, John Cassidy at The New Yorker suggests that the downgrade from AAA status by Standard and Poor’s should be seen as a public service – a kind of wake-up call to a dysfunctional political system about the need to address the relationship between US government spending, revenue raising, and debt. Layna Mosley provides an interpretation of how the S&P decision might be indicative of broader changes in the relations between financial markets and government policy making.

I have nothing profound to add to this debate – it’s not really my area, but it does throw light on the complex relationships between private actors and public action. There is a literature on this of course, some of which looks at the credit rating agencies. Timothy Sinclair has written a book about their operations, The New Masters of Capital, exploring ‘the politics of creditworthiness’. He has also written more recently about how the rating agencies become ‘objects of blame’ at moments of financial crisis. A standard line is to present these agencies as wholly unaccountable. In fact, they are embedded in the formal regulatory regimes of US and global financial markets – the big three of Moody’s, Standard and Poor’s, Fitch are formally ‘Nationally Recognized Statistical Rating Organizations’ – their ratings are central to the regulatory practices of all sorts of other public and private institutions. There is a history to this exemplary case of private authority in public governance, of course.

It’s easy to criticize the operations of the agencies over the last decade or so, and easy too to bemoan the apparent paradox of private organisations having such sway over the public actions of states and governments. But buried somewhere in these narratives are actually some interesting issues about the force and accountability of ‘reputation’ and mere ‘opinions’ in shaping global institutional frameworks of capital flow, risk-assessment, and investment – there is a specific range of registers of publicity through which these private agencies circulate their calculations, predictions and assessments.

Where angels fear to tread: Badiou, Zizek, and les événements

The concept of ‘event’ has become a hot topic in certain strains of cultural and political theory, inflected by the thought of Derrida, Deleuze, Badiou, and others. It’s meant to be a figure for the surprising, unforeseen, ruptural, and, perhaps, the relation of the ‘exciting’ to the more routine, entrained, predictable. It’s also become, in some usages, a smart way of keeping alive a messianic fantasy of political revolution.

It’s been fun, given all the talk of ‘the event’ in theory-land, to see so many of the leading figures of ‘Continental Philosophy’ expound on the political events sweeping North Africa and the Middle East these last two months. Because what is notable is how many of these commentaries manage to find exactly what they want to find in Tunisia, or Egypt, or Libya – even if it’s confirmation of the pure contingency of ‘the event’.

So Alain Badiou has found confirmation of his own version of communism, replete with Orientalist flourishes about ‘Eastern winds’; Hardt and Negri had a nice piece in The Guardian, in which these events were all about the multitude, leaderless movements, and horizonality; Peter Hallward is one amongst a number who are inscribing these events into broader narratives of a revolt against neoliberalism. From a somewhat different position within contemporary Franco-philosophical scene, Andre Glucksmann is less sanguine.

Zizek’s interpretation of the uprising in Egypt is my favourite: “The uprising was universal: it was immediately possible for all of us around the world to identify with it, to recognise what it was about, without any need for cultural analysis of the features of Egyptian society. In contrast to Iran’s Khomeni revolution (where leftists had to smuggle their message into the predominantly Islamist frame), here the frame is clearly that of a universal secular call for freedom and justice, so that the Muslim Brotherhood had to adopt the language of secular demands.” This is a brilliantly self-aggrandizing assertion, one that underwrites the arrogation of interpretative authority to a cadre of bombastic universalists who don’t have to worry about what they do and don’t know about other places!

The projection on these worldly events of current theoretical perspectives has been a feature of lots of the commentary over the last month or so. It’s perhaps most obvious in the ongoing debate about the role of new media like Twitter in triggering and spreading political rebellion – where debate has oscillated between those who over-state the importance of new media, and those who dismiss this aspect. Jay Rosen has already analysed the rhetorical positions in these debates, which might be read as one moment in broader contemporary cultural debates about social technologies, wonderfully dissected by Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker last week.

Amongst all this reflection, the best commentary I have found has been on the SSRC website, which contra Zizek, has provided lots of well-informed discussion by people who know about the region, including voices actively involved in these struggles (Noel McAfee at Gone Public has also provided useful links to regional voices). A couple of things stand out from these discussions – one is a more careful understanding of the secular qualities of these movements, discussed by Seyla Benhabib and John Boy for example; and the other is the importance of nationalist registers to these movements against authoritarian regimes. In both respects, the know-nothing universalism of Badiou or Zizek is revealed as somewhat limited in its analytical purchase. The best way to learn from these events, the welcome challenge presented in the commentaries by Badiou and Hardt & Negri, is to listen to people who know what they are talking about. That’s always a good way learning something you didn’t already think you knew.

Does size matter? Beyond ‘neoliberalism’

I attended a day-long seminar this week honouring the work of my colleague at the OU, Janet Newman. One theme of the day was how to understand the new political context in the UK, one of impending public expenditure cuts, lots of talk of ‘The Big Society’, and the coalition stoking ‘blame the poor’ rhetoric to justify fundamental restructuring of welfare regimes. What struck me over the course of the day was how the task of grasping this new political ‘conjuncture’ remains horribly constrained by the inherited academic conceptualisation of ‘neoliberalism’ that has held such sway over the last decade amongst critically-inclined, lefty social scientists [and critical theories of neoliberalism and neoliberalization are very much a product of the 2000s, something which itself seems worth reflecting on – as simple descriptive term, ‘neoliberalism’ has been around a long time, and we all know what it means – but the formalization of grand explanatory theories around this name seems a much more recent phenomenon].

Amongst those who pioneered the development of theories of ‘hegemonic neoliberalism’, the new situation post-2008 has already been dubbed ‘postneoliberalism’. This is hilarious in its own way, but it is in line with a longer tradition in this neo-Gramscian strand of thought of always ensuring that any awkward real-world facts are rapidly taken to confirm the basic understanding of neoliberalization as involving a straightforward shift from ‘state’ to ‘market’. My favourite example of this theoretical sleight of hand is the conceptual distinction between roll-back and roll-out neoliberalism, as a way of suggesting that even when states were being expanded into new areas and government expenditure was growing, this was all still an expression of logics to reduce the state and expand markets – I have discussed the ways in which strand of theory retreats from serious social theory in an essay on publics and markets published earlier this year. Postneoliberalism as a term seems to acknowledge that something might have changed in modes of economic governance over the last couple of years, but that ‘post’ ensures that the basic understanding of neoliberalization in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s remain intact. Perhaps we should just describe what we are about to experience in the UK as ‘roll-back-again neoliberalism’.

One notable thing about these Marxist accounts of neoliberalization is the way in which they hold to the same zero-sum understanding of the relationship between markets and states that one can find in classic right-wing, conservative and monetarist thinking. Aditya Chakrabortty noticed in The Guardian this week how George Osborne’s account of the deficit crisis revolves around the rhetoric of public sector borrowing ‘crowding out‘ private sector activity, in a direct echo of high monetarist theories of the 1970s and 1980s. But what is noticeable about debates which revolve around the size of the state, shrinking public spending, or the Big-ness or not of Society is precisely how they all revolve around the idea that it is the size of the state relative to markets and ‘civil society’ that most matters. But as Raymond Plant observes in his new book on The Neo-liberal State (Oxford University Press, 2010),  if it makes sense to talk of a neo-liberal political philosophy then not only should this be seen as first and foremost a theory of the state [one which privileges a particular account of the rule of law], not a theory of markets as preferable to the state, but in this strand of thought [in which Oakeshott is as important as Hayek, and Friedmann hardly figures], it is not the size of the state that really matters. It is the character of the state, specifically with regard to the attitude to pursuing putative common goals, that matters most.

The point of all this is to suggest that in large part, the politics of deficit reduction, public sector austerity, and welfore reform under politically conservative regimes, now as in the 1980s, in so far as it does indeed revolve around understandings of the optimal size of the state, is probably not best seen as a simple projection of a single coherent ‘neo-liberal’ programme of the sort imagined by Marxist theorists. Of course those same theorists would acknowledge all this under the sign of ‘contradiction’, but this is really just a cover for the intellectual blinkers which enable any and all counter-evidence to be subsumed into a morally coherent but empirically immunized narrative of neoliberal ‘hegemony’.

One cost of the hegemony of these theories of neoliberal hegemony amongst leftist academics is an inability to think seriously about what markets might be good for, two decades after the flourishing of debates about ‘market socialism’. Of course, there is plenty of interesting work, mainly from economic sociologists, which provides much more pluralist accounts of the intellectual agendas often subsumed beneath the term neoliberalism – Marion Fourcade‘s work on professional economics, for example; or Viviana Zelizer’s challenge to the anti-market moralism of Polanyi, which is so important to critical theories of neoliberalism (see Phillipe Steiner in Theory and Society, (2009) Volume 38, Number 1, pp, 97-110). But this work does not, of itself, challenge the chilling effect that Marxist accounts of neoliberalism have, certainly in the academic fields I have been circulating in over the last decade, which continue to press any and all signs of pluralism and multiplicity into a singular narrative of complicity or selling-out.

What is most surprising about the continuing credulity extended to these critical theories of neoliberalism and neoliberalization is these approaches actually display such a limited view of ‘politics’. Of course, these theories stake their primary claim on understanding neoliberalism as a political process, and also on uncovering this fact as itself a political gesture in itself. But this really just means that for these theories, ‘the state’  acts directly to secure the interests of Capital – either through policy and governance initiatives, in neo-Gramscian versions, or as purveyor of ‘ideology’ in David Harvey’s version. These theories of neoliberalism, which as I say flourished in the 2000s, are pale echoes of the analysis of ‘Thatcherism’ developed by Stuart Hall amidst debates of the 1980s – this account was just one part of an extended attempt to grasp political change as embedded in broader socio-cultural as well as economic transformations. It was Michael Foot who once argued that the real author of the ‘neoliberal’ transformations wrought on  the British economy and British society in the 1980s was not Thatcher, Hayek, or Friedman, but Enoch Powell (Foot’s good friend), principled defender of sound money and fiscal prudence as well as populist race-baiter. Powell hardly features in the narratives of neoliberalization developed by Marxist and Foucauldian theorists, and not the least reason for this is that these approaches have little feel for the contingencies of political process: they either present policy-centric visions of the unfolding of neoliberal logics, or stress the contingent outcomes of technological devices and assemblages. Neither has any feel for the broad sense of social change one finds, for example, in Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland, Jefferson Cowie’s Stayin’ Alive, or Andy Beckett’s When the Lights Went Out. These aren’t ‘theory’ books of course, but in reconstructing the turbulent crossings of conservative, radical, individualistic, anti-authoritarian cultural politics in the 1970s, they succeed in unsettling critical narratives of neoliberalization. At the very least, they suggest the need to think more seriously about the possibility of popular neoliberalism, with all the unsettling implications this notion has.

Theories of neoliberalism have, indeed, had a chilling effect on critical social theory over the last decade, ensuring that attempts to acknowledge the determinate effects of other processes in shaping political outcomes and possibilities is always swamped within a discourse of complicity and hegemony. Notions of ‘postneoliberalism’ are just the latest efforts to maintain this grip by seeming to acknowledge change while putting beyond criticism previous formulations of neoliberalism and neoliberalization. Perhaps it’s time to recognise that one reason it is so difficult to think about the politics of the current conjuncture is precisely because this style of thinking, which continues to serve as the horizon for these efforts, has never been able to think seriously about politics in anything other than highly scholastic terms: as an effect of policy, an expression of intellectual programmes, or as a process of ideology.

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.