The Priority of Injustice

So, finally, the book that I have been writing, on and off, for the last four years, The Priority of Injustice, has been published – or at least, it’s real, since the formal publication date is next month (so I reserve the right to blog further about it as and when). It arrived earlier this week – a rather hectic week, which has oddly meant I have been too busy to experience the strange sense of anti-climax that often accompanies the arrival of the finished form of something that you have been making for so long.

This is, in one sense, my Exeter book – the first thing I did in my very first week here, four years ago, was write the proposal and send it off to prospective publishers, It’s also, though, my Swindon book, a book which attempts to articulate an approach to theorising in an ordinary spirit which has been published just a few weeks after moving away from that very ordinary town where I have lived while writing it.

It’s a beautiful object, with a great cover image, by Helen Burgess (I bought one of her pictures once, in one of those open-house art trail events that you get in places like Bishopston in Bristol, so that’s why I knew of her work; it turns out she is part of a geography-friendly network of artists). And I am honoured and humbled to have the book published in University Georgia Press’s very excellent Geographies of Justice and Social Transformation series.

I’m now faced with the challenge of promoting the book. I’m quite fond of the Coetzee-esque principle that books should have to make their own way in the world without the help of the author; on the other hand, I have some sense of responsibility towards the argument made in the book, a responsibility to help project it into the world. I’ve already realised that it’s not the sort of book that lends itself to an easy press release – ‘THEORY COULD BE THEORISED DIFFERENTLY’, SAYS THEORY-BOY doesn’t really work as a headline, does it?.

The book doesn’t even have any empirical case studies in it, upon which to hang a more popular pitch. It doesn’t really have much more than passing references to some real-world examples. In this respect, I might have broken one of the cardinal rules of writing in GeographyLand. But the book is about the different forms of theoreticism that one finds in contemporary political thought, where that refers to the ways in which  appeal to preconstructed examples is used to confirm ready-made philosophical perspectives. So, as a matter of principle, I couldn’t very well reproduce that same gesture myself.

I realise that this might sound defensive, although in this respect I’m in good company. Kant, in the Preface to The Critique of Pure Reason, starts by apologising for not having any examples or illustrations, which he knows would have helped the reader along (if you live and work among geographers, his discussion is actually very funny – it indicates that Kant really was a proper geographer, haunted by the same anxieties about ‘real world examples’ that we have drummed into us all the time!). I am going to resist the temptation to lay claim to his defence that “many a book would have been clearer if it had not made such an effort to be clear”. I am inclined instead to appeal to another grand Theory Master, Talcott Parsons (great name) – Parsons, in his 1968 Introduction to a new edition of The Structure of Social Action, also responds to the accusation that his work was all theory and no empirics – his book, he asserted, was “an empirical study in the analysis of social thought”, which treats the writings of various thinkers as “documents” that “present problems of understanding and interpretation”. Had I read that before I finished my own book, I would have used it, but I didn’t, but I am certainly going to use it a lot from now on. It’s pretty much exactly how I conceive what I am doing in The Priority of Injustice. This is not, mind, merely a matter of exegesis – it’s more like something described by Yi-Fu Tuan, in another preface (I do read past the first few pages of some books), to his Dominance and Affection. He describes his book as an essay, a preliminary undertaking that imaginatively lays out ideas, as a first step towards the focus on specific problems and their analysis. I see my book as doing a bit of what both Parsons and Tuan recommend, with only touch of the apologetic anxiety expressed by Kant.

I should have a go, shouldn’t I, at saying out loud what this very long book is actually about, what it actually argues. There is a promotional jacket blurb, which does a quite good job of doing that, but let me try to give a little more substance.

The first thing to say is that this an argumentative book – it’s an argument for a certain way of thinking and theorising, and against certain other ways. The ways of thinking that I argue against can be variously characterised, for sure, but I have come to think of them a constituting a fairly coherent discourse, shall we say, that defines being in the true of avowedly ‘poststructuralist’ critical thought. That name might not quite capture the field, exactly, but what I have in mind is an intellectual world defined by two core features: a recurrent fixation on the dynamics of subjectification; and a tendency towards what I have called ontological trumping, expressed most clearly in the convergence of critical spatial theory with assertive ontologies of the political. Take those two features, splice them together, and you have entered into the unreflexive common sense of what it means to perform critique in contemporary TheoryLand.

The Priority of Injustice is, primarily, a book about democratic theory, which isn’t just any old body of theory, but it’s also a book about the vocation of critical theory more broadly. It’s also in part a book in which I try to pay homage to the thinkers who have really influenced my own intellectual trajectory: thinkers including Stanley Cavell and Judith Shklar, Iris Marion Young and Amartya Sen, Linda Zerilli and Stuart Hall, Albert Hirschman and Partha Chatterjee, Nancy Fraser and Hannah Pitkin, Axel Honneth and Bernard Williams, Phillip Pettit and Cora Diamond. As well as old uncle Habermas, of course. Somewhere in that list there is, I think, the outlines of an account of the rapprochement between post-analytical political philosophy and critical theory of a big C and big T, post-Frankfurt School style (that might be the subject of the next book). It’s in the relationship between those two traditions that I situate my own vision of the tasks of doing critical analysis in a democratic spirit.

The book has three parts, and certainly in my head, these three parts hang together perfectly in a narrative sequence (but hey, you can dip and dip out too, I’m sure – nobody actually reads academic books from front to back, do they?).

In the first part (Democracy and Critique) – which I can’t help but think of as the equivalent of the ‘methods’ section – Chapter 1 (An Awareness of Politics) distinguishes between  different styles of radical democratic theory, arguing that it is not disputes about the meaning of democracy that are crucial so much as different understandings of the meaning of meaning. I argue that the rise to prominence of ontological trumping in political thought is associated with an attachment to the ‘etymological gesture’ in accounting for the meaning of key terms of democratic dispute (and I also suggest that Roland Barthes has much the most interesting thing to say about democracy as any twentieth-century French thinker). In the next chapter (Criteria for Democratic Inquiry), I try to articulate, for the first time in my own writing, why I love Stanley Cavell, outlining a view of how the meaning of democracy can be best approached as a problem by roving across discussions of exemplary thinking in Arendt and Derrida, ‘the ordinary’ and the projection of new meanings in Cavell and others, ‘essentially contested concepts’, and analogies of lake-formation, and the ideas of ‘the enactment of democracy’ and democracy as an ‘ethnographically emergent’ phenomenon. This is all as a preliminary to the discussion in Part 3 of the book (Phenomenologies of Injustice) about attending to the force of assertive claims against injustice.

Before getting to that bit, though, the book has a big middle section (Rationalities of the Political), consisting of three chapters in which I try to redeem something of value from what has become the deadeningly simple analysis of ‘the political’, the post-political, and (de-)politicization. In draft, this section was very long, 100,000 words or so, and it was largely negative in tone, but then I remembered the reason why I cut a very similar section from a previous book I wrote – because it seemed a waste of an opportunity to write so much about something that you didn’t actually feel was of much value. So I try to reconstruct the kernel of what is interesting about the tradition of predominantly Francophile discussions of the theme of ‘the political’ (a large part of the answer to what is most interesting about that theme is… the American strand of debates about the eclipse of ‘the political’). I argue (in The Ontological Need) that the splitting of politics into 2 parts (politics and the political, etc – a trick that is mind-blowing the first time you come across it, but quickly loses its allure) – needs to be saved from the prevalent ontological reading in which it has now been entombed. Discussions of the political, certainly in GeographyLand and related fields as well as in a great deal of political theory – qualify as metaphysical in the sense used by Cora Diamond: they impose requirements on what and how phenomenon should appear and how they should be apprehended in order for them to qualify as properly political. It is, really, a bizarre style of analysis, but one which is really good for reproducing certain sorts of spatialized romanticism. Along the way, I attempt to parse different vocabularies of antagonism in political thought (in The Scandal of Consent and The Significance of Conflict), suggesting that it a good idea NOT to ontologize conflict, struggle, and contestation.

I proffer instead a view of ‘the political’ theme that recovers the phenomenological inflection of this concept as it shows up in the often rather pessimistic viewpoints of Claude Lefort, Sheldon Wolin and Pierre Rosanvallon, with a backward nod to Merleau-Ponty’s Machiavellian account of political life. Finding the interesting aspect of discussions of ‘the political’ in the emphasis on the experiential (which is emphatically not the same as super-structuralist analyses of ‘distributions of the sensible’) allows me to seamlessly link the three chapters of this section of the book to the discussion in the final part of the book.

In the final three chapters, I follow a hint by Axel Honneth and seek to reconstruct a lineage of radical democratic thought that develops not by reference to ever more refined ontologies of disruption and becoming, but by reference to the analysis of the rationalities of action. The final part of the book, the assertive part, has three steps, chapter by chapter: first, (in Claims of the Affected) I reconstruct how the theme of all affected interests has been revived in the geographical turn of certain strands of political thought, and add my own inflection (with due acknowledgement to Robert Dahl), suggesting that this idea needs to be thought of as a heuristic device rather than a prescriptive rule. That argument is then connected (in Subjects of Domination) to a consideration of how theories of democratic justice have come to pivot on the value of non-domination (partly but not only with reference to Phillip Pettit), and how this in turn implies a particular understanding of the grammar of justice claims, best articulated by the wonderful work of Iris Marion Young, my guiding light in all things democratic. The final chapter (The Sense of Injustice) then works through the implications of the argument about affectedness, non-domination and claims-making more fully, catching sight of and bringing into the open a somewhat under appreciated strand of thought that interrupts debates about how best to theorise justice not by ‘going ontological’ but by reordering the conceptual relationships between the idea of justice and the experience of injustice. That strand of thought is quite thin, it’s very recent, but it includes some heavy hitters – Shklar, Sen, for example, and it meets critical theorists like Honneth coming from another direction, and I seek in this last chapter to express why giving conceptual priority to injustice in the analysis of political life matters to the vocation of critique (the theme of the priority of injustice should not be confused with a more general preference, not least in GeographyLand, for practice over theory – I explain just why it shouldn’t in a new paper in Annals of AAG – and to be clear, that paper is a supplement to the book, it contains a discussion that isn’t in the book at all).

And then the book ends, with a claim – a reminder to me more than anything else – about that earlier point that the whole book is really an essay – a preliminary to further inquiry, a setting of a scene, if not of an agenda. If there is anyone out there who wants to give me loads of money to actually pursue the research programme laid out at the end of the book, do let me know.




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.