Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Reg-u-later: Liberal Governmentalities

Having been immersed in Foucauldian-based Governmentality writings on neoliberalism of late I've been tempted to contribute to some blog threads where the talk is over the Wall St crisis and one line of debate is structured around the bring-back-regulation vs the we-are-already-overregulated polemics. One comment I endorse is here:

Tom N. said:

Reading the soft-left media and blogs over recent weeks, together with retorts along the lines of Rafe’s post*, has reminded me of the barrenness of the “free-market vs government” debate. It seems that, for a number of people in the former group, the US meltdown is conclusive evidence of the failure of free markets, and all those economists who believe in markets free from government intervention - an empty set, but never mind - need to learn the lesson and repent. This line of argument has reminded me of Michael Pussey’s [sic] misrepresentations of “nasty narrow-indeed New Right neoclassical economic rationalists” a decade or so back. KRudd’s recent revelation that there is a role for government intervention, not just market forces, is another example of the false characterisation of the practice of economics.

In reality, day-to-day economic policy advising is - as it has long been - about optimum levels and the design of regulation; not whether or not there should be any. Similarly, no economist I know thinks that the appropriate place of the free market is anywhere other that in the textbook, as a useful device for thinking about some matters, but not as something that should, or could, exist in practice in a modern society.

Of course, discussion of the nuts and bolts of good regulation and policy is unlikely to keep the interest of many readers, so one can understand the attractiveness of “government vs market” type grand narratives. I just wish commentators would label this stuff “fiction”. Perhaps its another case for appropriate regulation.

Late-Foucault scholar, and yes there is a late-late Foucault emerging as the English transationas of his College de France Lectures are still coming, Thomas Lemke writes:

The concept of governmentality . . . proves useful in correcting the diagnosis of neo-liberalism as an expansion of economy in politics, that takes for granted the separation of state and market. The argument goes that there is some "pure" or "anarchic" economy that will be "regulated" or "civilised" by a political reaction of society. But as we know since Marx there is no market independent of the state, and the economy is always a political economy.

Foucault's discussion of neo-liberal governmentality shows that the so-called "retreat of the state" is in fact a prolongation of government, neo-liberalism is not the end but a transformation of politics, that restructures the power relations in society. What we observe is not a diminishment or a reduction of state sovereignty and planning capacities but a displacement from formal to informal techniques of government and the appearance of new actors on the scene of government (e.g. NGOs), that indicate fundamental transformations in statehood and a new relation between state and civil actors.

From "Foucault, Governmentality, and Critique"

Calls for a return to regulation miss the opportunity to have a debate about the how, who, what and aims of techniques of government (the conduct of conduct). There's an interesting post at Mark Davis' blog where he articulates the disappointing recommendations on the carbon emissions reduction scheme to regulation in the financial markets and the sense that the Neoliberal era might be over and that a new paradigm is needed. As Lemke's quotes above seek to make clear, the separation of economy and state, whether the economy is rule-of-the-jungle anarchic or a beautiful self-regulating machine conducted by the invisible hand, is a form of liberal rationality and provides the basis on which practices of government forms its problems in need of solution.

Foucault talks instead of the state as subject to governmentalisation. This is certainly evident in the embedding of market rationalities (forms of knowledge and reasoning, vocabularies) into apparatuses of the state over the last 35 years: managerial & enterpreneurial regimes, flexible, competitive and efficient teams. While one understanding of these changes is that they evidence the abandonment of the state to the market, the expansion of the state contradicts what amounts to the ideological rhetoric that masks the practices of a Neoliberal governmentalisation of the state. Rather than the economy overpowering the state Neoliberalism amounts to political techniques of conducting behaviour that are based on market practices and reasoning, against a desired for horizon of market-enabled plenitude.

While I don't think we can go back to Keynesian practices of government, and clearly neoliberal modes have proven to be atopic (like atopic illnesses - asthma and eczema - where the symptoms of the disease are temporally deferred and physically displaced) in that they generate power through payouts and interest from finance capital for an elite who are immunised from the toxic waste that their wealth abjected, my feeling is that we should be looking to a combination of rhythms of governmentalities: a healthy harmony of governmental rhythms or eurhythmia of government. The danger is that there will be a call, fearful and even religious, for an isorhythmia.

America is Waiting . . . [David Byrne and Brian Eno]


Eric said...

I like the blog comment you've posted. The opposition between free market and government regulation is really annoying. Of course, there's a left version of this Keynesianism vs. neoliberalism. Another annoying opposition, as if, as you say, neoliberalism meant an absence of regulation. Ditto the socialism of the rich, capitalism for the poor arguments. And, echoing you, the calls for reregulation and a "real" New Deal.... Obviously, I'm kind of irritated by most of the responses to the crisis. Maybe I should formulate my own rather than rant on your blog. Which is maybe a convoluted way of saying thanks for your postings on this that avoid all the things that irritate me elsewhere.

Michael C said...

I look forward to reading your take on the current convulsions. It seems like there is a renegotiation between Neoliberalism and capitalism happening in the US at present but the demand to DO SOMETHING URGENTLY is fucking up the opportunity to do something that might forestall a repeat, or even produce a fairer trade-off. I think Wendy Brown was right, Neoliberalism has so de-democratised the US that handing Paulson $700 Billion and absolute immunity is a possibility!

Cool Coltrane vids btw.