Tuesday, October 14, 2008

economic rationalism or neoliberal governmentality?

A section from the thesis where I work through some of the writings which seek to characterise the political practices and reasoning that affected Australian Government in the long Labor Decade. Thought this might be worth throwing up here as there are debates echoing around the tubes about Neoliberalism's death, or its utter resilience. It took me a while to come around to the Foucauldian view of it as a type of governmentality, which is not to say that the more commonplace view of Neoliberalism as forms of deregulation and privatisation are not also facets in the same assemblage. However, what the governmentality approach stresses is that Neoliberalism is a set of liberal political techniques which are saturated with forms of reasoning and knowledge that aim to shape and conduct people as flexible, productive and above all as entrepreneurs of themselves. Neoliberalism is a political rationality of government that stretches from the self to the state.

Anyway here's a slice relevant to a debate that while a little old is I think still pertinent.

Economic Rationalism and Neoliberal governmentality


Fucking locusts: the moment they smell something green it’s gone in an instant.

[A] very senior (and battle-weary) person in one of the service departments in answer to a question about his view of the economic rationalists in the central agencies.(Pusey, 1991: 174)


In a 1995 review of Beilharz’s book [Transforming Labor Carol] Johnson wonders if Beilharz’s approach to the Hawke-Keating government and Labor tradition fails to take into account the possibility that the transformation of Labourism was less its exhaustion than its expansion to include social groups outside the white, male heterosexual wage earner (1995). She also wonders “what use Beilharz might have made of more recent Foucauldian approaches to issues of political economy and governmentality” (ibid: 102).

While Johnson’s 1989 political history is based on the method of an ideology critique, which “concentrates on the dominant premises underlying government policies”, her 2000 text is a more methodologically diverse approach to political science and, indeed, towards political culture (ibid: 3). In Governing Change: from Keating to Howard (2000) Johnson reaches back through the Howard Coalition Government into the Keating-led period of the long Labor decade and approaches this approximately nine year period through a range of analytic methods, which she applies and evaluates according to their interpretive and explanatory power and utility. While heuristics based on technology, gender and sexuality are placed over the period to draw out the causes and implications of changes in governing and government that these methodological grids enable, it is Johnson’s use of theories that emerge out of the Foucauldian governmentalities school and use of the Habermas-based critique of economic rationalism that Michael Pusey makes which is her central and important contribution to an understanding of the long Labor decade.

Rather than seeing the rise of Australian Neoliberalism solely in terms of an ideology which presents itself as the necessary withdrawal of the state through such practices as “privatisation, deregulation, free-markets and the increasing role of the private-sector” Johnson’s use of a governmentalities-based approach to the long Labor decade leads her to argue that “other forms of state activity” accompany these practices, which include “shaping and influencing the behaviour of its citizens, encouraging new forms of self-managing and self-regulating behaviour by individuals and relying on the disciplinary power of the market to influence citizen behaviour” (2000: 100). Considering that it is only recently that the lectures in which Foucault most fully outlined his theories and critique of Neoliberalism, were published in English it is not surprising to find that definitions of Neoliberalism rarely countenance Foucault’s concepts that it is also a political rationality rather than just an ideology about market freedom and that it is a form of governmentality that changes the techniques by which states and individuals govern and are governed (Foucault, 2008: 215-238). The advantage of this approach is that it sets aside the claims of an ideological focus and critique in order to track the reasoning or rationality upon which government practices are based. Such an approach uncovers the view that contemporary forms of liberalism differ from earlier forms in that they do not see the market as already existing in some natural form but as something that government needs to actively construct through establishing particular political, legal and institutional conditions. The state is then faced with the additional dilemma of needing to encourage the development of the particular forms of ‘autonomous’ and ‘free’ individuals that neo-liberal styles of government depend upon, given that liberal sovereignty in general takes a less directly coercive form than more authoritarian forms of rule (Johnson, 2000: 102).

This is an argument which seeks to explicate the ‘Neo’ in Neoliberalism. A complementary historical argument is that the target of Neoliberalism in many countries is the practice of Social-liberal techniques that were instituted through Keynesian practices in the period after World War Two until the early 1970s. The ‘Neo’ prefix thereby refers to the specific nature of this historically recent object of critique; a critique which, as Foucault argues, projects itself along the well-worn Liberal path of “governing too much,” but which because of its Keynesian and Social-liberal object can be called New (Foucault, 2008: 319).

Thus Johnson’s application of the insights of the Foucauldian conception of Neoliberalism to the long Labor decade leads to her depiction of it as a specific project of identity construction and thereby behavioural ‘encouragement’: “In the Keating government’s practice, governmentality took the form of attempting to construct a range of identities in ways that are compatible with Labor’s conceptions of reconstructing the Australian economy” (2000: 104).

Johnson’s use of Foucauldian methods is a cautious one as she finds them inadequate for dealing with forces exterior to the state-subject relationship, such as market power in a capitalist economy. In order to better approach these forces she turns to Michael Pusey’s application of J├╝rgen Habermas’s theories in Pusey’s Economic Rationalism in Canberra: A Nation Building State Changes its Mind (1991). For Johnson, Habermas’s method relies on an opposition between a “lifeworld” of human subjects that contains “culturally secured meanings, and . . . social action,” and “systems structures,” forms of which are money and power and which threaten to mediatise and colonise the lifeworld (Pusey, 1991: 175 and Johnson, 2000: 112). To some extent Habermas’s schema is a retooling of the concepts he employs in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society (1989) where he places the practices and institutions of rational-critical discourse as central to the democratic potentials of modern liberal political life (1989: 51-56). According to Habermas there is a form of rationality higher and more suited to the lifeworld, the source of democracy, than to those forms embedded in ‘money’ and (bureaucratic-state) ‘power’ (Johnson, 2000: 112).This is both an argument for the safeguarding of these higher and more democratic forms from ‘colonisation’ and a reiteration of the central thesis of his earlier work on the political public sphere.

For Johnson, Pusey’s research into changes in norms and practices amongst Canberra’s Senior Public Servants and critique of economic rationalism go far in explaining how and why “the Canberra Bureaucracy itself became a site intimately implicated in the colonisation of the lifeworld by the economic subsystem” (ibid: 113). Indeed, Pusey’s critique is a compelling one that has a sharp moral edge and is one drawn on a comprehensible spatial model which clearly demarcates the sources of economic rationalism against what must be protected from it: the lifeworld and its practices of communicative rationality. In a sense Pusey’s is form of immanent critique, taking the language of the object, turning it back on itself and thereby undoing its claims to any moral superiority or longevity:

[T]his doctrine and its sponsors will pay the price of casting society itself both as the object of business strategy and, just as negatively, as the generic source of all ‘market failure’. It is an aggressive reduction that pretends not to see that in the West in the space of little more than a generation, extended family, church, and local community neighbourhood have all been burnt up as fuel in the engine of economic ‘development’. (Pusey, 1991: 241)


Yet the limits of Pusey’s critique of economic rationalism are those that the governmentality ‘school’ treat as the central objects of their practice. Pusey’s Habermasean schema makes assumptions about the nature of the lifeworld and the human-subjects who populate it which are not held by those that practice with more Nietzschean-influenced ideas on the relation of truth-subject-power that Foucault wields. Specifically, Pusey’s critique is, like aspects of Habermas’s writings, caught in the paradox of thinking a modernity that ruptures historical time into a traditional past and new future. The paradox is that ‘tradition,’ like heritage, doesn’t pre-exist modernity so much as it is made in the moment of the modern. The concept of ‘lifeworld’ and of a transparent communicative rationality would seem to be Janus-faced: the lifeworld a condition or state of human community that is the projection of a temporalization made in the cauldron of modernity, and facing another way, the dream of a pure communicative rationality seemingly a secular model of redemption without the violence or revolutionary desires that Benjamin’s messianic time conjures. While this thesis sides with the Foucauldian concept of Neoliberalism as a form of governmentality which ascends in the long Labor decade, it follows Johnson’s scepticism about its limits and thereby accepts the usefulness of Pusey’s critique to explain aspects of the forces operating on the long Labor decade.

One dimension of Neoliberalism is its forming, or bildungs, and re-forming of citizen-subjects in terms of freedom and market rationalities. This process of what Mitchell Dean calls “culture-governance” is analogous to the Bildungs: a term denoting the formation of self through culture and a term more commonly known through its deployment in the anglo-linguistic world as the novel genre of the Bildungsroman: formation-novel (Dean, 2007: 198). Much of the thesis is concerned with formation novels, or Bildungsromane, that traverse or arise out of the long Labour decade, and it argues that the representations of subject-formation in realist novels of this period are ones that can be seen to engage with the forces, rationalities and technologies of neoliberal governmentalities working in and through the cultures and discourses of Australian Labourism and industrial citizenship.

There is ongoing debate over how to describe and theorise the political project that the long Labor decade both attempted to enact and in part succeeded in realizing. The key tension in this debate concerns the description of Neoliberalism as the submission of the State to global corporations and markets by privatising formerly state-owned and run businesses and utilities, by deregulating formerly protected and state-controlled markets in finance and labour, and by adopting business techniques in the running of bureaucracies and state utilities. This conception of Neoliberalism, shared by such global Left intellectuals as David Harvey (2007) and the late Pierre Bourdieu (1998), is firmly rejected by those theorists of Neoliberalism influenced by Foucault’s writings and lectures on the subject (Lemke, 2002: 54-60). The terms of this debate will be explored in more depth throughout this thesis, in particular in Part 3. But the advantages of a literary history of the long Labor decade as a track running alongside the political history is that fiction is more conducive to investigating the representation of political forces as they form the self. This thesis’s focus on formation novels aims to give an account of Australian literary-fictional responses to Neoliberalism which complements and contests non-fictional accounts.

1 comment:

Masouda said...

very well explained.