Sunday, September 12, 2010

Human Capital: abilities machines producing income streams

A great passage from Jodi Dean's essay "Drive as the structure of Biopolitics: Economy, Sovereignty and Capture".

Neoliberalism is [. . .] a governmentality wherein economic reason confronts, judges, and displaces governmental reason. Foucault’s primary examples are Germany and the United States. In each instance neoliberalism arises out of a critique of excessive governance (2008: 322), as a response to a mode of government that is erring on the side of too much and hence endangering freedom. The interesting twist is that where one would expect such a critique to urge the state to take its hands off the economy, it does something else instead: it subjects the state to the economy. German and American neoliberals reverse the equation, making the economy the legitimator of the state. ‘In other words: a state under the supervision of the market rather than a market supervised by the state’ (2008: 116).
This reversal intensifies and extends biopolitical processes and mechanisms. Insofar as neoliberalism emphasizes the market as a site of competition rather than exchange, it demands that the state combat anti-competitive mechanisms and work to spread opportunities for competition. Consequently, the state must be ever vigilant in these efforts as well as vigilant about its own efficiency in so doing. Such vigilance, moreover, is exercised not just with regard to government, as its operations and resources are privatized. Rather, neoliberalism entails a governmentality of ‘active, multiple, vigilant, and omnipresent’ intervention in society (2008:160). Society, too, must be opened up and subjected to the dynamic of competition. For neoliberals, this takes the form of the enterprise society, a vital, differentiated society of productive entrepreneurs, that is, individuals who take responsibility for their own success and well-being (hence, Foucault emphasizes their role as producers rather than consumers).
American neoliberalism was particularly effective in extending biopolitics via its theory of human capital. Human capital was the concept through which neoliberals grasped labor in its specificity, the way they sought to understand the meaning of labor means for the working person, the rationality underlying the worker’s choices. Treating income as a return on capital, neoliberals construed the worker’s income in terms of the capital he has in himself. Because of the multiplicity of factors influencing workers’ choices – mobility, quality of life, familiarity, capacities to adapt, aversion to risk – the theory of human capital enabled economic analysis to permeate a variety of new domains, domains previously the purview of the human sciences that developed around disciplinary institutions (sociology, psychology, demography, criminology, etc).
Foucault explains that there are two primary kinds of human capital, innate and acquired. Innate elements are heritable, genetic. A person concerned with her child’s innate human capital can take the proper steps toward finding an appropriate co-producer of this child. She can seek to secure a mate with desirable traits that might reduce her off-springs’ risks and enhance their competitive position. Genetic research is thus valuable to individuals in an enterprise society as it provides a knowledge they can use to plan for the future. At the same time, it gives rise to a complex of issues of screening, disclosure, prevention, and risk. Acquired capital refers to the skills and capacities that prepare individuals for competition. Health care, both infant and maternal, is important here, as are matters of health and hygiene, diet and exercise, relationships and opportunities. In this regard, the theory of human capital stimulates interventions in family life as it asks about the best ways to produce economic competitors. Neoliberalism’s emphasis on education as preparation for work similarly targets the worker as an ‘abilities machine.’ Rather than producing critical humanists or responsible citizens, the theory of human capital treats education as a means for instilling in the worker those specific capacities that render him sufficiently competent, competitive, and flexible.
Under neoliberalism, then, power gets a hold of individuals to the extent that they are little enterprises, abilities machines competing in the market.

References are to Michel Foucault's The Birth of Biopolitics. Thomas Lemke has an excellent summary of the lectures, here.

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