Friday, October 2, 2009

Neoliberalism: the conduct of economic conduct


For Foucault, the “encounter between the technologies of domination of others [power] and those of the self I call “governmentality”” (225). Drawing on a sixteenth-century Western European discourse of ‘government’ Foucault seeks to reactivate these older meanings of the term so as to break up the fusion that government and state have in current discourse (2001: 341). These older meanings of government

designated the way in which the conduct of individuals or of groups might be directed—the government of children, of souls, of communities, of families, of the sick. It covered not only the legitimately constituted forms of political or economic subjection but also modes of action, more or less considered and calculated, that were destined to act upon the possibilities of action of other people. To govern, in this sense, is to structure the possible field of action of others. The relationship proper to power would therefore be sought not on the side of violence or of struggle, nor on that of voluntary contracts (all of which can, at best, only be the instruments of power) but, rather, in the area of that singular mode of action, neither warlike nor juridical, which is government. (341)

Thus for Foucault the state is not synonymous with government so much as subjected to

the tactics of government which make possible the continual definition and redefinition of what is within the competence of the state and what is not, the public versus the private, and so on. Thus the state can only be understood in its survival and its limits on the basis of the general tactics of governmentality. (Foucault, 2001: 221)

Wendy Brown observes that “as is often the case with Foucault’s ideas [. . .] the notion of governmentality is both extremely theoretically fecund and woefully underspecified” and it is from the scholars of governmentality that much of the fleshing out and application of Foucault’s fecund concept has emerged (Brown, 2005: 142). Indeed, Thomas Lemke’s work on governmentality provides the conceptual basis for thinking it as a continuum of rationalities and techniques which stretches from the self to the state:

While many forms of contemporary critique still rely on the dualism of freedom and constraint, consensus and violence, from the perspective of governmentality the polarity of subjectivity and power ceases to be plausible: government refers to a continuum, which extends from political government right through to forms of self-regulation – namely, “technologies of the self.” (Lemke, 2002: 59)[i]

By taking governmentality as a continuum on which self and state both range, a re-conceptualisation is enabled for the reversible New Left and second wave Feminist tenet: the personal is the political and the political is the personal. Yet such a re-conceptualisation must itself be historicised if we are to move beyond the period of the heyday of the New Left in the 1950s and 1960s when Neoliberal forms of governmentality began to emerge and be codified by Chicago University figures like Gary Becker. For Foucault

the interest of [Becker’s] theory of human capital is that it represents two processes, one that we could call the extension of economic analysis into a previously unexplored domain, and second, on the basis of this, the possibility of giving a strictly economic interpretation of a whole domain previously thought to be non-economic. (The Birth of Biopolitics: 219)

Foucault's argument is that in these theories of human capital the proper theoretical consideration that capital and land have been given in economic theory has yet to be applied to labour. While for Marx it is capitalism that produces abstract labour, for Neoliberals like Becker the category of abstract labour is a false one that results from the limitations of classical economic theory and its concerns with mechanisms and processes of production and of exchange (221-22). Rather than see the self as the seller of labour, Neoliberals see the self as “an entrepreneur, an entrepreneur of himself“ (226).

The enterprising and entrepreneurial self is a fixture of everyday life now. But where does Libertarianism fit into these practices of American Neoliberalism? If Neoliberalism is, in part, a textual practice then how does it happen in text, in specifically local ways, in Australia? In order to explore these questions I will look below at Left-libertarian writer Moorhouse's shifting positions on governmentality around the time of the breakdown of the post-war boom and the financial system that had enabled it. What is of particular interest is how a Left-Libertarian practises literary politics before, during and after a shift in their own conception of governmentality and before, during and after what is arguably the emergence and dominance of the Neoliberal modes of governmentality. Lohrey’s Left-Labourist literary trajectory passes through the long Labor decade and hence Neoliberal governmentality at a later point. Yet, her initial orientation propels her focus away from technologies of the state towards those of the self. This is a curious cross-trajectory. Why would ostensibly Left novelists respond to the same phenomena in inverted ways? Before addressing this question I will move into a mid-range reading of Moorhouse and Lohrey's oeuvres.

[i] Barry Hindess also refers to governmentality as a continuum:

Foucault maintains that [. . .] there is a certain continuity between the government of oneself, the government of a household and the government of a state or community. Linked to this continuity, he argues, is the fact that the principles of political action and those of personal conduct can be seen as being intimately related. He suggests, for example, that successful government of others depends, in the first instance, on the capacity of those doing the governing to govern themselves. As for the governed, to the extent that it avoids the extremes of domination, their government must aim to affect their conduct—that is, it must operate through their capacity to regulate their own behaviour. In this respect too, successful government of others is often thought to depend on the ability of those others to govern themselves, and it must therefore aim to secure the conditions under which they are enabled to do so. (1996: 105)

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