Inventing the citizen – what would a 'left governmentality' look like?

The first part in a new openDemocracy mini-series on how the left needs to think about governmentality, managing public services, and subjectivity.

Carys Hughes Jim Cranshaw
15 May 2019, 11.47am
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn visiting NHS staff, January 2019
Gareth Fuller/PA Images

Policies change people’s lives, but they also change people. The last half century of Conservative party strategy has been shaped by this insight. In this they are no different to neoliberal thinkers and parties across the world.

Despite their rhetoric of ‘choice’, individual freedom and limited state intervention, it is the right who have worked most consciously to construct a citizenry in their desired image.

It is time to learn from those insights, and repurpose them for a liberatory and egalitarian politics, before the opportunity is missed. If the left were to be this ambitious, it would involve looking at public policy in a new way – through the lens of how it shapes and transforms consciousness.

Creating conservative consciousness

Since Margaret Thatcher’s Right to Buy policy launched in 1980, leading to the sale of 1.8 million council houses to their tenants, Conservative politicians have used housing policy to change the outcomes of elections and to change voters themselves.

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They knew, as James Gregory writes, that “ownership has a transformative effect on the way in which individuals think about both themselves and their place in the world”. Michael Heseltine, for example, believed that: “Home ownership stimulates the attitudes of independence and self-reliance that are the bedrock of a free society.” Whilst council houses, argued Thatcher, were “breeding grounds of socialism, dependency, vandalism and crime”.

Nick Clegg encountered similar sentiments: “Cameron or Osborne … said, ‘I don’t understand why you keep going on about the need for more social housing – it just creates Labour voters.’ They genuinely saw housing as a petri dish for voters. It was unbelievable.” It was actually highly strategic. They recognised that “private ownership encourages an emotional attachment to our immediate circle of family and friends and an indifference to the rest of society”. These were precisely the values they hoped to foster.

In a similar vein, student fees and university privatisation policies in the US were first developed not, primarily, to generate funds, but, as George Monbiot observes, to explicitly and consciously limit students’ desire to engage in activism. And through restricting many aspects of union organising activity, Thatcher didn't only reduce workers’ power in the short term. The restrictions also led to a dramatic decline in industrial action, thereby eliminating a real, experiential school in the power of democracy, solidarity and collective action for millions of working-class people. The links between despair in postindustrial communities and support for the far right shows one danger of what can happen to the way people define their identities when that school closes its front gates.

These policies were used to change people’s material circumstances, and in this way, aimed to change people’s priorities, behaviours, and very identities. As Thatcher put it: “Economics are the method: the object is to change the heart and soul.”

Managing consent

Neoliberal consciousness has also been promoted by the way the state is managed. In an article for IPPR Progressive Review, Sahil Jai Dutta, Samuel Knafo, Richard Lane and Steffan Wyn-Jones show how the public management of state functions and processes was transformed to embed neoliberal rule, decades before its celebrated political victories. Techniques such as auditing, extensive accountability mechanisms, outsourcing and performance-related-pay – which so define our contemporary interactions with the public sector – were first rolled out in 1960s America, with the technical assistance of a cold war think tank, the Rand Corporation.

Rand developed and trialled the tools and techniques which would later comprise New Public Management theory, and which revolutionised bureaucratic management of the state in the US and the UK. Drawing on game theory and its “vision of a world of self-interested, competitive actors”, this approach to management required managers to “redesign incentive structures around this notion of strategic, gaming individuals”. New Public Management conceptualised public servants as selfish, rational utility maximisers, ever trying to increase their fiefdoms and expand the public sector, at a huge cost to the taxpayer.

Because, in this view, people are at their best when they compete, internal markets, outsourcing and privatisation had to be introduced. Public servants needed to be controlled, monitored and incentivised. In this way, Rand “encoded neoliberalism into contemporary life”.

New Public Management has created an “incentives architecture” that embeds neoliberalism within the state, and influences and transforms the people and organisations who are subject to it. Look, for example, at how the commissioning out of local services to charities has encouraged them to compete with each other for crumbs of cash, undermining their ability to cooperate to change the local state itself.

Dutta and colleagues conclude that this transformation was not one of ideology but of bureaucracy: “The social shift was less important than the technical one.” Or, we might suggest: the technical shift preceded and enabled the social one. As is pointed out: “Voters didn’t just gradually abandon one economic model for another” – their experiences were changed through a paradigmatic shift in how the state was managed. This influenced people and their sense of themselves. Societies to some extent acquiesced to and enacted the ideas, values and logic of neoliberalism, because they had been shaped to do so.

Disaffected consent

Michel Foucault’s notion of ‘governmentality’ helps us make sense of this. While states have the power to compel citizens, rooted in force, they also exercise a subtler power, involving the construction of willing consent. Through ‘techniques of governance’ – policies, practices and broader rationalities – the state encourages particular subjectivities: ways to understand oneself and one’s agency in the world. In this way, the state shapes the behaviour of citizens in support of its desired ends. As Foucault puts it: “To govern, in this sense, is to structure the possible field of action of others.” Policies and practices such as Right to Buy, workfare, performance related pay and league tables are components of a governmentality that constructs citizens as atomised, individualised, competitive agents.

While this process has not been an unmitigated success, it has supported the neoliberal project and inhibited possibilities for collective organising for progressive political change, producing what Jeremy Gilbert called ‘disaffected consent’, and Mark Fisher called ‘capitalist realism’, or the pervasive idea that it is impossible even to imagine alternatives to capitalism.

What can the left learn from this? If Jeremy Corbyn became Prime Minister tomorrow, most agree that he would struggle to enlist the senior mandarins of the Treasury, army and secret services to support a socialist agenda. The less understood problem is that the bureaucratic structures, processes and practices of the state, from outsourcing to league tables, are geared towards delivering an opposing set of political objectives. It is, in many ways, a New Public Management type of state. One cannot simply change the policy at the top of that system and expect it to produce radically different results.

Claiming governmentality for the left

The concept of governmentality has almost always been used and developed – by both Foucault and those who have followed him – with respect to the neoliberal political order. In this variant, governmentality functions, as Foucault puts it, to make the population ‘governable’.

But what if governments have a different aim? What if the aim is not popular acquiescence, but a citizenry with the power and skills to contest, hold to account and ultimately control the state? What if the aim is not to foster individualism, but autonomous collective organisation, as well as values of trust, compassion and empathy? What should governance look like?

Those most vexed by this question are inspired by those who have attempted to govern without having answered it first. Both Andreas Karitzis and Stathis Gourgouris have partly attributed the failures of the Syriza government in Greece to attempting to govern through the existing set of state structures and processes, and have articulated the need for a ‘left governmentality’.

As Andreas Karitzis explains, Syriza’s mistake was to think that all that mattered was which party was in power, that “the crucial issues are political and not technical”. In actual fact, or so they later discovered, “one’s political potential in government is determined by what one knows how to do with the state.” But Syriza lacked the technical expertise and a plan for how to transform its existing processes and functions. What is needed is a “redesigned ‘operating system’”, “a form of administration that could run basic social functions in a democratic, participatory and cooperative way… based on the liberation of people’s capacities”.

Similarly, Stathis Gourgouris explores “how to move from resistance or opposition to government decision”, and argues governmentality can be the “figure that moves us out of the counter-power model”.

Addressing one objection, he notes how governmentality is often interpreted as a mechanism of population control, and hence might seem antithetical to a liberatory politics. On the contrary, he argues, “there is ample evidence in Foucault’s thinking that would make governmentality a notion essential to a kind of autonomous, self-empowering politics”.

In any case, whether or not one acknowledges and attempts to shape how the logics, processes and policies of the state influence peoples’ consciousness, they will still be there, operating without explication.

Related points have been made in recent articles and talks, including those by Hettie O’Brian, Christine Berry, Miatta Fahnbulleh, and Keir Milburn and Bertie Russell.

But without more attention to forming an alternative vision of the ‘subject’, to the neoliberal or indeed neofascist subject, left policy does not really know where it is going. And actors from Cambridge Analytica to Trump will have free reign in the realm of the social construction of identity.

Questions that still need answers

Gourgouris and Karitzis’ contributions invite us to explore left governmentality more deeply, and answer some fundamental questions:

To move beyond neoliberalism, we need to understand what kind of human flourishing we are aiming for, what kind of citizenry we hope to emerge from our programme of reform. If neoliberal governmentality functions to, as Foucault puts it, make the population ‘governable’, what qualities and characteristics would a new left governmentality inculcate? Neoliberal governance and management approaches could spread so easily because they shared a 'blueprint', or DNA – a replicable idea based on the notion that humans are at their best when forced to compete. With what should this 'blueprint' be replaced? What are the cluster of values and virtues that the left wants to draw out: creativity, collaboration, love, compassion, critical thinking, contestation...? This process cannot be about permanently eradicating selfishness and cruelty. It’s about using the power of government to tilt the field towards the emergence of better values.

What kind of constitutional order will best support this human flourishing? Guaranteed social and economic rights such as a shorter working week and a citizen’s income? Empowered spaces for participatory governance? And which forms of participatory governance foster greater levels of trust, contestation and solidarity rather than co-option of dissent? Which reach broad swathes of people in an empowering and educative manner, rather than merely engaging the self-selecting do-gooders? When policies are seen through the lens of consciousness transformation, we can better parse and prioritise between them.

And, what kind of state management structures, practices and policies will achieve this end? Would the end of commissioning out services to the third sector ultimately strengthen its ability to be a political counterpower? Should we dispense with performance-related pay as counter-egalitarian or instead incentivise senior civil servants based on their ability to create compassionate, democratic spaces for those receiving state benefits and services?

In the UK, as the most radically oriented Labour Party in decades comes close to power, this agenda could not be more important. Labour’s leadership already realises that in order to transform society they must transform ownership and governance of public goods. But equally necessary is a broader transformation in how the state is constituted, governed and managed. We must recognise the dialectical interplay between the state and its citizenry and ask how this can be used to support a transformational political agenda. As Syriza found, a failure to address this question can lead to a wider failure to achieve left ambitions, when in government.

The articles in this series begin an exploration of these questions. Coming from a range of perspectives, contributors respond to the challenge set out by Stathis Gourgouris and Andreas Karitizis, to explore what a ‘left govermentality’ would look like. They ask how a future progressive government could use the state to help transcend neoliberal consciousness and foster new ways of thinking and being within the population, so as to support a transformational project. Today, Sahil Dutta and Richard Lane address how we should manage the state if we are to move beyond New Public Management, and Peter Moss explores what education policy should look like, if the goal is to support human flourishing. To follow, James Gregory explores the centrality of housing to public identities and consciousness, and what the route to a more egalitarian public consciousness through housing policy might look like. Dan Hind explores how institutions shape the ‘organisation of knowledge’ within society, and how the media could be reformed to realise a more egalitarian organisation of knowledge, where citizens have the resources to understand, critique and ultimately transform the social order. And Michael Fielding and Peter McColl take an in-depth look at alternative forms of education and of public management.

These contributions are intended as the beginning of a bigger discussion, which we invite future contributors to develop and critique, considering more challenging policy contexts: what should policing policy look like? Welfare and benefits? The armed forces? What are the policies and processes, in these different contexts, which will foster an emancipatory form of public consciousness?

This article forms part of the “Left governmentality” mini series for openDemocracy. The authors would like to thank Clifford Singer for his input into this piece.

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