Responsibility and neo-liberalism

Grahame Thompson
31 July 2007

The issue of "responsibility" has increasingly become a defining feature of the current era of neo-liberal globalisation. At every level of governmental and social policy, and in many contexts of political and media discussion, the notion can be used to convey a potent sense both of empowerment and policing, of autonomy and control. How far can a close examination of the idea illuminate contemporary forms of power and governance?

An opportunity to think about this question in some detail was provoked by a conference in London on 20-21 July 2007 focusing on issues of corporate accountability and limited liability under globalisation. In the event, the thorough discussion of the complex question of what limited liability involves was matched by a central concern with "responsibility".

Grahame Thompson's article refers to a conference at London University's School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas) on 20-21 July 2007 on the theme of Corporate Accountability, Limited Liabiity and the Future of Globalisation

Also in openDemocracy on the theme of this conference:

Stephanie Blankenburg & Dan Plesch, "Corporate rights and responsibilities: restoring legal acountability", 10 May 2007)

Tony Curzon Price, "Corporate liability and social interest" (25 July 2007)

Perhaps that is appropriate: for this noted flexibility in relation to power makes it relevant to the area of corporate identity and behaviour too. A characteristic of the modern corporate form (for example) is that companies can often hide behind their limited-liability status to avoid responsibilities to their shareholders and to the wider community (even when invoking "corporate social responsibility"); this can happen when they act in a manner that harms individuals not involved in any way with the company (this concerns the involuntary harms associated with "torts").

In this article, then, I raise some general issues associated with the idea of responsibility, revealing its connection to different levels of social existence: from the state-led pressure to take individual responsibility for our actions and to become good, active (i.e. responsible) citizens to the reshaping of institutional power under the neo-liberal form of globalisation.

We are all responsible

There is indeed what might be called a coherent, large-scale "responsibilisation" process underway, led by governments and public authorities and experienced in their daily lives by citizens and employees - but also by various collective, institutional bodies (trade unions, public-sector and governmental agencies, companies, and many others). Its distinguishing element is that it does not require citizens necessarily to comply with rules or regulations, nor to obey an authority. Rather, it involves an un-coerced application of certain values rooted in the motivation for action. It seems to be fundamentally premised on the construction of a moral agency that accepts the consequences of its actions in a self-reflexive manner.

This trend can be understood as one expression of the move towards various forms of "governance of the self" in modern societies (see Nikolas Rose, Powers of Freedom: Reframing Political Thought, Cambridge University Press, 1999). Under these circumstances the law, for instance,  becomes a guiding principle rather than a definite command.

The implications of this trend towards responsibilisation have only just begun to be understood. One of the many unexamined areas that might be explored, for example, is the relationship the process between responsibilisation and neo-liberalism.

It is fashionably argued nowadays that neo-liberalism is best seen as a passing phase of advanced capitalism, one that has peaked and is now going into decline as "third-way-isms" of various kinds come to occupy the centre-ground of politics in leading western countries. There may be some truth in this at a narrow policy-leadership level, but to underestimate the significance of neo-liberalism quite so readily would be a grave mistake.

Indeed, the reason this can be done at all is a tribute to neo-liberalism's success: it is precisely because neo-liberalism has been ingested into the body-politic so thoroughly, has so become the prevailing commonsense of everyday life, so hovers there almost unnoticed in its productive inventiveness, that its potency can easily be missed.

The point can be made in another way: just as in the aftermath of the second world war citizens in western Europe and north America (and not exclusively there) all became - in one way or another, and perhaps unknowingly - "social-democratic subjects", members of the successor generation may now all have become similarly constituted as "neo-liberal subjects" in ways that are still not properly registered. This making of the neo-liberal subject is, I would argue, closely linked to the process of responsibilisation outlined above. But how?

The neo-liberal moment

To begin to answer this question, it is worth analytically separating two senses of neo-liberalism.

The first and more traditional sense is to see it as a regime of politico-economic organisation with attendant ideological and discursive justifications. The key aspects here are an emphasis on competitive markets as the most efficient way of managing the allocation of resources; the liberalisation and deregulation of economic activities; and the privatisation of previously publicly-owned assets.

Grahame Thompson is professor of political economy at the Open University. He is the co-author (with Paul Hirst) of Globalisation in Question: The International Economy and the Possibilities of Governance (1999) and Between Hierarchies and Markets: The Logic and Limits of Network Forms of Organisation (2003)

Also by Grahame Thompson in openDemocracy:

"The Age of Confusion" (September 2003)

"A strident Victorian or a realistic pluralist?" (October 2003)

"The limits to globalisation: questions for Held and Wolf" (July 2004)

"Learning tolerance" (December 2004)

"What is fundamentalism?" (9 March 2006)

"Talking democracy: China's lesson in Denmark" (30 September 2006)

All this is set within the context of open international borders, with an emphasis on "global" (rather than national) responses to any economic problem. At the far side of this portrait is the unfortunate tendency to use this sense of neo-liberalism as simply a term of abuse.

The second sense of neo-liberalism is to consider it as a mode of governance with its own attendant justifications. The key aspects here are the responsibilisation of autonomous agents; the production of "freedoms" that this engenders for these agents in the economic field in particular, and the encouragement of self-governance and self-reliance on their part; and the creation of mechanisms of indirect "governance at a distance" rather than direct interventionism.

Furthermore, there is an emphasis on establishing and organising the "conduct of conduct": this involves the replacement of hierarchical administrative means of direct governance with a system of benchmarks, standards, targets, and norms that is set for agents and that can be monitored and audited.

In part this latter sense of governmental neo-liberalism is what Michel Foucault termed "advanced liberalism" (see Andrew Barry et al, eds., Foucault and Political Reason, Routledge, 1996). I would suggest, however, that this has now merged with or fused into neo-liberalism proper - and that they have become more or less indistinguishable aspects of the same reality. The former, more traditional, sense of neo-liberalism established the preconditions for the latter, which has emerged as a governmental principle with an overwhelming presence and multiple embrace few would have thought possible even as late as the mid-1980s.

A strategy for reality

The scale of this transformation has partly been made possible by neo-liberalism's hugely effective achievement of being able to unite the left's commitment to "participation" with the right's commitment to "responsibility". These have been subtly merged into a further over-determined arch in neo-liberalism's conceptual apparatus: "performance".

Modern western (and increasingly, global) citizens are now constantly subject to the strictures of performance: calculated about, energised by, monitored through, quality assessed, audited and rewarded in the name of performance. And what is true of individuals is also true of institutions and even national economies (as in the case of comparative national economic performance operating under the umbrella term of "competitiveness").

There is a clear connection between this state-led neo-liberal project and the movement in the social-economic sphere associated with "corporate social responsibility"(CSR). This movement "responsibilises" autonomous agents (companies), who increasingly organise their own self-governance, setting themselves targets and standards that they themselves police. Inasmuch as a wide range of organisations - companies, NGOs, governmental and quasi-governmental agencies, individuals, religious organisations, academics - "advocate" CSR they are, in effect, enacting and performing such a neo-liberal programme on themselves and others.

In this light, the "progressive" appeal of the CSR movement - embracing issues of ethical investment and ethical consumption - looks somewhat different. The movement could in fact be viewed as an integral aspect of the neo-liberal programme.

Two conclusions might follow from the foregoing analysis. The first is that the oft-assumed or argued "perniciousness" of neo-liberalism needs to be moderated. It may be all-pervasive, the argument might go, but every manifestation of it cannot simply be condemned. Rather, since "everyone" has become so much a part of this programme, no one can escape it or stand aside from or externally criticise it.

The second conclusion is different, and more questioning. It asks whether there still remains a space for critique and alternative formulations, not so much by an illusory standing aside from neo-liberalism in order to target it, but partly to embrace it so as to manoeuvre for more "progressive" positions within it (see "Are we all neo-liberals now?", Soundings, 2007).

This second approach would, if it were adopted, require a very different attitude towards neo-liberalism. In respect to CSR, for example, this might take the form of using the fondness for responsibilisation against companies "on their own ground". The case cited at the outset refers to the fact that corporations can effectively hide behind limited liability to evade their responsibilities; corporate scandals and misdemeanours abound where shareholders, CEOs, managers and directors seem often to escape their just deserts. But if the corporate sector has forcefully argued for less state intervention, more freedom from regulation, and the removal of legalistic barriers to its activities, it has singularly failed to criticise the major legal bastion which allows it to escape its responsibilities: limited liability.

Here, then, is an opportunity to use the neo-liberal programme - or part of it - against the least responsible sections of the business community, so as to reform the legal status of limited liability. And this - if a more nuanced attitude was taken towards neo-liberalism by its analysts and putative critics - could be but one of a number of similar moves that could be made to take account of the scale of the changes in the last generation, and begin to make them work for the benefit of all.

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