Monday, November 05, 2018

We Once Were Ungovernable: On Chamayou's La Société Ingouvernable



Perhaps the best way to make sense of the present order is to consider first the disorder, the contestation of the old order. This could be considered the autonomist hypothesis applied to politics, and it is the underlying method of Grégoire Chamayou’s La société ingouvernable: Une généalogie du libéralisme autoritaire. 


The focus of Chamayou’s book is “ungovernability,” more specifically the ungovernability that was a kind of interregnum between the Fordist/Keynesian order of the post-war years and the neoliberal order of the later years. As Chamayou argues ungovernability has two poles; first, there is ungovernability from above in a breakdown of legitimacy and authority and there is ungovernability from below as a new form of revolt emerges. These two combine and often do. In the case of the seventies Chamayou sees both combining. First, on the side of the ruling class there is a major transformation of the modality of class rule. Chamayou argues that this period saw a transformation of class rule. The shareholder, and realizing shareholder value, displaced the capitalist as owner and controller. The separation of ownership from control led to a question of authority on both sides of the divide: on the one hand there is the emergent managerial class but on the other there is the stockholder who has increased control over the production process with less of a connection and commitment. Second, this period saw the rise of contestations of capital. Chamayou mentions not just the worker revolts of the seventies, but also more passive forms of revolution such as the absenteeism of the period. However, his primary focus is not only much broader examining the way in which capitalist profit came under external criticisms as well; the ecological movement, the anti-apartheid movement, and other social issues contested capitalist control from the outside the factory of the firm. As Chamayou argues this new order is predicated on recognizing a new terrain of struggle. If before business had primarily to deal with class struggle in the workplace and competition in the marketplace, the latter half of the twentieth century corporations increasingly found themselves dealing with a third form of conflict, external social conflict, as business interests find themselves confronted with various social and political agendas hostile to profits and control. What interests Chamayou is less the resistance than how this resistance was countered and cooped. This is a study of reaction, or, more to the point how a new form of governability, one that is more favorable to the rule of capital, is constructed out of the old one. 

In many ways Chamayou’s book could be compared to Foucault's The Birth of Biopolitics. In those lectures Foucault focused on the emergence of neoliberalism in postwar thought and its dissemination, but they were not really a genealogy. As I wrote  earlier and elsewhere, 

Foucault limits his discussion of neoliberalism to its major theoretical texts and paradigms, following its initial formulation in post-war Germany through to its most comprehensive version in the Chicago School. Whereas Foucault’s early analyses are often remembered for their analysis of practical documents, the description of the panopticon or the practice of the confessional, the lectures on “neoliberalism” predominantly follow the major theoretical discussions. This is in some sense a limitation of the lecture course format, or at least a reflection that this material was never developed into a full study. Any analysis that is faithful to the spirit and not just the letter of Foucault’s text would focus on its existence as a practice and not just a theory diffused throughout the economy, state, and society. As Thomas Lemke argues, neoliberalism is a political project that attempts to create a social reality that it suggests already exists, stating that competition is the basis of social relations while fostering those same relations.

In contrast to this Chamayou is interested in how neoliberal tactics were not only constructed from above, Hayek, Friedman, and others are discussed at length, but also how they were disseminated below, becoming part of daily life. Neoliberalism emerges from a series of counter-conducts. As Chamayou argues business interests had to deal with criticisms by adopting and reshaping the terms of these criticisms. Criticisms of the environmental effects of corporate policies were met with public relation campaigns meant to not only transform the corporations image, but transform the very sense of the problem, to one of individual responsibility. As Chamayou writes, "Economic irresponsibilization and ethical responsibilization, the concrete dissolution of cultural mores and the abstract appeal to moralization, these two directions form a contradictory unity." One the one hand there is the force of the market, which we are helpless in the face of, and on the other is the individual's good conscience, between the two politics disappears entirely. 

One interesting, and surprising example of this was the famous "Keep America Beautiful" commercial. As Chamayou argues, and others have pointed out, this commercial was in part funded by the major soft drink producers and distributors in an attempt to redefine pollution as littering,  as an individual responsibility. The soft drink companies were fighting opposition to their transition to single use disposable bottles by focusing the attention downstream with the individual consumer. 




(As something of an aside I should mention that as an American reader of French philosophy I am constantly surprised by the way in which I learn things about US history, more specifically, the history of the US as a laboratory of ideology, or, in this case, governmentality that has been exported.) 

Chamayou argues that just as the famous theorists of micro-politics Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari asked Spinoza's question, Why do the masses fight for their servitude as if it was salvation? the micro-politics of neoliberalism ask a similar question. As Chamayou writes,


"The neoliberal micro-politicians pose a parallel but opposite question with an antithetical view of politics--not why, but how to make sure that the masses fight for their servitude as if it was their salvation? Their response has a false family resemblance with that of the authors of Anti-Oedipus: deployed for a micro-engineering of rational choice. How to get people to do what we want them to do? Not so much by the repression of their great desires as by the reorientation of their smallest choices."


An example of this that I cited earlier comes from this interview with a government worker in Arizona. 

“People who have swimming pools don’t need state parks. If you buy your books at Borders you don’t need libraries. If your kids are in private school, you don’t need K-12. The people here, or at least those who vote, don’t see the need for government. Since a lot of the population are not citizens, the message is that government exists to help the undeserving, so we shouldn’t have it at all. People think it’s OK to cut spending because ESL is about people who refuse to assimilate and health care pays for illegals.”

Neoliberal politics as Chamayou describes them preserve the sanctity of choice by working on the conditions of choice. People do not need to believe water is a service best provided for by private industry, but they are compelled to act accordingly when their cities water is contaminated. A similar point could be made with respect to charter schools even private transportation. In every case privatization is a feedback loop that reinforces itself. When confronted with social opposition the tactic is to disintegrated society, to break the issue into a series of individual choices the conditions of which can be managed off scene.

Chamayou's analysis is an interesting and important one, his insistence on seeing neoliberalism emerge out of conflict is an important corrective to theories that present it as the inevitable effect of capitalism. Conflict does not end with neoliberalism. As Chamayou cites Hayek, the neoliberal state is strong with the weak, and weak with the strong. Or, in Wacquant's terms, it is a centaur state. In both cases it deals with isolated and individuated subjects, coercing some to identify with its goals and compelling others by a coercion that is no less individuated. Some are sold individual ethics and responsibility as a marketing ploy, spending their money on green products and the ideal of fair trade, while others are forced into a more carceral model of individual responsibility, paying for every mistake until they die.A contemporary response to the current situation must confront not just isolation and individuation, but the fundamentally different strategies of isolation and individuation. In order to become ungovernable again, we must become a we, a collective. 

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