Neoliberalism and the question of systemic complexity
If we assume that the reason for the global spread of neoliberalism as a Weltanschauung lies in the fact that neoliberalism is a political project able to offer a set of answers to the governmental problems which decision makers have to tackle within the global arena, the discourse on the structure of neoliberalism deserves an articulated account.
Here, we introduce an issue we will pay more attention to later, namely the simple feature of the economic theory that informs neoliberalism. Based on assumptions whose relevance and pertinence are supposed to be valid only within the realm of cost-benefits analysis, it is a theory that conceals its dependence upon specific ethical and political - but one could even say metaphysical - presuppositions. As strange as it may sound, the latter ones prove to be effective precisely because they remain embedded in a theory that presents itself just as the toolbox one needs to build those policy measures that should improve the welfare of individuals. Technical measures are never merely technical and they always embody some specific conceptions of human nature whose anthropological, ethical and political character can be easily disclosed. In this case, one can lay bare to what extent the conception of welfare purported to be objective and politically neutral by the economic theory is far from being presuppositionless (Hausman and McPherson 2008). But, sticking to the Foucauldian attitude that informs our argument, it is important to avoid any confusion between the analysis of how a presupposition works within a discourse and the act of unveiling an ideology, which is supposed to be the hidden - and manipulated - ‘truth’ of the discourse itself.
First, welfare is meant as the satisfaction of individually-based social preferences. This is, at least, a rather narrow conception of what welfare is, but it prevents an uninvolved observer from taking it as a moral theory. The point is crucial: the so-called ‘welfare economics’ does not want to be and in fact is not a moral theory. The narrowness of the definition of welfare it provides aims precisely at excluding any controversy about the definition of those concepts that, being usually related to a broader concept of welfare, belong to the field of moral theory and, therefore, are fiercely disputed within the latter. Nevertheless, an uninvolved observer would be right to question the neutrality with respect to the values that marks this definition of welfare for two reasons, which are strictly related to each other. On the one hand, economists do construct models that are supposed to be not only well-made bricks good for building a coherent economic theory, but also feasible guidelines for policies. An example: the results of public choice policies, which constitute perhaps the most striking feature of neoliberal governmentality, must be judged and evaluated on the base of their aptness to improve individual welfare. This simple fact challenges immediately the claim for neutrality that economists attribute to their scientific activity.
On the other hand, the sheer fact that welfare economics focuses only on individually-based social preferences, thus leaving aside any consideration about social concerns, moral reasons, individual rights to certain goods or services, is per se the result of a politically oriented choice, which can be in no way considered neutral. The ‘choice’ that is here at stake is not to be understood as the fruit of a decision taken by a scientific community after a deliberation process. It is rather the result of a discursive practice shared by those who participate in the game of economic theory. Now, bearing in mind this important distinction, the power of persuasion that can be attributed to the economic discourse within the global arena depends precisely on what it excludes from the public discussion. As Bachrach and Baratz suggested in a seminal article issued several decades ago (Bachrach and Baratz 1962), power consists in the ‘mobilization of bias’, in the capability to determine both what is important - or irrelevant - within a given agenda and what counts as a ‘shared value’ within a community. In addition, perhaps the most effective way to gain power consists not in bringing to public consideration those issues that need be decided after a deliberation that involves the weighing of alternatives and the sifting of arguments, but rather in simply preventing some issues from arising and receiving attention. Therefore, if we accept the suggestions that come from Bachrach and Baratz’s conception of power, we can shed light on the connection between the lack of neutrality that characterizes economic theory as such and its political impact. The latter emerges precisely when economic theory conveys the idea that it is useless even to discuss those principles according to which the members should judge the social structure they belong to regarding both the amount of liberty and the access to resources like education or health care.
It is perhaps worth reflecting on the fact that for a scholar that belonged to the classical liberal tradition like Frank Knight (taken here as one of the utmost representatives of that tradition) it would have been inconceivable to reduce economics to a theory whose main and sole scope was to define individual welfare. One can just consider, for example, an essay he issued in 1940, in which he took a stance against those scientific developments that would have made economics not only expunge from its own disciplinary field any moral or political consideration, but also remove the necessity to maintain an overt position toward the very question of what does it mean to live in a good society (Knight 1940). He recognized very clearly that the first step that would have led to these developments consisted in transforming the epistemic status of economics, turning it into a natural science. Having once taken this step, in fact, it becomes easier to look at the economic actor as a calculating machine, which has no feelings and is not interested in uttering value judgments - a position, according to Knight, that is not only untenable, but is also an expression of a lack of humour. Economic problems lie in the field where knowledge of human conduct makes sense, but the study of human conduct cannot reach those levels of certainty that characterize natural sciences. This is not to be meant as a negative judgement as regards the economic discipline. The latter can provide important insights into how human beings react to the variations of prices that mark the functioning of a sound market. Here Knight regards economics as a useful science from a social and political point of view as well: by helping determine a rigorous answer to the question of how individual behaviour changes in relation to changes of prices, economics does contribute to building the frame policy decision makers need to establish the ‘rules of the game’ according to which social actors are supposed to behave. However, when questions arise as regards how to determine the scope and limits of those rules, then economics has to recognize that other disciplines within the humanities are better geared if not to give an answer to those questions, at least to articulate their plausibility. He concludes his critical remarks towards what, precisely in that period, began to pose itself as ‘positive economics’ by stating that:
[c]oncrete and positive answers to questions in the field of economic science or policy depend in the first place on judgments of value and as to procedure on a broad, general education in the cultural sense, and on ‘insight’ into human nature and social values, rather than on the findings of any possible positive science. From this point of view the need is for an interpretive study (verstehende Wissenschaft) which, however, would need to go far beyond any possible boundaries of economics and should include the humanities as well as the entire field of the social disciplines.
(Knight 1940, 31)
To what extent the field of economics offers room for any form of verstehende Wissenschaft is well known to any student who approaches contemporary economics within their academic study. The reason why a dialogue between economics and the rest of the humanities can hardly take place lies not only in the narrow conception of welfare briefly discussed above, but also in the conception of rationality on which the entire discourse of economics rests. This conception wants to be formal, in the sense that it claims to describe the structure of individual choice. Once again, formality is related to neutrality with respect to values. According to the theory of rationality embedded in mainstream economics, individuals choose rationally if their actions are determined by their preferences, whereas their preferences, in so far as they are complete and transitive, are supposed to be rational as well. Notoriously, individuals do not always act according to the model employed by economists. Nevertheless, this has never been taken as a serious objection. If one wants to behave rationally, one must assign an ordinal number to each item ranked in a list of possible alternatives, thus expressing one’s own consistent preference ranking, and then choose the preferred alternative. Any choice behaviour that would differ from this schema would be simply irrational. This procedure can be also defined as ‘maximization of utilities’, but it is important to notice that ‘utility’ is not in itself an object of preference. It is rather the element of an abstract function that allows assigning numbers to alternatives in a way that indicates preference.
Despite the formal character of this theory of rationality, which intends to remain confined to the realm of pure normativity, economists do not abstain from providing insights into the concrete content of individual preferences. They do it by assuming that most people act according to the principle of self-interest, no matter whether this principle is consciously made part of the rationale for the action or not. This assumption is indispensable if economics wants to offer generalizations on what people really prefer, as well as being an unavoidable element of the strategy that aims at strengthening the position of economics within the domain of natural sciences. The latter is supposed not only to offer generalizations of past and present events, but also to predict - with an acceptable degree of approximation - future courses of events. So, even if the principle of self-interest is taken as a useful generalization, economics is strongly committed to it, otherwise it would be very difficult to fill with content those models that are needed to explain how individuals behave as rational actors. However, here we face a circumstance that does not essentially differ from that one we met above when dealing with the burden of presuppositions that weigh on the conception of welfare. If the economic science is committed to the claim that individuals are guided by self-interest precisely when they act as rational actors, then economics is far from being simply a normative discipline, which can legitimately aspire to be taken as a useful toolbox available to anyone who wants to explain market phenomena.
There exist arguments that serve to articulate substantive objections to the theory of rationality upheld by neoclassical economics, as we will show in the two following chapters. At this point, however, it seems to be more appropriate to draw attention to the fact that neoclassical economics, despite all the objections it can receive, is far from losing its appeal. We are suggesting that the latter rests not so much on the scientific consistence one can ascribe to economic theory as such, but rather on the fact that the political project embedded in it offers an array of governmental solutions that are mainly based on procedures and not on principles of an ethical or political nature. In this sense, the neoliberal governmentality could be described as the successful marriage between economic discipline, which claims to offer an encompassing conception of human nature, and those governmental agencies that answer the question of how to manage complexity by virtue of the efficiency one generally expects from procedures.
The metaphor of marriage, we argue, seems to offer a good insight into the nature of neoliberal governmentality. This metaphor helps us, in fact, underpin the argument according to which neoliberalism is not the result of a misleading abuse of a scientific theory. Economics as a discipline and neoliberalism as a form of governmentality have crossed their paths in a way that has turned out to be fruitful for both - as happens in every marriage worthy of its name. Metaphors aside, economics was not deemed to occupy a sovereign position within the encyclopaedia of knowledge. It was, almost everywhere, a discipline that could not be easily inserted into the landscape constituted by institutionalized forms of knowledge. Nevertheless, it had something precious to offer: a set of methods and procedures that enabled the control and evaluation of the performances of public institutions and economic actors such as firms. Viewed from this point, the dominance of neoclassic economics that makes neoliberalism so peculiar is the result of a long historical and political process. Whenever public institutions have needed an expertise in order to measure the effects of a given policy, they have turned to those forms of knowledge that were supposed to assess the extent to which past interventions had been successful and future ones could be considered feasible. Economics has not simply been a science of measurement since its inception, but it has been encouraged to turn itself into a useful tool to provide guidelines for policies. This explains why the inner tendencies already present within the discipline toward a self-positioning not as a human science, but rather as a natural science, have been reinforced. We have to consider that the historical process, thus, consists in the mutual convergence of two distinct phenomena. On the one hand, public institutions need to give an account of how they govern - if not for the public opinion, as it is normally the case in democratic countries, at least for the bureaucratic apparatus that manages the flow of inputs and outputs. On the other hand, economics strives to be recognized as the discipline that can at best meet the need of public institutions to construct and improve their own image as rational actors. These two phenomena have become significant in Western countries since the age of the Enlightenment - and Foucault was not wrong in beginning his analysis of the relationship between public agencies and the economic discipline by conferring so much significance on the role played by both the Polizeywissenschaft and the sciences camerales during the eighteenth century. However, the way in which governmental technologies dovetail with the knowledge offered by the economist presents different peculiarities that can vary both geographically and historically. Although a complete account of these variations would be in the wrong place here,10 it is worth outlining some general features of the way in which the conception of the social world provided by economics has become the ‘objective’ premise for governmental action. By doing so, we do not mean to suggest that Foucault’s reconstruction of this issue was not complete or unsatisfying. What deserves now specific attention is the fact that the economic discipline created not only the ‘truth’ governmental agencies needed in order to become aware of the effects of their actions, but also those procedures that have led to a simplification of the complexity of the social world.
An insightful move in this direction, we argue, consists in considering the performativity of economics as an essential part of a strategy that aims at defining goals and limits of social engineering. In his reconstruction of the relationship between objectivity in science and social need for control and accountability Porter (1995) has persuasively shown how the scientific enterprise taken as a whole contributed not only to improve human knowledge, but also to organize both human labour and the management of resources according to data, numbers and measurements upon which not only the scientific community, but also decision makers could rely. Not by chance, many examples of his reconstruction come from the history of economics and economy. In the nineteenth century, for instance, authors like Cournot and Walras strove to be accepted by the members of those institutions whose function was to provide the solution of practical problems concerning the management of public assets. Nevertheless, they met a substantial obstacle: actuaries and engineers in post-Napoleonic France, educated in public schools like the Ecole des Mines or the Ecole Polytechnique, were keen to stand on statistics and related disciplines. That means they were not ready to embrace economics as a discipline that was supposed to bring under the same umbrella both the explanation of economic behaviour in general and the clue for answering questions raised by the administration of public goods. The mistrust of these technicians, however, can be understood by considering the fact that economics had not yet succeeded in being recognized as the ‘social physics’ it was striving to become. It must also be stressed that those whose effort went in the direction of strengthening the ground on which a solid science of economics could rest were not theorists interested only in the formal elegance of a pure theory: they were interested as well in giving their own contribution to the solution of problems rising from the domain of public policies. Moreover, they succeeded in this effort as soon as economics could provide numbers on which they could stand.
Another significant example comes from the practice of accounting. This practice began to be important both in the United Kingdom and the United States after the first half of the nineteenth century, but it did not take long before it spread everywhere, soon becoming coextensive with almost all social practices. At the beginning, the accounting profession offered its service in relation to the management of bankruptcy files - creditors had to be assured that they would be treated fairly. Later, as big companies in sectors such as railroad communication or production of energy grew in importance and acquired more and more economic and social weight, the accountants had to assure shareholders and other interested parties that the books were fair and honest. In both cases, independence of judgement and objectivity were required. The point Porter is interested in consists of underscoring that the scientific community had never been the sole milieu that contributed to the establishment of the ethos of objectivity. Even practitioners such as accountants made out of the pursuit of objectivity a distinguishing mark not only of their professional competence, but also of the importance of their social role. Numbers are per se mute, in other words interpreting data of no matter which sort rests on an art of interpretation, which, for its part, requires judgement - that is a mixture of good sense, attentiveness, sure instinct, tact and prudence. Those who deal professionally with the interpretation of numbers must be absolutely reliable. In addition, this reliability could be found only in a group of professionals committed to objectivity in an almost religious way. The neutrality that only objectivity can guarantee began soon to become, therefore, not only a necessary mark of those forms of knowledge that are shared within the scientific community, but also the added value of those forms of expertise that specific groups of professionals were called to provide.
Nevertheless, accounting could not remain the prerogative of a small group of professionals, albeit well established and respected. Standardized forms of accounting became soon the norm. Renouncing accurate judgments and interpretations might be a loss, but it is a peerless gain to avoid any dependence on the expertise provided by a restricted elite. In a very persuasive manner, Porter sheds light upon the process that led to the standardization of the accounting practice by showing the tie between this process and the more general process of modernization, whose main trait is precisely the fixing of some rules of common behaviour. It is true that the Weberian definition of bureaucratic administration - ‘domination through knowledge’ (Weber 1978, 225) - fits an ideal type that, at the beginning, found its instantiations principally in the US and Germany, but it was scarcely useful to describe the historical development of public administration in countries like the United Kingdom or France. Nevertheless, the closer one gets to the present, the feature of a global society dominated by the presence of omni-pervasive systems of accountability and monitoring stands out more and more vividly to the observer - and to an extent that Weber could not have ever imagined. The point Porter helps us to make clear is that institutions, with their need to govern conflicts, social issues, legal controversies, and distribution of resources, have triggered the process that resulted in the promotion and diffusion of objective and rigorous forms of knowledge. By no means is this to say that the contents of objective knowledge per se are a social construction.11 However, the set of procedures used to confer normative authority on objective forms of knowledge is no doubt socially constructed. Generally speaking, it is the need to rely on authorities supposed to be impartial and unbiased that encourages the emergence of universal and incontestable forms of knowledge. Because modern science - and not, say, theology, or shamanism - is the form of knowledge that proved to be the only one that can be said to be objective, it is not surprising that the institutions of the modern nation state have increasingly put into effect methods of accountability based on science. This state of affairs exerted a great influence on those disciplines that were in need of a social and institutional recognition. The latter have been in a certain way attracted by the sphere within which the pursuit of knowledge ceases to be the object of desire of a small community of scholars and becomes a sign of distinction. Among economists, the desire of being recognized as a group of experts that can provide a socially useful form of knowledge has been always particularly strong.
The case we are discussing here is very interesting from an epistemological point of view - provided that we recognize that it is a gain, in theoretical terms, not to separate from each other the context of discovery and the context of justification.12 The procedures that guarantee objectivity among groups of scientists that form a solid and recognized community can be brought back to ‘face-to-face’ communication features. They may be mediated by technological devices and take place within institutional arrangements, like symposia or research periods abroad, and of course sharing the research results through the publication in peer reviewed journals constitutes an essential tool for maintaining the internal cohesion of the community. However, the reliance on personal forms of exchange of both scientific results and opinions concerning current research programmes seems to be quite normal. This occurs, first, because it may be rather difficult to give written accounts of all the details involved in laboratory experiments, and, second, because some theoretical hypothesis that works as a blueprint for planning experimental settings, or some models that still need examining implies such a degree of complexity that informal discussions on the matter are preferred. In this case, therefore, what assures objectivity is the internal cohesiveness of the scientific community involved in the research programme. The worry about the need of an external recognition for the work carried out is irrelevant. In some ways, the social importance of the latter is not really questioned by anyone. Even if nobody outside the small community of scientists can grasp the meaning of complicated issues related, say, to particle physics, a general consensus prevails - albeit often unspoken - on the positive effects on the whole of society that derive from scientific investigation of issues supposed to reveal the deep structure of the physical world.
In the case of scientific communities involved in the definition of issues that are related to the social world the need for recognition coming from both public opinion and public institutions is felt, on the contrary, with more urgency. This explains the appeal exerted by impersonal procedures that are supposed to guarantee the production of objective knowledge. These procedures increase the reliability of a discipline that offers its services to decision makers and seeks to be recognized as a trustworthy source of guidelines for public policies. Economics is, not by chance, one of the examples chosen by Porter to illustrate the process that leads a weak discipline to strengthen itself by assuming the feature of a natural science. In this regard, the sociological perspective adopted by Porter helps expand the historical reconstruction once provided by Mirowski (1989) and seems also to reinforce McCloskey’s (1985) controversial contribution on the tendency among economists to increase the degree of certainty that can be conferred to their own scientific results by using mathematical formulas.
Of course, when economists strove for a mathematization of economics that took mathematical physics as a model to be imitated, they did it because of an endogenous requirement of rigour and argumentative clarity. They pursued this goal even by stifling the voices of those who tried to put in evidence how difficult it would have been to explain in mathematical terms what individuals do when they arrange their preferences. Furthermore, they went on formalizing the grounding axioms of neoclassical theory even when they had in some way lost the awareness that they were taking the main conceptual tools supposed to entrench the scientific reliability of their discipline from the physics of the nineteenth century. Sticking so stubbornly to the research programme of neoclassical theory, thus, has come out as a way both to compensate the supposed epistemological weakness of economics and to close ranks within the discipline - concerning the last point Mirowski has shown an unequalled ability in describing the flexibility of the neoclassical model, which, in the course of time, has taken over all the possible objections that have been moved against it.
It is important, however, to show the intertwinement between the internal development of the economic discipline and the historic environment within which this development took place. Mirowski himself, concluding his work, underscores that investigating how neoclassical economics has kept on sticking to its own models of thought provides just one example among others of the institutional character of scientific work. Each scientific discipline obeys the laws that govern every institution, in the sense that the internal coherence and self-consistency of a given research programme, supposed to be the template for the activity of each scholar, is not simply a matter that concerns the unity of theory. It is, rather, a matter that concerns the unity of the discipline understood as a field, with its boundaries and the distinction the latter permits between internal and external enemies. Thus, the defence of the neoclassical model, despite the evidence collected against the claim that could explain every aspect of human behaviour in terms that resemble the way physics explains the natural world, and the willingness to offer their service to those who need a system of accountability in order to govern the social world, are two faces of the same coin.
If we now turn to the other side of the couple formed by economics - meant as a natural science that is supposed to be able to ‘tell the truth’ about the deep structure of society - and the neoliberal state - meant as a huge bureaucratic machine - we can realize quite well, then, that the historical process that has led to the birth of economics - and, as a consequence, to the demise of political economy - is important not only from the viewpoint of the history of economic thought. The self-affirmation of this discipline coincided with the establishment of a new way of governing people through the power of numbers (Rose 1991). It took time, of course, before economics could meet the expectations that the modern state had in this regard. It took time, too, before those bureaucratic organisms that depend on the good functioning of a routi- nized system of accountability for their survival, namely the modern nation state and the corporation, realized that not economics in general, but specifically the discipline of economics that had at its hard core the neoclassical model of choice and decision would suit their needs perfectly. The end point of the process is, however, clear: starting from after the First World War the situation was that public institutions and organizations obeyed the same logic, which was not the logic of profit, but rather the logic of accountability. Miller and Rose (2008) prefer to use the expression ‘advanced liberal democracies’ in order to describe this scenario. If it seems opportune to term this regime of governing individuals through the power of accountability as ‘neoliberal’, this happens not only because what is at stake here is a process that affects the whole of the planet - thus including those countries that are not ruled in a democratic way. The point that one should not miss is that mainstream economics presented itself consciously as a discipline able to support a programme of government that could not be conceived simply as the prosecution of classical liberalism.
What economists did in order to gain power from the fact that their discipline could fit perfectly the broader cultural and political environment around them is, however, only one aspect of the state of affairs we are considering here. The other aspect relates to something that, in a certain way, goes beyond the consciousness of the actors involved. It is, namely, the performative character of the economic discourse itself.
It is a great merit of Callon (1998) to have opened a new path in the investigation of this topic. The attempt made by Granovetter (1985) to draw attention to the necessity of studying economic phenomena starting from the perspective once disclosed by Polanyi’s work preceded, to a certain extent, Callon’s intuition that the discourse of economics is not only part of a broader social context, but it helps to create it. Callon’s originality consists in having put the materiality of the economic discourse at the same level where actors meet both institutions and technological devices of various natures. It is true that Callon has largely contributed to the birth of the sociological method that made Latour’s reputation grow far beyond the disciplinary boundary of the sociology of knowledge. This small aside should reduce the surprise that his way of treating economics might eventually raise. What counts here, however, is not the genealogy of the Actor-Network Theory, which has been later tied to Latour’s name. The suggestion coming from Callon is crucial for a non-ideological understanding of the capability that neoliberalism has to become part of the landscape - or, better, technoscape13 - that surrounds our everyday life.
First, Callon underlines the anthropological dimension of the calculating practice. This is tantamount to say that this practice is older than capitalism and the so-called market society. The prerogatives of homo oeconomicus, which are crucial for the construction of the neoliberal model of rationality, can be thus looked at from a perspective of long duration. The anthropological contextualization that Callon advances, however, is not the crucial point. Much more interesting is how Callon describes the interconnection between human actors and the set of objects that, albeit inanimate, constitute the environment that normally is said to harbour human action.14 Callon’s viewpoint is not, in other words, just one of the many versions of culturalism. He does not claim that the calculating subject is constructed, which amounts to saying that calculating depends on a broader social and political context. Calculating is, rather, the element of a network that includes specific cognitive capabilities to be attributed to human subjects, the technological devices used by human agents (various mediums, inscriptions, figures), methods of calculation, shared habits concerning how both to perform calculations and to confer value to the results of calculations. What Callon makes disappear is the conception of the calculating agent that both psychology and economics share with common sense psychology. Instead of considering the individual capability to calculate future states of the world, Callon’s theory suggests a focus on calculating agencies and their performances.
If one considers that the individual calculating capacity lies at the core of rational choice theory, it is easy to imagine how broad would be the consequence that Callon’s insights had for an epistemological re-framing of how economics looks at human action. However, the point that must be made here concerns the possibility offered by Callon’s perspective to explain the power of economics as a part of calculating agencies. This power is not related to some specific tenets that define economics in general or some subfields of the discipline. More simply, calculative agencies without accounting tools are inconceivable. Economics, once it has developed to the extent that it has become the most powerful accounting system, provides all that is needed to put into motion the calculating machines individuals live in, be they institutions or organizations. The result of this intertwinement of economics with calculative agencies is that individuals live simultaneously in two worlds: one is the world described by economics, which studies them as calculating agents, the other is the world of economy, where they act as members of institutions or firms.
In this sense, economics, far from being the neutral science it claims to be, devoted to an objective observation of how individuals behave under market constraints, results to be a discourse that ‘performs, shapes and formats the economy’ (Callon 1998, 2). It is easy to imagine the rejoicing reaction to this statement that may come from those who support a postmodern attitude toward the function of knowledge in human affairs. To this reaction corresponds the opposite one coming from those who simply do not want to understand the epistemic fertility of a constructivist point of view. Callon, not differently from other scholars who endorse a constructivist approach to social science, describes something that is very concrete and has, thus, the force to trigger human action. What is at stake here is the entanglement that encompasses social actors, their beliefs, expectations, forecasts, calculations, and all the devices that make possible the flow of the latter. If we consider that scientific disciplines too are part of this entanglement, this does not amount to saying that their scientific results are flawed; the point is that, on one hand, they contribute, together with other forms of narratives, to stabilize the shared description of the world and, on the other hand, they produce outcomes whose significance fluctuates together with the dynamic of the relations among social actors.
In sum, the performativity of economics relates to its being entangled in social networks that require accountability, measurements, and forecasts. This entanglement explains not only the rapidity that characterized the spread of neoliberalism during recent decades, but above all the invisibility of the transformations in the art of government that its spread has caused. Economics, being a constitutive part of social networks and calculative agencies, its presence is taken for granted and works, thus, as an invisible element of social life.
The taken for grantedness of economics has also been explained by analysing the importance of business schools for the formation (both in the sense of creation and education) of the global elite (Thrift 2005; Ong 2006). Members of the elite are trained as students of economics and, no matter what is the position they are going to occupy, act then as supporters of the neoliberal worldview. Yet, it is perhaps more productive to look at the performativity of economics by considering how deeply economic theories are embedded in everyday practices of economic actors, thus following Callon’s point of departure (MacKenzie 2006; MacKenzie, Muniesa and Siu 2007; MacKenzie 2009). It is true that these studies are mainly focused on the financial world; nevertheless they have provided a research material that has been increasingly changing the sociological way of looking at economic actors.
A further - and final - consideration regards the main effect of economics’ performativity. If one asks what economics has performed during the neoliberal era, the first answer is, probably, that the whole of economic theory is there to guarantee a stable and scientific foundation of the generalized system of accountability that sustains organizations and institutions and induces both of them to act as if they were economic agents, deprived of any political finality (Power 1997). This answer, perhaps, accounts for one of the main traits of the neoliberal regime. If one looks at the issue starting from the perspective of system theory, our understanding can, however, gain in precision. The answer to our question sounds now as follows: the main performance of economics consists in providing the possibility for firms and public agencies to operate a self-reflection that does not require the recourse to contested values to be taken as benchmarks for the evaluations.
The point is clear in Luhmann (1983), which radicalizes some Weberian insights into the structure and function of neutral procedures within bureaucratic organizations. Luhmann adds to Weberian analysis the awareness that procedures are related not only to the necessity for organizations and institutions to be accountable, but above all, to the simplification they bring about in the art of government. In this sense, there is an astonishing resemblance to Luhmann’s theory of procedure in Foucault’s account of neoliberalism. Foucault’s concern was how to explain that an economic theory - in this case the theory elaborated by the Chicago school - could ever acquire so much performative power as to become part of a governmental apparatus. In his analysis Foucault paid much attention to how the neoliberal model of rationality imposed itself in response to the increasing difficulty the liberal model had in managing a complex reality that should have brought together need for justice, liberty and security. Neoliberalism, in Foucault’s account, seems to solve the problems left open by liberalism by imposing a generalized system of reduction of uncertainty, which works not because the weight of uncertainty can be really tamed, but because an economic model of rationality is called to perform a regime of control that conceals the rough reality of chance.
Luhmann’s account of the spread of procedures in all realms of the associated life addresses the question of uncertainty too. Procedures, first of all, are there to reduce the psychological unsustainability of uncertainty and chance. The more the world’s complexity growths, the greater becomes the need for a reduction of the latter. Procedures have revealed the simplest and most feasible way to accomplish this reduction, namely by choosing only what is pertinent to the given situation and excluding from the present horizon of experience what cannot be handled by using the available means. Procedures, in other words, are powerful devices enabling the social construction of pertinence. Not everything can be handled, not every problem can be put on the agenda for searching its appropriate solution, and a procedure that works in one context cannot find a proper application in a different one. Actions need framing; otherwise the management of the collectives would be impossible. The frame each concrete context of action needs is given by the procedure that individuals are used to recognize as proper to that context. This does not mean that procedures determine the course of human actions, it means rather that procedures provide, in each case, an answer to the question about what is required in order to follow a rule.
Considering that following a rule can mean to engage in an interpretation of it, and that interpretations are possible only if each group member is ready to discuss also the overarching principles that make it possible to judge in the concrete case at stake, we come now to the crucial point, which allows for a profitable use of Luhmann’s theory for the understanding of neoliberalism. System theory as well as Foucault’s genealogy is far from providing cool descriptions of what happens in the world outside there. In both cases, the central concern is about the possibility of building a critique of the present that helps, albeit in a mediated way, question the given power structure of contemporary society. Luhmann’s analysis of the procedure is surely not about the emergence of the neoliberal society, but it sheds light on the main trait of it, namely the impossibility of discussing a theory of justice that makes no recourse to the neoclassical model of individual choice. Luhmann’s account of how procedures serve to reduce systemic complexity can explain too how the simplifications of human action that lie at the core of the economic model of rationality have become the general frame within which institutions and organizations manage the decision making process within the neoliberal society. The totality of possible courses of action undergoes a drastic reduction without generating a totalitarian system - as Foucault used to repeat, the neoliberal policies do not amount to a new version of totalitarianism. The reduction of complexity provided by the neoliberal art of government is nevertheless remarkable. All those alternative courses of actions - and, concretely, all alternative policies - that are the result of decisions taken starting from ethical principles are excluded. Ethical principles are, in fact, controversial, and the time needed to come to the resolution of conflicts related to ethical issues is not available. The time needed for coming to a conflict resolution is not to be seen, however, as a scarce resource among others. The problem at stake here is that the complexity of the system does not allow the emergence of a superordinate agency whose function would be to decide upon the legitimacy of procedures. This agency was given in a liberal context and, to a certain extent, its realm coincided with that of politics. Precisely, the disappearance of this realm, which was supposed to be separated from procedures, made the emergence of neoliberalism possible.