II Governing Practice

7 Governmentality, authoritarianism, or capitalist realism?

Governmentality, Authoritarianism, or Capitalist Realism?: Explaining Austerity With Foucauldian Political Economy

Nicholas Kiersey


In the years following the 2008 financial crisis, it was not controversial to suggest that the choice by many European governments to pursue austerity was one caused by neoliberal economic theory. Surveying the pages of The Economist (2009), The New York Times (Krugman 2012), the volumes of any number of publicly acclaimed economists (Soros 2009; Stiglitz 2016), or even a joint-signed public letter by a number of high-profile commentators to German chancellor Angela Merkel (Piketty et al. 2015), it was clear that neoliberal thought had become a somewhat mainstream object of critique. Within academia, too, constructivist scholars of International Political Economy (IPE) like Mark Blyth (2013) described at length how neoliberal theory had become a powerful mechanism of cultural normalization, instilling in political elites a confidence that the path to recovery was one not of re-regulation or systemic change, but one rather where the system should be rescued through the nationalization of large amounts of banking debt, with the costs to be passed on to the general public in the form of cuts to government services.

Yet, as plausible as it may seem that an economic theory might have been the primary factor guiding the mindsets of policymakers and practitioners during the crisis, the constructivist position is a contested one. In this chapter, we will examine a lively and ongoing debate over the role of neoliberal ideas, as a force driving austerity. We will approach this debate obliquely, however, focusing on a secondary debate taking place within the first. Namely, the debate over whether or not we should use the work of Michel Foucault to guide our understanding of what neoliberalism is, and how it functions (for an engagement with neoliberalism in the context of BRICS see Jaeger in this volume). It makes sense to take this oblique approach, we will argue, not only because Foucault was among the very first scholars to intuit the nature and scope of neoliberalism (see Read 2009; Mirowski 2013) but also because, despite the significant volume of commentary about Foucault emanating from both sides of this debate, it not clear that either has an especially helpful stance on his applicability to explaining the politics of austerity. Indeed, we will argue, it is possible that Foucault is a more useful ally in this task than either side will admit!

Critically, in contrast with the constructivist position described above, many Foucauldian scholars contend that neoliberalism is actually much more than just an economic theory. In fact, they contend, detailed examination of neoliberal discourse reveals it to be something more like a form of global governmentality or, that is, a “political project” (Mirowski 2013) with worldspanning ambitions, focused on the transformation of everyday life by means of an explicit “set of political strategies” (Davies and Mills 2014). From this perspective then, austerity is seen less as an irrational choice driven by a purely economic theory, and more as a logical consequence of neoliberalism’s wider political vision. Conversely, however, as we will see, Foucauldians are keen to emphasize that this vision is one solely of a discursive nature; we are not supposed to infer any connection to questions of capitalism, or other “Marxist concepts” (Mirowski 2013).

Marxist scholars, for their part, find a general agreement with Foucauldians, that the decision to pursue austerity was more than merely an intellectual accident (see Tansel 2016a). However, critically, while their approach does place some explanatory burden on the role of discourse, it does this only insofar as it understands discourse to be tied functionally to the need to secure the prerogatives of capitalism. Indeed, with austerity having proven itself immensely unpopular amongst European populations in recent years, a good deal of Marxist analysis has lately begun to move away from legitimacybased explanations of austerity’s persistence altogether, preferring instead to explain it in terms of a rising global tide of neoliberal authoritarianism (see Bruff 2014; Tansel 2016b). That is, an emerging mode of global neoliberal capitalism premised on a suspension of the rules of the “normal” democratic order, in favor of a more disciplinary articulation that requires a good deal less popular legitimacy in order to prevail.

As elaborated in the introduction to this volume, Marxists in IPE and International Relations (IR) have long been critical of the supposition of “globality” in much of Foucauldian research (see Kiersey 2009; Reid 2004; Selby 2007;). As Joseph (2009) puts it, while the governmental techniques of power that so preoccupied Foucault may be claimed to have achieved a certain “scale” among highly individualized populations of western societies, it makes little sense to apply them in contexts such as those of the developing world, where relations of a more disciplinary nature prevail. Crucially, the authoritarian neoliberalism (AN) hypothesis marks an evolution of this critique, suggesting that the passage to austerity has revealed what was always already true even in the supposedly developed context of the western world. Namely, as the Marxist sociologist Nicos Poulantzas once put it in a critique of Foucault, that the most fundamental measure of capitalist order is the state’s capacity to discipline and repress those who would seek to resist it (cited in Tansel 2016b: 4). Overemphasizing the constitutive ambitions of neoliberalism’s anthropological imagination then, say the AN critics,

Foucauldian scholarship loses sight of the necessary internal connections between ideology and capitalism’s continuous need to extract surplus value from labor. Lacking this framework, they claim, such scholarship becomes invariably “lost in the game of discursivity and the play of contingency,” and reduces the hard reality of capitalism’s expropriative logic to an indeterminate theory of “fetishized self/other differences” (Bieler and Morton 2018: 66).

Taking these two positions at face value then, it would appear we are confronted with a fundamentally irreconcilable difference in opinion not only about the forces motivating the decision to pursue austerity, but about the utility of Foucauldian theory in explaining those forces. This in mind, the main task of this chapter is to argue that the Foucault presented in this debate is actually something of a mirage, reflecting a deep and profound shared misunderstanding of his project. To be clear, a scholar unfamiliar with the work of Foucault, and coming to him for the first time through the lens of this debate over austerity, would be justifiably forgiven for drawing two erroneous conclusions about Foucault’s thought. First, that Foucault was content to limit the analytical stakes of neoliberalism to questions merely of its fragmentary discursive genealogy. Secondly, that Foucault in his lifetime had no truck with the Marxist critique of capitalism. As we will develop below, however, not only are these two conclusions wrong but they squander the possibility for a more efficacious and transformative understanding of the dynamics of Europe’s financial collapse at precisely the time when the region’s shockingly cruel and seemingly interminable austerity programs appear to be driving those who would resist them to seek solace in culture war dynamics and performativity. For this reason, we will conclude, the task of articulating a Foucauldian Political Economy has become urgently necessary.

This chapter is divided into five sections, including the present one. The next section develops the argument that critics of austerity who restrict themselves solely to Foucault’s observations on neoliberal discourse, and its anthropological imaginary, present a lopsided version of governmentality. Critically, as outlined in the introduction of this book, Foucault used the notion of governmentality in at least three different, yet complementary, ways. In this chapter, however, we will be preoccupied primarily with the first sense of the word. That is, the version described by Gordon as “wide” governmentality (1991: 2). Used this way, governmentality is simply a heuristic for thinking about the kind of power involved in the development of any regime featuring a modicum of self-government. For Foucault, even unbeknownst to their subject populations, distributed social beliefs, and practices can aggregate to produce governing effects. The basic methodological insight behind the idea of governmentality is thus one of immanence; “we need to understand specific effects of power, to analyze how power actually works, at the level of its ‘strategies’” (Kelly 2014). Focusing especially, but not exclusively, on modern societies, Foucault held that self-governing societies that were those organized primarily on the basis of an “immanent tie,” or confessional loop, between widely shared organizing rationalities and a range of socially distributed confessional practices which lead subjects ever to return to these rationalities, as they seek guidance on how to assess the quality of their performance (2007: 105, 185).

What is interesting, however, despite the obvious importance Foucault attributed to confessional practice, is the apparent incongruence of the way some governmentality scholars take up this question in relation to European austerity. As we will see in the second section, focusing specifically on the work of Mirowski (2013), while this approach situates austerity policies within a wider political project inspired by neoliberalism’s anthropological imagination, it refuses the idea that this project has any necessary internal connection to the practical dynamics of capitalist political economy. It is thus understandable, as I will develop in the third section, that AN scholars might reject the strict discursive focus of such approaches as nothing more than bourgeois obfuscation of the objective class interests at stake in the implementation of austerity. For them, austerity is self-evidently something more like a “shock doctrine” logic (Klein 2008). That is, an intentional class strategy of leveraging the trauma of economic crisis as an opportunity to wield the powers of the state, and to further expropriate and subjugate workers and other marginal peoples.

The third section will show how the same neoliberal discourses that governmentality scholars present as merely political beliefs are presented by AN scholars as the expression of an internally tied logic of specifically capitalist discourse and practice, an ensemble of power that functions primarily to legitimizing the narrow interests of capitalist elites (see, for example, Bieler and Morton 2018: 68-71). However, notwithstanding the fact that AN scholars identify the stakes of austerity as being of specifically capitalist provenance, we should note the tautological manner of their approach to the question of austerity’s continued popular legitimacy. As suggested above, AN scholars believe that neoliberalism is experiencing a legitimacy crisis. With traditional democratic institutions of power breaking down, neoliberal elites are unable to respond to democratic demands (Bruff 2014). Against this background, claim the AN theorists, social movements have begun to bypass traditional institutions, and seek now instead to leverage their capacity to cause disruption at key sites of local, everyday life (Bailey et al. 2016). Elites, for their part, are cracking down. We are thus witnessing the emergence of a global order that might more appropriately be referred to as “neo-illiberalism” (Hendrikse 2020), where the analysis of political legitimacy has become effectively redundant.

Now, while it cannot be gainsaid that numerous authoritarian trends can be observed at work throughout the world today, there is ample reason to think that contemporary capitalism still depends to a great extent upon voluntary servitude for its everyday reproduction. Fortunately, however, the great contribution of Foucault’s theory of governmentality was to equip us intellectually to engage with precisely this question, posing the subject’s confessional practice as a critical factor sustaining the legitimacy of capitalism. Advancing this claim in the fourth and fifth sections, we will invoke an alternative reading of

Foucault, based on the idea of a confessional capitalism. Indeed, borrowing not only from Foucault but also from the likes of Martijn Konings (2015), and Spinozist Marxists like Mark Fisher (2009), Frederic Lordon (2014), and Hardt and Negri (2019), we will assert this theory as a way of identifying the left’s current fixation with everyday forms of resistance as itself a symptom of capitalist voluntary servitude.

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