Neoliberal affective governmentality: empirical evidence

We regard the two cases of our empirical investigation — postal services and public employment agencies - as paradigmatic for the neoliberalisation of European welfare states, as typical examples for the privatisation, marketisa-tion, and deregulation of public services, and new forms of state administration and governance. As early as the 1990s, Andrew Barry, Thomas Osborne, and Nikolas Rose, in their introduction to the volume, Foucault and Political Reason (1996), pointed out that ‘[o]fkey importance to neo-liberalism ... is the development of techniques of auditing, accounting and management that enable a “market” for public services to be established autonomous from central control’ (ibid.: 14). Our work adds the affective underpinnings and transformations to this early insight.

Our first case study deals with the transformation of the former state monopoly Postal and Telecommunication Office into a profit-seeking (semi-)private enterprise that faces competition from other companies of the European market. The liberalisation of the European postal market started in the mid-1990s with the first EU Directive on common rules for community postal services (Directive 97/67/EC), which in Austria led to the spinoff of these services from state administration and to the conversion of the Austrian Mail into a stock corporation in which the state, through today, holds a majority share. In 2005 the monetary services of the Austrian Mail were merged with the banking services of BAWAG (Bank für Arbeit und Wirtschaft), and both companies, Austrian Mail and BAWAG, started to build up a joint branch network. The new business strategies of the postal services, according to their self-image, aim at ‘efficiency enhancement and flexibilisation’, ‘profitable growth’, and ‘defence of market leadership' (Österreichische Post AG, 2014: 26) and thus replace the objective of common interest of the former state administration.

One major way to increase the profitability of the Austrian Mail consisted and still consists in the shutdown of smaller branches (mainly on the countryside) or their replacement by so-called ‘postal partners’ (like grocery stores or petrol stations) and in the release of hundreds of postal workers and relocation of employees in far-off branches. The prevailing climate that we encountered in our study of Austrian postal services is thus the fear of job loss. All

(following) statements of postal workers about their interactive frontline work at the counters of post office branches have to be understood against the background of such fears so that even undesired changes at their workplaces appear somehow tolerable. Précarisation of labour is the general context in which the commodification and marketisation of former administrative work take place, accompanied by a loss of authority and status that account for civil servants, as several employees told us: ‘25 years ago, we were recognised. Today we are really fast but not recognised anymore.’1 In the midst of these transformations, we inquired about the implications for the work (affective labour) of employees who interact with customers and about their affective capital to draw conclusions on affective subjectivation and governmentality.

In our second case study on public employment agencies in European German-speaking countries, we are confronted with similar far-reaching institutional changes and new policies that started in the mid-1990s. In Austria, Germany, and Switzerland the former employment offices were turned into formally autonomous agencies or service centres (in Germany rather late, not until the new millennium), and public management reform tried to increase the efficiency of these organisations and their proximity to citizens - their customer orientation. Job security of the public employees declined, while performance indicators, benchmarking, and competition were introduced as major new work ingredients. At the same time the political trajectory of labour market administration in all three countries took a new' turn, namely towards activation. Activation policies in Austria and Germany were triggered by accusations that the welfare system w'ould support peoples dependency on public transfer benefits and discourage individual responsibility, therefore luring people away from work into passivity. In Switzerland, the economic crisis of the early 1990s and rising unemployment had similar effects. Since then, the emergent activation paradigm shows three distinct features, following Amparo Serrano Pascual’s (2007: 14) general characterisation. Firstly, its ‘individualised approach’ aims at changing the behaviour, motivation, and qualifications of individuals in contrast to structural measures against unemployment. Secondly, it is assumed that wage labour is a necessary precondition for social participation and autonomy. Thirdly, ‘contractualisation’ is a ‘core principle’ of the relationship between the state and its citizens (ibid.: 14; before Burchell, 1996: 29, e.g.). Unemployed citizens, for instance, have to sign a contract with public institutions and thereby agree to obligations that need to be fulfilled in order to obtain benefits. At the same time, citizens are subjectivated as ‘clients’ and ‘customers’. This includes a moral contract reaffirming the ‘reciprocity norm", which emphasises that benefit recipients are a burden on society' and have to try' as hard as possible to overcome their recipient status (Serrano Pascual, 2007: 14). As in the case of postal w'orkers, the focus of our investigation is here also on the impact of these processes on the service work, on the affective labour and affective capital of public employees, and on the mechanisms of subjectivation.

Our two examples, the Austrian Mail and employment agencies in Austria, Germany, and Switzerland, point to an entanglement of entrepreneurialism and affect. Employees are forced to develop an entrepreneurial spirit - in the postal services to sell for the profit of the organisation; in employment agencies employees have to compete with other agencies and have to focus on their own success by counselling and activating jobless people. Entrepreneurialism in post office branches shows in sales results, whereas it is a subtle and less-visible process in employment agencies: there, entrepreneurialism resides in the constitution of pro-active customers (who actively seek jobs without coercion). Obviously, the two fields of work represent different types of customer relations: in the first case, affectivity revolves around the sale of (partly immaterial) postal products; in the second case, the motivation and guidance of unemployed people, but also coercive measures, demand affective skills. The balance of power between postal workers and customers is much more evenly distributed (following the logic ‘the customer is king’) than between employment agents and jobseekers (so that the tasks of employment agents are sometimes regarded as ‘atypical service work’). However, most important perhaps is the fact that interactions in employment agencies are much more complex than the brief transactions over the counter at post office branches; they do not only last longer but are concerned with existential challenges involving advice, negotiation, and conflict, and are highly demanding for the advisors (who are regularly much-better qualified and trained than postal workers). For these reasons, we will also devote in the following more attention to the challenging interactions between employment agents and jobseekers. Keeping the differences in mind, we are nonetheless confronted with analogous developments in comparable fields of work and try to inquire about the entrepreneurial affect management of service providers in neo-bureaucracies.

Central to our research is the question of how these neo-bureaucrats govern themselves in order to be able to affect their clients. We also focus on gender differences, which might result from new forms of affective labour, affective subjectivation, and entrepreneurialism. Before we present our empirical findings, we will briefly discuss the methods that we used in our two studies.

Methodology and methods

Only recently first reflections on how to study governance, emotion, and affect have been published. Among these, we drew on methodologies to investigate power and governing from a Foucauldian perspective (Stern, Hellberg and Hansson, 2015). The challenge of empirical studies in this tradition is the art - as the editors of the informative volume, Studying the Agency of Being Governed, claim — of not overestimating the power of governmentality, the ‘workings of governing’, and to be sensitive to agency and resistance (ibid.: 2). They suggest — and we follow this path - to focus on processes of subjectivation (ibid.: 11). The second challenge for our analysis was the puzzle of how toempirically study the often ‘invisible’ manifestations of emotion and affect and the bodily moments of interaction. Britta Knudsen and Carsten Stage (2015: 4—8) point to three similar problems of empirically analysing affects: first, the difficulty' to ask questions and to develop starting points; second, to collect or produce ‘embodied data’; and third, to trace affects empirically — challenges that guided our investigation.

In our examination of the neoliberal affective regime, of affective subjec-tivation, governmentality', and affective capital, we conducted - as indicated above — a national study' on the marketisation of postal services in Austria (with Vienna as the main location of our investigation) and a comparative examination of public employment services in Austria, Germany, and Switzerland (conducted in three larger urban areas: Vienna, Munich, and Berne).2

The fieldwork in these settings took place between 2010 and 2016 on the basis of a multilevel approach focusing on frontline interactions (similar to Bruhn and Ekstrom, 2017). To meet the above-mentioned challenges, we integrated in our multilevel approach document analysis, interviews, and observations and took ‘feeling protocols’. At the institutional level - concerned with the implications of institutional transformations — data collection consisted first of expert interviews in the Departments of Human Resources (nine in the Department of the Austrian Mail; six at the employment agencies) about the training and expected skills of frontline workers vis-à-vis jobseekers or at the counter of post office branches. Second, we analysed organisational documents that regulate the conduct of the frontline staff: from dress codes to rules about politeness and friendliness (i.e. emotionologies or feeling rules) to instructions on how to proceed in interactions. And third, as we consider language and text as being capable of expressing affects (Knudsen and Stage, 2015: 4), we conducted semi-structured interviews with these frontline workers about the affective implications of their jobs, job satisfaction, and how they perceive their current work practices. At the interactional level, where the institutional realities are enacted and negotiated, the data came from non-participatory observations of job placement or counselling interviews in the three cities (that we partly videotaped) and from observations in post office branches.

Following the model of ‘theoretical sampling’ (Glaser and Strauss, 2006: 45—77), we conducted 14 interviews with postal employees (eight men, six women) in nine Viennese post office branches and observed their customer interactions at ten incidences; we carried out 21 interviews with six male and 15 female employment agents in Vienna, Munich, and Berne and observed 72 of their interactions (23 of them were videotaped).3 For each of the 72 observed interactions we took feeling protocols, which contained descriptions of the (material) setting and artefacts, and our felt perception of employment agents and their affects towards customers and the progress of the interaction. Following Knudsen and Stage (2015: 10), our research focused on the affective characteristics of communication and on the non-verbal language of affected bodies, and we combined different forms of data gathering and interpretation.

Our observations, audio- and videotapes, and also the transcribed interview material and our feeling protocols provided the basis for a ‘focused ethnography’, as Hubert Knoblauch (2005) termed it, a data-intensive study of ‘the situative performance of social actions’ (ibid.: 6), which, after the fieldwork, required an intensive analysis of the data in group sessions of the research teams in order to understand the observed practices and to arrive at intersubjectively valid interpretations of the interactions.

Although we followed Knudsen and Stage’s advice (2015: 4) to situate our research and interview questions in specific contexts, affective implications are particularly hard to grasp in the recordings and written documents. To interpret affectivity, we focussed on language and verbal communication, on bodily gestures and facial expressions, and on the material surroundings of the analysed interactions. We partly drew on Janet Newman’s (2012: 470) notion of an ‘emotional register of discourse’4 and Jochen Kleres’ (2010) descriptions of his ‘narrative analysis’ of emotions in which he distinguishes between two dimensions: at the lexical level, one is able to find ‘emotion words, which refer . . . descriptively to emotional states’ (ibid.: 194; emphasis in original); and, at the syntactical level, entire sentences point to emotional experiences. The underlying analytical assumption of such an analysis is that ‘emotions are inextricably interwoven with the meaning dimension of texts to the point where the distinction between cognition and emotion becomes blurry’ (ibid.: 197). Due to the narrative analysis, non-conscious emotions, Peter Goldie’s (2009a) ‘unreflective consciousness’, also become visible. We applied a similar idea to the analysis of our visual material, our videography (based on Knoblauch and Schnettler, 2012), in which body language, gestures and facial expressions, and the use of artefacts, like PC monitors and staplers, indicated affective relations and affectivity (the interplay of body and mind).

In the following sections we first describe the emotionologies at post office branches and employment agencies and the affective governmentality emerging in these constellations. We then present the effects of affective subjectiva-tion, i.e. the ambivalent affective and entrepreneurial self-government, in our empirical fields. After that, we discuss forms of solidarity and resistance against the affective regime before we turn our attention to the gendered consequences of neoliberal affective governmentality. The chapter concludes by mapping out the theoretical consequences of our empirical studies for the concepts of affective governmentality, affective subjectivation, and affective capital.

 
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