Human Capital Theory as a Governmental Rationality

This chapter draws on Michel Foucault’s (2008) analysis of neoliberalism as a particular mode of governmentality and on the studies providing insights into, and guided by, his approach (such as Brockling, 2011; Flew, 2012; Lemke, 2002, 2011; McNay, 2009). In Foucault’s work, neoliberalism refers to a shift in the historical trajectory of the modern governmental regime. In Foucault’s definition, government refers to all the techniques, strategies, calculations, procedures, programs, institutions, and rationalities through which the life of individuals and populations is brought under scrutiny, made known, and rendered governable. Governmentality is closely related to Foucault’s other concept of power/knowledge; that is, knowledge not only represents the world but also constitutes it by producing particular desires, fears, and habits and shaping the ways in which individuals think, feel, and act. Government, therefore, signifies the indirect and more efficient mode of social control through producing knowledge on/of the individual and population life that guides individuals’ behaviors and enables them to govern themselves. “Governing people,” in Foucault’s words “is not a way to force people to do what the governor wants; it is always a versatile equilibrium, with complementarity and conflicts between techniques which assure coercion and processes, through which the self is constructed or modified by himself” (cited in Lemke, 2002, p. 53).

The life of the individual and the population (the health, fertility, education, upbringing, habits, skills, etc.) has been an object of modern governmentalities since the eighteenth century. However, the way that lives of individuals and of populations were understood and problematized has changed across time/spaces. “Neoliberalism” is the term used to denote the particular framing of the problem-solution analysis that has become dominant and dominating across the world from the late twentieth century to the present day. This neoliberal mode of governmental regime is described as “an economization of the social” by Buhrmann (2005). This is not to mean that the social has been colonized by the economic. Rather, the economy has mutated and embraced the entirety of social relations and individual behaviors. The principles extracted from the market have become the framework to evaluate, measure, and govern all the domains of society and human life (Davies, forthcoming) including those that were previously accepted to be the most intimate and thought to be outside of the boundaries of the market, such as marriage and mothering.

What enables the social sphere to be reconfigured as a form of the economic domain is human capital theory. Human capital theory assumes that human beings are a bundle of resources—including all the knowledge, skills, intelligence, and training possessed by individuals or collectively as a population. Like any other form of capital, human capital needs investment in order to be managed and maximized. Investment in this resource means improving the quality of individuals and the population that produces a greater return for individuals themselves and for the national economy as a whole.

Embedded in human capital theory in a manner that delineates and translates almost all the domains of human life into economic terms is the notion of the atomized and entrepreneurial individual who has the capability to make rational “investment decisions relevant to themselves only and who aim[s] for the production of surplus value” (Lemke, 2011, pp. 110-111). As Lemke puts it, “Through the lens of human capital, a human being is a rational actor who is constantly allocating scarce resources in the pursuit of competing goals. All activity is presented as a choice between attractive and less attractive alternatives. The basis of this theory is a methodological individualism, whereby a person maximizes benefits and weight options in perpetual interplay” (p. 110).

The human being as “an entrepreneur of himself, being for himself his own capital, being for himself his own producer, being for himself the source of earnings” (Foucault, 2008, p. 226) is at the center of governmentality. Such a conceptualization asks for individuals to see themselves as an enterprise and base all their decisions on cost-benefit analyses. They are expected to constantly evaluate, judge, and order themselves and their lives within an economized matrix with an expectation of future return. As Brockling explaining why the human being as homo economicus—entrepreneurial-is “eminently governable” writes,

[The] theory of human capital grasps the human being as homo economicus and grasps him only to the extent that he behaves accordingly: if individuals constantly try to maximize their benefits, their actions can be guided by raising or lowering their costs and thus altering the calculation. As someone who constantly decides, homo economicus is also “someone who is eminently governable” (Foucault 2008: 270). If there is no behavior that cannot be described in terms of cost-benefit calculations, then people have no other choice than to make choices in all their actions. The economic approach addresses them from the start as the entrepreneurial market subjects into which they need to be transformed and to transform themselves. (2011, p. 258)

The aim of this chapter is to examine the way in which early education is conflated with human capital theory in the context of Turkey. My attention is directed toward the configuration of early education as a productive discursive site for the production of entrepreneurial subjects (as individual and collective), institutions, and states.

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