Neoliberal Bureaucratization: Abstraction as Reality Erected into a System

Analyzing bureaucratization as a process of abstraction is a necessary step for grasping the specificity of neoliberal bureaucratization. Three overlapping considerations strike me as being of particular importance. The first one lies in the nature of the process of formal elaboration which can merely be understood genealogically: at present, codes, norms, rules, and procedures that govern social life as a whole emerge from a process of abstraction that starts out from the entrepreneurial world, and more specifically from the big management industrial world. There is no need to repeat this, though it is worth remembering what problems these norms are deemed to conceptualize and solve. These are, of course, problems of efficiency and cost-effectiveness, and the quest for a scientific and rational organization of the cheapest mode of production, but also problems of unhampered control as symbolized by the principles of participation, of individual responsibility, and of self-discipline, or by the quest for modes of operation that will make things and human beings manageable in terms of risk, precaution, and prevention.

The second characteristic relates to the spread of these norms, codes, and procedures beyond the business world, and beyond economic affairs and modes of government, to the point where they affect not just the state but society as a whole. The ever-more pervasive processes of formalization and the universalization of the specific type of abstractions these processes are attached to, are quite specific to the current situation. Instead of talking—as Stinchcombe did—of formalities “that work” and those that “do not work,” and to escape this kind of utilitarian, functionalist and somehow normative claims, I rely on Foucault’s genealogical approach to better grasp and understand (the element of) the unexpected, (of) the contingent and (of) the unpredictable in the life of concepts and abstractions. In the tradition of historical sociology, many in this volume defend (see especially Bayart and Mattelart in this volume), as I do myself, this understanding that abstraction does enable broadening the analysis of the tensions between the logics of profession and bureaucratic logics, and more broadly, of the tensions between the many different logics of life in society and bureaucratic logics.

These tensions are all the greater and more perceptible because abstractions have migrated, have been transposed and extended into contexts and areas that are quite foreign to those that gave them birth. In other words, abstractions need not to be understood as effective representations of reality (as Stinchcombe advocates), but as historically situated social constructions. No concept is an empirical given. A concept is constructed from processes of recording that are, on the one hand, inevitably guided by the process of archiving, rationalizing and categorizing—a process that selects the qualities and kinds of relations—and, on the other hand, bring information to the awareness of the observer via success transmissions that themselves proceed from abstraction. Abstraction thus appears as a tool for knowledge: it is constructed in such a way as to be inevitably guided by some aim, in the service of something.27

Norms, rules, figures, the coding of procedures, and the formalization of behaviors—in short, what constitutes neoliberal bureaucratization—must be understood in the same way: as a process of abstraction that guides life in society. What needs to be questioned is not the credibility of these abstractions or their conformity with reality, but their uniqueness, the homogeneity thus constructed and the meaning of this construction. one very concrete example will make this more precise: figures are indices that impoverish reality insofar as they emerge from a process of aggregation (thousands of words, relationships, and languages are translated into a few words and a few categories in a nomenclature) that is simultaneously a certain exercise in reduction. The information “behind” these figures, that has made it possible for them to be constructed, is much richer, more variegated, disparate, and non-homogeneous. In these conditions, using figures and indexes is simultaneously a loss of information and a transformation of the way information is being shaped and highlighted. This does not mean that we cannot manage without these figures and these indexes, but that we need to be aware of what is constructed (regularity, uniqueness, certainty) and what is lost (diversity, plurality, ambiguity, and uncertainty) with the new regime of abstraction that develops: the neoliberal abstraction.28

The argument about figures and the categories of national accountancy or macroeconomics needs to be extended to the set of formalities that comprise bureaucratization. The essential thing is not merely to understand the abstractions that norms, rules, codes, and procedure formalities represent through their effectiveness, but rather to grasp how they have emerged and by what processes the abstraction has thus been created, bringing to light the particular kind of conceptualizations that made it possible, therefore the strategies and the interplay of power underlying it. In this respect, the so-called norm of excellence is a perfect example. It took shape in industry around questions of qual- ity/price, and the efficient allocation of resources and evaluation, and now applies to the world of knowledge, of information, and research as much as to that of public health. It has taken concrete shape in the calculation of ratios and indicators, the use of audits and benchmarks,29 and the definition of strategies in a world made up of competition, but also of alliances and tactical games, and political ambitions driven by the desire for profit. Being ignorant of their genealogy, the worlds of knowledge or public health take these norms—here the norm of excellence—as a guarantee of reform and improvement of the quality of their own professional practices thereby forced to change and mutate.30 My argument here is of course not that we do not need abstractions, concepts, or categories, since there is neither thought, nor concrete practices outside of these forms (see Bonditti in this volume). Rather, it is to affirm the urgent necessity to understand that abstractions are social forms, that have their own history/trajectory, and that while migrating from a domain of practice to another they bring along conceptualizations, strategies, and ways of thinking and problematizing that shape our understanding of situations and practices themselves.

Finally, the third characteristic is proper to neoliberalism only in its intensity, and it stems directly from the previous one. With the transformation of bureaucratic forms—which are thus passed on less by direct intervention and the involvement of institutions and administrations than by the use of norms, rules, and formalities—the hierarchical exercise of authority, and the obligation to comply with orders coming from a certain outside (that are given as if from on high) is, to a great extent, replaced by incentives. These are presented as being voluntarily accepted and guide people’s behavior all the more easily as these norms, rules, and formalities are abstracted from a conceptualization of reality presented as rational and reasonable. The intensification and spread of government by neoliberal abstraction imply that the meaning of this process of conceptualization is lost and leads us to take abstraction as a self-evident, neutral, and objective representation of reality—in short, as reality itself. Neoliberal abstraction as a mode of government is no longer in the realm of the legislator and of rational, technical government alone. These days, abstraction is also the way in which power is expressed and exercised by regulators and normaliz- ers, by jurists and other actors, all involved in the processes whereby society is made judicial, by economic and financial actors, and by bureaucrats of thought, among so many others.

One emblematic illustration of this movement is definitely provided by the increasing importance of mathematization in knowledge—in scientific knowledge, of course, but also in economic knowledge and even in the social sciences. While theorists point out that theories and hypotheses are never realistic by nature, it is an established fact that economic and financial mathematical formalization is constantly taken to be a representation of reality—enabling the possibility not only to explain but also reproduce and even anticipate the constitutive events of social life. Ratings agencies are especially interesting to analyze in this respect. Such agencies are regularly criticized for their lack of independence, their methods of assessment, as much as for their active role in financial speculation and even their reluctance to grasp, characterize, and describe given economic and financial situations in their very concreteness. Yet this criticism will remain quite ineffective as long as it keeps focusing on the criteria of assessment and the rating grids of these agencies, that are the product of a process of abstraction based on very specific preoccupations, in fact limited to the management of financial risk. The most challenging problem lies elsewhere—less in these criteria than, first in the way an increasingly diverse number of actors (businesses, banks, financial actors, as well as governments, collectives of investors, etc.) come to resort to these agencies in an ever-more systematic way; second, in the exaggerated importance given to such ratings and the spread of norms that arise from American financial practices. People gradually forget that these agencies are merely measuring a financial risk at a time t, and in a given institutional configuration. The temptation exists to take their ratings as the faithful representation of the health of the entity under scrutiny and the image of its real situation.31 The abstraction (the figure calculated from financial criteria, measured almost exclusively quantitatively in accordance with a pre-existing grid) becomes the reality. It is thought pointless to take into account other factors and other modes of assessment, and the comparison of contradictory information and assessments is viewed as superfluous. This is the intellectual risk of abstraction, as highlighted by Francois Fourquet in his remarks on national accountancy: it can always “close down minds.”32 As bureaucratic abstractions, norms, categories, rules, and formal procedures certainly are very useful tools, that also function as codes on which people have agreed at a given moment in order to exchange information, to act, and to guide people’s behavior—in short, to govern.

The language of neoliberal formalization (with its endless formalities) proves to be an anti-historical, anti-localized, anti-specific language since, a product of an abstraction with universal pretensions, it actually neglects the radical heterogeneity of the realities it abstracts. It’s in this sense that one can speak of neoliberal bureaucratization as a fiction.

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