Fiction at the Heart of Neoliberal Bureaucratization
Now, what does that mean to claim, as I do in these pages, that abstraction is taken as reality. This is no innocent “confusion.” What does it mean when respect for ISO norm 9001 is taken as a proof of quality, and norm 26,000 as evidence of social responsibility? The notion of fiction enables to move toward a deeper understanding of the implications of this “confusion.” Reality cannot be grasped outside categories, concepts, and other principles of ordering the sensible world. As Weber’s interpretative sociology suggests, reality is inevitably transcribed and elaborated. This explains why there is no single truth, but merely truths—truths constructed by means of the norms and values proper to the society in which they are uttered.33 This is also why, as Michel Foucault suggests in his latest Lectures at the College de France, Le gouvernement de soi et des autres, every discourse that presents itself as a discourse of veridiction (discours de veridiction) and transforms its own truth into a norm can be interpreted as a fiction.34 “Reality” and “rationality” are shaped by social actions and also by this discourse of truth. Neoliberalism must be understood as a “game of veridiction” and analyzed as a particular moment when “singular inventions”35 emerged. When grasped, the real cannot be represented outside this fiction, insofar as it is a “dimension in which the symbols are elaborated and through which we sum up our inscription in the world.”36 When studies in the social sciences, beginning with Weber, state that what is specific to the modern world, and comprises its reality, is rationality, they are implicitly highlighting the fiction at the heart of these societies. Another way to say this is to underline, with Weber, the work of interpreting, understanding, meaning proper to each specific historical and cultural situation or, with Foucault, the work of elaboration, of transformation that this discourse as practice operates.
Approaching this “confusion”—or, to say it with Gilles Deleuze, this “indiscernibility”—in terms of a fiction does not condemn the analysis to build along the true/false or real/imaginary divisions to which fiction is often associated: it means taking this confusion at face value, as a truth, and giving ourselves a chance to understand what it corresponds to and what effects follow. This narrative and the particular truth it carries appears as a fiction, if fiction is understood not as a pure and simple illusion deprived of historical effects, but as a fabrication that entails important consequences. The fictive dimension of the exercise of power, and of its interpretation, appears fundamental within this frame of analysis. Fiction lies at the intersection of two overlapping traditions. First, the legal tradition, with the figure of the persona ficta and the intensive use of “as if.”37 Resorting to legal fictions enables certain facts to be concealed, so as to consolidate a status quo and foster a development (e.g., the superiority of private over public management) and to assert certain truths (“to quantify is a proof of rationality and efficiency”; “there is no alternative”; “the economic consensus is a reality”). This fiction obviously has significant effects on institutions and behavior, as Michel Foucault already pointed out.38 The second tradition is the literary tradition that Michel Foucault introduced into the social sciences following Roland Barthes and Herbert Marcuse among others (see Shapiro in this volume). Here, fiction belongs properly to subjective experience, the experience you make for yourself, which creates something that did not exist before but exists afterward, which names things.39 Fiction is the object of which you are “completely master and which no shadow can hide from your gaze.” It is “language which is, by definition, distance. It is the aspect of a fable.”40
In so doing—and because it rests on supports, on perceptions, on the reproduction of prior analyses and understandings, and on rewritings of history—fiction is a crucial aspect of personal and historical experiences.41 It expresses a reality, a gray zone between the real and the unreal: and only if this zone is taken into account can the position of anyone or anything within society be grasped.42 The construction of indicators, the definition and implementation of norms, the principle of a close similarity between public and private, are integrated into modes of government, with the result that fiction must be considered as a practice producing a political and social reality, and not as a belief. In this way, bureaucratic fictions do not appear disconnected from the concrete details and the everyday realities of social life, but—like all abstractions—they are embodied in structures, techniques, and concrete practices.
If, as I have argued, neoliberal bureaucratization is one of, even possibly the crucial dimension of neoliberalism, then one can understand how this social action constructs the real in a singular manner, based on the fiction that elaborates as universal a very specific, socially and historically situated rationality, that of the market and business, and even more particularly that of management. In other words, like the so-called impoverished person or the jobseeker viewed as a potential entrepreneur, the head of a police department or of a hospital seen as a company boss, or norm 9001 taken as quality, there is a “bureaucratic production of the real,”43 with specific and particular abstractions (bureaucratic abstractions) made reality. To conceptualize reality through the very process of formalization is a fiction because it “travesties facts” by “declaring them as something different from what they were actually”: it reduces or transforms them by forcing them to fit the logic of this bizarre rationality and draws “the consequences of this adulteration” by taking them to be reality.44 This “detour” makes it possible to bring in new norms that end up governing the facts and thus also govern human beings, with real effects. For this same reason, this fiction needs to be taken seriously, all the more seriously, indeed, as it alone guarantees the coherence of neoliberal bureaucratization: it makes it possible for various different logics to be brought together under the banner of a definite form of rationality. With Weber, we could say that, “irrational elements (are nested with)in the rationalization of reality.” The “as if”—one of the expressions of fiction—means we can go beyond the contradictions and inconsistencies between “irrational presuppositions which have been accepted simply as ‘given’”45 and the rationality of formalities comprised in neoliberal bureaucracy.