Too-Late Liberal Government: By Crisis
Our research group’s work on humanitarian interventions in crisis zones from the postcommunist Balkans to West Africa and Haiti has led us to conclude that these sites of biopolitical crisis management in the 1990s and 2000s were in fact laboratories for the development of practices and technologies initially of crisis management but ultimately of government by crisis.25 We can here only briefly summarize our anthropological and political analysis of the international community of interveners including a host of governmental, intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and actors from armies and churches to various corps of experts “without borders.” Our work does not necessarily call into question the need for, or the sincerity of, massive humanitarian intervention into societies in the wake of conflict or catastrophe. Nor does it seek foremost to criticize the legality or the efficiency of these operations.26 Instead, our ethnographic observations of relations between interveners and target populations allowed us to uncover the particular power relations that emerge in the context of acute crisis. We have observed how the circumstances of emergency lead to a suspension of temporal, spatial and cultural contexts. The urgency of crisis both freezes and accelerates time, calling on the unreflected application of standard operating procedures and presumably universally valid expert knowledge. In a crossreading of Foucault’s concept of biopolitics with Max Weber’s sociology of domination, we have labeled the mode of authority exercised on sites of humanitarian intervention “therapeutic domination.”27 Like bureaucratic authority, but unlike charismatic authority, therapeutic domination, which can be understood metonymically like the doctor-patient relationship, rests on impersonal authority, notably treatment protocols. Like charisma, but unlike bureaucracy, however, therapeusis is ideal-typically extraordinary, a fleeting response to crisis, but in practice it slides into routinization, whether traditional or bureaucratic in form. We cannot here elaborate on the institutional forms that therapeutic authority adopts but mention only that the NGO best typifies the tensions between flexibility and bureaucracy as well as between (charismatic) appeals to absolute values and (bureaucratic) recourse to instrumental procedures.28
Despite its claims to be temporary or provisional, therapeutic domination in practice proves enduring and reveals, in fact, the authoritarian core of liberal benevolence. Interveners insist on their passing presence, working either to restore or introduce the proven techniques of liberal government: the market, organized civil society, representative democracy, and so on. Empirically, however, in places like Bosnia and Kosovo or in Palestinian refugee camps so-called transitions and temporary measures lasted decades or became permanent. Haiti, for example, has come to be called the “Republic of NGOs.” To be sure, NGOs and the cosmopolitan corps of experts that circulate between them and other humanitarian/ securitarian/developmental organizations from consultancy to consultancy and from disaster site to disaster site have a material (as well as ideal) interest in perpetuating their practices and power. Independently of interests and ideals, therapeutic government by crisis has generated practices and techniques that perpetuate themselves. On the one hand, the benevolence of intervention makes resistance difficult, and when beneficiaries do resist they generate a spiral of what we call iatrogenic violence that further pathologizes them and prompts further therapeutic domination. On the other hand, the prolongation and even provocation of crisis, sometimes even willfully, has emerged as a successful tactic of neoliberal reform. From just-in-time delivery to tight budgeting, the importation of “new management” techniques into public policy has not merely sought to heighten governmental efficiency but to stimulate creative disorder, if not destruction.
Although the new techniques of government by crisis were already detectable 20 years ago on the peripheral sites of humanitarian intervention that we studied, they have meanwhile come to full fruition at the erstwhile global center. As epitomized now in the Greek tragedy, Europe has clearly slid into therapeutic government by crisis since 2008 as expert institutions above and beyond any putatively democratic determination exercise the therapeutic tutelage that they developed in the preceding decades, notably in the western Balkans. We do not wish to succumb to the polemics of blame (and hence moralism) at work in the current European crisis, nor for that matter in Canada, where we have witnessed the discursive and technical fabrication of budgetary crises as a pretext for austerity and the further dismantling of the welfare state. We would argue, however, that these phenomena are symptomatic of something more than a neoliberal refinement of the conduct of conduct through (self-)inflicted hardship as a means to attaining greater competitive health. Beyond the empirical validity of the dubious benefits of austerity, for example, what has come to a head in the current (post)humanitarian (neo)liberal moment is in fact the relationship between liberalism and truth.
Liberalism is not, of course, a lie, but rather a truth regime, or framework of veridiction that provides the conditions of possibility for speaking truth. As we have seen with Foucault, liberal truths, in keeping with the (Kantian) revolution of the human sciences, rest on empirical probabilities consistent with the presuppositions and perspectives of different sciences’ delimitation of reality’s infinite complexity.29 Liberalism’s epistemology is thus relativistic, but it is also tempered by pragmatism. Truths hold as long as they are effective, especially if their effectiveness reinforces the belief in their truth. The market thus can effectively yield the “true” value of goods and services when market agents act as if and believe that it does. In recasting the liberal subject as an entrepreneur of the self, as we saw, neoliberalism rendered the subjective foundations of market truth explicit. To be sure, the subjectivity of the market was always evident (even Locke admitted the purely imaginary value of money), notably during speculative bubbles and panic runs. To this day, the concept of “market corrections” suggests that such irrationalities of the market are subject to the empirical checks of the “real economy.” Yet in an age when the nominal value of virtual, speculative and derivative markets outstrips that of real exchanges by several orders of magnitude, few people actually believe in the fairy tale of the empirical truth of market prices.30
Indeed, the too-late liberal present exposes the self-deception at the heart of liberalism’s promise of freedom and prosperity. It suggests that liberal veridiction rests not only on empirical truths, but also upon verisimilitude, the appearance of what might be true. This replacement of empirical probability by subjective plausibility has become particularly acute under contemporary neo-/too-late-liberalism’s mobilization of insecurity and austerity instead of freedom and prosperity. This is especially the case when the liberal culture of danger slips into a culture of fear and worst-case scenario planning according to the precautionary principle supplants policy planning based on (statistical) extrapolations from the past. Beyond the obvious sacrifice of classic liberal freedoms to the cause of the “war on terror” despite the objective decline in deaths due to terrorism, verisimilitude in conjunction with fear has become the epistemological premise of today’s political (non)reason (see Bonditti in this volume). The arbitrary violence of contemporary politics does not mark the death of liberalism but rather its apotheosis. This realization of what was already inherent to liberalism arrives of course too late. Even worse, the liberal imposture is double. The impossibility of its promise of redemption is not only always already there from the beginning but repeats itself, doubles back on itself continually. Every attempt to realize freedom comes too late as each inevitable crisis asks us to try again, placing our hopes if not in the market, then in legal rights, in the welfare state, in humanitarian compassion, or now in the resilience spurred by permanent austerity.31 The genealogy of liberalism thus shows us that each of its manifestations, each of its faces draws on and generates a lie of coming freedom.32 It is no wonder, then, that the “last” Foucault33 turned to the cynicism of Antiquity after his prescient analysis of contemporary liberalism.