What The Foucault

The problem facing us as individuals as we grow to maturity is learning to govern ourselves, to control our emotions and our desires and to fit in with other people we meet in our daily lives. The problem facing societies is to learn how to encourage individuals to mature in ways that the society finds useful for the purposes of societies, whatever those might be. Michel Foucault called society’s problem “governmentality”,* a word I learned from Philip Mirowski’s book, Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste. Society imposes controls through a multitude of systems and institutions, including churches, schools, hospitals, prisons, psychiatric facilities, and businesses. All of these condition us to behave in certain ways that help society function. Government plays an important role in this socialization of the individual, but in decent societies, it is far from the only one. Mirowski argues that the goal of the neoliberals is to take control of government and use it to push for a specific kind of socialization of the individual, one subordinate to and controlled by the Market.

The Market is not just a place where you can obtain food and clothes.

The market as portrayed by Foucault … is the sole legitimate site for the production of indubitable knowledge of the whole; …. The “market” (always referenced as a monolithic entity) provides the boundary conditions for governmentality, because it alone knows things we can never know. It offers a nonstop cogent critique of the pretensions of the state. Far from a ramshackle Rube Goldberg device, it is instead constituted as the Delphic Oracle, capable of interpreting our every dream. Mirowski, p. 98, emphasis in original.

The Market is magic! We must all bow to its decisions. This absurd love of markets is now a standard form of our discussions of everything. Here’s an example from the very average Adam Davidson in the New York Times Sunday Magazine:

Scully has a simple way of describing what NaviHealth — and much of the Affordable Care Act — brings to medicine. “It’s called capitalism,” he told me. “Which doesn’t exist in health care, really.” He’s right — sort of. In a normal market economy, money is the reward that signals success; it flows to whatever business best serves people’s needs and wants. The central idea of capitalism, as Adam Smith declared it, is that people and firms seeking profit for themselves will also, inadvertently, help create better outcomes for society.

Since at least the 1950s, economists and practitioners have been seeking ways to make health care mimic other efficient markets by financially rewarding those who provide more health, rather than those who treat more ailments.

You might ask what was wrong with the system that existed before the advent of these quacks. You would be told that it wasn’t economically efficient. You might ask why economic efficiency is so important. You might ask why we should create some new kind of Rube Goldberg system to reach the hallowed goal of efficiency. You might ask if this new Market meets other goals of medical care. You might have many other questions. You would be laughed at by your rulers. You are apparently not participating in the same discourse**. You do not perceive the world in the same terms as they do.

You see, there are these people called “market designers” (google it), whose job it is to create markets. They operate on the premise that people respond to monetary signals in every aspect of their lives. This Market punishes and disciplines us in the same way religion once did. It is an external force that knows best, but one not connected to a Supreme Being. Instead, it is a spontaneous creation emerging from our social activities taken together.

Perhaps you see a problem in this description: if the Market is a spontaneous outcome, why do we need market designers? This contradiction, this double truth, lies at the heart of Mirowski’s picture of neoliberalism. We petty humans are the subjects of the Market, and the neoliberals are the people external to the Market who design the very structure of our lives, using the power of the State.

The ugly part is that participation in this Market requires a specific kind of human person. You see yourself as a bundle of investments in yourself, and you take risks in the Market, which offers rewards to those who take the right risks and punishes those who take the wrong risks. This view of yourself as a form of human capital is pervasive. Here’s a random example from commenter lebec on a HuffPo essay***:

A good college education expands who you are. I took 7 years getting my bachelor’s degree, paid my way working during that time and profited in every way… before I graduated. Yes I learned much of what I use in my profession on my own, but I stand on the systematic and thorough base of technical and varied subjects I took in college every day. If you see college as an investment in who you are, as well as your earning potential, the experience can be awesome, like mine was. If you are just trying to pass tests and get a degree, it is an inferior experience and maybe an inferior investment.

Lebec pushes back against the idea of education as an investment in potential earnings, but can’t resist the lure of the idea of investment in the self.

On the other hand, in our wonderful Market system, you can just ignore those centuries of human effort to understand human nature. Who needs that old thinking when we have the Market and our new selves?

Mirowski will be on our Book Salon on November 17. This is a great opportunity to discuss these ideas.
*This essay at Wikipedia is a helpful introduction to this idea, though I note it is tagged as “original research”, and it would be helpful to know who wrote it. Mirowski says that Foucault immersed himself in the writings of the neoliberals and produced a series of lectures on the subject which only became widely available upon publication in 2004. The Wikipedia essayist says that Foucault’s discussion of power in a society leads to the linkage between self-government and the government of society.

Foucault encourages us to think of power not only in terms of hierarchical, top-down power of the state. He widens our understanding of power to also include the forms of social control in disciplinary institutions (schools, hospitals, psychiatric institutions, etc.), as well as the forms of knowledge. Power can manifest itself positively by producing knowledge and certain discourses** that get internalised by individuals and guide the behaviour of populations. This leads to more efficient forms of social control, as knowledge enables individuals to govern themselves.

**In this passage, the term “discourse” is used in the sense Foucault pioneered. Very roughly, it means an internalized set of words, thoughts and actions that work together to produce a system by which individuals perceive the society in which they function. Wikipedia has another essay describing this idea more fully. One way to think about the idea of discourse is to consider how difficult it is to discuss things with our right-wing friends. Our respective ideas about how things work are not the same, and there is little basis for comparing our perceptions of the thing that happen around us. It helps to think of discourse as the explanations we have for the things we see. I see evolution as answering many of the questions posed by a massive amount of knowledge about the physical world. Others ignore most of those facts, and in the facts they accept, they see the hand of the Almighty at work in inscrutable ways.
*** Jennifer Silva’s book Coming Up Short contains a number of quotes to the same effect, but much more painful, from working class young adults.

Photo by 2010jade1, used under Creative Commons license



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