Tag Archives: liberalism

Mass Incarceration, Higher Education and the Legitimacy of Violence

I’ve got a post over at Anthropoliteia in reaction to some provocative commentary by Jonathan Simon on the current UC Strike.  Here’s a tidbit:

What Jonathan’s work in Governing through Crime has shown, however, is that one of the few remaining–maybe the only remaining–domain in which the violence of governance seems legitimate to American voters is in the domain of crime control and punishment. It therefore has become the trope through which all American governance is filtered.

What we’re left with is, on the one hand, a massively inflated, impractical and unjust incarceration system and–importantly–on the the other hand, no way of conceiving any other legitimate form of governance.

This is not a question of corporate greed versus educational egalitarianism, or even good guys versus bad guys (as much as I’d like to hate on Mark Yudof along with everyone else), but of finding a way–literally–of justifying the very real kinds of violence involved in supporting education; of including higher education into the political calculus of life and death.

via Jonathan Simon’s provocative thoughts on the UC Strike « Anthropoliteia: the anthropology of policing.

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Liberalism, Trasparency and the Interior Labyrinth

The New York Times has been covering the trial of former Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin (and others) in what has become known as the Clearstream trial.  Basically, the accusation is that de Villepin faked a list of bank accounts, linked them to arms dealers, and then put Sarkozy’s name on it to try to ruin his political career and gain the presidency for himself.  If you remember, de Villepin was the guy who won the hearts of many on the American left when he denounced the U.S. war in Iraq at the UN.  He at one point was also the main political rival of the up-and-coming Sarkozy.

Anyway, something jumped out at me from today’s article that seems really important:

The trial itself has become a spectacle, given the Sarkozy-de Villepin rivalry, which also has elements of social and class prejudice. Mr. Sarkozy is a lawyer, while Mr. de Villepin went to elite schools, served as a diplomat, writes poetry but was never elected to any national post.

In 2004, for example, according to the magazine Le Point, Mr. de Villepin said, “Nicolas doesn’t have the makings of a man of state, because he has no interior labyrinth.” Mr. Sarkozy, he said, lacks “the mystery that is the strength of great men.” With Mr. Sarkozy, he added, “all is there, on the table, for the taking.”

“Some take this for arrogance, aggression,” he added. “In reality, it is weakness.”

via Bitter Political Trial Grips France – NYTimes.com.

There’s something there–about the role of language, both as an ethos and as a politics–that I think is very important, that I’ve been trying to capture in my own work, and that I think–if one properly understands the stakes of the problem–is very perplexing.

I’m all for poetry.  I’m all for beauty.  But labyrinthine politicians make me nervous, mostly because I’m a liberal in the classic sense of the term.  Jeremy Bentham, for example, equated metaphor with despotism in that it was a type of non-reasoning and therefore ultimately, as a politics, shear imposition of will.

The question I think is how to make sense of, and forge, a poetics for a post neoliberalism…

What is neoliberalism and how can we tell?

I just came across a neat blog called Decasia: critique of academic culture run by Eli Thorkelson, a graduate student in the anthropology department at the University of Chicago.  I started to offer a response to his though-provoking post on neoliberalism in the academy when I realized that really I was running on so long that my thoughts should be a post of their own.

In essence, Eli is trying to work through how to ask questions about neoliberalism from an ethnographic perspective–in other words, how to think through the contingencies and particularities of an object that itself traverses many such contexts.

This, of course, is one of the great anthropological questions of the past 30 years, and has been played out in everything from Eric Wolf to Arjun Appadurai to Aihwa Ong and Anna Tsing; from everything from the anthropology of globalization and modernity to the anthropology of the state to the anthropology of humanitarianism.

Appropriately, I think, Eli and friends are trying to tackle this problem through the specific case of universities: how can we make sense of what seem to be linked issues–shared problems, if not exactly shared responses–in the very nature of academic practice today?  I ran into a similar issue when developing my dissertation project on police reform in France: so much of what was going on with Nicolas Sarkozy’s reform of the Police nationale seemed to follow a set script, but it wasn’t long into my time there that i realized that the issues at stake in his “culture of results” were different than, say, what was going on in Berkeley, or London.

How to make sense of this?

For starters, Foucault’s suggestion– in “What is Critique?” and elsewhere— has suggested that “liberalism” is best understood as a form of governance which seeks its own principle of limitation and therefore its corresponding form of critique–liberal critique– is to ask the question: do we have too much government?  In other words, continual and reflexive self-limitation on the power and scope of governance is the characteristic feature of liberalism across its various manifestations.  Beyond that, however, the particular mechanism of this self-limitation is variable.

If the first part of Foucault’s formulation (liberalism as form of self-limitation by government of governance) can be buttressed by the work of everyone from Albert Hirchman to Max Weber, the second part (thinking through the various mechanisms of liberal governance) is most fruitfuly approached, i think, by a group of scholars who follow the work of Nikolas Rose.

For example, rose argues that the distinguishing characteristic of neoliberalism is not “lack of governance,” “accumulation of wealth,” “excess of greed,” or even “privatization” (all popular definitions of the term).  rather the difference between “classical” liberalism and “neoliberalism” is that whereas the former sought a principle whereby the role of government could be limited through the cordoning off of separate “public” and “private” spheres, the latter attempts to use a set of techniques developed in the Market–located, for classic liberalism within the “private” sphere–to better regulate a variety of domains–including those classically relegated to the “public sphere”.

Now, several anthropologists–Aihwa Ong and Jim Ferguson being chief among them, I think– have taken up Rose’s work here in order to focus on the myriad ways neoliberal techniques have been taken up for purposes not predicted by grander theories of economic transformation.  Their point here is, I think, that neoliberalism is  a technical toolkit that can be used in the service of a whole array of political projects.

Now, having said that, in my own dissertation I argued that, while the police reform that I was ethnographizing was indeed a form of liberalism which made use of some of the management techniques usually associated with neoliberalism in the Rose/Ong/Ferguson post-Foucaultian understanding of the term, I’m not sure that it was the sole mechanism of self-limitation.

On the one hand, I think I’m “not sure” mostly because neither were the people I was studying.  in a very tangible sense, they were trying to figure out how to delimit the legitimate violence they were entrusted with.  On the other hand, this very fact seems to suggest that there was at least some kind of experimentation with another, yet emergent, form of liberalism.

Dr. Ong and I have been going back and forth a bit about this ever since: what, for example, I ask her, would a new form of liberalism look like, if it were neither “classical” nor “neo” liberalism?  Can we see any evidence of such a thing in the world around us?  For example, in the post-economic collapse U.S. where there at least circulates the idea that market techniques are not in themselves sufficient “regulation”?

This is the terrain I think Eli & co. are on as they try to think through everything from the University of California’s current economic crisis to Mexican student protests of the 1990’s to ethnic violence at Cameroonian universities.  It is exciting territory, and I’ll be interested to see what they find…

Further reading

Appadurai, A. (2000). Grassroots Globalization and the Research Imagination Public Culture, 12 (1), 1-19 DOI: 10.1215/08992363-12-1-1

Fassin, D. (2007). Humanitarianism as a Politics of Life Public Culture, 19 (3), 499-520 DOI: 10.1215/08992363-2007-007

Ferguson, J., & Gupta, A. (2002). Spatializing States: Toward an Ethnography of Neoliberal Governmentality American Ethnologist, 29 (4), 981-1002 DOI: 10.1525/ae.2002.29.4.981

Foucault, M., Faubion, J. D., Rabinow, P., & Hurley, R. (2000). “Omnes et Singulatim”: toward a critique of political reason (Vol. 3, pp. 298-325). New York: New Press.

Foucault, M., Schmidt, J., & Geiman, K. P. (1996). What Is Critique? (pp. 382-398). Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kearney, M. (1995). The Local and the Global: The Anthropology of Globalization and Transnationalism Annual Review of Anthropology, 24 (1), 547-565 DOI: 10.1146/annurev.an.24.100195.002555

Ong, A. (2000). Graduated Sovereignty in South-East Asia Theory, Culture & Society, 17 (4), 55-75 DOI: 10.1177/02632760022051310

Ong, A. (2006). Neoliberalism as exception : mutations in citizenship and sovereignty. Durham [N.C.]: Duke University Press.

Rose, N. (1999) Powers of freedom: reframing political thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University press.

Tsing, A. (2000). The Global Situation Cultural Anthropology, 15 (3), 327-360 DOI: 10.1525/can.2000.15.3.327

WOLF, E. (1999). Anthropology among the powers Social Anthropology, 7 (2), 121-134 DOI: 10.1017/S0964028299000117

Critical (Bio)security

The weight of a summer course, cross-country move and the need to expand the “Publications” portion of my CV is upon me, but even still I’m working towards formulating a more or less coherent instigation for an anthropology of liberalism (look for that, probably via On the Assembly of Things in the upcoming week or so).  Until then:

Paul Rabinow of the Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center, discussed the potential risks of insufficient public dialogue in more specific terms.

“Given the access to this material through the internet, there are unquestionably going to be accidents and malicious uses. That’s a given,” he said.

“But then what? What is the reaction to that going to be? Shut down biology? That’s what Dick Cheney would have done. I don’t think the biology community is prepared with answers to that question yet. But they need to be.”

via The Great Beyond: ‘Shiny happy biology’. (subscription required)