Exertions, the blog of the Society for the Anthropology of Work, has published a new series of posts entitled “Policing and Labor.” Many wonderful people have contributed to it, so I suggest you check it out. My own, “What is the ‘Work’ in ‘Police Work’,” briefly explores some of the political valences of the concept of “work” amidst the police reforms that are the subject of my upcoming book The Police Against Itself. Here’s more or less the punchline:Continue reading What is the “work” in “Police Work”?
There’s been quite a bit of media confusion and consternation about the astonishingly large French protests against gay marriage and adoption that occurred the other day. In the end, I feel just about as confused as anybody, but I would like to point out a couple of things here:
- One of my constant refrains in translating French politics to Americans has been that the version of France that we get here, the New York Times and Washington Post version, is only a very limited perspective on what France is today. It’s only based on this narrow vision that something like these protests (or, in my own work*, the popularity of Nicolas Sarkozy) seem surprising. there’s a vast, working class, disenfranchised and non-Parisian French population that most Americans have almost no sense of.
- But it’s not only left-leaning American academics who seem to have no sense of the sector of societé, it’s the French technocratic elite as well. Whether or not Hollande is right about this issue (which he unquestionably is), every account of what’s happens suggests that he and his government were completely taken aback by the reaction–this was supposed to be an easy no-brainer that would slide through. The very fact that they “didn’t see it coming” is both instructive and indicative of a larger pathology in French political culture: even in my own, limited, anthropologist-as-bumbling-neophyte way, and even while hanging out with (mostly) libertine-esque Parisian artists and leftists, I knew there were strange undercurrents of homophobia; blockages from unexpected people towards thinking about homosexuality as a human lifestyle. Whether or not I agree with Hollande (and, again, I find it impossible not to), or share many of the same basic assumption about the world (which I probably do), these protests point once again to the fact that France’s technocratic elite are pathologically detached and unaccountable from the people in whose name they govern. I’m not the first to make that argument–Bourdieu and many others beat me to it–but I have tried to emphasize how this disconnect offers a challenge for French political life while also opening the door to the kind of right-wing populism utilized by Nicolas Sarkozy and his supporters. You can seen it in the less-than-earnest response by Sarkozy protege Jean Francois Cope, but also in the insistance by Hollande and crew that things will move forward as planned no matter what.
- This utter failure by social scientists and politicians to understand a large sector of French (and, I think, American) public life is a shame. It’s a shame because i think there are real lessons to be learned here about something i really don’t understand. And I really don’t get it; I really don’t get the affect nor the target. On either side of the Atlantic (although one thing I do get is labeling it an American conspiracy gets us close to nowhere). For example: one thing that should be thrown into stark relief about the American version of these debates by the French ones is that whatever this is about (and, again, i have no real clue) it is not merely adherence to a religious tradition. Since the French have spent the last 10+ years stoking fears of “Islamists” importing religion into the public sphere, the gay marriage debate has largely avoided the issue. but yet the target and the stance is the same. Doesn’t tghis make us question how much the U.S. debate is “really” about religion and how much religion is merely the idiom through which the debate happens? i think it does. Although i don’t know if this gets us any closer to explaining what’s going on, it sure helps in knowing what kinds of explanations to avoid.
*This article is behind a paywall. If you have access to it, i prefer you use the above link. if not, you can find it available here
According to the Institut national des études démographiques (Ined), and as reported in Le Figaro, almost 10% of French police are “issued from immigration” (I’ll have to look closer at the original research to see what this means, because in my experience it can mean anything from 1.5 generation to 4th generation) but almost 2/3 of that is from other European countries–Spain, Portugal, Italy– not former French territories and colonies. Still, this is big news because:
1) not many people thought the numbers would be even that high; and
2) these kind state-run surveys of race/ethnicity are extremely rare in France, some even considering them illegal–this particular survey is a direct result of an initiative of Nicolas Sarkozy when he was head of the police as Minister of the Interior
The last couple of weeks I’ve been teaching kids in my Intro to Anthropology class about one of the classic uses of the “culture” concept for anthropologists–to set off a domain of human life at least partially distinct from biology (think Margaret Mead in Coming of Age in Samoa or Alfred Kroeber‘s “superorganic” or any number of later examples).
My dissertation, on the other hand, looked at a different kind of “culture”: that which Nicolas Sarkozy, then head of the Police nationale, called “the culture of results”. By this he meant a fundamental shift in not only the way government agencies conducted their affairs, but in the value orientations and work ethic of the French people writ large.
Needless to say, this was and remains a controversial agenda. The latest issue du jour concerns a rash of suicides at France Telecom, which are being blamed on the aggressive “culture of results” style restructuring the former public service has been experiencing. The Telegraph UK writes:
“In a nutshell, it’s gone from a public service culture to a cash machine,” said Ivan du Roy, author of Stressed Orange, a book about the company’s angst.
Union leaders blame the suicides on a brutal, target-obsessed company culture in which, they say, formerly well-qualified and adjusted employees – most in their 40s and 50s – are pushed around like pawns with the unofficial aim of “breaking” them so they will leave.
Some 22,000 have left in the last four years. But many remain and have been shifted into high-pressure call centres where individuals compete for monthly results-based bonuses.
The “culture of results,” it seems, is not only distinguishable from, but incompatible with, life itself as it understood by many of the employees of France Telecom.
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.”
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…
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…
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