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2.2.4 – The Subject of Governance

The Subject of Governance[i]

François Debrix, Virginia Tech

Too often, the matter of governance is taken to be a technical, organizational, logistical, procedural, or even technological matter,[ii] a “how” that is meant to achieve a “what”, if you will, but also a “how” for which function is key and affect is secondary if not downright superfluous. We are told, for example, that, at various scales (from the local all the way to the global), governance—the art/practice of governing and being governed—is about studying what government is and does as a process.[iii] Governance, in this way, would allow us to examine the horizontality of techniques, logics, procedures, and policies that enable various forms of government to work, some of them more vertically than others. Or it is explained to us that governance is about understanding the organization or arrangement of authority, often political authority, in non-centralized ways, by emphasizing how techniques, technologies, and strategies of government can be used, deployed, or crafted by a range of social actors that, in “governing” in this fashion, can manage to establish different or alternative claims to authority.[iv] In some spheres or at certain scales, the regional, transnational, or global ones, in particular, what is said to matter about governance is that it provides analytics of government, authority, or power that are no longer beholden to a state-centric model because such analytics can point to the way non-sovereign entities (non-state actors, in International Relations) effectively and efficiently partake of the organization of international life, in either benign or malign ways, and through ideas and practices that challenge, target, or circumvent state-centrism.[v]

What many of these approaches to the matter of governance have in common is their lack, overall, of a consideration or concern for the way subjects, bodies, and lives are always the objects of techniques, processes, logics, or strategies of governance. Governance, in many of its aspects, purposes, or designs (such as those I sketched out above), entails an investment of, about, and through bodies, in space and time, or across contexts or scales. Thus, any critical and theoretical investigation in the matter of governance—which is what interests me most—requires an interrogation of and about the subject of governance. Asking who or what the subject of governance is suggests that it is not enough to pose the question of “for whom or for what?” or “by whom or by what?” governance is. Rather, these questions must be supplemented, perhaps supplanted, by an interrogation that asks “through whom or through what?”—through which subjects, bodies, and modalities of life—governance comes to be.

Some may have already detected in the tone of these questions that the thought of Michel Foucault is a bit of a haunting presence here. Indeed, thanks to Foucault and, in particular, to his invitation to think governance as governmentality,[vi] two critical but complementary moves are enabled. First, Foucault’s insistence on detailing how a series of micropowers emerge, take hold of and provide meaning to various practices and institutions, and operate through the production of knowledge and truth claims reveals the determining role played by the body or bodies in practices, ideas, and discourses of and about the “art of governing.” As Foucault suggests, technologies of the body, individualized or generalized, disciplining or normalizing, placed at the level of or in the human subject or dispersed throughout an entire population or species, are crucial to regimes of governance as governmentality.[vii] Second, Foucault’s elaboration of the unfolding of the power-knowledge nexus as a matter of positivity,[viii] and not just negativity, that is to say, as something that constantly seeks to produce subjectivities rather than repress subjects or so-called social actors, is key to understanding governance as a set of practices, discourses, and beliefs that are never just oppressive and totalizing or, on the other hand, liberating or enabling. What governance as governmentality does, for Foucault, is produce subjects and subjectivities through various modalities of mobilization or investment of bodies in space and time, often for purposes that can be either singular or general but, in any case, not always clearly related or relatable to centralized operations of power, authority, sovereignty, and force.

It would be tempting to answer the question “what is the subject of governance?” by turning instead to another one: “what does governance do to the subject?” Several dialectical or ideological critiques of governance have been quite adept at doing just this,[ix] thus displacing what is the more meaningful interrogation towards something or someone—a subject—that these critiques believe or assume exists prior to the deployment of regimes of governance, governing, or governmentality. Here, the subject is submitted to forms of subjection via processes, techniques, and ideologies of governance that, in a way, do something to (often, something negative or oppressive) or take something away from a human or historical subject already assumed to be fully formed, and whose body is then put to the service of operations of governance (against that subject’s will, often). This is nothing more than a variant of the repressive or totalitarian hypothesis with regards to power, authority, government, or force that Foucault, among others, sought to rethink and problematize.[x] We can see a rehashing of this version of governance as a negative imposition onto the subject (or, if you prefer, as subjection) in the recent work of critical political theorist Alain Deneault whose book, Gouvernance: Le Management Totalitaire (Governance: Totalitarian Management),[xi] is about detailing a wide array of management or governing strategies (away from centralized government, or indeed horizontally) that deprive the subject—a subject never identified or described, but always assumed—of something or another. Thus, for Deneault, governance as management is primarily a “perversion.”[xii] And what is primarily perverted is the so-called political domain of the subject, a political domain that has fallen prey to techniques and technologies of measurement, calibration, distribution, arrangement, and re-organization of the subject (or subjects, as a socio-political collective) away from centralized government structures or institutions. Foucault, too, talks about governance or, rather, governmentality in seemingly similar terms, as a wide dispositif in charge of realizing calculable distributions geared towards managing and maximizing the “conduct of conducts” across and in between subjects and bodies.[xiii] But, for Foucault, the subject does not exist as such (as a subject of governance) prior to the deployment of regimes of governance. For Deneault, because governance is first and foremost about the perversion of the political subject by managing systems, techniques and technologies of governance are mostly driven by a desire for “reduction,” “restriction,” “exclusion,” “hierarchization,” “constraint,” “enclosure,” “impoverishment” or “disincarnation” (all terms mobilized in Deneault’s recent text).

Seeing governance from a repressive or totalitarian angle is quite convenient: it seemingly manages to leave an idealized subject largely unchanged and unchallenged by whatever operations of power or force come to impose something onto the subject, wish to do it harm, or seek to pervert it. But seeing governance this way is not just convenient or expedient; it is also misleading. The subject of governance is subjected to governance (again subjection), but its subjectivity may well be restored if what perverts, reduces, restricts, excludes, constrains, encloses, impoverishes, or disincarnates is eventually done away with. Thus, this subject of totalitarian or repressive governance is never really deprived of what is thought to be its primordial subjectivity. This subject, in fact, always possesses a fundamental (inalienable?) “right” to return to its own subjectivity, to rediscover what defines it as an individual political subject.[xiv] In some contemporary critical discourses of governance, this debate often takes the shape of an antagonism between a primordial liberalism (where the right of the liberal subject to self-govern is highlighted) versus neoliberal regimes of governance as management that are said to bypass the state/centralized government[xv] and, as Deneault would have it, often end up championing free-market liberalism and privatization at all costs (and thus subsume the political under the logic of capital). (I should mention in passing that Foucault also ties up the emergence of rationalities of governance as governmentality to economic rather than strictly political concerns. I do not have the space to expand upon this point here, but suffice it to indicate that the governmentalities that arise for Foucault when the economy indeed becomes a major factor in political considerations—or, as Foucault puts it, when what is in question is the manner by which to achieve the correct way “of managing individuals, goods and wealth within the family and making the family fortunes prosper”[xvi]—do not just result from the pitting of the liberal self/subject against neoliberal economic logics; the making of homo economicus and the matters of governance tailored to homo economicus do not necessitate for Foucault a fundamental antagonism between political liberalism and economic or market liberalism[xvii]).

What is misleading in this dialectical or ideological critique of governance as oppressive or totalitarian is the assumption that the liberal subject/self can exist autonomously and, at some point, gets to be perverted, subverted, and indeed subjected. This, I think, is why Foucault is more interested in speaking in terms of governmentalities, or rationalities of government (the plural is key), rather than about a single or unitary logic of governance. Indeed, as Foucaultian commentator Graham Burchell reminds us, Foucault also sought to think governance as a “general way of acting to affect the way in which individuals conduct themselves.”[xviii] Governance, as a general blueprint for how subjects are meant to govern, conduct, or steer themselves, does not aim at subjecting selves, individual beings, or indeed political subjects. Rather, it seeks to subjectivize bodies and lives, that is to say, to foster conditions of possibility for a generalized economy that is primarily interested in turning bodies into subjects of and for governance. Subjectivation (different from subjection) is about mobilizing bodies whose conducts as bodies can become receptive but also productive of regimes of power/knowledge as liberal government or governmentality without the requirement of centralization, hegemony, sovereignty, state authority, but also without the requirement of repression or totalitarianism. To position bodies in regimes of governance is thus to produce subjectivities of and for government or of and for governing, or, if one prefers, for the self-actualization of regimes of conduct, starting with an individual body that can be disciplined and manipulated and going all the way to global collective bodies (the international community, perhaps, as writings on global governance like to tell us) that are said to be able to benefit from a harmony, uniformity, or normalization of relations or interests. Thus, all sorts of bodies can be and indeed are invested with micro-technologies of government that produce an array of conducts, dispositions, and expectations that make up what we take to be liberal subjectivities and subjects (with rights and obligations, needs and desires, and expectations and disillusions). This microphysics of power/knowledge is perhaps what is better referred to as governance or governmentality.

We are somewhat removed here from the repressive or totalitarian hypothesis regarding governance. We are, however, also not on the side of an allegedly benevolent governance regime. I believe we have to be willing or ready to abandon the dialectical language of negativity versus positivity, good versus bad, benevolent versus harmful, democratic versus totalitarian, or liberating versus oppressive when studying governance. As I intimated above, governance is never really about subjects or selves. It is rather about rationalities, technicalities, tactics, and arrangements of government, management, and conduct that take place with and through bodies and that produce or mobilize distinct subjectivities or subject-positionalities along the way. It is through the utilization of those subjectivities and subjects on a daily (sometimes mundane) basis that governmentalities derive their inspiration, draw their energy, and establish their legitimacy, not through authority, sovereignty, or centralized force, power, or knowledge (even if those concepts are reinvented or re-imagined to take place or produce effects horizontally). Thus, the subjects of governance are vital to the dissemination of regimes of power through all domains of life. And it is in this manner that we can comprehend the intricate but very much present and effective materiality of regimes of local, national, regional, transnational, or global governance. This is also why, by the way, Foucaultian scholars Peter Miller and Nikolas Rose can argue that governance as governmentality is a power that operates “across distances and domains”[xix] without such a claim having to imply a universal form of power or a central model of authority or sovereignty. To comprehend governance this way, or perhaps to learn to deal with governance this way, is not to accept governance. It is not about treating governance as a fait accompli. But it is also not about wishing, perhaps desperately, to do away with it, or to undo, reform, improve, or antagonize the power of governance regimes by seeking to keep a primordial political subject out of its grasp or immune from its historical trajectory. Once again, the subject is made of and through governance and governmentality, and techniques and tactics that care to challenge modalities of governance need to be attentive to the many ways bodies (from localized to globalized bodies) are worked with and through to generate subjectivities, subjectivities that often are said to be for the subjects’ own good in the first place. In a Foucaultian fashion, we could say that we must learn to recognize where and when subjectivity is a trap. And we must learn to recognize that what gives us a subject (and a subject of governance, to start with) inevitably involves differential exposures to utility, malleability, vulnerability, and precarity for various bodies and lives.

[i] A version of this paper was given as a keynote address during the “Theoretical Foundations” session of the 2013 Ridenour annual conference of the School of Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia on April 26, 2013. I am thankful for the comments I received from the audience and the panel participants, in particular Mark Bevir, Elizabeth Chaves, and Trish Nickel.

[ii] See, for example, Laurence Lynn, Carolyn J. Heinrich, and Carolyn Hill, Improving Governance: A New Logic for Empirical Research (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2002); Yi Feng, Democracy, Governance, and Economic Performance: Theory and Evidence (Cambridge, MA; MIT Press, 2005); Michael Hill and Peter Hupe, Implementing Public Policy: An Introduction to the Study of Operational Governance (Thousand Oaks: Sage, 2008); Margaret Karns and Karen A, Mingst, International Organizations: The Politics and Processes of Global Governance (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publisher, 2009); John McGinnis, Accelerating Democracy: Transforming Governance through Technology (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012); Thomas G. Weis, Global Governance: Why? What? Whither? (London: Polity, 2013).

[iii] Karns and Mingst, International Organizations: The Politics and Processes of Global Governance; Sheila Aggarwal-Khan, The Policy Process in International Environmental Governance (New York: Palgrave, 2012).

[iv] Jon Pierre, Debating Governance: Authority, Steering, and Democracy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000); Anthony McGrew and David Held (eds), Governing Globalization: Power, Authority and Global Governance (London: Polity, 2002); Miles Kahler and David A. Lake (eds), Governance in a Global Economy: Political Authority in Transition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003); Rodney B. Hall and Thomas J. Biersteker (eds), The Emergence of Private Authority in Global Governance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

[v] Commission on Global Governance, Our Global Neighborhood: The Report of the Commission on Global Governance (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995); Mark Zacher and Brent Sutton, Governing Global Networks: International Regimes for Transportation and Communications (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995); Mark Duffield, Global Governance and the New Wars: The Merging of Development and Security (London: Zed Books, 2001); Peter Willetts, Non-Governmental Organizations in World Politics: The Construction of Global Governance (London: Routledge, 2011); Luis Cabrera, Global Governance, Global Government: Institutional Visions for an Evolving World System (Albany: SUNY Press, 2012); Jeremy Youde, Global Health Governance (London: Polity, 2012); Stefano Guzzini and Iver Neumann (eds), The Diffusion of Power in Global Governance: International Political Economy Meets Foucault (New York: Palgrave, 2012).

[vi] Michel Foucault, Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Collège de France 1977-1978 (New York: Picador, 2009); Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1978-1979 (New York: Picador, 2010); Graham Burchell, Colin Gordon, and Peter Miller, The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991); Thomas Lemke, Foucault, Governmentality, and Critique (London: Paradigm Publishers, 2012).

[vii] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (New York: Vintage Books, 1979); Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume I (New York: Vintage Books, 1990).

[viii] Paul Rabinow, The Foucault Reader (New York: Pantheon, 1984).

[ix] Neil Smith, The Endgame of Globalization (London: Routledge, 2005); Jason Hackworth, The Neoliberal City: Governance, Ideology, and Development in American Urbanism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006); Jens Steffek, Embedded Liberalism and Its Critics: Justifying Global Governance in the American Century (New York: Palgrave, 2006); David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007); Heather McKeen-Edwards and Tony Porter, Transnational Financial Associations and the Governance of Global Finance: Assembling Wealth and Power (London: Routledge, 2013).

[x] Rabinow, The Foucault Reader; Foucault, History of Sexuality, Vol. 1.

[xi] Gouvernance: Le Management Totalitaire [Governance: Totalitarian Management] (Montreal: Lux Publishers, 2013).

[xii] Denault, Gouvernance: Le Management Totalitaire, 9.

[xiii] See also Mitchell Dean, “Foucault, Government, and the Enfolding of Authority,” in eds. Andrew Barry, Thomas Osborne, and Nikolas Rose, Foucault and Political Reason: Liberalism, Neo-Liberalism, and Rationalities of Government (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), pp. 209-229; François Debrix, “Space Quest: Surveillance, Governance, and the Panoptic Eye of the United Nations,” Alternatives: Global, Local, Political, Vol. 24, No. 3 (1999), pp. 269-294; Michael Dillon and Julian Reid, “Global Governance, Liberal Peace, and Complex Emergency,” Alternatives: Global, Local, Political, Vol. 25, No. 1 (2000), pp. 117-143.

[xiv] This is also perhaps why so much of the contemporary literature on governance insists on the linkage between governance and democracy; see, for example, Mark Bevir, Democratic Governance (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010).

[xv] Steffek, Embedded Liberalism and Its Critics; Simon Lee and Stephen McBride (eds), Neo-Liberalism, State Power, and Global Governance (Amsterdam: Springer, 2007); Carlo Secchi and Antonio Villafranca (eds), Liberalism in Crisis? European Economic Governance in the Age of Turbulence (London: Edward Elgar Publisher, 2009).

[xvi] Foucault, Michel, “Governmentality,” in eds. Graham Burchell, Colin Gordon, and Peter Miller, The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 92.

[xvii] See also Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics.

[xviii] Graham Burchell, “Liberal Government and Techniques of the Self,” in eds. Andrew Barry, Thomas Osborne, and Nikolas Rose, Foucault and Political Reason: Liberalism, Neo-Liberalism, and Rationalities of Government (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 20.

[xix] Governing the Present (London: Polity, 2008), 10.


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