While I was changing jobs last autumn, I was also working on some research looking at the experiences of public sector organisations that transfer to the status of mutuals. Given that this is quite a major policy theme for the Coalition government, this is a relevant issue at the moment. The resulting report, Becoming a Public Service Mutual, co-authored with my successor Ruth Yeoman, is now published, and you can download it here [pdf].
The report is based on a number of case studies of individual organisations that had been spun out of state ownership, into some form of employee and user ownership (although the status of that 'ownership' tended to remain a little ambiguous, given that a degree of risk and often some assets remain with the traditional public sector). These are in sectors such as housing, health and social care, and in all cases, some sort of new governance model was required, to reinvent accountability and hierachy in ways that were distinct from standard public sector bureaucracy.
In terms of political economy more broadly, what I found interesting about visiting these organisations and interviewing their management was that they have to adopt a very different approach to risk and failure, which defies tidy quantification. Basically, they don't quite know what they're doing much of the time, and have to adapt to that fact. But - as any good Hayekian will tell you - nobody really ever knows quite what they're doing when seeking complex forms of coordination, and it's better when those in authority are aware of this, than if they come to believe that things like spreadsheets and audits will protect them. There's a sense of humility about these organisations, born partly out of the fact that they've often had to invent their governance structures out of thin air, and can't be entirely sure that they won't fail in some unpredictable sense. This makes technical risk management harder, but probably makes the collective intelligence and learning far greater. New Public Management techniques are therefore mitigating against precisely the forms of practice and co-operation that might rescue effective public sector governance from a descent into technocratic stagnation (as David Graeber argues in this superb piece, "whenever there is a choice between one option that makes capitalism seem the only possible economic system, and another that would actually make capitalism a more viable economic system, neoliberalism means always choosing the former").
What you discover, when you visit a co-operative or a mutual that is succeeding (or at least not failing, which, contrary to Blairite rhetoric, is more fundamental), is that a new concept of individual agency has emerged, which is unlike those which are handed down from the HR profession or agency theory. It's a concept of agency which is socio-economic, messy, aware of longer-term consequences (which doesn't necessarily translate into taking responsibility for those consequences, but at least can do), and capable of dialogue. What I don't know is whether such a form of agency could ever be translated into formulaic templates, training or audit, without losing what makes it valuable in the first place.
My colleague, Nate Tkacz and I, have put together a conference at CIM, which tries to think about neoliberalism in terms of rival technologies of information-processing. In particular, could the market be usurped within the neoliberal imagination by other 'smarter' machinic visions of liberty, such as those promised by 'open data'? Philip Mirowski will give a keynote, drawing on his forthcoming book on the financial crisis. The full ad for the conference is copied below (the original link is here) with registration details at the bottom. Come along!
Neoliberalism is commonly identified as a belief in the self-regulating powers of markets, especially financial markets. Markets, from this perspective, are powerful information-processors, which are uniquely capable of governing complex societies while preserving liberty. In recent decades, financial institutions have added further computational power, which, among other things, has led to the automation of trading and the calculation and simulation of market scenarios to manage risk. The financial crisis has been perceived by some as the outcome of this collision between markets and increasingly ‘performative’ economics.
But where does this leave neoliberalism and its technical ideal of freedom? Does it simply require more markets or greater computational power to prevent future crises? Or are we witnessing the emergence of a different neoliberalism, based on different technologies and ideologies of liberty, in appeals to ‘Big Data’ and ‘openness’? Might software and ‘open data’ usurp the primacy of the price system in the neoliberal imagination, as tools of governance in complex modern societies? To what extent are the political desires of the digital elite – from Hackers to Silicon Valley – amenable to the neoliberal project?
This one-day conference will address these questions from a range of disciplinary perspectives, including software studies, history of economics, political theory, media studies, international political economy and economic sociology.
The conference is free to attend, but registration is essential. To register please click here.
For any academics, graduate students or prospective graduate students reading this, please check out a few things that colleagues and I at CIM are running over the next year:
Please forward to anyone you think might find any of these of interest!
My article, 'When is a market not a market?: 'Exemption', 'externality' and 'exception' in the case of European State Aid rules' has now appeared online at Theory Culture & Society (I assume this means it will be in the March issue). I probably blogged about this when the article was originally accepted back in 1934 on whenever it was. Anyway, here is the preprint version, below is the abstract, or email me if you'd like the actual published pdf version.
The reach of markets and market-based forms of valuation is never unlimited in any society, which invites empirical and political questions regarding how limits to markets are instituted, justified and enforced. Under neoliberalism, the state performs a key role in expanding the reach of markets and associated principles and techniques of valuation, using law and governmental techniques. But this then poses a question of the relationship between the neoliberal state and the market that it endorses and enforces: is the state internal or external to the market order that it helps to construct? European Union state aid rules provide an empirical entry point to consider such questions, providing a combination of normative, technical and sovereign principles, via which the division between state and market can be justified, tested and enacted. The article identifies three separate though overlapping logics within state aid documents, each of which offers the state a justification for suspending the competitive market order: exemptions, in which non-market values are upheld, externalities, in which markets are shown to be technically inefficient, and exceptions – such as the 2008 financial crisis – in which the state abandons the market to save the market.
Just as I was leaving my previous job, at the Centre for Mutual and Employee-owned Business, I was involved in three different pieces of writing, a couple of which have now been published (the third will follow in the next couple of months).
Firstly, the Blueprint for a Co-operative Decade has been published by the International Co-operative Alliance. This was something that Cliff Mills and I worked on over last summer, and was discussed first at a discussion of the ICA board in Cape Town in June, then at the ICA annual conference in Manchester in October. So in fine co-operative style, it's the result of much dialogue, and a careful effort to forge consensus. In that sense, Cliff and I are 'anti-gurus'.
Secondly, Measuring Mutuality: Indicators for Financial Mutuals [pdf] has been published by the Association of Financial Mutuals. This is an attempt by Jonathan Michie and I to think through how to evaluate performance of risk-managing institutions, other than in terms of profit. Given how much culpability 'shareholder value' in banking holds for our current malaises, this is an issue whose pertinence must extend beyond the mutuals sector, I'd have thought.
Hope these are of some interest. Happy to discuss them further.
My paper will develop some of the ideas in my neo-communitarianism piece, to reflect on the fact that neoliberalism both began with a critique of the 'social' (in the form of the socialist calculation debate of the 1920s) and is now being arguably reformed or replaced via new logics of 'social' quantification. It strikes me that what facebook et al promise in the form of 'predictive social analytics', for example, isn't that different from what Soviet economists were tasked with doing for a planned economy. So neoliberalism is therefore book-ended by utopian efforts to optimise or rationalise 'the social'. This is the abstract:
Friedrich Hayek referred to the term ‘social’ as “that weasel word”, arguing that it was meaningless and always disguised the true intentions of its user. The origins of neoliberalism can be traced to the ‘socialist calculation’ debates of the 1920s and ‘30s, in which Austrian economists and leftwing neo-classical economists argued over whether efficiency was possible in a planned economy. Neoliberal government has been analysed in terms of the ‘death of the social’ (Rose, 1996) while economists have been accused of ‘colonising’ the social, with economistic theories such as ‘social capital’ (Fine, 2008, 2011). But today, the ‘social’ seems everywhere, in the form of social enterprise, valuation, prescribing, media and so on. This paper reflects on neoliberalism as a failed attempt to cleanse modernity of Rousseauian social theory, arguing that the crisis of the last five years has seen the ‘revenge of the social’, which experts and economists strive to cope with, by reducing it to the psychological.
A few years ago, while sitting in Euphorium bakery on Upper Street, I observed a couple of Islington characters, possibly undercover lawyers, enter the cafe and sit down at the table next to mine. Both were 30-something men in uniform wacky glasses, sleeveless puffer jackets and ill-fitting jeans. "So how's it going, Simon?" asked one, with more enthusiasm than I could stomach. "Great", replied the other, "I've just started writing a book!". Oh no, please, no. "What's it about?" asked Simon's mini-me. Pausing in search of suspense, Simon eventually replied, "It's about what it's like being a dad".
For the love of god, what is it that you people don't understand? Do you honestly think that the world isn't satisfied with your splurges of human reproduction, that it also needs it publicly documenting?? Haven't we finished with that whole Nick Hornby thing yet??? These are the same people who email in to Radio 6 to let the world know that they once saw a Pixies gig.
All I can say in my hypocritical defence is that I am still of the opinion that other parents are the worst advertisement for parenthood that is out there. Because in answer to the (mysteriously unasked) question 'who has destroyed potlatch for these past three months?', the answer is - she has, Martha Prior Davies, born 31st October 2012.
So I had an idea. From now on potlatch is going to be a baby and parenting blog, dedicated to questions such as "Is it ok to play Wagner to your little one, even though he was rightwing?" and "How to ask the barista nicely whether their babyccinos are made with milk from hand-stroked cows?".
OK, maybe not. But, as Charlie Brooker and Jonathan Freedland both found, with the best will in the world, it's difficult not to discover some public significance in this event. Certainly there is existential and personal significance, though whether people need to hear about that is another matter (Simon). Is there intellectual significance? It's a great pleasure to say 'not that much'. Wittgenstein urged his philosophy students to tackle the painful linguistic misunderstanding on which philosophy is based, by quitting the university and taking a job in Woolworths. He might have added: when a small thigh is so beautifully round and pudgy, that you find yourself having to stretch the skin to wipe the poo out of the creases, then you have truly escaped the curse of theory. And yet...
The existentialism is unavoidable. Maybe that's because most babies, our's included, arrive in hospitals, where suffering and loss might lurk around any corner. In a hospital, every arm around a shoulder might signal mourning. One feels almost guilty - mistaken? - to be swimming against this tide by introducing new life into such a situation. But the morbidity of having a child struck me much earlier. Crossing the Marylebone Road the day I found out I would be a father, I hesitated before running across the path of a juggernaut that was still five or ten seconds away. What if I slipped? What if I had mis-calculated its speed? From now on, life would be a series of pedestrian crossings. Thanks, Martha. That rock'n'roll suicide that I'd had up my sleeve, in case sociology turned out not to be a source of glamourous danger after all, would also have to be shelved.
And still there was more morbidity! As we carried her out into the world on the second day of her life, I had a strange feeling of suddenly understanding the Israel-Palestine conflict. She was so tiny, so fundamentally illogical and so beautiful, that if someone were to harm her, then I could only feasibly respond using violence. I would also never be able to forget that they'd done it. Something about the mismatch between her tiny capabilities and the intensity of emotion brought on a form of paranoia. If, say, the army accidentally killed her with a mis-directed shell, then waging permanent war on the British army would feel like a plausible reaction. When trying to make sense of conflicts in Northern Ireland or the Middle East, we focus on tangible, 'cultural' phenomena of territory and 'religion' - but perhaps human beings can gradually forget about the loss of land and the slow dissolution of ritual. Maybe it's the loss of their children that they simply have no capacity to forgive.
Luc Boltanski writes in Love and Justice as Competencies that what love and violence share is a refusal of equivalence. Where the grammar of justice is to treat people equally with a measure, both love and violence refuse this equality and this measure. They refuse proportionality or uniformity. Hence, Boltanski argues, it is probably fruitless to try and understand how politics descends into violence, purely by focusing on the failures of law. Misdeeds made within a system of justice can be 'repaid' or punished with proportionality. But injuries experienced within the order of love have no proportionate response. This report from Gaza came a few weeks after Martha was born, and made me reflect that the political consequences of such an event will be literally unquantifiable.
On the cheerier side of things, I can happily report that babies are conclusive proof of the fantasy of the Cartesian ego. Cogito ergo sum should actually read vomito ergo sum. Did Descartes have children? I know Kant didn't, which shows. I wish someone with children had told me this before I tried to plough through the Critique of Pure Reason. No, it turns out that there is no a priori, transcendental or ontologically separate thing called a 'subject', 'cogito' or 'consciousness', that exists prior to or in parallel to the material world. Before everything else, there is a system of organs to be constantly tended like a very loud and exhausting Tamagotchi. David Hume, on the other hand, clearly did have children: I watch Martha gradually working out that when she smacks herself in the face, the resulting pain is caused by the hand waving around in front of her. What we call 'reason' is really just the learned piecing together of cause and effect. (One day she may even work out that the hand in question is 'hers', but everything in good time).
Visitors coo over Martha in the same way that tourists gasp in awe at Manhattan. They point to the skyscrapers, central park and the delis, as if the island were a self-sufficient paradise. They show no interest in the stream of trucks that pours over bridges in the early morning, bringing fresh produce for ungrateful Manhattanites to consume, and pours back over bridges at night carrying thousands of tonnes of putrid garbage. As Freud understood, it's really not obvious where the baby ends and the parent begins. Babies, like Manhattan, demonstrate the truth of Bruno Latour's 'actor-network' theory. They are individual human actors, yet they only exist thanks to a network of constantly supportive human and non-human actors. Next time you go and visit someone's new-born, ask to see where the real action is: maybe it's time to bounce the breast-pump on your knee or get your photo taken with the bucket of Napisan.
The wonderful aspects of having a child would be difficult for me to describe without sounding trite (pay attention, Simon), and are not what my miserabilist blog is for. The tiresome aspects are too tedious to report. But all I can say is that they're better when people don't harp on about them (Simon!). "The first six weeks are the worst!" someone told my partner, who on the contrary was happily savouring nearly every moment of them. "Your life will be unrecognisable", various friends with children warned me darkly - something which is also true after the death of loved-ones, but you don't hear repeated ad nauseam at funerals.
Tiredness is difficult, but it isn't dangerous and it isn't terminal. I picked up Mark Rice-Oxley's 'depression memoir' recently (which I'm afraid I put down as soon as I came across the apparently unselfconscious line "my heart was racing like a hamster in an experiment"). With all sympathy for his or anyone's mental distress, one passage in a chapter entitled 'Is Dad all there is?' just appeared self-destructive:
Fatherhood is a watershed. The pram in the hallway is the enemy of promise. It depletes. People with small children don't generally distinguish themselves... Look at Beckham, Flintoff, Pietersen, Rooney. Look at Bowie, McCartney, Lennon. Don't tell me any of them were greater at their thing after they became fathers.
This poses the question: if parenthood turns out to be in conflict with an already bipolar culture of performance anxiety, where to turn one's ire? Towards the pram in the hallway, or the Red Bull-swilling sporting icons of neoliberalism? If one's sense of self is rooted in some myth of limitless potential and time, then, yes, a child will do serious damage to that. Time suddenly feels finite, both in a mortal sense and in a practical, managerial sense of how to carry on getting things done. That is a reality that has long preceded the post-68 culture of individual optimisation, which - Alain Ehrenberg's superb book would suggest - deserves far more blame for depression than the arrival of a baby.
One fear that I did hold, before Martha's arrival, was that parenthood would make me rightwing. I wondered if I'd suddenly start to worry about the stock market or crime-rates, in a way that I never had done previously. Maybe I'd go on anti-paedophile marches! But on the contrary, I only feel all the more resentful towards this country's elites, for robbing us of so many possible futures without care. I resent even more the managerialist nonsense that divides people into achievers and non-achievers, leaving me with the only hope that my daughter falls into the former category, and the Newspeak of an education system that uses the term 'excellent' to mean 'acceptable', and the term 'acceptable' to mean 'non-acceptable'. And this is quite aside from the massive NHS-love-in that accompanies child-birth.
That's enough about babies now. We shall enjoy Martha, privately (unless you happen to be friends with me on facebook, in which case you'll have learnt to stand well back), and I shall henceforth get back to blogging about what ads on the tube tell us about the crisis of capitalism and stuff, perhaps with just a tinge less anger.
I'm speaking at University of East London on 6th February, at a seminar entitled Security, Community & Democracy. My talk will be developing some of the ideas from my recent piece on neo-communitarianism:‘Experiments in Community: Relational Government and Audit After Neoliberalism’.
The neoliberal era is – or was – characterised by the extension of economic modes of evaluation into new corners of social, cultural and political life. Various critical scholars noted that it either eradicated the ‘social’ realm as a distinct terrain of action, or else re-imagined it in ways that was supportive of the ‘economic’. But in the wake of various crises of neoliberalism, the ‘social’ has reappeared with its own logic, as ‘social media’, ‘social prescribing’, ‘social enterprise’ and so on. Policy-makers have re-discovered the social, not simply as an economic ‘externality’, but as a psychological or neurological resource, which facilitates wellbeing and behavioural rationality. But what sorts of evidence, audit and evaluation will be required to realise new forms of ‘relational government’? What does it mean for a policy to ‘succeed’, if not in a purely economistic sense? The paper will suggest that audited field experiments in community and behavioural policy, accompanied by data analytics, represent a key methodological basis for governance in the emerging era.
Hope to see you there!