A New Subjectivity is Being Produced

24 04 2009

A few days ago the IMF released a report that claimed the world was in recession.  The news was delivered on the same day as the curious celebration of “Earth Day,” a well-intentioned but problematic event.  So symbolizes the dominant threads of thought in this hour of our species: the interlocked and always competing aspects of environmental awareness and sustainability and an capitalist economy.

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Now, you may be anticipating a tangent on how an economy based on perpetual growth is by definition unsustainable.  And, as Derrick Jensen has insightfully pointed out over and over again, it’s stupid.  And immoral.  And stupid.

Or perhaps you’re ready for a rousing rant on how we should be paying very close attention, even as land-locked midwesterners, to phytoplankton levels (once they go, we go).

But instead I’m using this news to frame a very brief outline of Jason Read’s recent article in Foucault Studies, “A Geneology of Homo-Economicus: Neoliberalism and the Production of Subjectivity.”  With a global economy in crisis, a population skeptical of government and bank representatives reassuring us that everything is going to be just fine, and the increasingly obvious plight of the planet’s health, I contend that we’re at a juncture where a new subjectivity is being formed.

While many may hear Foucault and think of his famous works on disciplining technologies or the governing of sexuality, Read picks up on a lesser known Foucault.  In his College de France lectures in the late ’70s, Foucault explores neo-liberalism under the title, The Birth of Biopolitics.  In these lectures, Foucault claims that the key element that distinguishes liberalism from neo-liberalism is the switch of emphasis from exchange to competition.

Of course, the rationalities of exchange figure prominently in both classical and neo liberalisms, sharing at its base the idea of “homo economicus,” where every individual is, as Foucault puts it, “an entrepreneur, an entrepreneur of himself” (Birth 226).  But as Read notes, in neo-liberalism we have the move from a “‘homo economicus’ as an exchanging creature to a competitive creature, or rather as a creature whose tendency to compete must be fostered” (28).  Put more accurately, individuals are encouraged to think in these terms of the market; there is a production of subjectivity, in short, that privileges rationalities governed by the logic of the market.  In asking every one to think of themselves as entrepreneurs, companies of one, the distinctions between “worker” and “capitalist” are at the very least blurred and at the most entirely collapsed, producing new forms of subjectivity.

As a mode of governmentality, neoliberalism operates on interest, desires, and aspirations rather than through rights and obligations; it does not directly mark the body, as sovereign power, or even curtail actions, as disciplinary power; rather, it acts on the conditions of actions.  Thus, neoliberal governmentality follows a general trajectory of intenstification. This trajectory follows a fundamental paradox; as power becomes  less restrictive, less corporeal, it also becomes more intense, saturating the field of actions, and possible actions. 29

Quick example: Someone gets a beautiful sleeve tatoo on their arm and the general response is, “Won’t that limit your job prospects?”

“It is not the structure of the economy that is extended across society,” Read writes, “but the subject of economic thinking, its implicit anthropology” (32).  Constant strategizing of economic self-interest perverts collective relations.  Indeed, what capitalism destroys is our ability to sustain healthy collective relations.  As Wendy Brown puts it in her book, Edgework: Critical Essays on Knowledge and Politics, “The model neoliberal citizen is one who strategizes for her or himself among various social, political, and economic options, not one who strives with others to alter or organize these options” (43).

In framing the argument this way, the work that needs to be done is understanding the production of subjectivities and identities in neoliberalism, to combat a society comprised entirely of self-interested individuals.  Neoliberalism, as Read understands Foucault to say, “operates less on actions, directly curtailing them, then on the condition and effects of actions, on the sense of possibility” (36).

These claims at once raise the stakes of understanding the possibilites for collective action in a digitally connected, neo-liberal world, and make it immensely more difficult.  But, as I mentioned at the beginning, the powers that produce neo-liberal subjectivities are in crisis and being vigorously questioned.  The combination of environmental devastation (it’s estimated that 3 species of plant and animal life go extinct every hour) and a global economic downturn may open up the possibility for critique and the production of new subjectivities, where life and relationships are prioritized over profit.

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