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What Is Neoliberal Expertise?

Vincent Ostrom with his wife and Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom. Ostrom was President of the Public Choice Society (the third, after James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock) and the Founding Director of the Indiana University Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis.

I finished a draft of a chapter–at the moment called Neoliberalism and Rule by Experts–for an upcoming volume edited by Wendy Larner and Vaughan Higgins called Assembling Neoliberalism. It focuses on Vincent Ostrom as an unexpected and confounding exponent of American neoliberalism who articulated a critique of expert rule and advocated for reinvigorated institutions of direct democracy.

I was particularly interested in Ostrom’s writing as an example of what Michel Foucault identified as a formation of neoliberal critique that took shape in the midst of what he called, in Birth of Biopolitics, a “crisis in governmentality.” Among the surprises I encountered in writing this piece was that Ostrom’s work anticipates Bruno Latour’s much later writing (particularly in books such as Politics of Nature).

Among my concerns in this chapter was argue that conventional critical understandings of expertise and government have significant blind spots and fail to take into account significant forms of programming truth and politics that have emerged in the last half century. The below is from the chapter’s conclusion:

[T]he point I want to emphasize is that Ostrom’s work points to a significant blind spot in much critical thinking about truth and politics as well as to a promising horizon of inquiry. Much recent social theory (or post-social theory) constitutes as its own field of adversity a set of assumptions about, and practical arrangements of, truth and politics that came under withering critique fifty years ago. And in at least a substantial number of cases it simply folds a critique of neoliberalism into a critique of that theory of truth and politics, as though nothing had changed in fifty years, as though the critique of that theory was not a constitutive moment for neoliberalism, and as though this critique had not been taken into account in the arts of government over the past half-century. At a minimum, this suggests that the critical social scientific discourse on truth and politics is badly out of date. It is not acceptable to continue to treat a particular configuration of truth and politics—which arose at a certain moment, bolstered by certain arguments, and actualized in certain institutions—to embody the unchanging terms of the modern settlement that repeats itself in place after place and case after case. Nor is it acceptable to proceed as though critique is the exclusive and privileged practice of social theorists, rather than a “line of development” in the arts of government that must itself be made the object of inquiry.


Limn 6 — The Total Archive

The 6th issue of Limn — The Total Archive — is available online. Andy Lakoff and I wrote a piece for it on The Bombing Encyclopedia of the World, an attempt by the US Air Force to create a database of all the bombing targets of all possible combatants in a future war, including the United States.

The list of contributors to this issue is awesome: Miriam Austin, Jenny Bangham, Reuben Binns, Balázs BodóGeoffry C. Bowker, Finn Brunton,Lawrence Cohen, Stephen Collier, Vadig De Croehling, Lukas Engelmann, Nicholas HA Evans, Fabienne Hess, Anna HughesBoris Jardine, Emily Jones, Judith Kaplan, Whitney Laemmli, Andrew Lakoff, Rebecca Lemov, Branwyn Poleykett, Mary Murrell, Ben Outhwaite, Julien Prévieux, and Jennifer Reardon.

Ebola’s Ecologies in Print

Limn 5 on “Ebola’s Ecologies” is now in print and can be purchased from CreateSpace.

This issue of Limn on “Ebola’s Ecologies” examines how the 2014 Ebola outbreak has put the norms, practices, and institutional logics of global health into question, and examines the new assemblages that are being forged in its wake. The contributions focus on various domains of thought and practice that have been implicated in the current outbreak, posing questions such as: What has been learned about the ambitions and the limits of humanitarian medical response? What insights are emerging concerning the contemporary organization of global health security? To what extent have new models of biotechnical innovation been established in the midst of the crisis?

Contributions by Guillaume Lachenal, Nicholas B. King, Joanna Radin, Ann H. Kelly, Peter Redfield, Theresa MacPhail, Alex Nading, Vinh-Kim Nguyen, Frédéric Le Marcis

Edited by Stephen J. Collier, Christopher M. Kelty, Andrew Lakoff

Vital Systems Security and “Governing Emergencies” in TCS

At long last the print version of “Vital Systems Security: Reflexive Biopolitics and the Government of Emergency“, my article in Theory Culture and Society with Andrew Lakoff, is out along with the rest of the special issue on “Governing Emergencies“, edited by Peter Adey, Ben Anderson, and Stephen Graham. It’s a terrific collection of articles.

Introduction: Governing Emergencies: Beyond Exceptionality–Peter Adey, Ben Anderson and Stephen Graham

Vital Systems Security: Reflexive Biopolitics and the Government of Emergency–Stephen J Collier and Andrew Lakoff

The Theology of Emergency: Welfare Reform, US Foreign Aid and the Faith-Based Initiative–Melinda Cooper

Cybersecurity, Bureaucratic Vitalism and European Emergency–Stephanie Simon and Marieke de Goede

Future Emergencies: Temporal Politics in Law and Economy–Sven Opitz and Ute Tellmann

Governing Inflation: Price and Atmospheres of Emergency–Derek McCormack

‘Crowded Places Are Everywhere We Go’: Crowds, Emergency, Politics–Claudia Aradau

Limn 5 — Ebola’s Ecologies

This issue of Limn on “Ebola’s Ecologies” examines how the 2014 Ebola outbreak has put the norms, practices, and institutional logics of global health into question, and examines the new assemblages that are being forged in its wake. The contributions focus on various domains of thought and practice that have been implicated in the current outbreak, posing questions such as: What has been learned about the ambitions and the limits of humanitarian medical response? What insights are emerging concerning the contemporary organization of global health security? To what extent have new models of biotechnical innovation been established in the midst of the crisis?

Contributors: Lyle Fearnley, Ann H. Kelly, Nicholas B. King, Guillaume Lachenal, Andrew Lakoff, Theresa MacPhail, Frédéric Le Marcis and Vinh-Kim Nguyen, Alex Nading, Joanna Radin, and Peter Redfield.

Pipes and Wires

My short chapter with Nino Kemoklidze, “Pipes and Wires“, is out in the volume Globalization in Practice, edited by Nigel Thrift, Adam Tickell, Steve Woolgar, and William H. Rupp. The first version of this article was written years ago, when the a major dispute between Russia and Ukraine over gas prices broke out. The volume was long delayed, and finally came to press just as the current events in Ukraine were unfolding. Nino and I managed to add a couple words about the present situation, but it is mostly the back story (or one among a number of back stories) to current events, which can be seen as an apotheosis of a long infrastructural tale.

The Normalcy of Emergency Government

I presented “The Normalcy of Emergency Government” at the first meeting of the Governing Emergencies Network. The workshop–whose program is below–was an exciting beginning to a multi-year initiative.

Introduction to the Workshop and Network: Governing Emergencies

Ben Anderson

Session 1: Emergency and Crisis and Catastrophe and …

Emergency accompanies and, at times, is indistinct from a cluster of partially connected terms. The workshop will reflect on the specifics of the term emergency, including but going beyond its etymological roots and routes. How does the term emergency connect to and differ from other ways of dealing with things falling apart, including crisis and catastrophe, but also accident, incident or disruption? What assumptions does ‘emergency’ carry about order and disorder, about continuity and discontinuity, about events and non-events? How does it connect to ways of thinking about the time of proper action or the obligations and responsibilities of actors to act or not act in relation to events? How is the term emergency operationalised and deployed by different actors for different purposes? And how are lines drawn between emergency and what might, or might not, be considered the opposite of emergency: normality, everyday, banal and so on?

Janet Roitman: Anti-Crisis:

Stephen Collier: On Emergency

Mathew Kearnes: On Emergency

Session 2: Events and Non-Events.

The session will explore the relation between ways of governing emergency and what are designated as, or felt as, or become events. How are events of different types and forms ‘grasped and handled’ (Foucault 2007) if governed as emergencies? What is the specific ‘mode of eventfulness’ that characterizes emergency and how do particular ways of understanding events become part of ways of governing emergencies? How do emergencies relate to non or quasi events? Do ways of governing emergencies produce or attempt to create non-events by, for example, pre-empting events or mitigating the loss or damage or harm of an event? How do ways of governing emergency know and make sense of and act in relation to events or non-events? Do some ways of governing collapse the distinction between emergency and normality?

Claudia Aradau: The Judge, The Historian and the Emergency Planner: Styles of Reasoning about Events

Rachel Gordon, Nat O’Grady & Ben Anderson: Everyday Emergencies

Simon Marvin & Andres Luque: Control Rooms and ‘Permanent Emergency’

Kezia Barker: ‘Smile It May Never Happen’: Negotiating Everyday Futures in the Governance of the ‘Non-Event’

Session 3: Contemporary Logics

Much work has now focused on the emergence and deployment of preparedness, preemption and other ways of securing life by acting in advance of events. The session will introduce some novel ways of governing emergencies emerging across different domains of life. The papers will provide a way in to exploring questions including: How are emergencies governed today? How have specific logics and techniques emerged, changed and been deployed? What are the consequences – political and ethical – of specific logics and techniques? How do logics and techniques become part of events or situations as they emerge?

Stefan Elbe: Governing Emergencies Pharmaceutically: The Public Health Emergency Medical Countermeasure Enterprise (PHEMCE)

Emily Gilbert: Governing Emergency Response Through Victim Compensation.

Paul Langley: Volcker, Vickers and Velocity: The Structural Regulation of ‘Too-Big-To-Fail’ Banking

Sven Opitz: Soft Emergency Law: Protocols of Legal Preparedness in the Administration of Global Pandemics

Session 4: Techniques/Technologies

How do specific techniques become part of emergency governance and with what consequences? What is the relation between ordinary techniques/technologies and emergency/disaster? How do techniques matter?

Marieke de Goede: The List as a Technology of Emergency Governance

Joe Deville: A Risky Business: Disaster Preparedness and the Problem of Irrelevance

 Session 5: Emergency Topologies

Critical discussion of the topologies of emergency have, until recently, been dominated by the ‘state of exception’ and the inclusive-exclusive relation of the ban, in the context of a broader concern with the politics and practice of exceptionalism. The workshop will explore other topologies of emergency. How do emergencies and disasters happen as particular social forms in complex relation with ‘normality’? How do presents, pasts and futures enfold and relate as emergencies are governed? What kind of spatialities are produced and enacted as emergencies are prepared for, preempted, responded to or recovered from?

Michael Guggenheim: Emergency and Crisis and … Functional Differentiation.

Peter Adey: Mediations in an Emergency: The Ambiguity of Evacuation.

Ute Tellman: Financial Infrastructure and the Topology of Emergency

Aurora Fredriksen: Results-Based Humanitarianism: Value for Money, Emergency and the Topological Orderings of Humanitarian Space

Session: 6 After Emergency

What happens when what might be considered the time of emergency – the emergent situation that arises suddenly and unexpectedly – is reworked; for example when as event has already materialized in the form of overwhelming harm and damage and loss. The session will explore how ways of governing in, by and through emergency blur with other ways of governing – in particular focusing on resilience. How, to return to the first session, are ways of governing emergency reconfigured when what an event is, and what a non-event is, are reworked. And what are the politics and aesthetics of governing through resilience before, in and after times of crisis or disaster?

Stephanie Simon & Samuel Randalls: Resilience and Ontological Post-Politics in a ‘Time of Crisis’

Kevin Grove: Governing the Virtual: The Politics and Aesthetics of Disaster Resilience and Reconstruction in Post-Superstorm Sandy New York City

Limn 4 — Food Infrastructures

Is now available for purchase from createspace.Buy Issue Four: Food Infrastructures Or you can check out the articles for free online (without the cool images and graphic design) on the limn website.

This issue of Limn analyzes food infrastructures and addresses scale in food production, provision, and consumption. We go beyond the tendency towards simple producer “push” or consumer “pull” accounts of the food system, focusing instead on the work that connects producers to consumers. By describing and analyzing food infrastructures, our contributors examine the reciprocal relationships among consumer choice, personal use, and the socio-material arrangements that enable, channel, and constrain our everyday food options.

Contributors: Christopher OtterFranck Cochoy,Sophie Dubuisson-Quellier, Kim Hendrickx, Heather Paxson, Mikko Jauho,Susanne FreidbergEmily Yates-DoerrAlison Fairbrother and David Schleifer,Javier LezaunBart Penders and Steven Flipse, Xaq Frohlich, Michael G. Powell, Makalé Faber-Cullen and Anna Lappé 

Mark Usher on Post-Soviet Social in IJURR

Mark Usher (who does what appears to be some fascinating work on water in Singapore) has a nice review of Post-Soviet Social out in IJURR:

Stephen Collier poses a timely and sophisticated intervention into urban studies and the burgeoning literature on neoliberalism, empirically, analytically and methodologically. Empirically, those concerned with Russia’s economic transitions will benefit from Collier’s book, particularly his historical updating of the orthodox narrative that accentuates the much maligned rounds of neoliberal ‘shock therapy’. This was ‘both contingent and temporally circumscribed’ (p. 2), and certainly does not constitute the entire horizon of post-Soviet political economy. The book develops an ANT-inspired analytical approach that delineates the socio-technical assemblages constituting cities and their urban subjects. Collier has been a strong advocate of this form of analysis, and here the author applies this approach with remarkable results. Borrowing from Karl Polanyi, the author focuses on the substantive economy of Russia, the institutionalized materially constituted components of socioeconomic life that provision the population — pipes, appliances and houses, resource flows, budgetary mechanisms, bureaucratic routines, etc. — and how they normalize everyday behaviour. The book also contributes considerably to ongoing debates within Foucauldian studies, refining analytically and fleshing out empirically the nebulous concept of biopolitics, as ‘the attempt to govern a population’s health, welfare, and conditions of existence in the framework of political sovereignty’ (p. 3).

In this regard the book is also heretical, and refreshingly so, in calling for the ‘reconstruction’ (p. 12) of neoliberalism as a field of study, whilst demonstrating the methodological efficacy of Foucault’s genealogical toolbox for achieving this. According to what Collier refers to as the ‘critical conventional wisdom’ (p. 9), the rolling back of state regulation and the subsequent introduction of unfettered market forces is a prerequisite of neoliberalism. However, drawing on Foucault’s late-1970s lecture series, Collier stresses that neoliberalism is in fact internal not external to statecraft; it is a reflexive variegated style of governmental reasoning as opposed to being a coordinated class project orchestrated from outside. The author accuses critics such as David Harvey and Naomi Klein of failing to trace the concrete connections between neoliberal doctrine and its application in local settings. Consequently, he argues, neoliberalism can appear to be everywhere and anywhere, a pernicious and pervasive presence behind every crack in the empirical curtain and creak on the floorboards of fieldwork. In contrast, Collier trains his anthropological eye for the elemental on its local capillary manifestations.

In chapters 1 and 2, Collier argues that the biopolitical incentive of the Soviet regime was to rapidly industrialize, as the tsar had effectively blocked capitalist urbanization in order to maintain aristocratic power blocks. The ‘Soviet social’ therefore consists mainly of small industrial cities constructed more or less ex nihilo to facilitate modernization. In chapter 3, Collier extends his argument of how Soviet socialism spatially and normatively linked population and production by focusing on the physical construction of cities, examining how architecture, infrastructure and urban planning attempted to nurture a population that was conducive to the Marxist programme of collectivized production. The socialist city would be a machine for the comprehensive need-fulfilment of the workforce that in turn served almost exclusively as a productive input into the national industrial endeavour.

In the following chapter, which takes Belaya Kalitva as a case study, Collier demonstrates how localized dispersed means of utility provision supplying small clusters of homes with heat and water were replaced by a single urban network connected to an industrial centre, which was itself inserted into a national regime of resource distribution. This created a unique networked urbanism, a ‘socioindustrial complex’ (p. 104) that was consolidated at the turn of the 1980s. Nevertheless, as Marx himself remarked, people do not make history as they please — including Soviet planners. Chapter 5 tells the story of the eventual disintegration of the Soviet regime, beginning with the imbalances that occurred in city-building. Capitalist countries were also restructuring in light of technological advances whereas Russia’s cities had become dinosaurs of industrialism, conceptually and infrastructurally locked in. The subsequent programme of structural adjustment, chapter 6 reveals, was far from successful in securing Russia’s future, but critically Collier argues that this was not a pure or even faithful expression of neoliberal doctrine.

Going beyond the ‘high politics and high economics’ (p. 161) of the Washington consensus, the following two chapters focus on what occurred in Russia subsequent to the mid-1990s. Collier provides a genealogy of the ‘substantive’ shift in development policy that recognized the need for intricate reconfiguration of the infrastructural, institutional, spatial, essentially biopolitical characteristics of the Soviet social, in addition to macroeconomic change. In chapters 7 and 8, the neoliberal thought of James Buchanan and George Stigler, and how this translated into governmental practice, is explicated. This involved refining regulation rather than outright marketization, introducing calculative choice, fiscal discipline and competition into Russia’s budgetary processes and national heating network. However, the intransigence of infrastructure meant that neoliberal programmes, proposing household meters, control valves and decentralized pipe systems, were difficult to implement, therefore Soviet norms tenaciously endure.

Whilst Collier does provide a disclaimer that the ethnographic method is not employed in its most traditional sense, I would still have liked more detail on his personal encounters with economic reformers based in Russia to better appreciate the ‘human face’ of neoliberal transition. The little narrative that is provided of conversations with budget officers is illuminating and memorable, and perhaps this is an opportunity missed. Similarly, there is little in the way of imagery that could have graphically illustrated the ‘sticky nexus’ (p. 215) of infrastructure, institutions and the urban form, a tantalizing photographic project. This is not to say the book lacks tables and illustrations, which are indeed plentiful and clear, and aid the reader’s understanding of complex economic theory. Overall, Collier’s book is a convincing corrective to current scholarship on neoliberalism, which takes the material configurations of the city and their political implications seriously. It advocates a nominalist approach to neoliberalism as ‘a topic and problem of inquiry rather than its premise’ (p. 12, original emphasis) which, if heeded, can go some way to grounding neoliberalism as the inexorable abstract omnipresence it has arguably become.


Interview in Reassembling International Theory

My interview with editors Simon Curtis and Michele Acuto has been published in Reassembling International Theory: Assemblage Thinking and International Relations (Palgrave, 2013)