17 December 2011

Nikolas Rose - Powers of Freedom

These studies have shown, in their different ways, that the activity of government is inextricably bound up with the activity of thought. It is thus both made possible by and constrained by what can be thought and what cannot be thought at any particular moment in our history

[…] in our own time, ideas of freedom have come to define the ground of our ethical systems, our practice of politics and our habits of criticism. Hence it seems relevant to try to analyse the conditions under which these ideas of freedom and these practices in the name of freedom have come into existence, and to try to clarify the lines of power, truth and ethics that are in play within them.

In particular, I think we can distinguish freedom as a formula of resistance from freedom as a formula of power. Or rather, to be more circumspect, between freedom as it is deployed in contestation and freedom as it is instantiated in government.

Strategies and techniques of authority have been regulated by ideals of freedom – of societies, of markets, of individuals – or have sought to produce freedom. Those who administer life, in prisons, asylums, factories and the like, have tried to reconcile the obligation to manage individuals with the requirement that those individuals are not slaves, but free. We have acted upon ourselves, or been acted upon by others, in the wish to be free.

To be free, in this modern sense, is to be attached to a polity where certain civilized modes of conducting one’s existence are identified as normal, and simultaneously to be bound to those ‘engineers of the human soul’ who will define the norm and tutor individuals as to the ways of living that will accomplish normality.

In different ways, the problem of freedom now comes to be understood in terms of the capacity of an autonomous individual to establish an identity through shaping a meaningful everyday life. Freedom is seen as autonomy, the capacity to realize one’s desires in one’s secular life, to fulfil one’s potential through one’s own endeavours, to determine the course of one’s own existence through acts of choice.

Work has become a zone that is as much psychological as economic. We are no longer merely productive or unproductive bodies or even normal or maladjusted workers. We are ‘people at work’ and we bring to work all our fears, emotions and desires, our sexuality and our pathology. The activity of labor transformed into a matter of self-actualization, in which the cash return is less important than the identity conferred upon the employee.

As far as the [1930s] working class was concerned, however, it was now, within this social field, that the family came to be recoded as a living unity – in terms of its biology, its bodies, its sexuality, its reproduction – and hence subjected to medico-hygienic scrutiny focused upon the contribution which it could make to the fitness of the population.

It is, of course, not a question of the replacement of ‘the social’ by ‘the community’. But the hold of ‘the social’ over our political imagination is weakening. While social government has been failing since its inception, the solution proposed for these failures is no longer the re-invention of the social. As ‘society’ dissociates into a variety of ethical and cultural communities with incompatible allegiances and incommensurable obligations, a new set of political rationalities, governmental technologies and opportunities for contestation begin to take shape.

It appears that, while national governments still have to manage the affairs of a country, the economic well-being of the nation and of its population can no longer be so easily mapped upon one another.

The social and the economic are now seen as antagonistic: economic government is to be desocialized in the name of maximizing the entrepreneurial comportment of the individual. This is not a politics of economic abstentionism: on the contrary, it is a politics of economic activism. Politics must actively intervene in order to create the organization and subjective conditions for entrepreneurship.

Freedom, here, is redefined: it is no longer freedom from want, which might be provided by a cosseted life on benefits: it is the capacity for self-realization which can be obtained only through individual activity. Hence an economic politics which enjoins work on all citizens is one which provides mutual benefit for the individual and the collective: it enhances national economic health at the same time as it generates individual freedom.

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