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Nikolas Rose “Powers of Freedom”

Rose, Nikolas 1999. Powers of Freedom. Reframing Political Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

The Social

Given the geographical distance between the colonies and the metropolitan European centres, government was inescapably ‘at a dis-tance’ in a rather literal sense. That is to say, to govern the colonies it was necessary to shape and regulate the practices of self-government of those who would govern: the colonial administrators and the colonists themselves. (111)

Investigations by various independent inquirers during the nineteenth century inscribed the nation in terms of a set of aggregated statistics with their regular fluctuations, and as knowable processes with their laws and cycles. Inscriptions of this sort rendered these as phenomena which were thinkable and calculable by knowledge-able persons. They could thus become the object of proposals and stra-tegies for reform or prevention by expertise. The quotidian lives of the masses became gridded by regulatory codes demanding, for example, the registration and recording of births, marriages, illnesses, numbers and causes of death, types of crime and their geographical location. The work of doctors, teachers, philanthropists and police, especially in the towns, gave rise to further detailed statistical mapping of urban space: moral topographies which inscribed the city as a domain with its own specific characteristics and consequences for its inhabitants. Poverty and pauperism, illness, crime, suicide and so forth were the subjects of a whole labour of documentation: written down in evidence, counted, tabulated, graphed, drawn. Statistics, censuses, surveys and a new genre of explorations of the lives of the poor attempted to render moral events knowable and calculable. (113)

The moral order, once a zone where diverse opinions competed and contested, justified by reference to extrinsic ethical or theological principles, came to be accorded a specific ‘positivity’. That is to say, it mutated into a reality with its own regularities, laws and characteristics. It was these character-istics that gradually came to be termed ‘social’. (114)

Gradually ‘social’ came to be accorded something like the sense it was to have for the next hundred years. It was a plane or dimension of a national territory, which formed, shaped and even determined the characteristics and character of the individual. And it was the problem space within which one must pose a range of questions and struggles about matters of life, of conduct, of powers and authority, questions and struggles that lay outside the formal scope of the political apparatus but were to become intensely ‘political’. (114- 19/20 saj)

Society was to become the domain that sociology would define as a reality sui generis: hence one that could be known by a social science. The social question would now become a sociological question. […] On the basis of such a knowledge of the dynamics of society, the unruly complex of the social could be organized, disciplined and governed. Sociologists and other ‘social scientists’ would begin to stake their claim as experts of the social, uniquely able to speak and act in its name. They would claim to be engineers of society itself. (116)

But, more generally, the introduction of ‘scientific management’ went some way to providing a democratic legitimacy to the private workplace, by enabling managerial authority to be depicted as rational and objective. (125)

For Mayo, work had a social function in two senses: it could satisfy the needs of the individual for human association and hence, if properly organized, could contribute both to productivity and efficiency and to mental health. And, on the other hand, the working group was a crucial mechanism for dragging individuals who had been increasingly isolated by the division of labour into the ‘general torrent of social life’. The workplace became a ‘social domain’, although this sociality was construed as a field of psychological relations amongst workers. (126)

The nineteenth century saw the invention of the calculable individual, with the birth of techniques of individualization and classification: the individual whose personal adjustment or maladjustment was to be judged in relation to a norm. But in the middle decades of the twentieth century, one sees the invention of the social individual, whose character was shaped by social influences, who found his or her satisfaction within the social relations of the group. (133)

Subjects of government are understood as individuals with ‘identities’ which not only identify them, but do so through their allegiance to a particular set of community values, beliefs and commitments. Communities of identity may be defined by locality (neighbourhood), by ethnicity (the Asian community), by lifestyle (as in the segmentation of lifestyle operated by advertisers, manufacturers and the media), by sexuality (the gay community) or by political or moral allegiance (environmentalists, vegetarians). But however defined, the individual is no isolate – he or she has ‘natural’ emotional bonds of affinity to a circumscribed ‘net-work’ of other individuals. (135-136 – today)

[…] individual choices are shaped by values which themselves arise from ties of community identification. Community thus emerges as the ideal territory for the administration of individual and collective existence, the plane or surface upon which micro-moral relations amongst persons are conceptualized and administered. […] Community constitutes a new spatialization of government: the territory for political pro-grammes, both at the micro-level and at the macro-level, for government through community.106 In such programmes ‘society’ still exists but not in a ‘social’ form: society is to be regenerated, and social justice to be maximized, through the building of responsible communities, prepared to invest in themselves. And in the name of community, a whole vari-ety of groups and forces make their demands, wage their campaigns, stand up for their rights and enact their resistances. (136)

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. (136)


Conclusion: beyond government

Empirical studies of regulatory problematiza-tions, ambitions, programmes, strategies and techniques require us to jettison the division between a logic that structures and territorializes ‘from above’ according to protocols that are not our own, and a more or less spontaneous anti-logic ‘from below’ that expresses our own needs, desires, aspirations. Each such binary suggests a principle of division between those political, technical and ethical strategies that have made up our present and those that have opposed them. This way of dividing the matter is illusory. There is not a single discourse or strategy of power confronted by forces of resistance, but a set of conflicting points and issues of opposition, alliance and division of labour. And our present has arisen as much from the logics of contestation as from any imperatives of control. (277)

It is only in relation to a dream of unification – of epochs, societies, systems – that the existence of dispersed conflicts – over ideals, goals, values, types of person we are or wish to be – seems surprising. These contestations are not between power and its others, but between diverse programmes, logics, dreams and ideals, codified, organized and rationa-lized to a greater or lesser extent. We need no ‘theory of resistance’ to account for contestation, any more than we need an epistemology to account for the production of truth effects – except if we wish to use our theory to ratify some acts of contestation and to devalue others. (278-279)

But however noble the sentiment, in the politics of innovation and creation, courage is redundant. It is not a question of the assertion of the agency inscribed within an individual or collective subject. (279)

Perhaps Foucault’s own fragmentary ideas about aesthetic politics might provoke us here. Thomas Osborne has pointed out that, for Foucault, an aesthetic politics was not a celebration of a politics of individ-ual dandyism. The suggestion that we might each try to make our own life ‘a work of art’ was an invitation to creativity and experimentation, not a retreat to consumerized narcissism. This life politics was defined, in part, by what it was not – it was not conducted under the sign of a morality (in the name of a heteronomous moral code), not conducted under the sign of an epistemology (in the name of a hidden truth or desire revealed by knowledge which it was one’s aspiration to realize), not con-ducted under the sign of a regime of authority (subordination to the organ-izational demands of a party) and not conducted in relation to an absolute end point at some future time (to which the present must be subordinated). Rather than subordinate oneself in the name of an exter-nal code, truth, authority or goal, such a politics would operate under a different slogan: each person’s life should be its own telos. It would thus have its own minimal normativity: we should oppose all that which stands in the way of life being its own telos. (282-283)

Such a political vitalism would certainly take sides: it would take the side of an active art of living. It would ask for a politics which is itself an active art of living. And it would accord itself the right, per-haps the duty, to oppose all that which blocks or subverts the capacity of others asserting for themselves their own vitalism, their own will to live through the active shaping of their lives. Of course, one needs no ground for politics, still less for a recognition that political imprisonment, torture, corruption, virulent nationalism and the like are worth opposing. But such an ethic of vitalism would be an antidote to the apparent depoliticizing consequences of anti-essentialist political thought and to any implication that such analyses can sanction only a realpolitik. For we can be ‘against’ identity, ‘against’ ideas of a human essence, ‘against’ the humanist conception of the individual subject, but in favour of life. (283)

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