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Interview with Sandra Laugier and Albert Ogien,

regarding Pourquoi désobéir en démocratie ?

© materiali foucaultiani

Translated from French by Tupac Cruz

In order to further and enrich the lines of thinking introduced last May in our conversation with Christian Laval about the “Appel des appels”, we asked Sandra Laugier, professor of philosophy at Université Paris-I Panthéon-Sorbonne, and Albert Ogien, sociologist at the CNRS and EHESS, to discuss their book Pourquoi désobéir en démocratie ?, published recently by La Découverte.

       mf : Mrs. Laugier, Mr. Ogien, we decided to request this interview regarding your book Pourquoi désobéir en démocratie ? (Éditions La Découverte, Paris 2010) because we find something remarkable, also from a Foucaldian point of view, in your attempt to give serious consideration to the current proliferation of calls to civil disobedience, by drawing a close connection between it and a new modality of the governing of citizens in advanced democracies – what you call “government by results” or “logic of performance”. Could you explain, in the first place, what you understand by the expression “government by results”? And could you elucidate the connection you see between this new governmental practice and what you call the “experience of dispossession,” particularly in the fields of profession, language and voice?

       S. Laugier, A. Ogien : “Governing by results” designates a new way of conducting public matters that has been imposed in welfare democracies for the past forty years. It is known, after Max Weber, that the exercise of political power is always accompanied by a discourse of legitimation. In different periods this discourse is stated within different registers: it is possible to govern by tradition, equality, justice, size, sovereignty, segregation, religion, war, nation, economic growth, etc. Today there is government by results, which is to say that modern rulers submit political decisions to quantified data and frame public action within procedures designed to evaluate the performance of each policy with the help of parameters that measure the attainment of quantified objectives to be attained by those who are responsible for these policies and on the basis of which these persons are evaluated and rewarded. Government by results is, in a way, the accomplishment of an old dream: to withdraw the political from the empire of passion, of vote catching, of the arbitrary and the irrational, and to subject it to the empire of reason, grounded on arithmetic objectivity.

Incidentally, this transformation of the techniques of government seeks to infuse a little bit of entrepreneurial spirit, of rentability and competition into state administrations, domains rendered inactive by routine and ensured employment, by aligning the rules of labor with those that prevail in the financial sector. The unfolding of this project, which is controlled by international institutions (OECD, IMF and World Bank) appears in developed countries as a movement of continuous “reforms” that aim to decrease the grip on the organization of society obtained by the state in the post-war period. Ezra Suleiman has described this very movement as a process of dismantling of the democratic state. It is pertinent, in parenthesis, to point out that the desire to rationalize the activity of government is not new; the change lies in the way in which the implementation of this project is facilitated and accelerated by the development of information systems and the power of the tools of management that, by virtue of this acceleration, it is possible to implement for the organization of human activities on the basis of their statistical description.

This explains the current of reforms that currently affects welfare democracies, whose objectives can be encapsulated in the maxim: the state must pass “from the logic of means to the logic of results”. And in the present context this maxim prevails through an analogy: the state is to be managed like a company. This analogy is not purely ideological – in the sense in which it would reflect the “new reason of the world” described by Dardot and Laval. It shapes, in the most concrete way, the everyday unfolding of administrative activities: tasks are augmented under the guise of simplification and “dematerialization” of procedures; the obligation to feed data bases is multiplied; powers are concentrated at the hands of managers whose authority is reinforced; the margins of maneuver of executive personnel are reduced; the sovereignty of professionals (in the fields of justice, health, education, research, police) is limited by the standardization of their practices. These changes (which are nowadays justified through the categorical imperative of reducing public debt) intersect, for the most part fortuitously, with the emergence of an ideology that promotes a drastic reduction of state prerogatives and the privatization of public services.

The concomitance of these two movements generates some confusion. It leads some to attribute the reconfiguration of the model for the exercise of power (and the phenomenon that enables it: the digitisation of politics) to the triumph of neo-liberalism and its corollaries: deregulation in favor of the forces of financial capital, competition as mode of regulating social relations, commercialization of services provided by the state; or what, for those indebted to Foucault, signals the advent of “neo-liberal governmentality.” Our analyses are not framed within this perspective, because to pay attention to civil disobedience means that one most accord the political a relative degree of autonomy with respect to ideology, economy and finance. This choice of method has allowed us to study, by examining certain manifestations of refusal to comply with instructions, the effects of the imposition of the logic of results and performance onto the field of public action, as they can be observed with the emergence of an authoritarian exercise of democracy.

This because the acts of civil disobedience we describe express epidermic reactions on the part of employees and professionals from the field of public service who confront the arrogance and contempt of “managers” who, through evaluations that they control and analyze, impose on them modes of doing things that are presented as capable of “higher performance”. Those who react contest the legitimacy of these evaluations by recalling the conditions normally required for them to fulfill their mission or adequately exercise their profession. It is also in light of this gap between the instructions to be carried out and the judgment as to their validity that these employees and professionals refuse to follow commands that, in their view, have devastating consequences for the profession of those who work for the state as public servants, and for the nature of the services they are intended to provide for its citizens.

The imposition of the logic of results and performance to public action leads all those who are subjected to it to undergo an identical experience of dispossession. And this experience is felt in three domains of everyday life: that of one’s profession (evaluation procedures produce a description of professional activity that does not correspond to established ways of doing things or to recognized rules of art); that of one’s language (individuals no longer have a very good idea of what they are talking about when they use ordinary words – efficacy, equity, responsibility, liberty, autonomy, quality, result, transparency, etc. – words that name, for managers, techniques of government that translate into directives whose effects, when applied, are apparently the opposite of those the name would lead one to expect); that of one’s voice (as employees realize that the criticisms or grievances they express about the way in which public matters should be conducted have less and less relevance in the eyes of those who govern).

Those who place themselves in a position of disobedience, by resisting this dispossession, draw attention to a phenomenon: the digitization of the political, by which the act of government is reduced to an adjustment of means for the realization of an aim. Within this model, the person who governs (or the one who executes the program) no longer thinks about the ends of her action (which are determined by numbers), and all means are good that may be used to reach an established objective (which is just by its very nature, since it is adorned with the objectivity of numbers), which is measured with the help of some indexes. This process completely transforms the nature of political action; and what the inquiry shows is that the generalization of devices of digitization currently deployed to conduct public action allows those in government to take more and more decisions without bothering to collect the advice of those who are affected or mistreated by these decisions. We also observe that digitization is the instrument of all reorganisations and restructurations being undertaken without taking into account the needs of citizens or the requirements proper to the exercise of those professions whose confines and obligations are being redrawn by those who manage public function. Acts of civil disobedience against the advances of digitization single out a new situation: the construction of information systems and the organization of their “interoperability” (that is to say the fact of producing statistical descriptions of public action, of its detailed costs and the “human resources” it deploys, whose parameters and algorithms must be compatible, so that the information produced may be crossed at will) have become major sites of the political. But the frail echo these acts find in public space reminds us how difficult it is to get traditional political institutions to acknowledge this new state of facts.


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