Saturday, September 11, 2021

Self-enclosure of the commons close to us (part 5 of 4)

Just as I was wrapping up my little series on the way insurance as an instrument of governmentality insinuates itself into local decisions, I ran across an article by David Bollier about Ivan Illich and the commons, which provides another way of talking about what we do when we act as good, well-governed subjects. What follows depends completely on Bollier's piece, and I need to go to the source, but the ideas connect too closely with what I was just writing on governmentality for me to wait.  No way I'll be able to do justice to Illich or Bollier.  

For Illich, the commons was "that part of the environment which lay beyond [people's] own thresholds and outside of their own possessions, to which, however, they had recognized claims of usage, not to produce commodities but to provide for the subsistence of their households" (Bollier quoting Illich). Classic examples include the organization of pre-modern communities in Britain, where manorial tenants shared grazing rights.  Another key idea for Illich was the vernacular domain, which is "the realm of everyday life in which people create and negotiate their own sense of things – how they learn about the world, how they find meaning and spirituality, how they manage the resources they love and depend upon" (Bollier). It is importantly a non-market domain.  

I see the commons as the informal spaces where people are allowed to be active and engage in the work of the vernacular domain. I think of spaces where friends, associates and I have been able to engage in creative and communal activities.  For instance, the HotHouse in Chicago opening up for panel discussions on a Saturday afternoon. One of my favorites was the space Stuart McCarrell had in Wicker Park.  He owned a building at the corner of Damen and North, the Lodge Hall, where he had the offices for his engineering company but also housed an independent press and provided storage for artist associates. For a time my friend Warren lent me a key to the building, and I was able to go there late at night to woodshed and write music.  I went up to the open top floor, which was filled with stage sets and costumes from independent theatre and dance productions over the years.  The building was old, and it breathed.  You  had to love its location--it backed on the El, the building across the El housed the Busy Bee, a venerable Polish restaurant, and across the street were the Coyote Building and the Flatiron Building.  These buildings served as locations for a beautiful temporary commons, the Around the Coyote festival. Every imaginable space was opened up for artists to show their work and throw together experimental projects and temporary installations, and you wandered from one space into the next and then the next. It seemed endless in a good way. A deep well.  

Downtown Presbyterian Church's art studios have some quality of the commons.  And we have in our best times embraced the church as commons, and let space all over the building be used for concerts, performances, exhibits, discussions, and planning. Churches have a long history of being a commons, with open doors and offering sanctuary. The commons quality has been contested for sure.  Notably during the 80s when the Sanctuary movement would have opened churches to refugees from conflict in Central America.  My understanding is that a former minister of DPC, Rev. Hogan Yancey, was forced out for sympathy to these ideas.

Historically, the commons such as land where all members of a village shared grazing rights gives way with modernism to enclosure, through which common land and resources are split up, each parcel or piece established as the property of an individual. Ownership documented in a legal deed, rights defined by contract. What was a common resource became one person's capital. And the owner of that capital would need insurance to protect their ownership and rights.   

The insurance negotiations at DPC would have us in effect enclose the art studios, remove any trace of the commons. What is interesting to me is that the process entices us to do it to ourselves.  The impulse is already there among (like a reverse Spirit of God)--the impulse for clarity, for good business-like practices, for modeling responsible subjecthood. It is not imposed, but comes about through a collaboration within this disciplinary system, within this risk dispositif. We experience a kind of solidarity within the disciplinary system--we are being responsible together--at the same time we truncate other forms of solidarity. 

When one thinks of enclosure of the commons, you think of elites seizing resources, but I believe there has always been this element of action upon the self.  Nietzsche saw human potential arising from "imposing a form on onself" (Nietzsche, Genealogy of Morals).  While Bollier says "Enclosure is not an abstraction. It's the great, unacknowledged scourge of our time," and I don't disagree with that--I mourn the loss of these spaces--it's important to recognize the extent to which most of us collaborate in the process. 

Stuart McCarrell died in 2001, not long after I was the beneficiary of his radicalism as second nature. I'm sure that the Lodge Hall got sold on his death and has been converted into private residences. I don't know where I would go to practice today. But to honor Stuart, let me give you one of his poems.  Stu was best known in Chicago as first a buddy to Nelson Algren and then a champion for his work. (Algren is a story for another time, but everyone should at least read Chicago: City on the Make, and a good source for information is the doc by Dennis Mueller, Ilko Davidov, and Mark Blottner, Nelson Algren: The End is Nothing, The Road is All.)     

Nelson Algren

I gave the city what it needed:
compassion, humor, rage.
I saw her suffering, struggling,
dancing on a noisy, smoky stage.
But the decades grew greedy, dark--
the battles seemed vain.
Cruelty, callousness ruled
and mocked at the pain. 
I turned a wry joke here,
a lusty one there,
to ease the anguish
and tame the terror.
So now, to their taste,
each reader can choose
soft flecks of laughter, 
or hard midnight news.

Stuart McCarrell, from Voices, Insistent Voices (Xenia Press)

David Bollier. (2013)  "Ivan Illich and the Contemporary Commons Movement."

Friday, September 10, 2021

Insurance telling us who we are (part 4 of 4)

I've been writing on risk and insurance to get to a story about some events at my church that show in its granularity the way Foucauldian discipline operates, and provide some view on its detail as experience. 

Our church, Downtown Presbyterian Church in Nashville (DPC), has taken otherwise unused space and turned it over to artists to use as studio space.  We have done this for about 25 years.  Over the years, the character of the program has evolved and shifted--initially a member asked to use space, the church said yes, and then he asked if some friends could join him, and received another yes.  Most of the artists today are people whose primary relationship with the church is their use of this space, and our new minister is exploring new possibilities in this relationship. 

What I want to discuss is the nature of the relationship between the church, a group of individuals, and these artists, and the pressures on what that should be which come from the risk dispositif--the collection of "discursive, administrative, technical, legal, institutional and material elements" through which social phenomena are governed (Lupton 2013 p 240). 

To me, the artists are members of our community, sharing the space with us to engage in work and exploration that will intersect with the work and exploration of the congregation in ways we cannot foresee.  To some extent this view is shared by others, as evidenced by the way DPC includes the artists on its website.  

To others, these artists are tenants who happen to have an extremely good deal--we don't charge rent, just ask a small contribution towards the cost of utilities.  But some members of our congregation and staff refer to this payment as rent. That word matters. It describes a specific relationship between a landowner and a tenant, governed by contract and defined by a transaction.  Tenants have defined rights under law.  They are reducible to the rights and obligations of tenancy. 

Defining the artists as tenants--not community members, artists, or program contributors--involves creating firm organizational boundaries. The inside of the organization is defined as people we pay--staff--and people we consider part of the worshipping congregation--formal members, regular church attenders, or regular contributors. We often have very involved conversations about the member roll, a formal way of defining the organizational boundary. I have very little patience for this exercise, due to my sense that organizational boundaries will always be fluid, and my desire to cultivate that fluidity as something potentially creative and generative. 

The artists are outside the cleanly defined formal boundary. That definition leaves them as building users. What they are doing with the space doesn't matter. We simply have a transactional relationship.  Because of financial pressures on the church, we seldom let people just use the space, but get building use fees, or rent, in exchange.    

For a long time we have sustained a tension between treating the artists as community members, colleagues, brothers and sisters or as transactional building users. On balance we have probably actually favored the more personal relationship.  But then enter insurance

We have an old, precious building.  It is very vulnerable to damage and it is easy to imagine a conflagration consuming the whole thing.  The annual insurance renewal process is fraught.  Sometimes the price goes up a lot.  Sometimes carriers decide they no longer want to work with churches.  We are nothing but risk.  The building could burn down.  People could get injured on old, narrow steps. There could be abuse of children under our care or harassment of women.  Each year, very responsible members and staff work with an insurance agent to get the renewal done. 

For a long time the insurance companies did not worry much about the artists, and just chalked it up as one of a bunch of activities we had going on in the building.  In recent years the current carrier has taken more interest in this.  The carrier felt they needed a very clear understanding of the church's relationship with the artists, and that it really needed to be defined contractually. 

From the perspective of governmentality, what jumps out at you is that the insurance company is entering into the question of relationships within this community. In order to be acceptable to the insurance company, it is required that our relationships take certain forms that are recognizable to the company, that are visible actuarially.  Like the Chicago city officials who insisted that the residents of the Bloomingdale Arts Building could not combine as a coop but had to be coming from the position of individual property owners contractually tied together for specific and limited shared services.

In this case, the insurance carrier could not deal (transact) with a non-contractual, communal relationship between the church and the artists.  It cannot imagine community and fluidity. It demands the depersonalization of the relationship. What is more it defines our identity to each other as parties to a contract, or dismisses the relationship as illegitimate. It impinges on an intimate part of our interpersonal experience.   

Why did the church let the insurance company dictate our relationships? To a great extent what you saw was people of good conscious striving to act responsibly. They wanted to bring sound business-like decisions to the benefit of the church.  This was not a matter of ideology--the people involved were not self-consciously trying to promote a neo-liberal agenda, and in other situations the very individuals involved would resist effects of those systemic forces. But they all knew intuitively what responsible adult behavior looked like.  It looked like showing the insurance company that we could conduct our business properly.  It looked like making sure all the right insurance was in place and not letting it lapse. 

In this encounter with the insurance company, certain relationships and identities had validity.  The insurance company didn't really define them. The models existed before the encounter. A valid subject is the kind of person we would do business with.  We all want to be the kind of person someone wants to do business with. 

But the insurance company is not teaching us this.  We are all well acculturated.  The insurance company is reminding us of what we know.  As Deborah Lupton puts it, "risk dispositifs contribute to the configuring of a particular type of subject: the autonomous, self-regulating moral agent who voluntarily takes up governmental imperatives." (2013, p. 143)  

The insurance company had us over a barrel, but there was an alternative--we could go without insurance.  In some ways the promise of insurance is empty.  If a bad fire starts, this church will probably be destroyed.  No insurance payout is likely to cover the costs to rebuild this historic monument or replace it with a building worth the bother.  And if there is the slightest slip-up on the part of the policy holder (the church) we may get nothing--the insurance company will not pay out reflexively. 

None of that matters. To be a responsible person means to understand risk, take it seriously, and work within the techniques provided as responses.  We are considered "covered" if the policy is in force, even though we don't really know what will happen.  This is part of the self-regulation. 

What will DPC do?  We have drafted contracts, and I'll finalize them in the coming weeks and get them signed.  We will still not call the artists tenants, and we will do everything we can to make sure our conversations are about our human concerns.  Their work, the exhibits they want to do, the church's worship life and mission outreach, updates about spouses, kids, family and loves, the challenges of day jobs.  

Deborah Lupton (2013). Risk (Second edition).  Routledge.

Thursday, September 09, 2021

What comes out of allowing for a little over-complication

I was going to title this post "Someone who overcomplicates everything makes an arguably self-justifying case for doing so."  That impulse tells a lot. 

I tend to see myself as someone who gravitates towards complexity, often in ways that I or others find problematic.  It seems like the world more often needs the people who can quickly break things down into very simple pieces, rather than those who see the richness of the experience. Higher education administrators are certainly looking for let us say clarity.  From a critical perspective, you could say that this tendency, this character of "good management" is part of the habitus of the current social order, that allows unspoken values to have definitive, locked in control of actions in an organization.  That is, part of the vehicle through which governmentality acts.

I did a webinar yesterday with a colleague, a smart, experienced, witty, thoughtful man. Our paths crossed years ago briefly, and it was a pleasure to do some work with him.  We were asked by a participant about what assumptions one uses about revenues and expenses.  On one level this is a tough question because different institutions face different contexts--they have different sources of revenue, different spending issues. Nevertheless there are some answers.  Everyone needs to have some way to talk about what enrollment might be in the future, and in most cases there are places to go for some leading indicators.

My colleague talked at one point about activity drivers for costs.  This idea from management accounting is that behind any activity, something drives costs.  For instance, if you manufacture something, the number of units will determine how much materials you need, how many workers on the line.  Theoretically simple--it gets a little complicated, which is part of the fun of operations management.  You have fixed, periodic and continuous costs on a production line, and you can do math to calculate each and bring them together. 

This example is pretty simple conceptually.  Any enterprise, particularly a bureaucracy, has a lot of activities removed from the production line, or the classroom. Administrative and support activities, overhead. Budget people have been thinking about the drivers for these activities for a long time, and at this point there are some basic starting points--you use things like the number of staff, students, accounts, or square feet--and my colleague made that point and gave the example of a registrar's office where you use number of students as the activity driver. 

The registrar's office does a number of critical things.  They register students for courses.  They receive and record grades.  They issue transcripts.  They maintain the systems through which instructors are assigned to classes, and I think in most cases manage the schedule of classes and classrooms.  They also do some more arcane things that are critical to having a good record of student performance, such as deciding on course numbering conventions and coding courses for things like instructional method, prerequisites, and whether it fulfills specific curricular requirements.  Since it depends on student records, they work on systems to track student progress, which are critical to other units like advising and financial aid. 

All of this activity is related to the number of students.  If you're a little older, you remember standing in line to register.  More students, longer lines, more staff needed at the other end.  Pretty simple. A school with more students will have a bigger registrar's office.

But wait. I was working on identifying critical metrics for administrative functions at Portland State, and started with number of students.  Thing was, the registrar--again, an experienced and effective administrator--pointed out problems with this.  Thanks to automation, their staff can handle more students with zero to little marginal additional effort.  And if enrollment goes down, their effort does not go down.  There is some step function, but it's at a pretty dramatic level, maybe a 25% or 50% change in enrollment.  The registrar made the case that what consumed staff resources was developing, implementing and maintaining their core systems, and helping on projects, something the office was asked to do frequently. The registrar argued that the function is essentially a fixed cost, and any effort to incrementally decrease ran into that problem.  

At the end of the day I was determined to have some metric to frame budget conversations for every function, and we didn't come with anything better than number of students. Within the framework of simplicity-privileging values, this was wasted effort. To me, the results of this side trip into alternatives shows the problem with a cut to the chase approach. The back and forth on my arguably heavy-handed question brought out much more about the economics and operations of this unit, at least for me, and the emphasis the registrar put on systems and projects rather than transactions is very important. 

I don't know if the registrar felt the discussion was useful and felt their perspective was given real voice, but I have no doubt that direct imposition of the simple metric would have had the effect of erasing the registrar as a voice.  The registrar would see this metric as a pure imposition, with no validity--not that the validity of it was very high in the end.  But for me, what is more important is that it would have undercut this person's person-ness in their organizational experience.  Someone else would speak about their work as if they did not exist and would not open the process to their experiential and cognitive contributions.  It would be dehumanizing.  

The dehumanizing effects of experience within organizations, these supremely human manifestations, are the result of many small actions like this which accrue profusely and quickly acquire heavy phenomenological weight.

This does connect back to the Pandora's Box problem or non-problem. 

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Things That Risk Means (part 3)

Before getting to the next step in my discourse on insurance, I need to make a stop on the topic of risk. 

Like a lot of concepts big enough to organize experience, risk means different things simultaneously.  

One part is threat or peril.  You run the risk of something bad happening.  You want to minimize, mitigate, or shift risk. 

Risk also means the probability that something might happen.  I use the phrases "upside" and "downside" risk to indicate that something good could happen as well as something bad.  For most people, the word risk still leans towards the negative, but I can't help seeing it as symmetrical.    

In finance, risk has altogether different connotations. It refers to uncertainty, and gets factored into risk-reward calculations.  You trade uncertainty for the possibility of a greater reward.  You have a greater or lesser tolerance for risk. In this case, risk is largely something good.  We celebrate risk-takers.  Your investment advisor will encourage to accept more risk because of the potential for positive returns over time. Being willing to take risk is a sign of courage. 

In administration world, risk is largely the domain of "risk managers" who do things like conduct Enterprise Risk Assessments, which identify the big scary things that might happen and line up mitigation strategies to reduce their likelihood. They also manage your insurance programs.  Insurance is one of the primary mitigation strategies.

At KPMG, I was introduced to a risk framework. It identified all the functional parts of an enterprise using Porter's 5 Forces model.  This was primarily for designing audits, where the auditor's job was to identify the risks associated with each of the elements of the enterprise and develop an audit strategy to determine the degree of exposure in each and suggest procedures, policies, and systems to reduce or manage risk. But it also has been useful for making sure you see each part of an enterprise, and think through the specific features of each. 

I've used this framework to argue that we can describe each element of an enterprise in terms of the risk that it is meant to respond to, in this case meant in terms of probabilistic outcomes.  At a university, some functions are clear--the police force is in place to protect against crime, injury, and loss of property.  I did some work at UC Santa Cruz, which had an on-campus fire department.  The UCSC campus is sited beautifully, nestled in a forest.  The fire department protect the campus from burning down on a red flag day.  But you could also see the academic departments in terms of a kind of risk--what would happen if you don't fund the English department adequately? The English department is there to make sure you offer the programs and courses students need and want, thereby increasing the probability of them coming to the campus and succeeding there. You also have an English department so you won't lose ground to the alternatives those students have.  Degradation of academic programs is a serious risk. Maybe students and other stakeholders (alumni and donors, legislators, the community, faculty) don't care if you have a good English department. But do you want to risk that?      

I've always wanted to get a client to let me work with them to use a comprehensive risk framework like this to set priorities and allocate resources. So far no takers. Starting from something like the KPMG framework I would kick off conversations that are informed by a risk tolerance orientation. There is always risk in life.  It's worth understanding the risks (probably, although you could make the case for the benefits of heedlessness and recklessness).  I like the question what risk is this function (position, office, policy, etc., etc.) designed to deal with.  I like the phrasing "deal with"--not necessarily reduce or mitigate.  You ask what risk is the HR department designed to deal with, and what would happen if you didn't do it, or did less or more of it. And you ask the same question of the English department. 

If you did this you'd have the start for comparison across activities, onw of the hardest things to do. Comparison is still hard. The outcome of the risk takes disparate forms--emotional trauma (loss of a loved one), reputational damage, social insecurity, and finally financial loss. Insurance has an answer.  Convert losses and gains into dollars (currency), the universal expression of value, value reduced to commodity. This of course shows that the danger (risk) in risk framing is to exacerbate the financialization of all relationships. 

A couple more points to make.  First, people are very bad at evaluating it. Decision theory has catalogued many errors people make in evaluating the probability of a result.  They give more weight to the possibility of loss.  They don't take into account sample size. They reason by analogy. They don't recognize randomness. They respond more strongly to vivid examples and to the most available examples.   

Like a lot of potential organizing concepts, risk is mutable. A risk starts by taking one form and before you know it takes another. A university has to decide how many police officers to hire.  Hire more, and you have better chances of preventing incidents or responding more quickly. But you may find that crime incidence does not require the number of officers you have--you might be located in a safe area and can have the same results with half the officers.  Which would allow you to hire more English faculty. But if parents get wind that you cutting back on police officers, you'll be pilloried on social media.  So what started as a technical risk of crime morphed into a concern about perceptions on the part of people loosely affiliated with the organization and the place. 

There is a reductio ad absurdum problem lurking around the corner.  If having an average number of police officers is good, wouldn't double be better?  Why stop there? Eventually you end up with a college that is all cops and no teaching. Of course it doesn't get that far, but do have any basis for knowing when the balance has gone too far. There is every reason to think that biases in assessing risk almost guarantee the balance will be out of whack.  

Saturday, August 28, 2021

Insurance and me and us (part 2 of something)

Insurance seems like the last thing anyone with imagination would talk about.  The very definition of bloodless bureaucracy, mundane minutiae.  It's also been part of my family history.  My grandfather was a "life insurance man"--an executive at a small company in Nebraska, with the letters CLU after his name, a lot of his identity drawn from the role and experiences he had with that company. My father-in-law was an accomplished and successful actuary, and his work experience lent weight and wisdom to his progressive convictions. In my role as a consultant and administrator, insurance and actuarial science come up pretty regularly.  We don't always think about insurance, and part of its significance is that you want to know insurance is in place and then not think about it. You want to know that it is a solid part of the infrastructure of experience, taken for granted, invisible. 

It came as a surprise then to see insurance enter into the discussion of governmentality, which seems to be the primary intellectual framework for Foucault's huge influence on organization and administration theory. Foucault saw a society as being controlled by a "triangle" of sovereignty, disciplinarity and government, with government understood as the general exercise of control--government of one's self, government of children in education, the government of souls and lives by children, and the government of a population by the sovereign. Governmentality is the set of methods in place for managing a population and the bodies of knowledge seen as necessary to do that.  It is different from government, because it is not limited to specific organization or legal structures, but it a broader web of control techniques and a set of assumptions underlying most aspects of a period's social life.   

Risk is one of modern society's key knowledge bases, and insurance is the technical method of managing risk. 

Risk emerges as an issue because modern society, with its loosening of traditional bonds of connection and social cohesion combined with technological advances unleashed new levels of peril and uncertainty. This phenomenon is at the base of Marcuse's passion, where he laments the irrationality of a technologically advanced society where those technological advances seem to have been oriented to delivering destruction and threats to existence at an unprecedented scale. This is the irrationality he sees as the end of rationality.   

Insurance emerged in the late 19th century in a society roiled by social, political, economic, and technological change.  Some of the writing that people draw on is from French scholars who address this is in a French context, such as the institution of social insurance established by the government of Napoleon III, which offered an alternative to more mutualist approaches that were emerging from a radicalized working class.  The context though was common to the industrialized world--a society reorganized into wage-dependent urban communities where people worked in mechanized environments with huge potential for injury and penury. Insurance programs were a way to compensate for that risk.  You might lose your ability to provide economic viability for your family, but we will set up a program where you will be provided compensation if that does happen.  At a different time, an injured person might expect support from a family with a more diverse household economy--some food from a garden plot, some household industry--or from their commune.   In the 19th century, it was possible that the workers themselves would make these provisions for themselves, but that would create a power center that would challenge other parts of society for legitimacy and authority. Instead, the state stepped in, 

A surprising extent of American life s governed by insurance of one sort or another.  We don't have a pension system--Social Security is an insurance plan, where you pay in for a time, with the promise of a payout/payback later based on what you put in and expectations about life expectancy--i.e., actuarial science.  In case of injury, you are covered by Workers Compensation Insurance--your employer either carries this insurance or pays into a state program.  You can barely have a place to live without out it--to buy a house, you have to have insurance covering the value of your home, some mortgages require insurance to cover repayment, and some landlords require renter's insurance.  You can't drive without insurance. And rather than a national health plan, we have health insurance.  We've created a healthcare system that will hit you with punitive charges if you use it, and your insurance is your protection against the threat that the healthcare system constitutes. Insurance is on offer for lost cell phones, defective products, flight cancellations and so on. Anything can be translated into an insurance contract.

Insurance does a bunch of interesting things from a theoretical perspective.  It has the effect of taking shared risks and converting them into individual, atomized transactions.  For instance, flood insurance takes the risk of a natural disaster, which would be shared by everyone sharing a geography, divides up the risk into parts that can be sold as individual transactions, thereby providing an individualistic way of responding to a shared threat. 

It also does create a kind of solidarity, but it is of an abstract nature unlike traditional solidarities such as family or community.  You replace what could be active forms of solidarity--say of union members contributing to mutual funds, or a community caring for the people it knows as its members--with one that is nothing other than a risk pool defined by a group of hidden technocrats.

It converts human life into a form of capital.  Life insurance is designed to recover the lost earnings/value of the life, and it encourages individuals and families to look at lives as a form of private capital stock.  Turning a life into capital makes them equivalent. Exchange value over use value. Economics over ethics. 

It converts social relations and actions into calculations, expressed in the common denomination of dollars. It implicitly makes the case that anything can be measured and financialized. 

Insurance is an extremely effective tool for training people to understand relationships is society as agonistic. An insurance policy is an alternative to a lawsuit.  

The insistence in the US on providing access to health care through insurance has an almost mind-boggling effect.  It means that for most of us, medicine is not cast in terms of health, but in terms of risk.  The point about medicine is that you have to protect yourself from it, because if you encounter it naked (without insurance coverage), it will destroy you financially.  The threat of a medical malpractice suit is the primary vehicle we depend on to provide an incentive for good care, and I'm sure hospital administrators if not providers treat each patient as a potential litigant.

The role of insurance means that relationships are defined in terms of their potential for conflict--the operating assumption that conflict is always just around the corner. Cooperation has no weight. 

One of Foucault's key arguments is that these structures get worked into the fabric of experience. They become common senses.  They become invisible. A historically specific invisible hand. 

Dean, Mitchell. (1999)   Governmentality: Power and Rule in Modern Society. Sage.

Defert, Daniel (1991)  "'Popular Life' and Insurance Technology" in The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality.  Graham Burchell, Colin Gordon and Peter Miller, eds.  University of Chicago

Ewald, Francois (1991)  "Insurance and Risk" in The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality.  Graham Burchell, Colin Gordon and Peter Miller, eds.  University of Chicago

Foucault, Michel (1991)  "Governmentality" in The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality.  Graham Burchell, Colin Gordon and Peter Miller, eds.  University of Chicago.

Marcuse, Herbert (1964). One-Dimensional Man.  Beacon.

Monday, August 23, 2021

A story from Chicago about disciplinary power in action, the first part of a series

This is going to be the first in a series of posts about risk and some related topics like insurance.  I would say that may not sound fascinating just wait until you read it, but really it probably is just something that occupies unused space in my brain and won't be so fascinating.

I want to start with one story.  My friend Laura Weathered developed an artist live-work space in Chicago called the Bloomingdale Arts Building.  Her initial vision was to set it up as a co-op for low-and moderate-income artists, and she started down this path.  People applied to be part of the project, and they went through co-op training.  This was going to be hard work for the people involved, because it would more collective and mutually-responsible than simply renting a studio or an apartment. But they all knew what they were signing on for and were aligned with the mutualist goals.  

Going through the permitting process, she ran into a roadblock with the City.  They would provide subsidized loans, but only to the owners of individual units, not to the building as a whole, so they moved ahead with the project as condos. The City financing was critical to make it affordable for the people the project was going to serve. 

Laura was operating from and within a left-wing context, so she immediately saw an ideological character of the decision.  The city government, while dominated by the Democratic party, was fundamentally conservative, as any leftist knew who had either battled the cops in Grant Park or knew the stories. 

The project was successfully completed.  The cooperative character of it survived to some extent--the people in the complex had relationships with each other, and it had a cooperative feel when you were there.  But disputes that came up over the years would have probably been handled differently if it had been fully collectivized.     

The point of this story is to question the ideological character of the decision on condos versus the coop form. That decision certainly curtailed the degree to which the project could develop a collective organization, but it is not clear that the decision was ideological, reflecting a desire of the City officials to promote a certain political order.  

In the minds of the City officials, it is likely that it struck them as simply more practical to approve Bloomingdale as a condo project rather than a coop. Individualized liability created clearer accountability for the loans. They would know who was responsible for paying back what.  If a coop owed them money, they would have less understanding of who they were dealing with.  If the coop was not operating particularly functionally, it would make it even harder to resolve the dispute. exacerbate the City's challenges.  I'm sure the City officials saw condos as cleaner. 

However, the choice of condo over coop was not neutral.  The effect was to keep the people in the mode of individual economic agents, entrepreneurs, consistent with neo-liberal governance. The effect was also to kill in the crib the potential manifestation of a cooperative entity that would form a mutually responsible alternative to the individual entrepreneur of the self. This is a perfect example of Foucauldian disciplinary power.  An unspoken pattern of thought--an episteme--prevails that guides the official's decision about how to finance this project. 

I'm telling this story because it is an example of the disciplinary tool functioning in a specific decision. It seem to be the case that the person making the decision would not have consciously been trying to promote an ideology or accrue power, but is simply trying to be competent. The pursuit of competence is what makes the disciplinary wheel go round. I'm going to get back to this phenomenon in talking about insurance.  

Huebner, Jeff. (2001.) "A City Without Art." The Chicago Reader, Nov. 1, 2001

Replacing management with administration

A important driving impetus for O.C. McSwite's in Legitimacy in Public Administration is anxiety about the legitimacy of public administration as a discipline. Public administration focuses on the role and "legitimacy of administration as a part of democratic governance."  The problem is that administration can be seen as taking power away from the people and their elected representatives and vesting it in the hands of unaccountable bureaucrats and other experts. As a discipline, PA resides within Political Science, which studies the mechanisms of democracy like elections and legislation. McSwite's experience was that political scientists questioned the legitimacy of PA's subject and methods. Public Administrationists were seen as apologists for authoritarianism. 

I approach the legitimacy of PA from a different direction.  In part it relates to the fact that I am a bad Public Administration student.  I'm interested in organizations, the Administration part of PA, but have been slow to absorb that I'm expected to care about the Public part. It seems strange to be to run across accounts of employee motivation and run across Public Service Orientation as a category.  Suggesting that the people working for a government agency are psychologically different from people in other sectors.  That's not so much my experience on street level, especially not in a town like Nashville where the State government is one of the largest employers, so employment with a State agency is just one of the logical and in some cases most available options for gainful employment and career advancement.  

I'm quite inclined to jumble up for-profit, public, and non-profit organizations. Legitimacy is a central question in Political Science, applied to governments, public agencies, officials, sovereigns, etc. But I see no reason why one should not look into the basis of legitimacy of for-profit enterprises. In the study of for-profits, rather than legitimacy you have agency and shareholder rights. It seems very simple. Are you making money for people who have a right to that profit?  You might debate the trade-off between short and long-term returns, and you probably need to do something to explain away public goods and make them someone else's problem.  Problems for the political scientist rather that the management scholar. 

But for-profit companies make up a huge part of the building blocks of our society, and as a constituent component of the social order they deserve to be subject to scrutiny on the basis of legitimacy. This is obvious on the part of the massive corporations like Facebook and Google that provide and manage much of what passes for public space today. We are long pas the point where shareholder interests can govern them. But I also think that the real estate developer who knocked down an older shopping strip in my neighborhood that was home to several locally important businesses to build a new Mapco should face questions of legitimacy. So far we have no effective ways for addressing the legitimacy of Facebook, and there is no legal basis for controlling that developer's actions. To start, there is at least a moral question and an assertion that people in society with no contractual interest in Facebook or that shopping center have a legitimate interest in what happens. Thinking in these terms--the basis for legitimacy for an economic actor--would point towards ways of managing the marketplace that give greater weight to the socially constructive and constitutive nature of any organization. We might never be able to move towards a different legitimacy framework in the US legal structure, but it seems like a legitimacy framework might ask the right questions. 

To me the question about the legitimacy of PA as a discipline is to compare it to the other primary discipline for studying organizations and the action of individuals within them--Management.  Management training focuses on for-profit organizations, but readily applies itself to the non-profit sector and there is a great longing in society to see public agencies managed rather than administered--run more like businesses.  I was trained in a business school, and it would have made sense for me to continue on and pursue a doctorate in management, but its approaches and methods didn't seem to get at truths that concern me.

Management science is going to evaluate organizations, strategies, and tactics in terms of profit or economic return. Questions about human experience are valuable only insofar as the answers lead to stronger economic performance.  Impact on society is also either an afterthought, or something that is of interest only if you can make the circuitous case that in the end it pays.   

The things that are of secondary importance to management are primary for me. Society is built through organizations of all types. That organizational experience is often inhumane and debilitating, and keeps reverting to various kinds of authoritarianism. Can these organizations can work in humane ways, can people retain their humanity in those environments? Management studies seems to offer little opportunity to go deep into those questions.  Public administration, thanks to the more ambiguous objective statements of public organizations, asks better questions about what goes on with and in organizations, and in other ways people come together.  Administration is more likely to imagine reorganizations of society.  Management will only tune up what is already here. 

So I'd flip the tables on legitimacy of these disciplines--PA, Poli Sci, Management. I would expand Public Administration into a field called Administration Studies and then have that drive the analysis of for-profit organizations, rather than the dispiriting sight of public organizations trying to get in line with ethically and intellectually impoverished business management.  And in the end, I would like to see businesses administered rather than managed. 

This may seem like a very technical distinction, but if you take Foucauldian ideas about governmentality into account, a society's technical practices (techne) and its ways of understanding (episteme) produce the disciplinary power that shapes the social world. Extending the application of legitimacy could create movement in the episteme and in the techne that start to shake something loose.  Simply getting past the point of feeling stuck would be a good start, as long as we can avoid spinning off into political authoritarianism.

Sunday, August 15, 2021

Anti-dichotomy (part 2 of 2)

In the previous post, I tried out my current thinking about a global political and governmental landscape in which three models operate. Part of the point was simply to start setting up this model so I can use it to analyze contemporary social, economic and political systems.  But part of what interests me is how this deviates from prevailing analytical models that depend on dichotomous conceptual structures. 

We tend to explain things in terms of spectrums between one pole and another. If you want to increase the dimensions, you move to a pair of one-dimensional spectrums that produce 2x2 models. With my tri-polar model, you could decide it is begging for a fourth option to be complete. Take the three models (neo-liberalism, traditional authoritarianism, state capitalism) and add social democracy. This could be worked into a grid, with the level of democracy on one axis and level of collectivism on the other

Neo-liberalism: high democracy, low collectivism

Authoritarianism: low democracy, low collectivism

State capitalism: low democracy, high collectivism

Democratic socialism: high democracy, high collectivism

The thing is, this really doesn't hold water.  Authoritarianism can have high collectivism for the right people.  The collectivism of state capitalism is of a different nature than something that might be called socialism. Rating them both high on collectivism suggests they share a characteristic, where in fact they have different characteristics that might be described with the same word.  

The grid only makes sense as an artificial symmetry.   

Analytical habits gravitate to spectrums, bi-polar models, and grids.  All of which violate the complexity of experience. At any given time, a few different models will be at play in the field. The task is to look at what is there and make sense of what you find.  Dichotomous thinking leads you too quickly to reductions of complexity. 

The pitfalls of dichotomous thinking reminds me of the way my friend David Dark takes up charged words that are part of an agonistic pair. He will subvert a term like conservative (or evangelical) by redefining it and connecting it with meanings and associations that we conventionally think of as its opposite.  This used to aggravate me.  My thinking: We need to be able to give things names that we can stick with.  And we are involved in a struggle that is important, and we need to be able to line up on the side of what is right.  As Florence Reese would ask, Which side are you on?    

Today it occurs to me that David was engaging in an act of discursive sabotage which had the effect of denying all combatants use of the asset or weapon.  What happens then? They need to reconsider how they relate to each other on the field, and maybe they will find that discursive violence doesn't work as well with the new terms.  It opens up a moment to consider the possibility of discursive compassion--feeling together.  The players might not take up the option, but the rupture makes something possible.  

Tri-polar system (part 1 of 2)

In the political science literature, a lot of work rides on placing people on a left-right spectrum. Problem, is I don't think the categories are real, but are defined in circular ways. Rather than a set of policy positions defining position on the spectrum, it seems like the policy positions are selected to characterize left or right on the basis of the correlation between those positions and people you have already defined as left or right wing. Why should a position in favor of abortion rights be inherently "left" wing? Doesn't it make as much sense for a right-wing authoritarian to embrace abortion as a tool for controlling and shaping the population? We use a pro-choice position as an indicator of liberalism because it is a position typical of people we think of as liberals.

You also run lots of writing that sets up an opposition between neo-liberalism and a more collective alternate form of social organization and government, some form of a renewed welfare state or maybe socialism. The assumptions of neo-liberalism are so deeply embedded that the alternative is to a great extent theoretical. You have a problem of actually existing collectivism, similar to the problem one used to have with actually existing socialism. 

One thing that characterizes the left/right liberal/conservative discourse and discussion of neo-liberalism and its alternatives is that in both cases you are dealing with a one dimensional spectrum or a bi-polar opposition. There is no reason experience should be limited to this dimensionality, and framing things this way does not line up with what I see when I really look.

I see 3 alternative political and economic philosophies in competition: neo-liberal democracy, Western style or traditional authoritarianism, and State capitalism. Neo-liberalism is what is practiced in most democracies in the world today, with markets as the basis for all activity, with the model extended ever deeper into social relationships and disciplinary tools training people to act as entrepreneurs of the self. Much of the role of government is to set up and enforce a clean set of rules so all can play. Loyalty to the market trumps all. In the US, the major competitor to this model is outright authoritarianism, where the goal of government is to privilege parts of society who will support the dominance of a singular leader. Authoritarianism maintains markets but is willing to distort them in favor of politically "appropriate" actors. Loyalty to the leader and its faction trumps all. In State capitalism, the State intervenes in the market actively, and combines state-owned (socialized) and private enterprise in shifting ways. It maintains markets, but does not trust them to serve society well enough to provide necessary social stability and to inspire pervasive acquiescence among the population. Stability of the nation trumps all in state capitalism.

The traditional authoritarian models include Hungary, Russia, Turkey, Brazil, and the Philippines, and importantly Trumpism. I'm tempted to call it neo-authoritarianism, but mostly for the parallelism with neo-liberalism, and I haven't work out a clever set of distinctions to distinguish neo- from old school authoritarianism. But then again, sometimes I doubt whether neo-liberalism is a new thing, or a continuation of liberalism after a short interruption with a Keynesian variant.

In the US, the biggest split in society is between those who want to maintain a neo-liberal democracy and those who long for authoritarianism.

China is the main example of state capitalism, and even if it where the only one, the fact that 20% of the people in the world live there justifies elevating it to a world-level system. Some other countries may fit this model--say Iran.

From what I can see, these models can account for pretty much every country on the globe. There was a time when some of the northern European countries stood apart, but they've mostly been subsumed into neo-liberalism.

The difference between prevailing neo-liberalism and a theoretical alternative model does make it into electoral politics in the Democratic Party where there is some struggle between moderate democrats and a democratic socialist flank. But for now the democratic socialist model is mostly theoretical, and it is hard to see the path for it coming into practice. You might argue that some municipal governments are trying it out--say Portland or Seattle--but even there, they get pushback from a business sector--the thing that defines much experience in Seattle is really big companies, and tech-based civic boosterism is strong. Also, there is only so much that you can do on the municipal level. Most tax policy gets set on a State level. Important functions like prisons and universities are on that level.

For now, I'm using this tri-polar model to understand the socio-political landscape. We'll see how it holds up.