Scott Walkerism without Scott Walker

r how the neoliberal swindle runs on autopilot. From the political theorist Wendy Brown in Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution (2015):

Neoliberal governance stresses the devolution of authority as part of its formal antipathy to centralized state power and as part of its emphasis on problem solving achieved by stakeholders. But devolved power and responsibility are not equivalent to thoroughgoing decentralization and local empowerment. Devolution frequently means that large-scale problems, such as recessions, finance-capital crises, unemployment, or environmental problems, as well as fiscal crises of the state, are sent down the pipeline to small and weak units unable to cope with them technically, politically, or financially. Thus, state funding cuts in education or mental health devolve responsibility for these undertakings to municipalities, which in turn devolve them to individual schools or agencies, which devolve them to individual departments, which then have something called ‘decision-making authority,’ absent, of course, the resources to exercise this ghostly autonomy and sovereignty.

In this way, devolution also sets in motion certain neoliberal reforms via incentivization, rather than mandate. For example, several years ago, my university system devolved responsibility for paying employee benefits to individual academic departments. This tiny change effects a wholesale transformation of the university by incentivizing departments to hire ever-larger numbers of part-time academic and office staff who, when working less than 50 percent time, do not qualify for benefits at all. Thus does a flexibilized, unprotected and poorly paid labor force come to replace one enjoying modest security of employment, along with provisions for health, disability, and retirement. Nowhere was this intention decreed or mandated. Rather, when devolution of authority to ever smaller and weaker units is combined with seeding competition among them and aimed at ‘entrepreneurializing’ them, the result is a mode of governance that political scientist Joe Soss describes as ‘at once muscular in its normative enforcement and diffuse in its organization.’

Neoliberal devolution of authority is related to, but differs from responsibilization, which sociologist Ronen Shamir describes as a ‘moralization of economic action that accompanies teh economization of the political.’ Devolution sends decision making and resource provision down the pipeline of power and authority. Responsibilization, on the other hand, especially as a social policy, is the moral burdening of the entity at the end of the pipeline. Responsibilization tasks the worker, student, consumer, or indigent person with discerning and undertaking the correct strategies of self-investment and entrepreneurship for thriving and surviving; it is in this regard a manifestation of human capitalization. AS it discursively denigrates dependency and practically negates collective provisioning for existence, responsibilization solicits the individual as the only relevant and wholly accountable actor. Governance—with its emphasis on consensus, antipolitics, and the integration of individualized efforts into harmonized ends—facilitates both the practice and the legitimacy of responsibilization. As Shamir argues, ‘while obedience had been the practical master-key of top-down bureaucracies, responsibility is the practical master-key of governance.’

The new form of power orchestrating the conduct of subjects—and the importance of governance in activating this power—is apparent in the grammar used to describe and enact it. The ugly words ‘flexibilization’ and ‘responsibilization’ have their roots in human capacities associated with modest autonomy. To be flexible or respsonsible is to have capacities for adaptation or accountability that, as Nietzsche and not only Kant remind us, are nominative signs of sovereignty: only a moral agent understood as willing its actions can bear responsibility for itself. But when the act of being responsible is linguistically converted into the administered condition of being responsibilized, it departs from the domain of agency and instead governs the subject through an external moral injunction—through demands emanating from an invisible elsewhere. The word ‘responsibilization’ takes a step further this move from a substance-based adjective to a process-based transitive verb, shifting it from an individual capacity to a governance project. Responsibilization signals a regime in which the singular human capacity for responsibility is deployed to constitute and govern subjects and through which their conduct is organized and measured, remaking and reorienting them for a neoliberal order. Again, governance facilitates and imposes responsibilization, but the powers orchestrating this process are nowhere in discursive sight, a disappearing act that is both generic to neoliberalism and particular to responsibilization itself.

Responsiblization is not an inherent entailment of devolution; there are decidedly more empowering and more democratic potentials for devolved decision making. Demands for local authority and decision making, it is well to remember, may emanate from both the Right and the Left, from anarchists or from religious fundamentalists. However, when conjoined, devolution and responsibilization produce an order in which the social effects of power—constructed and governed subjects—appear as morally burdened agents. Through this bundling of agency and blame, the individual is doubly responsibilized: it is expected to fend for itself (and blamed for its failure to thrive) and expected to act for the well-being of the economy (and blamed for its failure to thrive). Not only, then, are Greek workers, French pensioners, California and Michigan public employees, American Social Security recipients, British university students, European new immigrants, and public goods as a whole made to appear as thieving dependents operating in the old world of entitlement, rather than self-care, they are blamed for sinking states into debt, thwarting growth, and bringing the global economy to the brink of ruin. Perhaps most importantly, even when they are not blamed, even when they have comported properly with the norms of responsibilization, austerity measures taken in the name of macroeconomic health may legitimately devastate their livelihoods or lives.

Thus, responsibilized individuals are required to provide for themselves in the context of powers and contingencies radically limiting their ability to do so. But devolution and responsibilization also make individuals expendable and unprotected. This turn in neoliberal political rationality signals more than the dismantling of welfare-state logic or even that of the liberal social contract: once more, it expresses its precise inversion. (131-34)

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