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Managerialism reminds us that security is at the heart of neoliberalism

by Jacqueline Best on November 28, 2019

If our contemporary managerial obsession with all things numerical and quantitative has its roots in military planning in the 1950s rather than in neoliberal economic policy in the 1980s, then surely we need to pay more attention to the idea of security in political economy.

For all of the rich and important insights that the editors behind this blog series bring to the table, the question of security is virtually absent. Instead, the central conclusions that they draw focus primarily on the need to rethink neoliberal theory and the implications of this analysis for the growing influence of the managerial class. These are both hugely important insights, and promise to transform current debates in political economy in significant ways.

Yet they only skirt around the other compelling implication of their findings: attempts to define and govern our security have been at the very core of the proliferation of practices that so many scholars have defined as central aspects of neoliberalism.

In this short intervention, I want to explore why we might want to bring the concept of security into this important conversation about the history and contemporary character of neoliberalism.

Neoliberalism is an addictive concept, as the editors of this blog series make clear: as scholars, once we start to use the concept, it is very hard not to see it everywhere, even if it conceals as much as it reveals about contemporary governance practices.

A case in point: I went to the UK as a Leverhulme Visiting Professor at SPERI to pursue a project exploring the idea of “post-neoliberalism.” I arrived in Sheffield highly skeptical of the relevance of the concept of neoliberalism, based not only on my archival research into the very messy early days of the Thatcher and Reagan governments, but also on my fundamental exhaustion with it as an idea.

Yet, after four months of living in the UK—as both a professor during a REF year and as a mother of two children in Year 1—I began seeing neoliberalism everywhere, particularly in the elementary school. Back in Canada, my children were in senior kindergarten, learning through play. In the UK, they were in a group of children who had already spent a year and a half in exhausting reading, writing and handwriting drills, as their wonderful teachers tried to respond to a series of perverse external targets and metrics designed to ensure the school’s (and the children’s) competitiveness. Two days before we headed back to Canada, we received an “amber warning” letter (with the words in orange, no less) indicating that our children’s attendance level had dropped to 95.2% (because they spent two days home with nasty colds), which was below the school’s target of 97%.

As sad as I was to leave the UK and its dynamic intellectual community after our four months there, I also felt relieved to be escaping a life in which a kind of self-governing, performance-driven neoliberal subjectivity had taken over everyday life to such an extraordinary extent.

Of course, the question that Dutta, Knafo, Lovering, Lane and Wyn-Jones would ask is whether this obsession with competition, quantification and performance evaluation is in fact an example of neoliberalism on steroids, or the product of a very different kind of systems-planning, with its roots in military planning in the 1950s, rather than in neoliberal economic policy in the 1980s.

This is a brilliant question to be asking—and their asking it here and in Knafo’s fantastic recent article in RIPE has definitely caused me to reassess the way that I think about neoliberalism. And yet, at the end of the day, I’m not sure that this project goes quite far enough—in challenging the imperialism of the concept of neoliberalism, in forcing us to reconceptualize it in very significant ways, and in breaking down the boundaries between security and economy.

After all, why should we have to choose between neoliberalism and managerialist military planning as the key forces behind the will to govern performance? Isn’t neoliberalism at least in part a logic of governing that helps to define and manage both “the economy” and “the military” through a particular preoccupation with the problem of security? 

In my own recent research, I have found it enormously useful to draw on some of the insights of critical security studies to help make sense of the many complex ways that states have used claims of exceptionalism and emergency to respond to economic crises.

At the risk of being labeled a “Foucauldian” (I am a fan, but not a true believer), it’s worth remembering how he links neoliberalism and liberalism to the problem of security. In both Security, Territory, Population and The Birth of Biopolitics, Foucault traces the rise of a new logic of governance, beginning in the eighteenth century, which is preoccupied with the health—and security—of a population. This is a form of governance that uses the emerging science of statistics to track and guide the well-being of people, things and money.

He points to the emergence of a new form of power that has the population as its target, political economy as its major form of knowledge, and apparatuses of security as its essential technical instrument.

Political economic knowledge, combined with the new power of statistical measurement, provided a way of governing at a distance: tracing the flows of supply and demand, the circulation of diseases, the rise and fall of mortality, and the possibilities and risks of conflict. Of course, this logic shifts once more in interesting ways as liberalism is reborn as neoliberalism, and the logic of governing becomes more interventionist as key figures seek to construct market-like mechanisms in all kinds of unexpected places. But the central logic remains that of managing the population’s security (at least as it is defined by some) through the rationality of political economy.

What might this brief foray into French philosophy tells us about the rise of the kind of managerialism that this forum’s editors have so effectively linked to military planning—not to mention about my children’s introduction to the British education system?

If nothing else, it reminds us that security and political economy are far more deeply linked to each other than is suggested by our conventional categories of “military” and “economy.”[1] Even if we trace the influence of a particular kind of governing through quantification to a set of military planners and think tanks, these practices of planning are themselves always already implicated in a particular form of knowledge that seeks to manage the security of a population through political economic rationality.[2]

That does not mean that there is some kind of coherent economic logic that permeates all of these various security practices—instead, it should make us more aware of the messiness and incoherence of all attempts to govern through numbers. The problems of sovereignty, economy and security have always been linked in complex and often inconsistent ways.

What might these insights into the centrality of security bring to the rich and original work that the editors of this blog series on the central and unacknowledged role of managerialism and its links with military planning? How might they help us reconceptualize neoliberalism in ways that overcome some of the limits of contemporary political economic scholarship?

Rather than providing any definitive answers at this stage, I want to suggest that these insights might enable us to ask different questions. When we see security, population, and economy as linked, we are able to recognize the mobility of certain governance rationalities and practices. Rather than assuming that a new variation in neoliberal practice can be traced back to certain economic thinkers, policymakers or politicians, we can instead look beyond conventional economic categories and actors to trace a wider network of governance practices.

In my last book on governing international development, for example, I sought to understand shifting strategies of governance in the 1990s which were connected to a preoccupation with managing risk, measuring results, fostering new standards and mitigating the possibility of failure—all strategies that have clear affinities with the forms of managerialism that the editors of this blog discuss. Although I didn’t dig deeply enough into the possible role of military thinking in this analysis (I realize in retrospect!), it became very clear to me that it is impossible to study contemporary changes in development theory and practice without realizing that security in all of its many meanings is a central preoccupation (and there is a large literature on the securitization of development that makes this clear). Yet we rarely see these linkages when we study the Global North’s political economy.

Why should we assume that this kind of complex multi-layered set of techniques for governing a population is only applicable in the Global South? Clearly, it is not. Which means that we shouldn’t be too surprised to find security, economy and sovereignty linked up in new and seemingly irrational forms today (think Brexit and neoliberalism, Trump’s capitalist nationalism, or Thatcher’s strong state and free economy).

Perhaps the kinds of metrics that my children and British colleagues were being trained to meet were the product of a strong state seeking manage an unruly population (6 year-olds and academics being both especially unruly subjects) using the techniques developed to fight wars and maintain an empire. Perhaps they were about fostering forms of neoliberal self-governance and enterprise in a globalizing economy. Perhaps they were both—and in ways that cannot ever be fully separated but that we urgently need to spend more time trying to understand.

[1]   I owe many of these insights into the limits of these conventional categories to conversations with Liam Stanley during my time at SPERI.

[2]   Louise Amoore beautifully illustrates these dynamics in her book, The Politics of Possibility, which includes a discussion of how the British government hired the accounting firm, Price Waterhouse, during the Second World War to develop metrics for the rationing system that would be necessary for the war effort. Amoore, The Politics of Possibility: Risk and Security Beyond Probability. Durham: Duke University Press, 2013, Chapter 1.

Jacqueline Best
Jacqueline Best is a Full Professor in the School of Political Studies at the University of Ottawa. Her research is at the intersection of international relations, political economy and social theory. She has been a visiting professor at University College, Oxford University, the University of Queensland and the University of Sheffield. Professor Best has been awarded a number of research prizes, including most recently the Leverhulme Trust’s international visiting professorship. She has recently published Governing Failure: Provisional Expertise and the Transformation of Global Development Finance with Cambridge University Press. She a currently co-editor of the high-ranked journal, Review of International Political Economy.

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