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September 22, 2013
September 22, 2013

Crisis Governmentality and Governmentality of the Commons in a new Mediterranean: For an “anti-antisocial” research.

Source: Enthemata  Category: On the crisis
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Crisis Governmentality and Governmentality of the Commons in a new Mediterranean: For an “anti-antisocial” research.

Since the day that Mohamed Bouazizi immolated his tortured body in a city in Tunisia, the waves of riots and civil unrest inspired by his action have spread across the entire Mediterranean. Nonetheless, despite the breadth and diversity of the analyses that followed, there is a strikingly absent element: the transformation of the entire Mediterranean into a major area of upheavals and uprisings.

The absence of a Mediterranean analytical framework is attributable, I would suggest, to two reasons. First, widespread Islamophobia consolidates the division of the Mediterranean into the European part on the one hand (in which the “lazy Southerners” can still become successful Northerners if they renounce their sinful DNA and remember the virtues of European civilization) and the Arab-Muslim part on the other (in which the principles of the French Revolution never arrived, so any rebellion is doomed to end up in either a military or an Islamist junta).

Second, the dominant academic diagnosis of the crisis states that the main problem in southern Europe is “the economy”, while in the Middle East it is politics at large. Of course, pundits do not miss a chance to add advice for “reforms” of the political to the theories of the debt crisis in the Mediterranean North, but no one –apart from neo-Nazis and supporters of authoritarian regimes – has dared (yet) to suggest that the southern Europeans are too immature for western-style “democracy”, as it is widely and boldly claimed about their Arab neighbours.

If we look at the historically momentous events that we are witnessing – beyond Islamophobic and rigid academic points of view – we can see clearly that the Mediterranean has turned into a region very rich, not in hydrocarbon fields, but in experiments in governmentality. I define governmentality not in the strict sense of government institutions, but based on the Foucauldian approach of the critical link of power to knowledge (as used by experts in biopolitics and applied sciences). Thus, we can distinguish two types of governmentality in the Mediterranean.

Crisis Governmentality

Crisis governmentality is premised on technocratic imaginaries of crisis and emergency. This type of governmentality transforms politics from the art of keeping the social contract into the technocracy of the (in)effective diagnosis and management of risk. To be sure, the “risks” vary depending on country and circumstances, but both the patriarchal-nationalist framework and the immediacy with which these risks are displayed within it are the same throughout the region: in Turkey the national risk comes from the Taksim “stinkers” and the Kurds; in Egypt from the Islamists and the “foreign conspirators”; in Greece from HIV-positive prostitutes, the “dodgers”, the troublemakers etc.

Today, crisis imaginaries tend to replace the social contract as the source of legitimate political power in many other places around the planet, especially after 9/11. Yet, in the Mediterranean, crisis governmentality is growing beyond all proportion. In the Mediterranean North, it is used both as a tool to dissolve relatively developed “social welfare states” for the first time on such a grand scale, and everywhere in the region as a template for new forms of population control and problem management in the most important areas of modern government: economics, energy, health, (bio)security, border control, maintenance of intra-state peace, policing, “humanitarian” action, and even in creating new (para)states. If one approaches the Mediterranean through such an analytical-political filter, one will observe that the intra-Mediterranean differences in the “political-cultural” context pale in comparison to the similarities, overlaps, exchanges and common practices imposed by instances of crisis governmentality.

Governmentality of the Commons

This kind of governmentality refers to the sites and the movements being formed daily on the basis of the defense and the spread of “commons” – whether they are natural (forests, water, energy), cultural (community traditions, new attempts of collective self-organisation) or political (social, labour, natural and human rights, beyond their exploitation by experts and international agencies).

Thus, efforts to gain autonomy from central authority are combined with new ways of self-organisation, self-management and self-government, based on a critical attitude towards the dominant forms of management of nature, labour, political communities and, ultimately, power.

The new practices do not reject governmentality in general, but rather attempt to socialise it, so that the once governed now can govern themselves through the collective control of knowledge about the “commons,” which could in turn become common knowledge. We can observe forms of this governmentality in the ways in which nature and labour, creativity and solidarity, urban landscape and collective property are defined and subjected to appropriation, as well as in the forms of decision-making both in political and in historical communities.

Examples of governmentality of the commons are mushrooming everywhere around us, but neither our analytical nor our political glance is trained to regard them properly. In politics, this may be due to a dominant conception of social change, which states that the latter will be either universal (a complete revolutionary takeover) or not worth speaking of. This perception can be attributed to a rather messianic and “crisis-centric” view of history. In the academic field, the blindness may be due to the dominant position that the political science and economics enjoy, according to which politics is mainly what major players do: government, military, media, political parties, civil society.

If we lift the iron curtain of “high politics,” we might be able to see that beyond the deadly conflict between the Generals and the Brotherhood in Egypt, the confrontation between the pro-Memorandum and anti-Memorandum forces in Greece, the bras-de-fer between secularists and Islamists in Turkey, the devastating civil war between regime and jihadists in Syria, there are other forces that are emerging through everyday struggles on the ground that deserve both substantial scientific analysis and serious political attention.

For an anti-antisocial investigation

Given all this, we need an innovative research agenda which focuses on the aforementioned axes – crisis governmentality, governmentality of the commons, the new Mediterranean – and their interconnections; at the same time, however, this kind of inquiry must escape the rules of formal scientific research in which quality control and dialogue occurs solely within the confines of academic peer review. It is an admittedly difficult undertaking, but the current circumstances render the immediate creation of such research structures imperative – structures which regard society as partner and not as a laboratory object examined by scientists from the safety of their microscopes. Until social science recognizes that it is only through interaction with the society it studies that its definition as “social” has any meaning, the research produced will be by default (as it largely has been), “antisocial”.

Today, the material conditions are in place for the emergence of an “anti-antisocial research”: high technology open to all, mass access to resources and information, a widespread need to re-define the meaning of collective life. Organizationally, these new research structures can have a triple role.

First, to put forward the innovative research agenda outlined here, but this time with the active participation of the “subjects,” both in gathering information as well as in theory formation. The once-passive “subjects” can deploy methodology to become the researchers of, and “experts” on, their own lives. Second, to serve as privileged channels of communication and knowledge-sharing about new forms of crisis governmentality and, even more, the new experiments with commons governmentality in the Mediterranean and elsewhere (the link with Latin America is key here). Third, to contribute to the primary production, socialization and implementation of new imaginaries that will aim to deconstruct crisis governmentality and promote the new governmentality of the commons. These imaginaries can be grafted from both social experience and scientific research, finally aiming at the desegregation of the two.
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These interventions will not be easy, but the deconstruction of dominant ideologies and their replacement by alternative imaginaries poses an immediate task for both research and society, especially when even forces that are self-defined as radical are pervaded by similar perceptions: the three dominant Muses of our times (Crisis, Work and Development) are accepted by almost everyone, despite potential differences among their supporters. Opposed to these sacred cows of modernity (you can add Science here too), it would be useful –and is certainly necessary– to contrast more pluralistic, liberating and just forms to live our lives and also to understand them.

Nikolas Kosmatopoulos is a cultural anthropologist. This year he teaches at the University of Columbia /New York and in Sciences Po/Paris.

The author wishes to thank Athena Athanasiou, Giorgos Kallis, Penny Koutrolikou, Samah Selim and Kristin Lawler for reading the text and proposing changes.

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