Participation and governance in new times

In a recent article in New Statesman (Nov 16 2011) social theorist Will Davies reflects on the “new times” that seem to be emerging through the unfolding crisis which began in 2008. One possibility seems to be the end of the period of “neoliberalism”—or at least the end of some of its intellectual foundations, if certainly not all of them. The basic idea of neoliberalism is that government intervention or collective planning is always doomed to produce problems. In all but the rarest cases, unfettering the self-interested, calculative behavior of individuals would produce greater welfare than collectively planned redistribution. Davies notes that this moral vision has been discredited in particular by the group think and panic behavior of bankers and investors that were the most proximate sources of the crisis. But this failure hasn’t produced a return to a paradigm of regulation, collective decision making, and redistributionist social democracy. Rather it is generating a new way of thinking about human actors as constitutively afflicted by all sorts of cognitive limitations, bounded rationality, subconscious irrational drives, rather than seeing these as marginal deviations from the rational actor. Davies argues that what might emerge is a new political economic paradigm with tools of governance that are based on this view of actors:

“By this account, we are simply waiting for the new paradigm to emerge, with a common expectation that it will draw on neuroscience, behavioural economics, complexity theory and data-mining techniques. Already, the assorted crises of neoliberalism are being framed in psychological terms, be it the hedonism of teenagers, herd behaviour of investors, bad nutritional decision-making, and so on. There is an expectation that financial regulators and central banks will take on expert responsibilities similar to weather forecasters, seeking to depict emergent financial and macroeconomic trends in real time, rather than constructing rationalist models of them.”

What does this have to do with participation? Basically, participation is where the data come from. A basic function of these participatory technologies is to build huge sets of correlations between objects. Google uses our inputs to identify the most useful searches, but it can also help identify flu outbreaks. That’s a crude example, heaven knows what else. Data about purchases from “rewards clubs” do more than target coupons to you; at least, it seems that they should allow companies to identify consumption trends, manage inventory, target what products are likely to succeed in the future. What can be done with the rich network and taste data in Facebook or the health data in Google Health or PatientsLikeMe?

Since the 1960s “participation” has become a powerful political discourse and source of institutional legitimacy. Chris and others are working on this genealogy. Participation, from the Port Huron Statement to Total Quality Management, was conceived as a solution to problems of democracy, bureaucracy, management, efficiency, and so forth. But participation was always more than a technical solution that delivers better “results”. It is also a moral discourse that evokes individual capacities and power, but in a communal, civic, responsible mode—not simply the empowerment and unfettering of the self-interested actor. Indeed the “participant” is something of the cooperative, altruistic counterpart to the purely selfish rational actor. This means that “participation” has a strong normative and ideological force.

Today governments, corporations, non profits, all gain authority by introducing participatory processes into their projects. In biomedicine, for example, these range from comment processes and periods in regulatory decisions; bioethics, IRB, and community consultation panels that include non-expert, “community” members; the NIH even offers grants to patient advocacy organizations to foster their participation. The cultivation of participation is crucial to these institutions’ legitimacy. Thus the meaning of participation is changing, and to think of it only in terms of the problem of cracking open closed and powerful institutions and making them more publicly accountable misses the ways that participation has become a stake in broader political struggle with many actors fighting to define it to their advantage.

The ironic twist here is that participation is fueling the intellectual apparatus (i.e., the correlational knowledge of behavioral patterns) of what may be a new paradigm of governance that is deeply technocratic and non-participatory. The vision of the governance paradigm that Davies sketches isn’t one where decisions are made openly in partnership with human subjects conceived as political stakeholders whose will and investment in decisions must be respected. Rather it is one where human subjects are complex and irrational whose behavior (and happiness) must be managed and optimized.

Part of the task of our lab should be to think of participation as something analogous to the population in Foucault’s famous analysis of biopolitics and governmentality. What happens when “participation” becomes an object of knowledge and manipulation, public and private power, pastoral authority, (even ethical self care)?

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