Groundwork

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Localism, Care and the “Third Way”

As inaugural instalment of a series of measures to turn David Cameron’s Big Society agenda into reality, in November 2011 the coalition government passed the Localism Act, with the aim to achieve, in their own words “a radical shift of power away from the central government towards local people”. As a matter of fact it largely removes bureaucratic barriers for local councils regarding taxation, planning and expenditure issues. However in addition, and perhaps more interestingly, the Localism Act also enables civic organisations to express interest to run public services whilst retaining their public funding. The much talked about free schools are one example, but libraries, community centres, markets and local shops also fit the bill. The plain English guide to the Localism Act states “This Government trusts people to take charge of their lives and we will push power downwards and outwards to the lowest possible level, including individuals, neighbourhoods, professionals and communities as well as local councils and other local institutions.”[1]

Leaving obvious criticisms of the Big Society “coming across as aspirational waffle that was designed to conceal a deeply damaging withdrawal of the state from its responsibilities to the most vulnerable”[2] to one side, I would like to think Localism – perhaps naively – as how it is advocated: a “third way” of providing services that operates in the realm between the private and the public sector, and is therefore detached from the logics that govern the latter. In this light, can Localism not provide a new ground for critical practice?

Clearly, facing a growing sense of social and economic injustice amongst the population, David Cameron’s discourse of empowerment of the individual serves a double purpose. At face value, Localism contains a profound critique of finance capitalism. It appeases the population by allegedly challenging the conception of the individual as the economic automaton, that has been the foundation of neo-liberal politics of the last few decades.[3] Cameron accuses the individualistic attitude prevalent in society reaching for ever more wealth and economic growth, which leads to a decay of the “internal goods” and deep rooted moral values. The Big Society, he claims, aims to counter balance this trend and to “re-invigorate the ruptured moral fabric of society”.[4]

Cameron of course fails to mention that the morality at the core of his Big Society, largely based on Christian morality[5] with its values of equality, tolerance and vocation, plays a crucial role in a wider strategy of normalisation of society, which we are familiar with from Foucault. For Foucault, the constitutive basis of power within neo-liberal society lies precisely in mechanisms of normalisation, with the aim to optimise society in order to increase its economic output and health, and consequently incur less financial burden. Foucault accurately claims that the shift of power has happened long time ago, and points to a historical transformation during the Victorian age from what he terms the juridical society whose body has the right to health, subsistence, habitation, education, etc, into a society of a living body, who actively seeks the best possible life. Power is then no longer in the hands of a sovereign, but is effectively enacted by the people over the people, and by the self over the self, in a perpetual movement of micro-power and resistance relations. Covertly, society is controlled by the endemic discourse of knowledge emanating from the human and social sciences establishing norms of health, moral conduct, and ultimately “good life”.[6] The task of power is thus no longer that of legislation, but of establishing regulatory principles of discipline, where each subject becomes the judge of his/her own conduct, guided by a hegemonic ideology. Foucault’s notion of governmentality designates precisely this “art of government” in the sense of controlling a mobile and strategic field of power relations and, as a consequence, the conduct of the conduct of others.

Thus, on a second level, Localism can be interpreted as a cunning example of governmentality – taking normalisation one step further. By becoming part of the regulatory apparatus that has formerly been strictly in the hands of the state or complying private institutions  – schools, hospitals, etc. – civic organisations operating under the banner of autonomy become pivotal in the very constitution of vocational morality, diminishing Localism into a mere instrument of normalising power.

However, Foucault’s late thought also provides us with a possibility of resistance to normalisation, which it seems, is in many ways relevant to Localism. Centred around the notion of the care of the self, Foucault sees a potentiality to open up a space – or perhaps rather “a site” – that is not determined by external truths, but rather by a practice that detaches the self from established discourses of knowledge and value. The care of the self describes a “clearing” of power relations in terms of “self-subjectivation”. Through a complex set of practices performed by the subject of turning around to the self, attending to the self, being concerned about oneself, he/she gradually changes his/her mode of being. While in Foucault this leads to the subject “having access to the truth”, such that he/she becomes fully aware of all representations of power that “form” him/her, and thus becomes sovereign over him/herself, it also entails, I think, a deeper transformation of the subject. The fact that he/she applies principles of conduct onto him/herself that originate out of a relation to the self, implies that his/her conduct can’t be other than ethical. The practice of the care of the self, for Foucault, re-instates an ethical dimension of truth, that had been lost with the emergence of the Cartesian “subject of knowledge”, which had gradually replaced the spiritual subject of antiquity in Western thought.[7]

In view of Localism, I wondered whether the principle of care can also be applied to a collective subject – a community, a local initiative, etc –, rather than merely to the individual self. Interestingly, Foucault’s hermeneutics of care is emphatically spatial: he repeatedly speaks about the opening up of a space through the centrifugal movement of turning around to the self, disengaging from discourse, perpetually transforming the self and thus preventing power relations to become static. Foucault sees here the space where ethos, a mode of being of the subject that is purely ethical, can emerge. In its original Greek meaning ethos designates an “accustomed place”, which in Foucauldian thought can be understood as the ground for ethics. One could argue that if the space thus opened up is to be characterised by ethical conduct, it necessarily has to be a social space, becoming accessible to others. Care, then,  arguably acts as a catalyst for a wider ethical practice, gradually forming a collective subject.

To be sure, Foucault remains sceptical towards collective civic movements, since previous models of local “autonomous” communal enterprises have been facing two main problems. Either their practice has been determined by opposition to a singular dominating power, resulting in static, normative discourse of resistance on their side, replicating precisely the power relations they set out to overcome – such as local anarchist initiatives, who gradually became ossified in their discourse against coercive state power. Or they eventually fell victim to their affiliation with the market – such as the Jewish Kibbutzim, which over the last decades faced increasing stratification, the introduction of differentiated wages according to specialisation of labour, and ultimately privatisation of community assets.

Foucault’s notion of the care of the self is not to be read as a one-dimensional account of opposition to dominating power, but rather as a clearing of precisely the discourses that constitute power-resistance relations in the first place. For Foucault, “Resistance has to be like power: just as inventive, just as mobile, just as productive as it is.”[8]

This is where Localism seems to hold a compelling promise. If guided by principles of care, Localism potentially represents a triple detachment – from the state, the market, and from regulatory discourse. Our cities are dense agglomerations of institutions, each creating its own sphere of power and resistance. A public space whose civic governance, despite being state-funded, is able to operate independently from both the arborescent hierarchies of state managerialism, and the entrepreneurial logic of the market, it could be argued, provides a clearing within this density, a political, social and cultural site where the “boundaries of [identity] are overturned, where uncertainty and unpredictability provide the conditions for the mutations, hybridity and combinations that define how newness comes into the world.”[9] Foucault himself recognises the potentiality of such spaces, typically acting as a home for conduct that is deviant from the norm. Not only in the context of psychiatric institutions and prisons he speaks of “other spaces – Heterotopias” – “places that do exist and that are formed in the very founding of society, which are something like counter-sites, a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested and inverted”.[10]

A space set up under the Localism Act intrinsically constitutes a critique of the state. It identifies a gap in service provision that the state cannot provide, does not provide well, or has not recognised as a necessity, and subsequently widens the gap to become a space. However, even more than the “free universities” that have been set up by the Occupy movement, a space opened up under Localism still operates state- immanently and remains subject to coercive power. It therefore cannot be regarded as the breeding ground for one-dimensional discourses of opposition, which simply would not be tolerated. But, by any means, Foucault’s thought is elusive when it comes to actuality. Accordingly, for now we can think Localism merely as a potentiality, carrying within it a capacity to re-define itself, to turn itself into a vehicle of self-subjectivation against the odds of hegemonic state interests. The challenge here consists in retaining the dynamism of the movement of care, projecting the “self” of the involved community into the future, ahead of itself, directing its gaze onto itself where it is not. It requires an experimental and creative approach to its practice, embracing an uncertain process of which the results are unknown. And it certainly requires rigorous askesis, not to fall for any perks of immediate wealth.

Only then can Localism offer the glimpse of an opportunity to overcome its original purpose and disengage from precisely the regulatory morals David Cameron aims to promote through his Big Society agenda. Thus, Localism may indeed hold the potentiality to instigate a practice that, rather than re-invigorating the old values, re-constitutes the moral fabric of society, albeit one that is unlikely to match this government’s agenda.

 By Axel


[2] Rowan Williams, 24/06/2012

[3] Jesse Norman, The Big Society in Question, 03/11/2011

[4] David Cameron, Hugo Young Lecture, 10/11/2009

[5] The Big Society agenda has been largely devised by political thinker Phillip Blond and theologist John Milbank, the founders of the Christian theological and philosophical movement of Radical Orthodoxy.

[6] Foucault, History of Sexuality, Vol. 1

[7] Foucault, On the Genealogy of Ethics, 1983

[8] Foucault, Non au Sexe Roi, 1977

[9] Michael Keith, After the Cosmopolitan? Multicultural Cities and the Future of Racism, 2008

[10] Foucault, Of Other Spaces, Heterotopias, 1967

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One comment on “Localism, Care and the “Third Way”

  1. tokyowitch
    October 23, 2012

    Great article on localism. Would be great to get a followup on how care can be applied to a community if we can even speak of such a thing as a community anymore.

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This entry was posted on October 23, 2012 by in Philosophy and tagged , , , .
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