Monday, 25 November 2013

Latour's libéralisme

In a previous post I mused on Latour's relation to anarchism, suggesting that the predicament he describes (one of total political and metaphysical anarchy) could perhaps better be approached through an anarchist political philosophy rather than the kind of vague globalist republicanism that Latour defaults to in response to his cosmopolitical scenography.

That was a searching post trying to provoke something in my own thought processes rather than anything else.  Getting more serious, one thing that we need to get to grips with in order to understand AIME, in particular the last few chapters, is Latour's liberalism.

The following is a short dialogue that Latour wrote for the magazine Domus in 2005.  It used to be available on his website but is no longer so I will reproduce it here in full (although it is cached on the Internet Archive).
—I find it quite amusing that when I am in the U.S. I am criticised for being a “liberal”, but when I am in France I am looked down on as a “libéral” even though the adjective means just the opposite…
—In Europe we are right. The drift towards liberalism is deadly. This is why so many people oppose the European Constitution: the whole text is infected with the virus of liberalism.
—A virus? I suppose you are referring to economic liberalism?
—Yes, the domination of market forces, deregulation, globalisation.
—But not liberalism in matters of mores? Not gay marriage, abortion rights and free choice? This stuff you don’t fight? These are not viruses, correct? From what I know, you seem to embrace it wholeheartedly.
—But of course! This is the historical frontline against all the reactionaries who want to imprison us with the shackles of the past: morality, nature, precaution, all the old social mores.
—See, this is what I never get when I am in Europe: How can you fight one liberalism while promoting the other? If you are for the extension of freedom, flexibility, autonomy, emancipation from the prisons of the past, this is just what they advocate in The Wall Street Journal editorials.
—It’s only the freedom of markets they advocate; for the rest they are the worst liberal bashers.
—But that’s exactly what I mean: they are for total autonomy in economic matters and against it when morality is the issue. You love autonomy, flexibility and free choice, where neither the state nor the church intervenes in your private affairs. But then you hide behind the religion of state intervention for economic ones. It’s just as contradictory. If you are for liberty, you should be for it all the way.
—Like the English then?
—More like the Scottish. After all, this is the invention of the Scottish Enlightenment and you, the continental liberals as well as the American anti-liberals, have made a mess of it.
—You are confusing things that have nothing to do with one another: you can be for free choice and against market domination. Actually, you should be.
—Sure, just like the American ayatollahs of free markets who happen to be in favour of school prayer and who want to phase out abortion rights. What I am saying is that I don’t see the logic of it.
— You are mixing up the issues. I don’t want to lose sight of the principal enemy, which is capitalism, not moral emancipation.
—Except, of course, if it can be demonstrated that the principal ally of capitalism is just this extension of freedom to the inner sanctuary of psychology. Is this not exactly the new spirit of capitalism as described by Boltanski and Chiapello? [1] Capitalism, they explain, has learned to turn its worst enemies —the anti-bourgeois critics— into its most faithful supporters: freedom leads to more freedom; autonomy leads to more autonomy; flexibility leads to more flexibility.
—But if you were right, American capitalism should be hamstrung by its reactionary attitude on moral issues. It does not seem to fare so badly in spite of the recent hunt against liberals.
—Fair enough, but the reason might be entirely different and go against your contradictory position as well as against theirs.
—It remains to be seen whether my view is contradictory.
—Don’t you believe that there is such a thing as an independent domain that one calls the economy?
—Of course I do.
—This is what you have in common with The Wall Street Journal and what allows you to be as illogical as them. Since the economy is autonomous, you can attack capitalism —or defend it as is their view— even though when dealing with moral issues you take a totally different stand. For you as well as for them it makes no difference.
—But it doesn’t! The economy forms the basic infrastructure of everything.
—And I presume that morality, law and culture form the “superstructure”? See, you liberals, you are Marxists from the left and those guys, the anti-liberals, are also Marxists but from the right.
—What? The Bible-reading, gay-bashing, liberal-hunting, God-fearing, anti-abortion, Yankee capitalist is a Marxist?
—Yes, just as much as the Derrida-reading, latte-drinking, pro-choice, European-leaning liberal. They both believe that there is such a thing as “the economy”, that it has its own laws, its own impetus, and that it should be promoted (or opposed) en masse.
—Unfortunately, this is the sad truth that has been discovered thanks to two hundred years of economic science in case you had forgotten.
—Nonsense, the economy offers nothing but a hybrid mix of law, morality, institutions, customs, state powers, international organisations, technology and virtues (yes, virtues, go back and read Adam Smith). In no way is it an autonomous and homogeneous bundle of stuff endowed with its own inertia.
—Have you ever heard of “the iron laws of economy”?
—I have heard of the economists’ laws but because I am a libéral I am rather suspicious of the work done by economists to render the economy autonomous.
—Great! So, according to you economies (the material ones) are an outcome of economics (the scientific ones)?
—Yes, that’s about right.[2]
—So the real world is nothing but the outcome of your ideas of it. Idealism, this is pure idealism. If this is the alternative, I much prefer being a Marxist, even though this seems passé to you.
—But I am not saying that it’s passé. I am saying that it’s illogical to be in principle for state intervention for one topic and against it for another. It means you have to take up an entirely different attitude, namely there are no markets, only market organisations.
—Why should that be against my position?
—Because it’s precisely those organisations that are missed when you try and resist the expansion of market forces while doing your utmost to extend flexibility to moral values. Your “radical” opposition to capitalism blinds you to those organisations and their potential for re-organisation.
—But if you start on this slippery slope, you could wind up saying that there is no capitalism, that it is a pure illusion created from two hundred years’ worth of economic pamphlets…
—Do not tempt me. I think I am ready to slip all the way down that slope…
—You libéraux are capitalism’s worst accomplices.
—You liberals are capitalism’s worst accomplices. 
[1] Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapelllo, The New Spirit of Capitalism (Translated by Gregory Elliott), W W Norton & Co Inc, 2005.
[2] Michel Callon (ed.), The Laws of the Markets, Blackwell, Oxford, 1998.
Here is what Latour says about liberalism in the vocabulary section of the AIME site:
The question of liberalism occupies the whole of European history. In this inquiry it takes on a particular sense: can we free ourselves from all metadispatchers and finally break free from the two-hundred-year religious war between State and Market? It is this dual liberation that we refer to here as "liberalism" - we detach ourselves completely, of course, from "neo-liberalism", which only stirs up the old religious war, forgetting that there are only "market organizations" and as a result that the State-Market opposition is a practical impossibility. 
"Liberal" contains liberty: aime is liberal (in the English and French sense of the word) in the specific sense that we try to undo the configurations both of The Economy as a metadispatcher of all [org] roles and of the state as the degree zero of political experimentation. We ask again the dual question of freedom: how can market organizations function freely to explore what was once merged in The Economy but which now becomes the free movement of [pol], [att], [org], [law], [mor] and [fic]? How can we give back a semblance of truth to the State's incredible claim of embodying the common good without trial, without experience, without instruments, without reprising the movement of politics liberated from the State? (Hence the importance of the Dewey-Lippmann pragmatic tradition for politics.) 
A liberalism that exceeds the false quarrel between Market and State is slightly asymmetric in that, two and a half centuries after the beginnings of economics, we still doubt the automatism of markets and their search for the optimum while the best minds (in Europe at least) act as though there was a total assimilation between the State and the Common Good - which doesn't need any instruments, trials, and does not contain any friction. In other words, Economics-as-a-discipline, for once, is superior to political theory because it studies, with all its equipment, that which it sees as a difficulty, a problem, while statism (outside of Dewey-style pragmatisms) continues to act as if (in France at least) the discovery of the "common world" was unproblematic. In this sense, a liberal always leans towards market organizations with a little less mistrust than a liberal mind leans towards the state: at least in market organizations problems of optimization are seen by everyone to be difficult.
On the subject of the market Latour approvingly cites Foucault's Birth of Biopolitics lectures:
From the point of view of market organizations, there is no fundamental difference between Market and state except that, in the ideology of the economy, they are two ways of adding fictional transcendence to devices for calculating and exploring the common good. This transcendence leads to a short-circuiting of the difficult search for the common good. 
According to Foucault, political economy leads to the market becoming a new form of veridiction (p. 34, p. 63) whereas, before the reign of The Economy, it was only one of the things that justice and policing forces had to monitor carefully: "Of course, I do not mean that this is the first time that Europe thinks about the world, or thinks the world. I mean simply that this may be the first time that Europe appears as an economic unit, as an economic subject in the world, or considers the world as able to be and having to be its economic domain (...) let’s say that we have the start of a new type of global calculation in European governmental practice." (Foucault, 2004) p. 58.
Which brings me to this article that I read recently by Michael Behrent: Liberalism without humanism: Michel Foucault and the free-market creed, 1976–1979.  Here's the abstract:
This article challenges conventional readings of Michel Foucault by examining his fascination with neoliberalism in the late 1970s. Foucault did not critique neoliberalism during this period; rather, he strategically endorsed it. The necessary cause for this approval lies in the broader rehabilitation of economic liberalism in France during the 1970s. The sufficient cause lies in Foucault's own intellectual development: drawing on his long-standing critique of the state as a model for conceptualizing power, Foucault concluded, during the 1970s, that economic liberalism, rather than “discipline,” was modernity's paradigmatic power form. Moreover, this article seeks to clarify the relationship between Foucault's philosophical antihumanism and his assessment of liberalism. Rather than arguing (as others have) that Foucault's antihumanism precluded a positive appraisal of liberalism, or that the apparent reorientation of his politics in a more liberal direction in the late 1970s entailed a partial retreat from antihumanism, this article contends that Foucault's brief, strategic, and contingent endorsement of liberalism was possible precisely because he saw no incompatibility between antihumanism and liberalism—but only liberalism of the economic variety. Economic liberalism alone, and not its political iteration, was compatible with the philosophical antihumanism that is the hallmark of Foucault's thought.
Foucault's critical project at this time had a profound asymmetry.  He set out to criticise the state with considerably greater vigour than the he criticised the market, first of all, and, more seriously, he ended up taking the neoliberals far too much at their word with regard to how 'the market' works.  This is explained by reference to the upsurge in interest in liberalism amongst the French left in the mid to late 1970s in resistance to the Mitterrandian establishment left and the still all too Stalinist Communist party.  Foucault rejected political liberalism due to its intrinsic humanism (human rights and all that) but found in economic (neo)liberalism a form of governmentality that, if he did not unconditionally endorse, he at least expressed an affinity for.

So, back to Latour.  He is a self-declared libéral.  How radical a declaration is that for a Parisian intellectual these days?  Behrent's article makes clear that it was a somewhat provocative affiliation in the 1970s but we're a long way from that now.  Secondly, given that Foucault takes the market too much for granted (indeed, he assumes that there is such a thing) and given that Latour endorses Foucault's general economic analysis then how are we to understand the final few chapters of AIME?  It seems to me that this can be read as an extension of Foucault's project, going further than he was prepared to.  Foucault cut off the king's head; Latour takes the extra step in severing the invisible hand, too.  However, how are we then to understand the declaration that a liberal tends towards embracing market institutions rather than the state?  That is an attitude that results from a very French experience, I would aver.  From a British perspective, we have never had such a state-centric political discourse.  We have been market liberals for a very long time.  This goes to show something else: that for all the talk of the West and European ontologies AIME is, in many ways, a peculiarly French work that derives from largely French experiences.

Latour has always kept his political cards very close to his chest.  He's always been happy to loosely affiliate himself with 'the left' but always in quite a vague way.  Clearly he is attempting to articulate a kind of soft left liberalism that is in thrall to neither the state nor the market - and arguably this goes beyond where Foucault got up to.  But, then again, in letting the state recede into the background and in suggesting a preference for market institutions is Latour not somewhat giving up on the state as a site of political contestation?  In prioritising issues over institutions is he not distracting us from the fundamental inequities in issue-processing that structure our collectives?

Having severed the invisible hand he is carefully reassembling it in what he sees to be its proper configuration - as a fully visible multiplicity of 'hands' qua calculative mechanisms.  However, he seems to have no real interest - or at least not an equal interest - in reassembling the king's head!  This metadispatcher seems to have been subordinated to the multidispatchers (to coin a term) of economics.

Is he not still in thrall to biopolitical governmentality in much the same way as Foucault was (arguably)?  What kind of liberalism is this?

Lots of information, lots of questions, no answers - yet!  But this, I think, is key.

Provisionally I will stick my neck out and say that Latour goes beyond Foucault in submitting the market to critical scrutiny and reassembly (severing the invisible hand as well as the king's head) but he sticks too closely to Foucault (and thus perhaps too closely to the anti-statist French liberals of the 1970s) in accepting and even celebrating the subordination of the state to economic mechanisms.  He radically rearticulates what these mechanisms are but their priority over and above the state seems to remain.


  1. thanks, didn't know that bit but I'm liking "the economy offers nothing but a hybrid mix of law, morality, institutions, customs, state powers, international organisations, technology and virtues (yes, virtues, go back and read Adam Smith). In no way is it an autonomous and homogeneous bundle of stuff endowed with its own inertia"
    too bad he didn't stick with investigating the particularities of such shifting assemblages, dmf

  2. Yes, the performative economics stuff (following all the work Michel Callon has been doing for the past twenty years) is really interesting. Latour's really articulating all that back catalogue (mainly Callon but others too) in an abstract fashion but there's plenty of empirical stuff there, albeit not work he's done himself.

    The problem I have is not the disaggregation of the invisible hand qua 'metadispatcher' into the many 'multidispatchers' of the techniques of economics (conceived in the broadest sense to encompass e.g. accountancy as well as academic economics). The problem I have is in the reduction of the state to just another metadispatcher 'opposing' the market.

    The suggestion of 'metadispatcher' is that it's concerned with the optimal allocation of goods and services across a population - pretty much the subject area that defines economics. But what economics doesn't recognise so often is the necessary role of the state to dispatch, we might say, discipline and punishment in order to (a) ensure social order and (b) bail out the markets.

    If we can accept that the 'goods and services' that the state qua multidispatcher distributes are for the most part utterly different to the function that markets serves then we might be getting somewhere but we're still applying the vocabulary of the market (even if it's a highly reformed vocabulary) to the state - a category error.

    Or, in other words (and I'm just thinking out loud again now!), Latour opposes state and market as if these were two different institutions competing to perform the same task. They are not. In their liberal forms, at least, they are co-emergent, co-dependent symbiotes sharing a distribution of labour (rather than sharing the labour of distribution).

    Speaking of one in terms of the other is an inadequate reassembly - it misses the whole substructure of discipline and punishment (along with the other governmentalities) that structure the field of 'liberty' that Latour apparently wants to rescue.

  3. good, I think that if we are interested in directly intervening in such matters we need to be focusing on what actual person is doing what(what resources, effects, etc)and not spend so much time weaving tall tales about
    mytho-logical figures of speech.

  4. Maybe I'm projecting this because its closer to my own views, but I often think that Latour's politics might best be captured by a version of left-libertarianism and probably the anarchist flavor of that ideology.

    If you have no idea what that means you can go to for a sampling of current thinkers in the school like Kevin Carson.

  5. Thanks for the link. I'm not familiar with this stuff but I'll look into it.

    Latour's attitude towards the state is sometimes ambiguous but, on balance, he seems to endorse a kind of rump social democratic state that will 'guarantee' the pragmatic 'experiments' of civil society. He is a pluralist along the line of descent from Harold Laski and John Dewey to William Connolly. He doesn't remove the state from his vision of politics but, being French, sees the need to radically pare back what the state is assumed to be capable of. This doesn't translate well into Anglo-American political discourse. In the English speaking world we've never really had a concept of the state that is quite as rationalistic and totalising as the French concept of the state. The liberal state has always dominated, certainly here in Britain. So, while Latour is frequently sceptical of 'the State' in the abstract his iteration of it is always (implicitly) centred on the French case, which is not altogether like the British or American cases (never mind the rest of the world).

    He remains within what is, in many ways, quite a conventional model of political theory. His citations of Hobbes et al. aren't ironic - he really does believe that the problems of politics must be resolved by rebuilding the republic, he just wants to proffer a kind of liberal, pragmatist, pluralist republicanism that doesn't limit politics to the 'sphere' of the state but finds it coursing throughout collective life. He wants the state to serve politics wherever it occurs rather than be the exclusive site of politics as such.

    One of the few examples of Latour musing explicitly on the state can be found here:

    He sometimes sounds anarchistic and I think that his political philosophy would be much richer and more convincing if it drew on anarchist resources but ultimately that reading can't be sustained, not at an exegetic level anyway.