The omnipresent threat of violence under neoliberalism

An important argument by David Graeber in his new book. I’ve been thinking about this (particularly on university campuses) since events at Warwick last term and I find his analysis deeply persuasive:

And indeed, in this most recent phase of total bureaucratization, we’ve seen security cameras, police scooters, issuers of temporary ID cards, and men and women in a variety of uniforms acting in either public or private capacities, trained in tactics of menacing, intimidating and ultimately deploying physical violence, just about everywhere – even in places such as playgrounds, primary schools, college campuses, hospitals, libraries, parks, or beach resorts, where fifty years ago their presence would have been considered scandalous, or simply weird.

All this takes place as social theorists continue to insist that the direct appeal to force plays less and less of a factor in maintaining structures of social control. The more reports one reads, in fact, of university students being tasered for unauthorised library use, or English professors being jailed and charged with felonies after being caught jaywalking on campus, the louder the defiant insistent that the kinds of subtle symbolic power analysed by English professor are what’s really important. It begins to sound more and more like a desperate refusal to accept that the workings of power could really be so crude and simplistic as what daily evidence proves them to be.

The Utopia of rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy,pg 32-33

It is curious how rarely citizens in industrial democracies actually think about this fact, or how instinctively we try to discount its importance. This is what makes it possible, for example, for graduate students to be able to spend days in the stacks of university libraries poring over Foucault-inspired theoretical tracts and the declining importance of coercion as a factor in modern life without ever reflecting on that fact that, had they insisted on their right to enter the stacks without showing a properly stamped and validating ID, armed men would have been summoned to physically remove them, using whatever force might be required. It’s almost as if the more we allow aspects of our everyday existence to fall under the purview of bureaucratic regulations, the more everyone concerned colludes to downplay the fact (perfectly obvious to those actually running the system) that all of it ultimately depends on the threat of physical force.

The Utopia of rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy, pg 58

3 Comments

  1. I don’t think Foucault would have ever seen coercion as declining Mark, precisely the opposite. I think it’s more fair to say that he would have seen it oscillating between ‘soft’ practices of power and ‘hard’ practices of power dependent on socio-political and historical circumstances. There are some nice ideas in this but, as usual with things that critique neo-liberalism, I would like some sense of the writer’s agenda (what kind of practices of power they assume should underpin democracy and how they imagine them to be non-coercive).

    1. Well interestingly, he’s a prominent anarchist (in fact you could make a case he’s the most prominent anarchist theorist in the world if we discount Chomsky as not really a theorist of anarchism per se). I think his point is that the whole Foucaldian discourse of ‘power’ distracts attention from organised hierarchies willing to engage in direct violence that act as the ‘back stop’ for social order i.e. keep challenging the rules for long enough and eventually you’ll be hit over the head with a truncheon. I did think the point could be more obviously directed at Deleuzian stuff on social control though – to be fair to Graeber I think he was talking about contemporary Foucaldians as much as making a claim about Foucault’s own writing.

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