Academic journal article Review of European Studies

Public Policy and Foucaultian Critique: Towards a Happy Marriage?

Academic journal article Review of European Studies

Public Policy and Foucaultian Critique: Towards a Happy Marriage?

Article excerpt


This article suggests that certain intertwinements can be discerned between contemporary public policies and post-structural thinking, emblematically represented by Foucault and scholars drawing upon his work. The article demonstrates that the post-structural perspective on power, while recognising its strengths and efficacy, confines observers to a particular form of analytical critique, which sets specific limits for what can be observed and debated. The position of Nikolas Rose is discussed with a specific attention to his diagnosis of the adoption of 'community' as a governmental category and his understanding of the relationship between power and critique. A significant challenge for this form of critique is the recent embracing of concepts of 'diversity' and 'pluralism', both in welfare reforms and service arrangements. Another difficulty is posed by how to engage with the material conditions of critical practice which implies analytical critique and resistance through creative self-formation. The article suggests some dislocations of the generalized Foucaultian position on public policy that seem increasingly necessary in the present situation.

Keywords: Public policy, Foucault, Post structuralism, Critique, Diversity

1. Introduction

One thing we have learnt after post-structuralism is that knowledge is immanent to the field of practice and power relations with which it engages. The article discusses this sort of immanence in respect to critical knowledge of public policy, especially of the post-structural variety. It poses the following question: what happens when the forms of critique and notions of power underlying that critique, themselves get taken up by domains of practice and policy? Are we then to dismiss post-structural critique as mere ideology? Or are we able to adapt and modify our analytical framework to show how this critique becomes a part of the practice of public policy itself? This article pursues the latter approach while taking into consideration a number of reservations against post structural critique voiced particularly by neo-Marxist critics.

First, we outline the post structural conception of critique of political and administrative authority, foregrounding Michel Foucault's conception of power as paradigmatic in this regard. Second, we discuss recent attempts to theorize the immanent relationship between social critique and the power being criticized, assessing insights proposed by Nikolas Rose. Third, a case study done by one of Rose's colleagues is discussed in some detail with a focus on its lack of attention to the social conditions for exercising critique. Fourth, we conclude by suggesting two displacements of the poststructuralist position with respect to notions of diversity embedded in the romance of civil society or user sensitive services, and with respect to the material, social and political conditions of the Foucauldian ideal of creative self-fashioning as a form of critical practice. A significant aim of the article is to point to a way of combining post-structural critique with elements of a more traditional social policy focus on economic distribution and recent considerations of human capability.

2. Post Structural Theory as a Smoke Screen?

In recent years, the general relationship between critique and the objects of critique has been tackled by a range of academics of various persuasions, including Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri (2001), Slavoj Zizek (1999), and Mitchell Dean (2001). A critical observer of social policy, Peter Taylor-Gooby, took a radical stance on the apparent affinities between social policies and poststructuralist thinking. He argued that postmodern theorizing has come to serve as an "ideological smoke screen" obscuring fundamental reforms of social policy such as financial cut-backs, privatizations and dismantling of services (Taylor-Gooby, 1994: 385). The postmodern focus on diversity and particularism allegedly ignores the universalizing advance of liberal market principles. …

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