Academic journal article New Formations

Cutting off the King's Head: The Self-Disciplining Fantasy of Neoliberal Sovereignty

Academic journal article New Formations

Cutting off the King's Head: The Self-Disciplining Fantasy of Neoliberal Sovereignty

Article excerpt


Over the last half-century, traditional definitions of power as predominantly linked to sovereignty are being challenged. Indeed, the idea of a subject ruled by a personal authority is judged to be at best overly simplistic and at worst both descriptively and normatively outdated. To this end, Derrida calls for a 'messianism without a messiah' while other post- foundational thinkers, such as Laclau and Mouffe - urge people to question naturalised power structures and forms of authority.1 Foucault supposedly goes even further in this direction, seeking to reorient the study of power away from sovereignty per say and toward a more sophisticated understanding of how the subject is formed within a complex network of disciplining norms and practices. He thus proclaims:

what we need is a political philosophy that isn't erected around the problem of sovereignty, nor therefore around the problem of law and prohibition. We need to cut off the king's head.2

These desires appear to have particular resonance in an era of neoliberalism where coercive rule by a powerful sovereign is seemingly being replaced by forms of 'self-discipline'. In this respect, the role of the state is not to rule in the traditional sense but rather to implement, rationalize and cultivate a 'proper' market mentality amongst the population.3 Nevertheless, the government has retained an important activist function for, at least in principle, helping individuals navigate and succeed within this emerging neoliberal order.4 These insights problematise the common notion that neoliberalism is eroding, rather than merely reconfiguring, sovereign power. They also put into stark relief the need to better understand the intimate and complex contemporary relationship between discipline and sovereignty.

To this end, the concept of disciplinary power has been theoretically expanded to better account for the psychological 'grip' these disciplining orders hold over individuals.5 Similarly, any attempt to do away with sovereignty cannot ignore its continuing concrete and affective power for contemporary subjects. These concerns are perhaps especially relevant in a twenty-first century that has witnessed the rise of resurgent authoritarian regimes such as in Russia and China, as well as similar policy initiatives like the war on terror that apparently exemplify direct sovereign power at its most potent.6 Similarly, CEOs are increasingly held up as cultural heroes - paradigms of innovation and strong leadership.7 Historically, it must be asked then how disciplinary power is related to and potentially supported by sovereign power within neoliberalism.

This essay attempts to address this issue through introducing sovereignty as an affective fantasy that ironically supports and strengthens neoliberal processes of 'self-discipline', drawing specifically on the psychoanalytic theories of Jacques Lacan. Emerging scholarship emphasising the social implications of a Lacanian approach has focused largely on the role of cultural fantasies for shaping subjectivity and identification.8 Specific to sovereignty, Rhodes and Bloom have noted the continuing appeal of a 'fantasy of hierarchy' linked to the psychological attachment individuals maintain toward an 'ideal leader'.9 Such insights allow for a more complex rendering of the affective role of sovereignty for producing and reproducing the current 'selfdisciplining' subject. In particular, it sheds light upon how the subjection to disciplinary power is strengthened by modes of subjectivation that continue to rely upon an appeal to sovereignty.

This paper reconsiders the relationship and importance of sovereign power for neoliberalism. It proposes that the identification with a powerful sovereign provides individuals with ontological security in the face of rather complex micro-processes of power and broader depersonalised forms of subjection associated with neoliberalism. In this respect, individuals are affectively 'gripped' by sovereignty to account for the complexity and incoherence associated with the concrete and discursive operation of disciplinary power. …

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