Localism and Neo-Liberal Governmentality

By Davoudi, Simin; Madanipour, Ali | The Town Planning Review, September 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

Localism and Neo-Liberal Governmentality


Davoudi, Simin, Madanipour, Ali, The Town Planning Review


This commentary offers a Foucauldian-inspired interpretation which conceptualises localism within the framework of neo-liberal governmentality. It argues that although localism represents a continuation and intensification of previous neo-liberalism trends in Britain, it introduces three distinct features related to: the underlying political philosophy of government; the shift of emphasis in government technologies from performance to agency; and the increased visibility of the spatial dimension in the neo-liberal understanding of the 'social'.

Keywords: localism, governmentality, neo-liberalism, technologies of agency, technologies of performance

According to Michael Sandel, Harvard Professor of Government, we live in an historical time of a growing public enthusiasm for engaging in some fundamental social questions. While this may be due to the growing economic and climate uncertainties, in Britain it may also be related to the dramatic social and political changes that are wrapped up in the rhetoric of 'Big Society' and 'localism'. From the outset, it is important to make a distinction between localism and localisation. The former is primarily about governance and the relationship between the state and society, while the latter is mainly concerned with sustainability and the relationship between production and consumption. Although the two are related, they are not quite the same. Localisation is a 'process which reverses the trend of globalisation by discriminating in favour of the local' (Hines, 2000, 27) and privileging: locally owned businesses, use of local resources, recruitment of local workers and services for local consumers (Shuman, 2000). The advocates of localisation place the emphasis on tighter, more visible and geographically proximate relationships between producers and consumers. The promoters of Localism focus on governance relations and more specifically on subsidiarity, devolution and decentralisation of the state's powers and responsibilities.

The focus of this commentary is on the latter. It offers a Foucauldian-inspired interpretation which conceptualises localism within the framework of neo-liberal governmentality. We argue that although localism, as is unfolding in Britain, is a continuation and intensification of the neo-liberal trends which began in the 1980s, it introduces three distinct features. These are related to: the fluctuations in the underlying political philosophy, the shift of emphasis in government technologies and the elevation of a distinct spatial dimension. Following Mitchel Dean (1999, 16), we use the term governmentality to refer to different 'mentalities', rationalities or modes of governing. The term technolog y is used to refer to the bundle of techniques, knowledges, representations, mechanisms and practices through which we are governed and we govern ourselves. Thus, if governmentality is about how we think (as a collective activity) about governing, government technology is about which mechanisms we use to govern and achieve our goals.

Localism as 'giving power away'

If there is such a thing as Cameronism, it is giving power away (The Economist, 2009, 39)

The origins of the current idea of 'localism' go back to the mid-2000s.1 It was during the former Labour Government when the momentum behind the rhetoric of 'giving power away' from Whitehall to town halls began to gather pace. The policy was then called 'New Localism' and was advocated by the advisors to Britain's former Prime Minister, Tony Blair. These included people such as Geoff Mulgan (the then Director of the Young Foundation), Matthew Taylor (former head of Blair's Policy Unit and currently head of the Royal Society of Arts) and Demos (an influential think tank). Among academics, Julian Le Grand (whose advice on health care was often sought by Tony Blair) and Gerry Stoker were also keen supporters. Stoker, one of its chief advocates, defined 'New Localism' as 'a strategy aimed at devolving power and resources away from central control and towards front-line managers, local democratic structures and local consumers and communities' (Stoker, 2004, 117). …

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