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David Theo Goldberg Headshot

Governmentality, Inc.

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Mitt Romney's candidacy represented the bid to complete the corporatization not just of American political life but of its logics of governing, its ways of thinking and doing in politics and administration, what I will call in short its governmentality.

Government already attuned to the cultural virtues of corporate thinking, but not completely so. There is good reason for administrations to attend to costs and prudent spending, to running efficiently and minimizing waste, to well-oiled service delivery and eliminating corruption. But in the contemporary conservative political rhetoric, public administration should much more run like a business than it tends to.

On this logic, if it can even be called that, a strong leader in the presidency signals a CEO figure unbridled by regulation, with yes-men in Congress (yes, preferably all men, few if any of color). He would be capable of issuing executive decisions to be executed unstintingly by highly paid underlings given over more to executing the CEO's vision than to the wellbeing of the polity. Citizens are considered consumers to be convinced of The Brand's value by infomercials rather than sovereign decision-makers capable of determining their best interests on the basis of the fullest information presented to them.

As with any corporation worth its economic value, the bottom line in this administrology means:
  • attending to cutting costs at all costs;
  • passing along costs and losses to others both concrete (individuals, governments, taxpayers) and abstract (the environment) wherever possible;
  • increasing worker productivity at the lowest wages and benefits the market will bear (all benefits programs for public sector workers are considered far too generous and should be cut--think Scott Walker);
  • hedging risk even at the risk that ventures then become riskier (e.g. public pension funds investing in high risk mortgages);
  • eliminating regulation;
  • offshoring production and services to the least regulated sites in the world and where the tax burden is minimal at most;
  • and avoiding any tax liability--the very hint of paying taxes as a burden to be avoided rather than a social responsibility for which social infrastructure is commonly shared.

Romney's campaign came to be handsomely supported by the likes of the Koch bros., Sheldon Adelson, Steve Cohen, among other billionaires, precisely because they stood to gain enormously in personal and corporate terms from a CEO president implementing their values and interests as policy. But they supported him as well because they saw something of themselves in him, recognizing themselves as CEOs in the figure of the sovereign executive. Unchecked, unregulated, unbowed to anyone, least of all the miserable multitudes making up the 47 percent.

Like the titans of contemporary capital, the presidential CEO would be "not lazy," a "grown up," a "maker" not a "taker." He would raid uncooperative nations as he would a rival business, breaking up nations as he would a corporation more profitable in pieces than as a whole. He would fire public workers as he would private ones, no matter the human cost to them and those they support as well as the public more broadly, outsourcing governmental functions to private corporations as he would private production and services to foreign workers. In short, a powerful white dude lording over all others. That's what it would take to restore American power in the world, love it or license it for a revenue stream.

There has been a good deal of commentary concerning the failure of this as an election strategy. The corporate bubble has turned out to be as devastatingly shortsighted as the Washington Beltway one.

Yes-men shield the CEO from the true state of things. Deniability is also self-denial. Insider polls reproduce assumptions rather than reveal the actual state of voters' minds, volatile as the latter can be.

Multitudes are at least as rational as corporate executives, as good at calculating what serves self-interest as they are at serving the public interest. Here, interest is not reducible simply to profit-making on the single register of disposable money in hand or bearers of debt, personal or public.

By any calculation but economic power, the 47 percent outnumber the 2 percent, and "unfortunately" for corporate governmentality the former tend to vote even (perhaps especially) in the face of widespread efforts to disenfranchise them.

Young voters are as notoriously unpredictable in their voting interests as they are in their cultural ones, save for the fact that they tend not to want to be told what to do, how to be and act, by their moralizing, single-minded, and freedom denying elders.

Blacks and Latinos recognize instantaneously the John Wayne politicians who seek to keep them in their racially driven place, and their votes signal their critical resistance.

Women were constantly reminded by early 1960s Mad Men-lookalikes repeatedly insisting what they can or cannot do with and to their own bodies that these were indeed mad men. That their fantastical claims sounded more like the eugenicist 19th century than the digitally enabled 21st only serves to reinforce the fact that these make-believe conservatives hardly comprehend women's concerns, let alone represent them.

And perhaps as much as anything else, workers of all stripes and ranks have tended to remember the fiscal mess made by the leading executives at the close of the Bush years, for which the rest of us now are footing the hefty bill.

This projected corporatizing governmentality, we have come to realize from the painful lessons of the past four years, is far from all it is touted to be.

In the face of all of this, so self-assured of victory was the corporate CEO politico in the bubble of made up data, he arrogantly wrote only a victory speech for November 6. By midnight the bubble had been popped by a heterogeneous electorate a good deal sharper than all the CEOs gathered in Boston for a celebration that turned out to be oiled more by vinegar than the Dom Perignon on ice.

If these are political lessons the heterogeneous multitudes have now put to productive political play, there is another less emphasized one to be learned about the "make-believe" practices of corporate governmentality. Mitt Romney and his Boston tea party acted in the face of all sorts of unnoticed evidence, or at best cherry-picked this or that piece of data to bear out the CEOs pre-fabricated campaign strategy.

Here's the record, broken and warped:

Deny hard work by the 47 percent, dig one's head in the rising sea and sands of climate change, disparage the productive virtues of government and of hardworking public workers, the importance of teachers, the power of pulling together.

Deny the polls when they predict against you, or diss the pollster whose predictions bring you bad news just as you might the loyal but critical employee who tries to bring you back to earth when you are being too bullish in the face of all the counter-factuals.

Republican candidates and their more extreme supporters now tend to deny the human causes of global warming or the age of the earth or the theory of evolution. They do so in the face of all the evidence and compelling argument or despite the lack of any reasonable counter-argument because it doesn't quite comport with their worldview. But the same is true of the claim that reducing tax rates leads to job growth, or that radical debt reduction will be wrought by ending tax loopholes and deductions, or will spur economic growth.

So there is a significant lesson we should take from the utter failure of corporate governmentality to enable a sustainable world, to attend to scientific evidence, to raise the index finger to economic data that reasonably run counter to their bubbleworld of short term profitability or political victory whatever the human cost. This incapacity to draw on reasonably available evidence, to structure a view of the world according to pragmatic considerations of what can be shown reasonably to work and to fail flies in the face of a century long tradition of American pragmatism, burnt at the stake of current conservative pyromania.

The only compelling conclusion to be drawn from this otherwise depressing picture is that until the Republicans change their views about evidence and show they respect both what the best available evidence entails and the reasonableness of an increasingly heterogeneous polity, we should pay them no heed. No attention on climate change, on immigration, on budgets and debt ceilings and fiscal cliffs.

The radicalized mindset and logics of contemporary conservatives, egged on by megalomaniacal corporate heads, have led us economically over the cliff before, have pushed us into mudslides, to urban floodings and drownings on a massive scale, to burgeoning balloon payments and lost homes, to massively inflated interest payments on debt, to bailing out failed experiments, unnecessary wars, and unjustifiable welfare payments to fat cats.

None of which is to say that corporate executives cannot serve as public stewards. As Michael Bloomberg has proven in his better moments as NYC mayor, or Jon Corzine and Rick Scott in their worst gubernatorial instances, they just cannot do so thinking that the fix on public service is simply to reduce it to corporate logics and executive orders. Good governance requires consultation, collaboration, creating consensus and coalitions around commitments to a shared life, public goods, common sacrifices, and reasonably distributed benefits. Not just to imposed bottom lines, business friendly environments, and public policies overwhelmingly favoring the well-to-do.

All the evidence suggests enough already.