December 15, 2004

deliberative democracy, Foucault, mutual obligation

The emergence of deliberative democracy in Australia will come out of the political spheres that consist of political association and interaction separated from and in opposition to the liberal state now controlled by the conservatives. The insight here is the importance of the conversations taking place in civil society in the meeting places such as coffee shops, the debates in the broadsheet newspapers, the deliberation in the blogosphere, and the dialogue in political associations.

An example is the current dialogue about mutual obligation and indigenous people which is being conducted by Meg Lees; by public opinion here and here); by Kick and Scream (here and here and here) and Troppo Armadillo (here and here). A key text in this dialogue in the bloggosphere is this one by Pat Dodson and Noel Pearson.

Sean Leahy

The process of deliberation and opinion formation about what should be done about the third world conditions of indigenous people, and their current welfare dependency, will proceed differently in the diverse public spheres of civil society, due to the political and economic structures. So it is useful to ask the Foucauldian question, 'how is power exercised in liberal society?'

It is an appropriate question because in this debate we are concerned with power, how power works, and to separate out power to improve the health of the children from force exercise against the community's will. A key issue that has arisen in the public debate is this: 'what is the nature relationship between the imposition of mutual obligation by the state and the liberty of the indigenous people to shape their own way of lif?.

At this stage of debate this relationship is currently seen terms of an either or dualism of (negative) freedom and (government) constraint. I suggest that Foucault offers a way to transgress this dualism, in the light of this post on governmentality and the duality of (free) subject and power (as domination).

So what is Foucault saying? How can he help us?

The above mentioned post was part of a series of posts on governmentality that were based on this text. The post said that:

"Governmentality refers to a continuum from techniques of government to technologies of self-regulation. This enables a more complex account of the way neo-liberalism works as a mode of governance, with its strategies of making individuals and families responsible for social risks such as retirement, illness, unemployment, and poverty.This shaping of responsibility as care of self leads to a moral subject who is able to rationally assess the costs and benefts of a particular course action in relation to others."

Mutual obligation is an example of what Foucault means by governmentality. It is a mode of governance of a population that works by shaping the conduct free subjects so that they become responsible parents and members of the community.

As Dodson and Pearson argue, the aim of this mode of governance:

"The aim must be to normalise obligations between Aboriginal parents and their children, between family members, and between individuals and their communities....The obligation to attend to children's hygiene is primarily an obligation owed by parents and adults to their children. It is not an obligation that, in the normal course, is owed to government..."

So the government should be shaping the parents conduct so they become the kind of subject, who as parents, fulfil their familial responsibility to attend to the hygiene of their children to prevent them from getting sick: the blindness caused by trachoma, the kidney failure caused by scabies and the deafness caused by unresolved ear infections.

Ali Rizvi has some useful insights here about how Foucault understands the workings of power. He quotes a passage from Foucault's, 'The Ethic of Care for the Self as a Practice of Freedom”, where Foucault says:

"Relations of power are not something bad in themselves, from which one must free one’s self. I don’t believe there can be a society without relations of power, if you understand them as means by which individuals try to conduct, to determine the behaviour of others. The problem is not of trying to dissolve them in the utopia of a perfectly transparent communication, but to give one’s self the rules of law, the techniques of management, and also the ethics, ethos, the practice of self, which would allow these games of power to be played with a minimum of domination” Michel Foucault (1987) “The Ethic of Care for the Self as a Practice of Freedom” trans. J. D. Gauthier Philosophy and Social Criticism special issue “The Final Foucault” 12 Summer, p. 129).

And in this latter post Ali usefully comments:

" ...practices of subjection are not all pervasive in the sense that there is always room for the constitution of subject as autonomous subject amidst the practices of subjection.

This is possible because Foucault does not oppose power to freedom. Power is one kind of relation while freedom is another kind of relation. According to Foucault power “is the mode of action on the action of others” in the sense that its purpose is “to structure the field of possible actions of others”. Hence viewed, power relations must form an integral part of any society and thus “there can be no society without power relations”. Moreover power and freedom far from being contrary concepts are prerequisites for each other. At least Foucault makes it explicit that power can only be exercised “over free subjects and only insofar as they are free”. If power is the structuring of other’s action it can only be possible if there is space (freedom) for such a structuring."

This point is significant.The indigenous people in Mulan in Westeren Australia may be living in third world conditions but they are free subjects in a liberal society. So the techniques and instrumentalities of mutual obligation are concerned to shape the conduct of free indigenous subjects. There actions are to be structured to ensure they take responsibility for their children's health. And the indigenous community has agreed to have their conduct so shaped by the mechanisms of mutual obligation.

The questions are: is there space (freedom) for a structuring of the other’s action in those indigenous communities currently living on the edge of modernity?

Can aboriginal people be shaped to become free liberal subjects?

Are they, as liberal subjects able to, to use the instruments of mutual obligation to impower themselves, become more responsible parents and govern their community so that better health outcomes for their children can be achieved?

Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at December 15, 2004 05:18 PM | TrackBack
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