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Neoliberalism as a more indirect art of governing?

Social democracy versus neoliberalism. Norwegian governing art 1814–2020
Forfatter: Svein Hammer
Forlag: Solum Bokvennen (Norge)

MANAGEMENT: This is a book about what neoliberalism is – also as a more indirect art of governing

In the new book Social democracy versus neoliberalism Sociologist Svein Hammer tries to give us a deeper understanding of the present by pointing out changes in the way society is governed, what Hammer calls "governing art". An important point for him is that the transition from social democracy to neoliberalism has not been that the state has withdrawn or become less important, but that statone is used in a different way. There it social democracyIf governance was about more direct governance and planning, neoliberal governance is about creating norms and frameworks that promote competition and market structures.

Hammer lays out a wide-ranging critique of growth and modernity that affects social democracy and neoliberalism to an equal degree.

To understand the change or transformation of Norway, Hammer not only draws on academic insights, but also in his early years as an active member of the Young Conservatives and a period with various administrative and development positions in the Housing Bank and the Municipality of Norway. These experiences enrich his analysis. Since he himself has been attracted to the ideals of freedom of the 80s and 90s and "settlement with social democracy", he can understand more of their appeal. And because Hammer has later been in the middle of the more subtle, but at least as important changes in the public sector, he also sees that the New Public Management wave has involved far more than just tinkering with an already existing system.

Michel Foucault's lectures

A sneaking feeling that something, on the contrary, was fundamentally changed through endless attempts at efficiency and reorganization, seems to have been a triggering reason why Hammer began to look at his own contemporary prevailing ideas with a more critical eye. He largely draws from this gaze Michel Foucault #'s lectures on neoliberalism from 1978 and 1979, which was published posthumously as Birth of biopolitics, ("The birth of biopolitics") in 2004. Foucault's lectures are an ever-recurring point of reference, and Hammer occasionally balances on a fine line between the constructive in using Foucault's lectures to shed new light on Norway, and the less useful in pushing the Norwegian reality into Foucault's framework. An important point emphasized by Hammer is that neoliberalism, in Foucault's understanding, involves a different form of exercise of power than the authorities' previous, actively disciplining form – which is referred to in works as The history of madness (1991 [1961]) and The History of Sexuality (2001 [1976]). Despite the continuities, neoliberalism is understood as a more indirect art of governance, where frameworks and competitive mentality are internalized by the citizens (the subjects) to such an extent that we begin to govern and discipline ourselves.

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Whether this is very frightening or very clever depends on the eye that sees – and later it has been speculated whether Foucault himself was really attracted to neoliberalism. However, Hammer is clear that he is now critical of this development, although he also makes it clear that he does not want to return to social democracy either. Where other critics emphasize growing social inequality and the weakening of democratic values, Hammer's critique is primarily about the ecological. Based on the previous books From everlasting growth to green politics (2016) and The future of Norway (2018), in the last chapter of the book, he lays out a wide-ranging critique of growth and modernity which, according to him, affects social democracy and neoliberalism to an equal degree.

The neoliberal discourse

This is a book about what neoliberalism is, and to a certain extent about how this has become a dominant current in Norwegian society. What is missing, however, are experimental answers to why we have gone from social democracy to neoliberalism. What is behind the development where one art of management has been replaced by another? About this, Hammer writes, among other things: "In a shorter or longer phase, they will be sharpened against each other – until one discourse increases its power, and on the way overcomes the alternatives." Why the neoliberal discourse has increased its power and gained ground, the book gives few hints to answer. Between abstract formulations about currents, fields, impulses and movements, there is therefore a lack of a concrete theory of historical change. Thus, the book is, in a marvelous way, both over- and under-theorized at once.

Perhaps this is a historian's objections to a sociological presentation, but the book has years in the subtitle (Norwegian governing art 1814–2020), and it seeks to explain a change over time. In all social sciences, regardless of the question of why something happens, could provide better answers to what it is we are talking about when we talk about, for example, neoliberalism. The notion that society is shaped through discourses is both captivating and interesting, but in my opinion it is also unsystematic and vague. It might be said that reality itself is also, but part of the point of research must be precisely to try to make it more understandable. Of course, there are few simple answers to why social change occurs, but it seems to me important that we still try to find them.

Ola Innset
Innset (1985) has a doctorate in history from the European University Institute. Dissertation / book "Reinventing Liberalism" (Springer, 2020)

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