Warwick Sociology Journal
Volume 1, Issue 4: Money.
Elliot Bullock
Rosa Coleman
Adam Gayton
Polina Khanova
Jessica Tatchell
University of Warwick
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Volume 1, Issue 4: Money
Economic Sociology Today
Nicolas Gane
What challenges do sociologists face in trying to understand markets that are both
global and highly technologized in form?
Peter Ashton
Understanding the main tenets of ordoliberalism and its links to biopolitics.
Jessica Tatchell
How is consumption made possible: how do brands make use of western conceptions
of the exotic other to sell notions of authenticity?
Sophia Yacoub
Money in Education, Violence in Occupation: Some Reflections on the ‘Sit-in
Samuel Burgum
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Vol 1, Issue 4, pp 1-4
Economic Sociology
Professor Nicolas Gane
Sociology Department, University
of Warwick
The news is currently full of stories about seemingly unconnected ‘economic’
developments of various kinds. Story 1: oil prices have dropped from over $110 to
$50 dollars a barrel in a matter of months, placing some oil intensive economies like
Libya and Venezuela under huge strain, and leading to the near collapse of some oil
dependent currencies, such as the Russian rouble. Story 2: the European Central
Bank has introduced negative interest rates, so that institutional investors now have
to pay for the bank to hold its money rather than be paid a return in the form of
interest. Story 3: Mario Draghi, the president of the ECB, has also recently initiated a
€60bn bond buying programme in an attempt to breathe life into the European
economy. This follows the launch of a new $712 billion quantitative easing (QE)
programme in Japan, and three rounds of QE in the United States that are estimated
to have cost households $360bn. Story 4: in Greece, Syriza is the lead party in a new
coalition government united in its stand against the politics and policies of austerity.
While austerity was designed with the stated aim of cutting public spending and thus
debt in relation to GDP, the opposite has been the case: debt has now risen to 175%
of Greece’s GDP compared with 113% in 2008 (worryingly it is currently 133% in
Italy and 94% in Spain). Story 5: economic inequalities following the recent financial
crisis are rising and this is part of a longer trend: over the last 30 years in the US the
share of household wealth owned by the top 0.1% is said to have increased from 7%
to 22%.
And so the news stories roll on. The question is: how should we, as sociologists
respond to these developments, which, while often couched in purely economic
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terms, are enormously important in terms of their social and political consequences,
and which perhaps are not as detached from each as they might at first appear?
Let’s start with an admission: most sociologists, even those with an established
interest in economic sociology, are rarely engaged with these sorts of issues (at least
within their published work). Part of the reason for this is that the present barely
figures in economic sociology or in the discipline of sociology more generally.
Sociologists tend to be engaged in the study of long term processes rather than
specific events, which the classical theorist Max Weber once said should instead be
the concern of historians. Fine. But what happens when a crisis like the recent one of
2007- hits? In short, the discipline is ill-prepared. The flagship BSA journal
Sociology produced a special issue on ‘Sociology and the Global Economic Crisis’ in
October 2014 – roughly 7 years after the collapse of Northern Rock! I would argue
that this, however, is not a problem confined to this particular journal, but a problem
of a discipline that needs to think again about the time-sensitivity of its own practice.
If sociology continues to be tied to a slow regime of publishing (largely dictated by
the criteria of audits such as the REF) then isn’t it destined to be a discipline that is
always behind the times and thus out of date? There is a debate to be had here about
whether sociology should be slow and painstaking exercise that does not jump to
immediate conclusions but which locates events in broader developments over time,
or whether it should be more concerned with the demands of the present (or perhaps
One thing that has happened post-crisis, however, is that the borders between
sociology and economics – two disciplines that too often have had different priorities
and interests – have started to open up. I see this as an important development.
Some might point the finger of blame for the distance between these disciplines at
economics, saying that too often it has prioritised formal and mathematical models
that have had little relation to empirical reality; that it has had a tendency to promote
an anti-sociological view of the individual economic actor; and so on. But sociology is
not the innocent party here. In the 1980s, the cultural turn took place at the very
moment that it should have been paying increased attention to economics and to
political economy, as in many ways the effects and consequences of the neoliberal
revolution that started then continue to be felt in the present. This is not to say that
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there were no sociologists working on questions of ‘economy’ or ‘markets’, but
overwhelmingly this work tended to be of a particular type: science and technologytype studies that looked at the micro-workings of different instruments of economies
or markets, but which were largely disinterested in the broader political-economic
picture (Donald MacKenzie’s book Material Markets is a clear example of such an
approach). But on both sides of the divide, things are changing. There are new
initiatives within economics to rethink the discipline after the crisis, and there are
signs that sociology is become more engaged with debates within economics and with
thinking analytically and critically about ‘the economy’, along with its relation to the
An example of this opening of disciplinary borders is the latest issue of the British
Journal of Sociology, which addresses the sociological relevance of Thomas Piketty’s
book Capital. This venture is an important step for opening genuinely crossdisciplinary dialogue about important issues such as social inequality. But it also not
without its problems. The lead article is by Mike Savage, who is Professor of
Sociology at the London School of Economics. The argument of his article can be
reduced to three simple points: first, that Piketty’s book should be celebrated because
it ‘champions’ description as a methodological tool; second, that this book can be
used to question grand sociological narratives of epochal change (including those of
globalization, neoliberalism and the so-called mobilities paradigm) because
economic measures such as the ratio of capital against current income show that
social change has, in fact, not been that great; and third, that Piketty’s work can be
used to add a further dimension to sociological theories of class because it adds the
study of wealth and inheritance into the mix.
Why might these points be problematic? Let’s consider them briefly in turn. First,
more description? Is that what we need? Yes, description is important as it helps to
promote understanding, but is description anything more than good journalism? To
go back to the initial paragraph of this paper, there are plenty of descriptions of the
impact that the current drop in oil prices is having on the national economy of
Russia, as well as descriptions of future scenarios of various kinds, including whether
low commodity prices will kick-start Western economic growth, and so on. What is
needed is not just more description but sociological analysis of the role of power and
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(geo-)politics in such international markets. Equally, we need description and
understanding of QE programmes, but we also need analysis of the politics of these
programmes and who they are designed to benefit. And this ties into Savage’s final
two points. For if you believe that nothing has really changed, or is changing, then
this sort of sociological work is not necessary because the answers are there already.
And if you believe that the answer is more detailed description of inequality, then
analysis of the drivers of inequality (many of which are structural and inherently
political – and put into practice by people and organizations that believe in
inequality, of which there are many) take a back seat, if indeed they feature at all.
But let’s be positive: at least such debates are back on the agenda. A strong economic
sociology that is not just descriptive, but also analytical and critically engaged is
necessary to confront the big public issues of our time, and to do so by showing that
these are not purely economic in origin or form. This is the challenge for economic
sociology, and, for me, is also where its excitement lies.
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What challenges do
sociologists face in
trying to understand
markets that are both
global and highly
technologized in form?
Peter Ashton
University of Warwick
Weber’s conception of markets and what constitutes social action within them has
provided the foundation upon which economic sociology, as a discipline, has been
built. However, many markets today are perhaps markedly different from that which
Weber ever could have envisioned, both in terms of size and character. Indeed, many
markets are becoming increasingly global and highly technologized. For the purposes
of this essay, financial markets shall be the case in point. These ‘electronic’ or ‘virtual’
markets connect participants in distant localities within the click of a button, as if
they inhabited the same, physical space. The key question then is - what challenges
do we as Sociologists face in trying to understand such markets?
This is a critical question in the wake of the 2007-8 Global Financial Crash (GFC) but
that which sociology has only recently started to seriously try and answer (Carruthers
and Kim, 2011). This essay shall argue that the sheer pace of change within financial
markets has left much of social theory not yet redundant, but incapable of capturing
their full complexity. Not only is the work of classical Sociologists like Weber
becoming increasingly inapplicable, so too is the work of more recent social theorists
- in particular, Granovetter’s (1985) concept of ‘embeddedness’ and its attendant
structuring principles of networks and relational ties. Therefore, at the core of this
essay’s argument, is the belief that Sociologists need to challenge their assumptions
about the ‘social’ and what it is comprised of. In this vein, the work of Knorr Cetina
shall be drawn upon to demonstrate how this might be possible.
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The first section of this essay will evaluate the continuities and discontinuities
between previous and modern manifestations of financial markets, charting a brief
evolution, which concludes with an analysis of their now highly technologized and
global form. The second section will introduce the concept of ‘embeddedness’ and
how it has been used to understand financial markets through analyzing networks of
interpersonal and interfirm ties. The third section will then directly challenge this
approach, demonstrating its inadequacy in understanding modern financial markets
by utilizing the arguments and concepts advanced by Knorr Cetina. The fourth, and
final section, will then outline three challenges that have arisen out of the preceding
analysis, which sociologists need to rise to if they are to try and successfully
understand markets that are both global and highly technologized in form.
The Evolution of Financial Markets – Continuities and Discontinuities
Weber (2000 [1984]) describes early financial markets by comparing them to local
markets selling fresh produce in small rural towns. In the latter, the farmer trades
what he has produced, selling his material goods to those buyers who are physically
present. Exchange then occurs ‘[…] right then and there’ (ibid:309). In contrast to
this, Weber (ibid) explains that in financial markets the seller attempts to make a
profit from the goods he owns, but does not physically have, by selling them to a
buyer. This buyer does not wish to physically own the goods either, but rather sell
them on again for a profit. Simply put, no ‘production effort’ goes into them (Knorr
Cetina and Preda, 2005). Instead they are inherently speculative. On a fundamental
level, this still remains the difference between modern producer markets and
financial markets:
‘A financial market does not exist when two or more individuals are
prepared to enter into an exchange transaction, but rather when these
actors are prepared to enter into promissory engagements: claims and
commitments over time based on the promise of future outcomes’
(Knorr Cetina, 2012:122)
However, this is arguably as far as the continuities between historical and modern
financial markets stretch. Quantitatively, they are wholly incomparable. The market
capitalization of global equity markets in 2013 stood at over $64 trillion (World
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Federation of Exchanges, 2013). Trading in foreign exchange markets alone averages
$5.3 trillion a day (Bank of International Settlements, 2013). Furthermore,
qualitatively, the number and complexity of financial securities goes far beyond that
which existed 30 years ago, let alone 120 years ago. A vast array of different equity,
bond and derivative products are now tradable on global markets from Credit
Default Swaps to Currency Repurchase Agreements. In this light, finance could be
considered the fourth pillar of economic activity alongside production, consumption
and exchange (Knorr Cetina, 2012). In the UK alone, financial services accounted for
29% of total exports, higher than any other G7 nation (Office for National Statistics,
2014) and it employs over one million people (TheCityUK, 2014). Knorr Cetina and
Preda (2005) argue that they are a ‘defining characteristic’ of the corporate economy
(financing capital investment), the state (borrowing for deficit management and
public investment), the welfare system (pension funds are some of the most powerful
actors in financial marketplaces) and popular culture (from the financial sections of
newspapers to films such as the Wolf of Wall Street). Castells (2000) goes so far as to
say that they have been one of the key drivers of globalization. Essentially, it would
appear that we live in a ‘financialized world’ (Epstein, 2005 in Knorr Cetina and
Preda, 2012:1) in which financial markets are at the very heart of modern risk-based
economies. This also makes them incredibly powerful. Sassen states, ‘[…] the global
capital market actually exercises its disciplinary function on national governments
and pressures them to become accountable to the logic of these markets’ (2000:27).
For example, one can observe this phenomenon with the current currency crisis in
Russia (Buckley and Hille, 2014).
In the truest sense of the work, financial markets are a global phenomenon. Whilst
other markets remain compelled to operate within the context of regulatory
frameworks imposed by nation states, financial markets are significantly less
compelled to do so, operating from a few key global centers (Sassen, 2012). This is, in
part, due to the increasing digitization of financial markets, with the move away from
open outcry pits to electronic market places (Zaloom, 2012). Service providers such
as Bloomberg and Reuters provide a whole host of market data, news and
commentary instantaneously, straight to the screens of market participants. Further
to this, the world’s exchanges have become mostly, if not wholly, electronic and the
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vast majority of trading can now be done through electronic brokerage systems.
Indeed, algorithmic trading by extremely powerful computers can execute, buy and
sell orders within microseconds, taking an increasing proportion of financial activity
away from the trading floor and locating it in ‘[…] an air conditioned warehouse full
of computers supervised by only a handful of maintenance staff’ (Mackenzie,
It is evident, therefore, that financial markets are of critical importance to the
functioning of modern, risk-based economies. They cannot be said to be part of the
primary economy, but instead dwell in a place entirely of their own (Knorr Cetina,
2012). Consequently, they take on substantively different characteristics to other
markets. Namely, their truly global and highly technologized form. Trying to
understand financial markets remains a difficult a challenge for sociologists. Due to
their incredible pace of change and their complexity, much existent social theory fails
offer a fully comprehensive explanation of their structure and sociological
‘Embeddedness’ in Financial Markets – A Network Architecture
In his seminal work, Granovetter (1985) challenges the position adopted by New
Institutional Economics that assumes rational, atomized individuals carry out
economic action. Instead, he argues that economic action is ‘embedded’ in social
relations. Many economic sociologists have since adopted a similar position with a
focus on the ‘network’ architecture of markets (Fligstein, 2001):
‘Social embeddedness is defined as the degree to which commercial
transactions take place through social relations and networks of
relations that use exchange protocols associated with social, noncommercial attachments to govern business dealings’ (Uzzi, 1997:482)
For example, Podolny (2001) characterises networks as the ‘pipes’ through which
‘market stuff’ – information, goods, services, payments – are carried. It is the
structure of these ‘pipes’ that link the nodes of the network, structuring and
coordinating it (ibid). Formal and informal rules govern and maintain these
networks, ‘institutionalizing’ them (Baker et al, 1998). Thus, whilst the financial
markets described above can appear ‘impersonal’ and ‘abstract’, social connectivity is
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still present (Carruthers and Kim, 2011). For example, Choi and Sias (2009 in
ibid:249) found that institutional investors crowd into and out of the shares of
particular industries. Similarly, Hong et al (2005 in ibid:249) found that mutual fund
managers are more likely to buy and sell the same stock as managers in the same city
as them. Whilst Cohen et al (2007 in ibid:249) discovered that mutual funds tend to
invest in companies in which the fund manager and a corporate board member are
embedded in the same educational network.
However, considering this essay’s previous description of financial markets, as global
and highly technologized, one may have expected them to be have become
disembedded from social ties and location. Sassen (1991; 2000; 2005; 2012)
contends the opposite. He points to the existence of three global cities where
financial activity is concentrated - New York, London and Tokyo. These cities
account for over a third of global institutional equity holdings and account for 58% of
the foreign exchange market (Sassen, 2005). This concentration has occurred,
paradoxically, due to the increasingly dispersed nature of finance, which requires
global financial institutions to coordinate their huge networks centrally in order to
attract top talent and have access to the specialised services that they need. Indeed,
Mackenzie (2011) describes how algorithmic trading requires ‘colocation’ to server
sites in order for them to maximise their potential. Furthermore, Sassen (2005)
suggests that there are two types of information that exist, raw data - which is
available to everyone globally – and ‘high order’ data – which requires a social
infrastructure to analyse and produce it. ‘In brief, financial centres provide the social
connectivity that allow a firm or market to maximise the benefits of its technical
connectivity’ (Sassen, 2005:27). For Sassen then, financial markets remain
embedded in social relations and location.
‘Disembeddedness’ in Financial Markets – A Flow Architecture
However, this analysis would not appear to dovetail with the financial markets that
have been previously described. Before the 1980s, financial markets could indeed be
seen as both physically and socially embedded in Exchanges like the Chicago Board
of Trade. These were places of bodily performance - hand signals, jostling, and
shouting constituted the informal and formal rules that served to coordinate market
participants (Zaloom, 2012). The move away from these ‘execution’ markets to
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‘transaction’ markets began with the introduction of the ticker on the New York
Stock Exchange in 1867 (Knorr Cetina and Preda, 2007). This new technology,
although making Exchanges increasingly redundant, still served to reinforce the
‘pipes’ (Podolny, 2001) through which information flowed and in turn buttressed the
need for networks (Knorr Cetina and Preda, 2007). Right up until the 1980s, traders
still relied on their networks of relations to find ‘where the market was at’ (ibid).
However, this all changed when the market began to be lifted out of these networks
and started to reside in only one place – the screen (Knorr Cetina, 2005). This has
progressively led to the disembedding of financial markets from both relational ties
and space. This is not to say that networks do not still exist in financial markets but
to say that they are no longer the ‘salient structuring principle’ (ibid:39).
Knorr Cetina (2012) draws upon her qualitative research in foreign exchange (FX)
markets, the most global and electronic of financial markets, to demonstrate this.
She rejects networks in favour of a ‘flow’ architecture based around ‘scopic systems’
(screens and other attendant software and hardware). This continuously projects a
stream of ‘heterogeneous information’ (price, volumes, news, graphs, commentaries
etc.) in front of traders like a ‘[…] tapestry, small sections of which are woven in front
of us’ (Knorr Cetina, 2012:127). Traders, in turn, act on this information, projecting
the market-on-screen forward once again – an ongoing feedback loop, which is
fundamentally reflexive in nature (ibid). In this respect, Knorr Cetina does not
render technology passive like network approaches but places them alongside
humans, at the center of sociological analysis. This appears to better capture their
highly technologized nature. It also has consequences for how financial markets are
theorized as being coordinated and socially underpinned.
This technologically ‘scoped reality’ is available to everyone globally, regardless of
location (Knorr Cetina, 2005). The market, as a whole, resides in the screen rather
than in a network of interpersonal and interfirm ties. Market participants are
intensely disciplined in their observation of the market-on-screen (Abolafia, 1996),
themselves becoming, ‘[…] embodied instruments for reading the market and
reacting to its every twitch’ (Zaloom, 2012:179). It is this intense, unforgiving
orientation of traders to the market-on-screen that acts as the primary coordination
mechanism rather than networks or relational ties (Knorr Cetina, 2012). What is
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more, this temporal coordination results in an ‘intersubjectivity’ between market
participants or, what could be called, a global ‘We relation’ (Knorr Cetina and
Bruegger, 2002a). For Knorr Cetina and Bruegger (ibid) therefore, it is the
technological nature of financial markets that coordinate them, bringing those in
distant localities together as if they were in one place – making them truly global. It
is these ‘global microstructures’ that form the sociological underpinning of financial
markets, acting as the ‘glue’, rather than relational ties (ibid).
Knorr Cetina (2005) also contends that the locational embedding of financial activity
in three global cities, are better described as ‘bridgeheads’ through which the
markets continuously enter into, pass through and leave. Financial markets exist in
their own ‘timeworld’, following the sun around the globe, being passed from one
‘book’ to another (Knorr Cetina and Bruegger, 2002). Such an analysis not only
recognises the now highly technologized nature of financial markets but also their
genuinely global form. Thus, new ways of theorizing financial markets may give
Sociologists better analytical tools with which to research and understand them.
Knorr Cetina has given one such example.
The Challenge for Sociologists
As discussed, the concept of ‘embeddedness’ does not allow sociologists to fully
comprehend highly technologized and global financial markets, ‘Presumbly, pure
relational or network forms of coordination and the reflexive, temporal form of
coordination that we have described are two different things’ (Knorr Cetina and
Bruegger, 2002:932). This not to say that ‘network’ approaches should be jettisoned
but that relational ties should be seen as reinforcing temporal coordination (ibid.).
Consequently, Sociology has to rise to three challenges to understand these markets,
which is of critical importance, due to their centrality to modern economies and
because they perhaps set the precedent for what many other markets may look like in
the future. Firstly, it is necessary to expand and challenge (rather than replace) what
Sociology understands as the ‘social’. As Knorr Cetina and Bruegger (2002b) argue,
financial market participants’ orientation to one, common object has led to a new
form of ‘postsocial’ relations, coordinated temporally rather than through networks.
Nevertheless, what Strum and Latour (1987 in MacKenzie, 2002:84) coin ‘baboon
theory’ remains applicable to financial markets - genuine social connectivities still do
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exist (MacKenzie, 2002). Secondly, as a result of this, Sociologists need to recognise
the importance of technology and other objects. The ‘social’ should now include
relationships between humans, formula, algorithms and other artefacts (Beunza and
Stark, 2012). In the case of financial markets, it is traders’ observation of scopes that
forms the basis of postsocial ‘object relations’ (Knorr Cetina and Bruegger, 2000).
Nevertheless, striking the correct balance will continue to be a challenge. Sociologists
should not overstate the role of technology in markets (Pardo-Guerra, 2012). The
failure of algorithmic systems during the ‘Flash Crash’ demonstrate this. Technology
still requires human intervention when surprises occur. And thirdly, in order for
social theory to keep apace with the incredible speed of change that is occurring in
these markets, whilst at the same time maintain its critical perspective, Sociologists
will have to experiment with mixing new and old forms of theory production in order
to remain relevant (Gane, 2006).
This essay has used the case study of financial markets to demonstrate the difficulty
Sociologists face in trying to understand markets that are both global and highly
technologized in form. It has also outlined the importance of doing so. The impact of
the 2007-8 GFC was, and still is, being felt far and wide. Financial markets are at the
core of modern risk-based economies. As the near-perfect embodiment of
neoclassical economic theory, understanding financial markets may also provide
Sociologists with an insight to what other markets may look like in the future.
The work of classical sociologists such as Weber offer only limited utility in this
endeavour. As discussed at length, so too does more recent Sociological theory, in
particular the concept of ‘embeddedness’ and its attendant structuring principles of
networks and relational ties. This is not to say that such concepts are redundant, but
to say that they do not fully capture the modern nature of financial markets. In order
to complete this task, Sociologists will have to challenge themselves and the
paradigms within which they work to move beyond traditional conceptions of the
‘social’ and what it is comprised of. Knorr Cetina and others have already started to
do so. Her analysis of financial markets as ‘Global Response Systems’ that are
temporally coordinated through ‘scopes’, has theorized financial markets as
exhibiting a ‘flow’ architecture as opposed to a networked one. In so doing, she has
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brought the role of technological objects to the forefront of the sociological analysis
of financial markets. It is with the production of new social theory, a challenge in
itself due to the sheer speed of change in modern society, that Sociologists can better
try to understand markets that are both global and highly technologized in form.
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(trans.), Theory and Society, 29:305-338.
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Uzzi, B. (1999) ‘Embeddedness in the Making of Financial Capital: How Social
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Understanding the
main tenets of
ordoliberalism and its
links to biopolitics.
Jessica Tatchell
The University of Warwick
Ordoliberalism, a German variant of neoliberalism, has received a renewal of interest
since the 2008 financial crash. Since the crisis, we have seen state attempts to reregulate and gain control of the markets and increased emphasis on the need for
market regulation (Jessop, 2010). Such reforms are reminiscent of the ordoliberal
need of a strong state and constant vigilance and intervention within the markets.
Ordoliberalism emerged in the late 1920’s through the writings of German
economists and social theorists, eventually unified in the form of the Freiburg School
in the 1930’s by Walter Eucken, as well as in the journal ‘Ordo’ in 1948 (Bonefeld,
2012). This school of thought had a profound influence on German post-war
economic policy, helping to formulate a theoretical foundation for the implemented
social market economy. It is founded on the dogmatic beliefs of a strong state and
principles of competition enabling autonomy for the individual (Dardot and Laval,
2009). Foucault (2008) deemed ordoliberalism a noteworthy ideology to appraise;
its significance lying in the general misconception that neoliberal thought emerged
from the Chicago School rather the Freiburg School. This article outlines the
founding and main ideologies of ordoliberalism before engaging with Polanyi, who
wrote within the same decades, as a form of critique. The final part of the article is
dedicated specifically to Foucault’s interpretation of ordo/neoliberalism, and
assesses the extent to which ordoliberal policy is biopolitical as well as how it fits
with the contemporary need to ‘invest’ in human capital. It concludes that
ordoliberalism may prove useful for future analysis to enrich our knowledge of the
relationship between the state and need to regulate and ‘invest’ in oneself.
The basis of ordoliberal thought emerged in the late 1920’s – early 1930’s through
the work of its primary and founding thinkers: Walter Eucken, Wilhelm Röpke,
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Alexander Rüstow, Franz Böhm, and Alfred Müller-Armack. The ordoliberals
considered it their task to implement an ‘order’ (ordo) that would allow capitalism to
flourish in a way that it never could under a liberal market economy or a socialist
centralist economy (Dardot and Laval, 2009; Ptak, 2009). Their ideas represented a
mode of social transformation and emerged in opposition to Nazism. The
ordoliberals declared the horrors of Nazism as the natural and expected outcome of a
planned and central economy. In Civitas Humana (1948 [1944]), Röpke stated it was
impossible for a collectivist economy to be anything but coercive, describing
socialism as ‘the mortal disease of our epoch’ (1948: 95). He concluded a government
could only be ‘healthy’ if it is decentralised. However, a laissez-faire economy was by
no means the answer. The Great Depression and ‘crisis’ of capitalism stood as
sufficient evidence that laissez-faire economics were inefficient: the economy could
not and should not order itself (Bonefeld, 2012). Rüstow asserted laissez-faire
economics as responsible for ‘the vulnerability of the capitalist market economy to
the crisis of the business cycle’ (1980 [1949]: 670). In other words, it was susceptible
to crisis due to its inability to fully facilitate and regulate its procedures against
monopoly and ‘greedy self-seekers’ (Rüstow, 1932 in Bonefeld, 2012: 648). The
solution to Röpke was an ‘economic humanism’ - more often referred to as a ‘third
way’ - that aimed to go ‘over and above capitalism and collectivism’ (1948: 10).
Post-war Germany faced a particular dilemma: how do you legitimise a state that
ceases to exist? Furthermore, how do you proceed to ensure this state is then
accountable to the people who hold a given amount of distrust after the trauma of
Nazism? (Foucault, 2008). The ordoliberals saw the solution as the market, wherein
its principles behave as a founder of the state as well as a guarantor for those who
were weary (Dardot and Laval, 2009). Foucault articulates it as ‘a state under the
supervision of the market rather than a market supervised by the state’ (2008: 116).
Such a level of faith lies within their critique of liberalism, where any supposed defect
was not in the market but instead, was a defect in the state. The market itself holds
no intrinsic flaws and is thus suitable as acting as a regulatory and organisational
system of the state. It is useful to draw upon Foucault’s analogy of the Panopticon in
‘Discipline and Punish’ (1991) to exemplify what he considered a raw contrast
between classical and neoliberal forms of government. Using this analogy, no longer
is the state a central presence observing and regulating the market (this is Foucault’s
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understanding of classical liberalism), but under a neoliberal government, the
market becomes a regulator and both the state and society are exposed to the
permanent audit of the market and its principles (Gane, 2012). At this point, it is
important to stress that despite their utmost faith in the market, the ordoliberals
should not be associated with laissez-faire principles. They did not believe that the
operation of capitalism is predetermined, nor that the market was a natural
phenomena (Foucault, 2008). To function at its optimum it must be predicated on
legal, social and moral frameworks formulated and implemented by an omnipresent
state. Röpke exemplifies this quite clearly in ‘The Moral Foundations of Civil
Society’: ‘a satisfactory market economy capable of maintaining itself does not arise
from our energetically doing nothing’ (1996 [1948]: 28). As such, the market
economy is a construction relying upon efforts of the state and its frameworks. These
‘frameworks’ are vital and allow the control and manipulation of market conditions
without directly intervening into the market itself. For example, by intervening
within technologies, education and the law, the state is controlling the conditions
required for markets to function and flourish without directly touching market
mechanisms (Foucault, 2008). It can be considered as an ‘active policy without state
control’ (Foucault 2008: 132). It is here in particular we begin to see the shift from
classical liberalism and the frugal government associated with Adam Smith to a
neoliberal mode of governance identified by ‘permanent vigilance, activity, and
intervention’ (Foucault, 2008: 132). Röpke goes to the extent of describing the role of
government as a ‘permanent and clear-sighted market police’ (1950 [1941]: 228).
This quote clearly demonstrates the central role of a strong state within ordoliberal
thought. A strong state was viewed as essential to securing economic liberty and limit
the risk of humans being reduced to the unnatural phenomena of the market
(Bonefeld, 2012).
Acquiring such economic liberty relied upon the aforementioned ‘third way’, referred
to in practice as the concept of a social market economy (Soziale Marktwirtshaft), a
term propagated by Müller-Armack (Dardot and Laval, 2009). The ordoliberal ideal
of a social market economy (which was not identical to the actual model applied in
post-war Germany) was a dual of economic policy (Wirtschaftspolitik) and a ‘policy
of society’ (Gesellschaftspolitik). The economic policy was primarily developed by
economists Eucken and Böhm within a juridico-political framework that focused on
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economic growth as the producer of social progress. However, this article is more
interested in the policy of society and the more sociological accounts of Röpke,
Rüstow and Müller-Armack. The overarching ordoliberal concern for the market is
also reflected in its social policy and again exemplifies the shift from classical to
neoliberal modes of thought. The ordoliberal social policy does not foster a market
society based on the exchange of commodities, but instead focuses on the concept of
competition (Foucault, 2008). Of course, competition has always existed in society;
George Simmel even suggested it is intrinsic to social life (2008 [1903]). Yet, what is
distinctive about the ordoliberal approach to competition is its need to be regulated.
An institutional framework is vital to allow competition to flourish and to prevent
monopoly occurring (Röpke, 1948). Monopoly is ‘a foreign body in the economic
process’ (Röpke, 1950: 228) and a framework preventing external processes
interfering within the markets is essential (Eucken, 1950 [1940]). Competition’s role
as a regulator is what makes it such a significant tenet of ordoliberalism. Principles of
competition are penetrated into the social through intervention within the fabrics of
society and serve as a form of governance. Müller-Armack (1978) describes it as not
simply an ‘unfolding’ of a competitive order, but an integration of competitive
mechanisms into all areas of society so that it becomes a total way of life. Foucault
(2008) describes a society subjected to such mechanisms of competition as an
‘enterprise society’. The homo œconomicus (economic man) sought after in such a
society has shifted from the consumer or man of exchange to the entrepreneur. The
ordoliberal considers it imperative that the individual is ‘a sort of permanent and
multiple enterprise’ (Foucault, 2008: 241), where the economy extends into the
social and the individual’s life and is wedged within a framework of enterprises – his
family, property and even retirement. Rüstow described this process as ‘Vitalpolitik’,
a politics of life (Rüstow, 1980). A social market economy is a task of vitalpolitiks,
which can be understood as securing the free market, which is only safe when
predicated on a society consisting of individuals willing to embrace their individual
responsibility and become an entrepreneur of their own labour power (Bonefeld,
2012; 2013). Vitalpolitiks is the rationale of enterprise becoming embedded into the
social fabrics of society, ensuring that the market, competition and enterprise are the
foundational governing powers. The ‘social’ in social market economy is derived from
the ability for competition to act as a bonding mechanism that integrates the
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individual into society (Bonefeld, 2012). Furthermore, it guarantees individual
autonomy; freedom and competition are entwined and one cannot exist without the
other (Dardot and Laval, 2009). In sum, ordoliberal social policy is not a
compensatory mechanism with the aim to redistribute wealth, but an intervention
into the grains of society promoting individual responsibility and market principles.
Inevitably, German socialists critiqued the ordoliberal approach. They asked how it
was possible for a social market economy to be social when it was principally
opposed to any form of social solidarity and undermined the role of a welfare state
(Dardot and Laval, 2009). Müller-Armack directly responded to these critiques,
arguing that a social market economy meets the collective desires of society. He
described it as the most ‘superior’ economic system in that it satisfies the needs of
both the market and the social (Dardot and Laval, 2009). Unfortunately, there is
currently a scarcity of direct engagement with ordoliberalism in English. However,
something we may begin to consider is whether such profound market influence in
society is as good a thing as the ordoliberals claimed.
To this end, it is useful to reflect upon the work of Karl Polanyi, who did not directly
engage with the German ordoliberals, but also wrote in the 1930-40’s about the role
and effects of the market within society. Interestingly, the ordoliberals and Polanyi
have similar starting points: the market is not a natural occurrence and it cannot be
self-regulating. The underlying sentiments in their perspectives differ in that whilst
the ordoliberals viewed the market as inherently flawless, Polanyi approached it as
an abnormal feature of modern society. In ‘The Great Transformation’ (1944),
Polanyi argued that prior to the industrial revolution, society was based on principles
of reciprocity, redistribution and housekeeping. His critique of the modern economy
- which he perceived as being controlled by the markets - is that it does not conform
to any other part of human history. Polanyi and the ordoliberals both recognised that
in order for a market economy to flourish, it had to be predicated on a market
society: ‘a market economy can only exist in a market society’ (Polanyi, 1944: 74).
Polanyi however, did not view this as something to be celebrated or encouraged. For
the ordoliberals, a social market economy guaranteed individual autonomy and
social integration through the deterrence of collective and proletarianised structures
such as a welfare system. Röpke argued that as society collapses into the form of a
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mass collective, we witness a ‘remarkable loss of social integration [emphasis in
original]’ (1942: 240) due to increased standardisation destroying the notion of
community. The solution is a social policy based on ingraining market principles into
society through the promotion of competition and enterprise. Polanyi on the other
hand, warned that ‘to allow the market mechanism to be the sole director of the fate
of human beings and their natural environment … would result in the demolition of
society’ (1942: 76). Such a statement could be considered extreme, yet Block and
Summers (2014) use Polanyi’s critique of the free market to reflect upon the rise of
free market ideology over the past few decades and alongside it, increasing
inequalities and persistent financial crises. Polanyi’s critique is hereby useful to
reflect upon the negative effects of a society wholly submissive to market
Having engaged with the main tenets of ordoliberalism, the article will now reflect
upon Foucault’s lectures on biopolitics, his stance on ordo/neoliberalism and why he
felt this was important. Previously criticized for overlooking the role of the state and
institutions in his theory of governmentality (Garland, 1997), the relatively recent
translation of ‘The Birth of Biopolitics’ shed new light upon Foucault’s theories on
discipline and governance. However, despite its title, Foucault’s lectures directly
touch the concept of biopolitics very little. Instead, we are provided with a
genealogical analysis of the ‘art of government’. Indeed, he set out with the full
intention of providing a course on biopolitics, yet detoured and spent a great deal of
the year discussing ordo/neoliberal modes of government instead. He admits in the
course summary that the entire course ‘ended up being devoted entirely to what
should have been only its introduction’ (2008: 317). Given that his accounts are often
largely historical in nature, these lectures are striking in that what he was tackling
was a contemporary issue. In fact, it was only a month after the final lecture on
biopolitics that Margaret Thatcher was elected British prime minister and the West
saw the emergence of a decade strongly associated with neoliberal doctrine. One of
the reasons he discussed ordo/neoliberalism at such great length was to challenge
what he considered the ‘problematic’ contemporary understanding of neoliberalism,
for it is ‘not Adam Smith… not market society… not the Gulag on the insidious scale
of capitalism’ (Foucault, 2008: 131). Such a dismissive approach was deemed
problematic and he wanted to demonstrate how neoliberalism was something
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substantial within its own right. Of course, we can argue that his ordo/neoliberal
accounts are directly linked to biopolitics, however the topic itself was not explicitly
addressed until the end of the lectures, and even then it is with brevity. Biopolitics
and ordo/neoliberal governance appear inseparable to Foucault, who stated in one of
the lecture manuscripts: ‘But who does not see that this [biopolitics] is only part of
something much larger, which [is] this new governmental reason?’ (2008: 22). This
mode of ‘governmental reason’ may be easy to comprehend when considering the
regulation of ‘mad people, patients, delinquents, and children’ (Foucault, 2003: 186),
but what Foucault seems to be intent on emphasising is the extent of its validity
when considering ‘phenomena of a completely different scale, such as economic
policy… or the management of a whole social body’ (2003: 186).
The governance of a whole social body can be exemplified through ordoliberal
doctrine as we return to the concept of vitalpolitiks and link it to human capital. The
homo œconomicus in an enterprise society is the man who embodies his own
product. This represents a shift from the collective to the individual with increasing
emphasis on the need to ‘invest’ in one’s human capital. Röpke discusses this at
length in Civitas Humana, describing the ‘deadly dangers of mass civilisation’ (1948:
32) and the need for frameworks to promote the individual and avoid the risk of a
‘decayed’ government who succumbs to a welfare state and the consequential loss of
individual autonomy through proletarianised institutions. However, such an intense
focus on the individual results in the need for the entrepreneur to ‘invest’ in his
human capital. Foucault (2008) specifically discusses human capital in relation to
mobility, familial relationships, education and genetics. His position on genetics is
especially interesting. Rather than accepting genetic determinism, to enhance ones
human capital we can make a risk assessment on our predisposition to disease or
even characteristics that increase the chance of becoming an inherent risk.
Furthermore, to ensure your future child has a high level of hereditary human
capital, the need to make an investment in their genetic makeup is apparent; whether
this is through choice in reproductive partners or through technology. The result is
being branded with a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ genetic makeup and consequently a ‘high’ or
‘low’ level of hereditary human capital. Thus Foucault (2008) views human capital as
inseparable from notions of screening, quantification and control. Biopolitics, first
addressed by Foucault (2003) in his lecture series ‘Society Must be Defended’ in
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1975-6, can be understood as the extension of state power to govern whole
populations. Whilst Foucault did not make an explicit link between biopolitics and
ordo/neoliberal perspectives on vitalkpolitiks and human capital, it is possible for
readers to draw the link themselves. When we consider the ordo/neoliberal policies
this article has discussed, and deliberate their encouragement to govern and improve
oneself, we can perhaps consider ordo/neoliberalism as biopolitical. It is unfortunate
that this particular lecture series was never expanded upon in Foucault’s future work.
Of course, The Politics of Life Itself (2007) by Nikolas Rose provides a contemporary
account of biopolitics and human genomics. Rose acknowledges the link between
liberal government and processes of autonomization and marketization, however the
role this liberal mode of government and its policy plays in genomics and
contemporary biomedical approaches are not discussed at any length. Perhaps an
expansion on Foucault’s understanding of ordo/neoliberal government and its
position in the contemporary need to screen, regulate and invest in the self could
prove a worthwhile site for future discussion.
Block, F. and Somers, M. R. (2014) The Power of Market Fundamentalism: Karl
Polanyi’s Critique. London: Harvard University Press.
Bonefeld, W. (2012) ‘Freedom and the Strong State: On German Ordoliberalism’,
New Political Economy, 17 (5), pp. 633-56.
Bonefeld, W. (2013) ‘Human economy and social policy: On ordoliberalism and
political authority’, History of the Human Sciences, 26 (2): pp. 106-25.
Dordot, P. and Laval, C. (2009) The New Way of the World: On Neoliberal Society.
London: Verso.
Eucken, W. (1950) The Foundations of Economics: History and Theory in the
Analysis of Economic Reality. Translated from German by Hutchison, T. London: W.
Foucault, M. (1991) Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. London: Penguin
Foucault, M. (2003) Society Must be Defended. Translated from French by Macey, D.
New York, NY: Picador.
Foucault, M. (2008) The Birth of Biopolitics. Translated from French by Burchell, G.
Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Gane, N. (2012) ‘The governmentalities of neoliberalism: panopticism, postpanopticism and beyond’, The Sociological Review, 60: pp. 611-34.
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Garland, D. (1997) ‘“Governmentality” and the problem of crime: Foucault,
criminology, sociology’, Theoretical Criminology, 1 (2): pp. 3-27.
Jessop, B. (2010) ‘The “Return” of the National State in the Current Crisis of the
World Market’, Capital Class, 34 (1): pp. 38-43.
Müller-Armack, A. (1978) ‘The Social Market Economy as an Economic Social Order’,
Review of Social Economy, 36 (3): pp. 225-31.
Polanyi, K. (1944) The Great Transformation. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
Ptak, R. (2009) ‘Neoliberalism in Germany: Revisiting the Ordoliberal Foundations
of the Social Market Economy’ in Mirowski, P. and Plehwe, D. [eds.] The Road to
Mont Pélerin. London: Harvard University Press.
Röpke, W. (1942) International Economic Disintegration. London: W. Hodge
Röpke, W. (1948) Civitas Humana [A Humane Order of Society]. Translated from
German by Fox, C. S. London: W. Hodge.
Röpke, W. (1950) The Social Crisis of Our Time. Translated from German by Schiffer
Jaconsohn, A. & P. London: W. Hodge.
Röpke, W. (1996) The Moral Foundations of Civil Society. Translated from German
by Spencer, C. Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books.
Rose, N. (2007) The Politics of Life Itself. Oxford: Princeton University Press.
Rüstow, A. (1980) Freedom and Domination: A Historical Critique of Civilisation.
Translated from German by Attanasio, S. Guildford: Princeton University Press.
Simmel, G. (2008) ‘The Sociology of Competition’, Canadian Journal of Sociology,
33 (4): pp. 957-78.
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How is consumption
made possible: how do
brands make use of
western conceptions of
the exotic other to sell
notions of authenticity?
Sophia Yacoub
University of Warwick
Commenting on how ideas of authenticity and counter culture are used in
advertisement to further a brand’s value, Botterill states that: “While authenticity
once served as an antidote to mass society, today advertisers use it to soothe their
young audiences’ anxiety that authenticity is no longer possible” (Botterill, 2007,
106). In the postmodern, technologically advanced, standardized society,
experiences of constraint and lack of meaning and spontaneity are common, and to
look for authentic alternatives to mass society is frequent practice. Joseph Heath and
Andrew Potter argue, in their book The Rebel Sell that the ‘western’ world is in
perpetual rejection of conformity as a result of the experiences of trauma due to the
Second World War and the totalitarianism of nationalist socialism, and that this is
shown in the way people consume for their own individuality- and supposed
nonconformity projects (Heath, Potter, 2006, 327).
In this essay I will explore the idea that counter culture, and that which is deemed
outside the norm (and the search for alternatives to the mainstream) inevitably
becomes subsumed by the market through advertisement and branding and that this
search for individuality and alternative might even be what drives the consumer
market, especially in terms of fashion and lifestyle products. I will argue that the
search for authenticity has a way of not only being hijacked by the market (whilst at
the same time playing an important part in it) but also that members of dominant
cultures use conceptions of the ‘other’ in their individual identity projects. I will look
at how and why tropes of marginalized groups are used to make products seem
authentic and desirable.
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Concepts such as otherness and authenticity are often used in the discourses of
marketing; being aware of authentic social markers and products, often taken from
those outside of the Eurocentric norm and to be able to mimic them (to a level that is
fairly easy to understand), is viewed as a form of social and cultural capital
(Bourdieu, 1986). This sort of capital allows for the dominant social classes, races,
ethnicities, genders and sexualities to further their quest for image building signifiers
of cultural intermediation and taste making. This can be linked to a form of cultural
appropriation, where traits of culturally marginalized groups are used mainly for the
identity projects of the white, heterosexual, middleclass, to express a level of social
awareness, ‘worldliness’ and individuality whenever deemed suitable by these
dominant groups. This is problematic, as groups of marginalized people are only seen
to inhabit aspirational qualities and ascribed value in cultural contexts when they
become valuable for the consumer market and by dominant fractions of consumers.
Take for example trends such as wearing bindis, Native American headdress and
colourful, “tribal”-patterned scarves and other ornaments; many brands such as
Urban Outfitters and Topshop co-opt these cultural signifiers in order to offer
mainstream consumers a way into these ‘unexplored realms’ (at least to white
Europeans) of expression. So when a white person grows bored of the mundane,
everyday, confortable life, they might put on an American headdress and go to a
festival in the Nevada desert without consideration of the anti-colonial struggles for
land rights and identity of the Native American people. Similarly, white British
people will put on ‘Bollywood’ themed parties without consideration of the Imperial
British colonial remnants in India and the rest of the world today (Hook, 1995).
Edward Said writes about the conceptions that ‘western’ culture creates about
‘eastern’ culture and about how the ‘east’ becomes romanticized through the gaze of
the ‘west’ in Orientalism from 1977. The term Orientalism refers to the patronizing
depicting that European and American societies have created about the Middle East,
other parts of Asia and parts of Africa. He argues that the way the orient has been
constructed by the west is mainly in Eurocentric terms that exotify the other (Said,
1977). This becomes relevant in terms of consumer culture as these sorts of
narratives of the exotic make consumption of the ‘other’ possible.
Holt argues that contemporary consumers look to brands for contributions towards
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their own, individual, identity projects. Here authenticity becomes a marker of how
well a brand constitutes a cultural resource for these identity projects (Holt, 2002).
Brands can fulfill these levels of authenticity by offering consumers objects and
artifacts such as clothes, accessories and home decor that allow for access to the
world in new and supposedly creative ways that contribute towards individual
cultural, and social capital projects. This is juxtaposed with earlier, modern
marketing that mainly constituted of ‘culture-making’ rather than ‘culture-imitation’.
He writes that:
“The postmodern branding paradigm is premised upon the idea that brands
will be more valuable if they are offered not as cultural blueprints but as
cultural resources, as useful ingredients to produce the self as one chooses.”
(Holt, 2002, 83)
In this quote Holt describes how in postmodern marketing and branding a focus lies
in offering consumers access to cultural resources to produce the self, or the image of
the self, as opposed to earlier marketing which would have focused on offering
culture in itself.
Bell Hooks provides further analysis on the topic of cultural appropriation in the
contexts of “consuming the other” and refers to the colonial discourses surrounding
this type of co-option in terms of the longing for exotic “otherness” and the wish to
consume tropes of those deemed ‘other’. She writes “Within commodity culture,
ethnicity becomes a spice, seasoning that can liven up the dull dish that is
mainstream white culture” (Hooks, 1992, 366). Hooks argues that using race and
ethnicity for commercial and consumption purposes allows members of dominant
classes, races, genders and sexualities to reassert their power over the ‘other’ by
using the cultural markers of those who have been colonialized by the imperialist
nations in the west.
Crockett describes how ‘blackness’, or traits of black and urban culture, is used in
advertisement by ‘idealizing and essentializing blackness’ as a form of ‘consuming
others’ strategy in marketing (Crockett, 2008, 255). He describes that blackness is
exotified and commodified by marketing companies in an array of ways to make
brands seem to be in contestation of the mainstream consumer market, and to give
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access to a sense of worldliness and experience to its consumers. Similarly, Botterill
gives example of how in one of her research samples; a European Levi’s commercial,
myths of black and urban culture is used:
“A young black, but not too black, man walks down a city street dressed in
baggy jeans, tee shirt, leather jacket and baseball cap. He walks by a black
bouncer dressed in a suit, protecting the entrance to a club. […] The bouncer
provides the perfect, silent, authoritarian foil against which the young man’s
authenticity is expressed. Street wise, the young man begins his patter by
pointing out he is aware he cannot enter the club because of his inappropriate
dress, but goes on to defend his style, thereby challenging the social convention
that prevents his entry. […] Authenticity is encoded by depicting a tension
between work, formality and rules, and play, rejection, creativity.” (Botterill,
2007, 118)
In this quote, Botterill is describing the type of othering that allows those who fit the
norm to access to novelty ways of consumption. In the example, a black male in
typical urban clothing is contrasted with another black male, only that the latter is
deemed “inauthentic” because he has succumbed to performing that which is
presumably coded as “white”. Here we come back to the idea of cultural identity
production in the practices of commodification and consumption of the ‘other’;
Individuals of often marginalized groups, who have less access to work, education
and other material necessities in underprivileged urban areas in Europe and North
America are made to seem as rebellious heroes in reaction to the modern western
society. They are romanticized and made examples of authentic individuals free from
the mainstream all for the pleasure of the neo-colonialist consumption culture
(Botterrill, 2007, 111). But these authentic/romanticized narratives about certain
marginalized groups are only temporary, because the consumer market changes
rapidly and something is only seen as ‘cool’ by advertising companies as long as it
hasn’t been done yet because there is a constant need to reinvent the brand and what
is offered to the consumer (Heath, Potter).
Similarities can be drawn about the commodification of LGBTQ+ culture. Lesbian
women’s lives are fetishized in fashion advertisements such as in a Christian Dior as
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from the year 2000, where two half naked young girls, oiled up and dressed in a little
bit of denim are portrayed in objectifying sexual poses insinuating strong attraction
to one another. The photo could be perceived as an intimate meeting between two
lesbian women but are clearly aimed at the straight, male gaze for the consumption
of mainly straight people. This strips lesbian women of their own agency to define
what lesbian existence means as it becomes sold for the patriarchal mass market.
Similarly, gay men’s lives are often used in advertisement to make brands seem
attractive and progressive and at the same time Gay men are depicted in TV-series
and films such as Sex and the city and Glee as the stereotypical gay best friend,
always there to make the straight girl chose the right dress and tell her she’s pretty.
This type of representation has been used in marketing by for example apple: In one
apple advertisement, workers who can be said to carry some social signifiers
associated with the LGBTQ+ community and their families and friends, are depicted
taking part in the San Francisco pride festival. The atmosphere of the advertisement
is very bright and cheerful and later on an upbeat song by Coldplay starts playing,
accompanying a big crowd of apple workers marching through the streets of San
Francisco with pride flags in their hands, waving and cheering. The advertisement
finishes in the slogan “inclusion inspires innovation”. This is a clear example of
something as subversive as gay pride being appropriated by the mass market for
branding purposes. The ending slogan can be interpreted as slightly naive and maybe
even a bit thoughtless of Apple because it may as well be read as apple admitting that
non-normative sexualities only are valuable if they can contribute to the ‘innovation’
of the company. Of course Apple profits from this type of pinkwashing, in
contemporary western culture, allegiance to the LGBTQ society is seen as
progressive. This can surely be described as commodification of ‘otherness’ in terms
of the gender, sexualities and sexual practices that are showcased and that are viewed
as outside of the norm.
In Kozinet’s ethnographical study of the festival and social project ‘burning man’, he
notes that the dominant ethos of the counter culture project, which springs from a
neo-anarchist group, is about contesting the values of the market economy, and
creating new discourses and modes of interaction by, for example, using gift
economy and by having a ban on logotypes (Kozinets, 2002). Kozinets recalls one of
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his interviews:
“I interviewed Crucifix George while he was masking out the brand name of his van
with duct tape. After identifying myself and gaining permission to videotape him, I
asked if he was simply following the rules, or whether he really believed in them.
‘I really believe in them. You can see all this shit [advertising and brand names] all
the time, anyway. […] There's so much creative energy here that you don't need the
stuff, the symbols that are imprinted on your brain on a day-to-day basis by
marketing people who come out of schools such as the one that you go to. Okay?
You can create a whole fucking world like this if people were open” (Kozinets, 2002,
It is clear that Crucifix George is tired of the rationality and conformity of mass
society and that he is looking for alternative ways of existing, be it only temporary,
for one week in August. Even though it can be argued that Burning man constitutes
of some anti-market traits and that it is an attempt at community building in
separation from the market, it is clear that because it is only a one-week long event, it
is more of a temporary experience (although it might a powerful one which may
evoke some anti-market values in its participants), rather than a rigid attempt at
creating true counter cultural modes of being. Kozinets remarks that mainly middleand upperclass, white people attend the event and so it potentially comes under the
category of consumer culture which is driven by a conquest for the same types of
individual culture projects as have been mentioned earlier on in this essay. Kozinets
even mentions that workers from Silicon Valley are sent by their companies to get
“inspired” and to network with members of the creative industries at the festival.
There are similar events to burning man in Europe that focus on new ways of
contesting the mass market values, such as Fusion Festival in Germany and Boom
Festival in Portugal.
In The Rebel Sell, Heath and Potter argue, drawing on Frank (1998), that the idea of
mainstream culture and counter culture is a false dichotomy. They argue that rather,
all consumption culture is driven by that same search for individuality, ‘coolness’ and
rebellion against the conformist, orthodox system. In their description of counter
movements, they use examples such as 80’s punkers and the hippies of the 60’s and
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70’s (Heath, Potter, 2006). I would argue that they are right; if we presume that the
idea of counter culture is all to do with standing out and being an individual then
there is no distinction between consumer and counter culture. The consumer market
and the branding of products is targeted towards the masses, which is logical as that
is where profit can be made by companies who act on that rationale. When counter
cultures are based on wearing and consuming that which is deemed outside the
norm, or showcasing individuality and subversiveness in terms of appearance and
image, there can be no counteraction to the consumer culture, especially considering
the othering of minority groups and the rampant colonialization of cultures that
aren’t dominant in mass society. Bell Hooks describes how the dominant cultural
elites always have longed for the exotic experience that will bring them back to a
romanticized and constructed idea of what primeval community means. She
describes this as imperialist nostalgia for primitivism (Hooks, 1992, 369).
In conclusion, I would argue that it is evident that lifestyle brands use conceptions of
the ‘other’ to sell products by appealing to dominant groups of the mass market
longing for the exotified, romanticized, authentic, lifestyles that are depicted as in
contestation of the rationalized, modern society. Brands do this by, for example,
marketing co-opted cultural markers such as ethnic clothing and through the
pinkwashing and use of those sexual practices - which are made ‘other’ - and by
appealing to consumer’s identity projects in search for distinction and individuality
and longing for freedom from capitalist modes of existence. It is clear that counter
culture is sold as individualized lifestyle projects and subsequently that the concept
of counter culture needs to be reimagined in terms that are inclusive for all and that
don’t exclude and exploit marginalized groups for the pleasure of dominant fractions
of society.
Boden, S. J Williams, S. (2002) ‘Consumption and emotion: The romantic ethic
revisited. Sociology’. The Journal of the British Sociological Association, 36 (3).
Botterill, J. (2007). ‘Cowboys, Outlaws and Artists: The rhetoric of authenticity and
contemporary jeans and sneaker advertisements’. Journal of Consumer Culture.
Boyle, D. (2004). Authenticity: Brands, fake, spin and the lust for real life. Harper
Perennial; New Ed edition.
Warwick Sociology Journal, April 2015
Vol 1, Issue 4, pp 25-32
David, C. (2008) ‘Marketing blackness: How advertisers use race to sell products’.
Journal of Consumer Culture, Jul 2008; vol. 8: pp. 245-268.
Frank, T. (1997) The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the
Rise of Hip Consumerism. Chicago: Chicago University Press.
Guinon, C. (2004) On being authentic. Routledge.
Heath, J. Potter, A. (2006) The Rebel Sell: How the counterculture became
consumer culture. Harper Collins Publishers: Canada.
Holt, D. (2002) ‘Why do brands cause trouble? A dialectical theory of consumer
culture and branding’. Journal of consumer research.
Hooks, B. (1992) “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance”. Black Looks: race and
representation. Boston, MA, South End Press.
Said, Edward. (1994) Orientalism. New York: Vintage.
Advertisements mentioned:
Dior. (2000) Gisele Bundchen and Rhea Durham for Dior Spring 2000
[Advertisement] At: http://media3.popsugarassets.com/files/2011/03/09/5/166/1668379/df9408a6fd704919_4d770e458b70.jp
g (Accessed 2015)
Dior. (2000) Gisele Bundchen and Rhea Durham for Dior Spring 2000
[Advertisement] At: http://s50.radikal.ru/i128/0907/b9/47d2986e55f8.jpg
(Accessed 2015)
Apple (2014) Pride [Video advertisement] At:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xdjAX5A-6qE (Accessed 2015)
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Money in Education,
Violence in Occupation:
Some Reflections on the
‘Sit-in Senate’
Samuel Burgum
University of Warwick
Author Biography
Sam is a PhD candidate in Sociology at the University of Warwick and has been
conducting research with Occupy London since 2012. You can follow Sam on Twitter
(@sjburgum) or find other work at warwick.academia.edu/samuelburgum.
Thanks to Jessica Tatchell for asking me to write this article for the Warwick
Sociology Journal, as well as Claire Blencowe, Nick Gane and Finn Obriain for their
thoughts. Thanks also to students on the modules Sociological Perspectives and
Economic Sociology for their informative discussions and debates around these
On the 3rd December 2014, as part of a national day of student protest, a group
occupied Senate House – an administrative building at the University of Warwick –
and staged a ‘sit-in’ as part of the continued effort to resist the rise in tuition fees and
the marketisation of the university. In their own words:
“After calling a demonstration today to coincide with the national day of
action for Free Education called by the National Campaign Against Fees and
Cuts, Warwick students are staging a sit in at Senate House. They are
protesting at management supporting 16k fees via the Russell group when the
student’s democratic opinion is clearly in support of Free Education (as
evidenced by SU policy in support of all legal direct action in support of Free
Education).”(warwick4freeducation 2014)
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As this statement demonstrates, the purpose of this initial ‘sit-in senate’ – which
involved forming a discussion group in the Senate House foyer – was a direct
attempt to link money and educational policy to the decline in the university as a
public institution. Furthermore, in the very act of using university property to discuss
this ‘lost role’ of the university, theirs was also an attempt to prefigure and perform
an alternative conception of the space as one of democratic, accessible and free
This protest, however, soon came to national attention, when police officers sent to
evict the students were recorded using disproportionate violence against them:
shoving and pulling to the floor, using CS-gas at close range, as well as firing a taser
gun “as a visible and audible warning to prevent further disorder” (Channel 4 News
2014). Three students were arrested for attempting to protect their fellow protestors
(later released on bail with the provision that they did not return to campus) and the
event provoked widespread condemnation and concern from students and staff alike.
Concern not only with the clearly horrific and emotional scenes of the violence
depicted in the video, but also with the wider political implications of what such
police violence suggested. As a statement from the staff and student ‘Campaign For
The Public University’ read:
“The sensitivity of universities to such protest is in inverse proportion to their
willingness to debate the changing idea of the university. Increasingly,
universities have sought to criminalize protest on campus while employing
marketing techniques to protect their brand.” (publicuniversity.org.uk 2014)
The University and College Union (UCU) also wrote:
“We call on the university to publicly affirm its commitment to democratic
values and the rights of students and staff to protest peacefully against policies
and practice with which there is disagreement. The university is our common
space and we protest in the strongest terms against the violations that were
allowed to take place here yesterday." (warwick4freeducation 2014)
And the protestors themselves:
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“We are concerned by the continuing corporate partnerships which are
increasingly gaining voice, visibility and control on our campus, whilst at the
same time student voices are being silenced.” (warwick4freeducation 2014)
What all three argue, therefore, is that the police violence not only represented a
particular instance of injustice and direct oppression, but that it could also be linked
to: corporate partnerships; the loss of democratic student visibility, voice and
control; the loss of the university as a ‘common’ (I’d rather use the term ‘public’)
space; the criminalising of protest; the use of marketing techniques to further the
‘Warwick’ brand; tuition fees and elite university networks. Alongside these themes,
therefore, I also want to make a direct link between the ‘legitimacy’ of such physical,
gaseous and taser-based violence and the hegemony of neoliberal capitalism within
the contemporary university.
Whilst Coventry Police and the university management sought to justify the police
presence and violence by referring to an ‘assault’ on a staff member (which was
alleged to have taken place during the occupation) the mystery which has since
surrounded this allegation has led many to deny that it ever happened. What’s more,
if we juxtapose this allegation with the photographs, videos, reports and eyewitness
testimony of those at the event, it suggests that the protest was in fact peaceful (until
the police showed up) offering no suggestion that staff were being violently targeted.
However, rather than speculate and take a stance on this issue, I instead wish to
argue that if we really want to understand the nature of the police violence, we need
to think about the context in which it happened. In other words, what I intend to
argue here is that the alleged attack on a member of staff, whether true or false, is
secondary to the self-legitimation and authority that the police violence was able to
claim within the context of the neoliberal university.
I begin with a brief summary of what is meant by ‘neoliberalism’ and why the
contemporary British university should be recognised as, through-and-through, a
neoliberal institution. Despite claims even from within Warwick LTD that
neoliberalism is too often used as a ‘catch-all’ term and therefore doesn’t actually
exist (Harrison 2015), I instead seek to point towards a specific history and moral
framework that informs the distribution of rationality within the university (and
society). In the second section, I then focus in on the concept of violence itself
through a short literature review of Max Weber, Hannah Arendt and Slavoj Žižek.
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Each, I suggest, has something to offer us in order to understand the ‘legitimacy’ of
such violence as Senate House, but I find Žižek to be the most interesting in
understanding how such spectacular violence might actually hide the objective
systemic violence of everyday life. This leads us to the final section, where I consider
the role of occupation as resistance. In a situation where neoliberalism has become
‘hegemonic’ – in that it informs the distribution of positions within the university
and is consented to through everyday actions – it is argued that occupation is a
useful tactic for making ‘nonsense’ appear. In other words, that the position of the
university as a publicly funded and free to attend institution is seen as ‘nonsensical’
is a direct result of neoliberal common sense, so this position must be made to
appear against ‘violence’ (sometimes physical but most regularly aesthetic and
ideological) which seeks to prevent it from appearing. My overall aim is to provide a
slightly different perspective to that which has predominated discussion around the
Senate House violence and the proceeding protests and will therefore conclude by
taking seriously Žižek’s notion that sometimes ‘doing nothing’ is the most effective
form resistance because it entails serious thinking and seeks to avoid pseudo-activity.
The Neoliberal University
Whilst it is partly accurate to argue that neoliberalism has become a loose, catch-all,
critic’s term that is often utilised rhetorically in order to throw together anything that
seems unjust or corrupting, it should nevertheless be recognised as having a specific
genealogy. This history is one that can be traced back to the late 19th century ‘dispute
over method’ in the social sciences (involving Max Weber) and through the Austrian
school (including Von Mises) and their attempt to create a post-war government in
West Germany which relied on the market for legitimacy; as well as Hayek’s efforts to
bring together the Austrian tradition with the Chicago Economics of Friedman at the
Walter Lippmann Colloquium and the first meeting of Mont Pelerin Society (see
Gane 2014); and right up to Friedman’s government-supported education of South
American economists in order to establish neoliberalism after CIA-backed coups;
1970’s stagflation and the decline of Keynesianism, the elections of Reagan then
Thatcher, and the collapse of the USSR (see Klein 2008). Its history has been
complex, contradictory and inconsistent, yet it is nevertheless a specific thought
collective (Mirowski 2013) that has risen from the margins of economic theory to
becoming the measure of rationality in society.
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Despite few people explicitly recognising themselves as ‘neoliberals’, therefore, this
could just as well be argued as evidence of its normativity rather than its absence (as
Žižek puts it, the very idea that we are now post-ideological is “ideology par
excellence” (2008a:xiv). Indeed, the ability of neoliberalism to remain internally
inconsistent, yet at the same time inform the measure of rationality in contemporary
society, is part of its normative efficacy. Its self-contradictions actually allow it to be
forever flexible and amenable to the specificities and contingencies of each context,
whilst at the same time excluding or dismissing radical alternatives as ‘irrational’ or
‘unreasonable’. Its variety is precisely what makes it powerful as an ideological
framework, with the different theories within neoliberalism being used as ‘pick n
mix’ for ‘experts’ – policy makers, politicians, boards of directors, business leaders
and economists – to inform their decisions and ‘roll out’ or ‘roll back’ the state to suit
(Peck 2010). But beyond expertise, neoliberalism can also be seen as informing
everyday life through the measure of reasonable thought and action throughout
society, and this can be recognised by the prevelance of a few (broad) principles.
The first principle – which derives from the ‘liberalism’ in its name – is that the
individual is the basis of freedom. What makes it a ‘new’ liberalism, however, is the
argument that this individual freedom is something that can only be guaranteed by a
free market and not the state. For Hayek (1979), for instance, the market is not only
the best way to co-ordinate information needed for people to act freely, but also the
'state' (by which he means centralised planning) can never be trusted to act
impartially to this end. In other words, not only is the state simply unable to handle
the amount of information needed for the market to function efficiently, but also,
Hayek argues, it necessarily means that economic decisions would rely on the
arbitrary authority of government rather than the ‘democratic’ and ‘free’ decisions of
the people within the market. As such, Hayek has an incredibly paranoid view of the
state. Indeed, much of the time in which he was contemplating The Road to Serfdom
(published in 1944), he could be found sat on a roof at Cambridge University on fire
duty, fearful of the Nazi state appearing over the horizon (see Peck 2010).
Subsequently, by seeing the state as only ever a binary of either ‘totalitarian’ or ‘promarket’ – always one or the other – Hayek closes down the possibility of other
possibilities of what the state might be. This abuse of reason therefore forces one to
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take a side through a false choice (‘so which are you, Nazi or Neoliberal?!’ (see Žižek
This argument for individual, market-based freedom – and a paranoid preoccupation
with state power – then leads to a number of pragmatic assertions of what the state
can legitimately do. While neoliberal theory is far from consistent on where the limits
of intervention are, a vague consensus can nevertheless be found around a second
broad principle: that the state ought to guarantee private property (through legal
and, if necessary, military institutions) as well as promote competition in all areas of
everyday life and culture (Gane 2014:1). As such, although the extent to which the
state can legitimately intervene is different depending on the context and situation,
there is still a common thread that the market should be considered the measure and
foundation of legitimate governance (see Foucault 2008). So long as the state seeks
to promote and underpin the market, and so long as it seeks to marketise itself –
either through direct privatization, outsourcing contracts, or the creation of ‘pseudomarkets’ – it can be considered a legitimate power. Anything outside of this market
logic, including welfare or social security, is considered to be necessarily oppressive.
Therefore, by promoting and guaranteeing property and competition, the neoliberal
state is seen as acting with legitimate authority and in the interests of the people. It is
seen as facilitating the liberty of individual responsibility by allowing aspirations to
be realised through competition, with the resulting inevitable inequality ‘justified’ by
the supposed ‘equality of fair competition’. Labour must also become competitive
and therefore flexible (i.e. insecure and precarious) in order to allow people the
opportunity to indulge their self-interested aspirations through personal
achievement, success, and entrepreneurship. Therefore, the exploitation of workers,
such as through zero-hour contracts, internships, free domestic labour, immigration
and human trafficking, is either seen as part of free opportunity (‘this will make you a
stronger competitor’) or an example of an exception to how the market should be
working (‘if the state stopped intervening with welfare, then competition would
work’); but it is never considered to be a structural result of property or competition.
Related to this is a third principle of minimising risks and threats to private property
and competition via an increase in surveillance, measurement, auditing and
biopolitical categorizing of populations and workers. Citizenship becomes a matter of
customer service and meeting the needs of opinion polls (including that ‘great
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opinion poll’ known as the general election). Companies carefully manage the
efficiency of their operations, monitoring and registering the place and time of their
assets and employees (even outside of the workplace by attaching them remotely to
their work through ICTs). In order to remain competitive, so the logic goes, the
distribution of resources needs to be carefully controlled and adjusted, the fat needs
to be trimmed and waste minimised (defining ‘waste’ solely in terms of economic
cost). Workers also comply and consent by making themselves competitive
entrepreneurs of the self through CVs and social media profiles, remaining flexible to
the needs of the market by continually retraining and curating their online persona.
This inconsistent, contradictory, utopian theory of neoliberalism is what informs the
limits of rationality (and irrationality) for everyday actions and reactions to events.
Indeed, even the financial crash was not enough to sway this designation of what
counts as legitimate and illegitimate means and ends, or the framing and coordinates of decisions, and this is surely because neoliberalism has inserted itself
deeply in everyday values and discourse (Mirowski 2013). For instance, consider the
widely held view that the individual is solely responsible for their own situation:
their social position and success or failure is thought to be their self-deserved
responsibility (‘they always have the opportunity to compete harder’) and as such,
the wealthy are there because they ‘deserve it’ and the same with the poor.
Scapegoats (such as the 'shirkers and strivers' rhetoric furthered by cultural products
like Benefits Street or The Jeremy Kyle Show (Hill forthcoming) are detested for
being ‘lazy’ and for ‘taking advantage’ of benefits. These discourses not only act as an
ever-present reminder of what can happen if you refuse to ‘play the game’, but also
re-demonstrates how neoliberalism works through the unit of the ‘individual’ rather
than of collectivity, community, or even ‘the social’1.
In sum, the broad principles of individualism (or paranoia), flexibilisation (or
precarity), competition (or inequality), efficiency and measurement (or discipline),
privatization and outsourcing (or democratic unaccountability), are all
1 It has been pointed out that the status of ‘the social’ for neoliberalism has changed (Davies 2013). From Thatcher’s famous insistence that ‘there is no such thing as society’ and Hayek’s dismissal of the social as ‘a weasel word’ the turn through Blairism and Cameronism has been towards the social as neoliberal enterprise. Hence, in the ‘big society’, the social is recognised but only insofar as it is economically useful for individualized investment via the market. 39
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fundamentally neoliberal ideals of rational and legitimate power. Furthermore, and
importantly for our discussion here, all are to be found within the contemporary
university. To take one example, we can see these norms in the way that seminar
tutors (on flexible contracts), who are teaching not only because they enjoy it but to
make themselves competitive for future employment, are being outsourced as
security border staff in the compulsory registering of students for the UK border
agency, in order to make sure that those on foreign visas are in fact attending
university (the cynical implication being that they might in fact be ‘skivers’ taking
advantage of welfare).
To take another example, it can be argued that the logic behind raising tuition fees
actually has little to do with a lack of money in post-crash Britain in which we must
all ‘tighten our belts’. Rather it is a directly ideological assertion that, by loading the
cost of university education onto the individual, their freedom of choice, their
competitive edge in the job market and the costs of higher education, can all become
their own responsibility. It is now their individual prerogative, but, of course, this
‘freedom’ has adverse effects by creating precarity, anxiety, grade inflation, as well as
the straight-up fear of taking on that amount of debt (particularly for those who are
perhaps less well-off and might have experienced the sheer weight and stigma of debt
whilst growing up in their family or community). It also has the effect of measuring
the value of university education as something which is market-based as going to
university is only considered rational in terms of the market: either you do a
vocational degree (as a means to an end) or you know that you are ‘privileged’
enough to afford not to do a vocational degree. What’s more, as Mark Fisher points
out, student debt has the effect of pre-incorporating young people into the financial
market, meaning that they effectively ‘pay for their own exploitation’ (2009:26)
(something which will surely be made worse when the student book is privatised and
student debt is made into a profit-incentive).
Outside academia itself, of course, the neoliberal university also means flexibility for
administrative and support staff. Keeping the campus running, secure, clean, fed,
watered, modernised, innovative and expanding is regularly outsourced to private
companies who run things ‘efficiently’ (i.e. zero hour contracts and/or low wages).
Even provisions for teaching – surely one of the university’s most basic functions –
are being outsourced to such companies (such as Unitemps) who have no
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accountability or responsibility towards their ‘employees’ on insecure contracts, only
to the contractual relationship with the university to deliver the service efficiently
and to remain competitive by keeping costs (such as wages) down.
In this section, I have sought to (very briefly) demonstrate that neoliberalism has a
specific genealogy, but also highlight its apparently paradoxical nature in being at
once hegemonic and inconsistent, normative and contradictory. By sticking to a few
key guiding theoretical principles – such as, individual freedom; state skepticism;
private property; competition; measurement and efficiency – neoliberalism can be
recognised as something that is a coherent totality despite also being contextspecific. In the university, as society, this logic asserts itself through everyday
practices and cultural narratives that each time reiterate not only what ‘counts’ as
legitimate, rational and reasonable, but at the same time implies that which does not
Violence in a Neoliberal Context
With this context in mind, how might we link the neoliberal university to the violence
that occurred at the sit-in senate? In this section, I briefly look at three theorists of
violence – Weber, Arendt and Žižek – to make the link between the normative power
of neoliberalism and the ‘legitimate’ violence of the Coventry Police. This is by no
way an extensive or exclusive literature review or critique – with concepts such as
violence, power and legitimacy each having extensive bodies of work behind them –
but instead it is hoped that this can indicate some of the ways we can think
differently about the context and reasoning behind the Senate House violence.
Max Weber sees the state as synonymous with violence. While domination maintains
its legitimacy through appeals to tradition, charisma or legal frameworks, when these
fail the state is still reliant on violence in the last instance. As such, he defines the
state as “a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the
legitimate use of physical force within a given territory… the right to use physical
force is ascribed to other institutions or to individuals only to the extent to which the
state permits it… the state is considered to sole source of the ‘right’ to use violence”
(Weber 1946:78). From this definition we can pick out a number of themes in which
Weber considers power and violence to be related. Firstly, Weber implies that
violence should be thought of only as ‘physical force’. Secondly, that the state, by its
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very definition, is the only thing that can use such physical force legitimately. And
finally, that this legitimacy can be outsourced to other institutions – such as the
police – as a proxy for the state’s monopoly.
Weber is quick to add, however, that although state power is built upon this
monopoly in the last instance, this is by no means “the normal or the only means of
the state” (1946:78). As such, he also sees violence as an exception to the normal
everyday domination of state power and authority, which is instead maintained
through tradition, charisma or legal frameworks. In addition, it is interesting that
elsewhere Weber adds a neoliberal flavour to this conception of the state, when he
links the monopoly of legitimate violence to the authority of the market: “certainly
the modern economic order under modern conditions could not continue if its
resources were not upheld by the legal compulsion of the state, that is, if its formally
‘legal’ right were not upheld by the threat of force” (Weber 1978:65). The state, then,
can legitimately intervene to sustain the market as well, if necessary enforcing this
will through violence (or the threat of violence).
Weber’s theory offers a good starting point by making a direct connection between
violence, legitimacy and the foundations of state power. Ultimately, Coventry Police
were only able to ‘legitimately’ use physical violence, CS gas and tasers because they
were permitted to do so by the state. However, while this allows us to make such a
connection, it seems that by positing it as something that only takes place in ‘the last
instance’ there is little discussion of what it is that violence actually does. What’s
more, Weber leaves it somewhat self-evident that it is solely the state (and market)
that holds this monopoly of legitimacy, and therefore doesn’t seem to consider the
notion that other sources of violence might also be able to claim authority.
For Hannah Arendt, on the other hand, legitimate violence is not something that is
necessarily the property of the state, but something that could be attributed to any
instance of violence, albeit retroactively. In other words, the legitimacy and
rationality of violent means can only be framed in terms of its ends, as she writes:
“violence, being instrumental in nature, is rational to the extent that it is effective in
reaching the end which must justify it... and since when we act we never know with
any amount of certainty the eventual consequences of what we are doing, violence
can remain rational only if it pursues short-term goals” (Arendt 1969:23). Because
violence is always instrumental – reliant on technologies such as CS gas and taser
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guns – it is always reliant on establishing short-term ends in order to justify itself
and therefore is unable to bring about the power needed for long-term legitimacy.
What’s more, this reliance on ends to justify violence leads to a danger that the
means might overwhelm these ends and therefore render itself illegitimate. Against
Weber, therefore, Arendt argues that power and violence are in fact inversely
correlated. Violence undermines the legitimacy of power because it can never be
based on longer term ends, whereas “the power structure itself [which] precedes and
outlasts all aims… far from being the means to an end, is actually the very condition
that enables a group of people to think and act according to means and end” (Arendt
Arendt’s theory allows us to reconsider Weber’s state monopoly to think about the
potential rationality of extra-state violence and expand the idea that the state cannot
solely be based upon violence because this would undermine its own authority.
However, her theory is also (purposefully) based on a particularly narrow conception
of what violence is. Because Arendt explicitly aims to specify what she means by
violence, her focus seems to be on a narrow conception of physical destruction and
therefore fails to consider how violence could also be seen as symbolic, systemic and
structural. This criticism, however, feels rather strange, seeing as perhaps her best
known work Eichmann in Jerusalem (2006) is precisely about the ways in which the
‘banality of evil’ in bureaucratic Nazi systems led to state violence. While Arendt
might well have counter-argued that the power of the Nazi state was not exclusively
based on violence, and this is true, her insistence to separate violence and power
nevertheless does seem to miss some of the ways in which power structures such as
these are inherently violent.
Against this narrow conception, it is Slavoj Žižek’s contention that violence can be
found ‘objectively’ in the structures of contemporary society. He argues, therefore,
that although spectacular instances of subjective violence – such as Senate House –
understandably cause rage and immediate concern, it is nevertheless important to
“learn to step back, to disentangle ourselves from the fascinating lure of this directly
visible ‘subjective’ violence, violence performed by a clearly identifiable agent... we
need to perceive the contours of the background which generates such outbursts”
(2008c:1). The catch of violence, he argues, is that while such spectacular instances
rightly make us want to take action, they nevertheless are only considered
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exceptional against a supposed background of non-violence. In other words, because
violent events are seen as “a perturbation of the ‘normal’, peaceful state of things”
(Žižek 2008c:2), objective, structural, everyday violence gets overlooked.
As an aside, I don’t think that it is accurate to argue that this attribution of violence
to everyday life, to symbolic social structures and power, is merely rhetorical,
dramatising, moralising, "theoretical wordplay" (Collins 2002:25). How else to
describe the effects of, for example, institutional racism in harassing and oppressing
ethnic communities, unless in terms of systemic violence? Or instances of patriarchy
in which cis-men are given more freedom and opportunities than other genders?
How else to explain the cultural and political legacies of colonialism in sustaining
global exploitation and inequality? How else to define the anxiety, precariousness,
mental illness, relative deprivation and poverty caused by economic competition? Or
the unequal access to health care and social services experienced by the abjected and
excluded ‘internal others’ of nation-states (see Tyler 2013)? These are surely just
some instances of objective violence caused or sustained by historical legacies of
inequality and exacerbated by neoliberal capitalism.
While Weber and Arendt offer us alternative theories of the relationship between
power, violence and authority, they also have a particularly narrow definition of what
violence is. On the one side, by attributing it to the monopoly of the state, Weber
arguably misses how authority and power could potentially be established ‘from
below’ and against the state. On the other, by positing violence and power as
opposites, Arendt (strangely) neglects to consider the way in which violence exists
objectively in everyday life: symbolically, structurally, materially and historically. In
viewing violence as something exceptional to the norm, both also overlook how
violence and power are legitimated by an underlying pre-distribution of rationality
within society, counting some as legitimate and others as illegitimate. Žižek, on the
other hand, opens up an important critique of the role that violent spectacles can
play in re-asserting and maintaining the objective violence ideological power
structures such as neoliberalism. His theory recognises that violence is broader than
such spectacular events, problematising our immediate reaction towards it and
allowing us to think more carefully about how we might go about effectively resisting
it. It is to this idea that we now turn.
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Occupation vs. Pseudo-Activity
For Jacques Ranciere, political power is ultimately the distribution and designation
of what ‘counts as legitimate’ in society. It is that which partitions what may or may
not legitimately appear in a given space, what he calls a ‘distribution of the sensible’
that “consists, before all else, in recalling the obviousness of what there is, or rather
of what there is not, and it’s slogan is: ‘Move along! There’s nothing to see here!’ The
police is that which says that here, on this street, there’s nothing to see and so
nothing to do but move along… it asserts that the space for circulating is nothing but
the space of circulation” (Ranciere 2010:37). In other words, power is not simply
Weber's monopoly of legitimate violence, nor Arendt's opposite of violence, but the
positioning and partitioning of what or who may be considered ‘sensible’ (or not)
within a given space. Therefore, while Weber does not tell us what violence actually
does, using Ranciere’s theory we can suggest that it is an explicit instance of a police
order reasserting the boundary of rationality by moving along ‘that which should not
appear here’.
In contemporary society, this ideological and hegemonic distribution of what ‘counts’
as rational is neoliberalism. As such, I suggest that what we really see in the
altercation between the police and the protestors at Senate House is in fact
governance of what can be considered ‘sense’ and ‘non-sense’ in that space. In other
words, the police were legitimised to use violence in 'moving along' the sit-in,
because they were reasserting the ‘common sense’ designation of that space as one of
market logic (avoiding the interruption of the university's profitability or
competitiveness). This is a space for circulating money, not the circulation of
democratic ideas and discussion. As such, the protestors and the police conflicted in
their ideas of how university space should be used, but the difference was that the
police already came from a point of legitimacy, whereas the occupiers were alwaysalready coming from the point of 'illegitimate non-sense’.
Allow me to demonstrate this tension between the ‘sensible’ and the ‘non-sensible’
(between what is deemed to ‘count’ as a legitimate and rational appearance in
university space and what is deemed not to ‘count’) by looking at the ways in which
the event was retroactively framed. In the vice-chancellor’s letter that followed (on
behalf of the university and emailed to all staff and students) he asserts that the
university actually has a “long history of facilitating peaceful protest on the campus
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where close co-operation between those protesting and University colleagues enables
us to ensure that views are aired, arguments are made, but also ensure that the day
to day experience of those on the campus is able to continue” (emphasis added).
Here, then, protest and political expression is actually permitted, so long as it
remains within the distribution of the sensible ‘day-to-day' (neoliberal) use and
'experience' of the university (as a producer of competitive workers and innovative
ideas for the market).
In addition, Thrift's letter also refers once more to that alleged assault on a member
of staff, and this accusation was picked up upon in the reply issued by the Rootes
occupation on the day after the sit-in senate, where they seek to refute this as a claim
of police legitimacy:
“Upon reading the Vice Chancellor’s statement on what happened on the 3rd
December, Warwick for Free Education would like to make the following
corrections to his statement:
1. Security did not inform protestors of the incident, request co-operation or
request that any individual be identified. Nor did police. They were silent
until they began shoving and grabbing people.
2. Before police started walking in their direction, security told protestors
police were there on an unrelated incident. We’re trying to establish
whether video captures this lie.
3. No evidence has been brought forward to confirm that there was any
assault taking place. The police released the three arrested protestors
without any charges.” (warwick4freeducation 2014)
The problem here is that, while this counter-framing very well might be true, the
protestors nevertheless seek to blame the violence on certain individuals – such as
security, police, or the vice-chancellor – rather than looking at the structural context
of the neoliberal university that granted this violence legitimacy in the first place. As
such, by sticking to this narrow narrative of what caused the police violence (the
alleged assault), they remain within the prevailing distribution of what counts as
legitimate argument. Put differently, if the university was in fact a public space for
democratic discussion, then such violence would surely never have been able to claim
legitimacy, but as it was, in a context of the neoliberal university, the police fists, gas
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and tasers stood on the side of what was considered to be a ‘rational use’ of such
It is this designation of the ‘irrational’ and ‘illegitimate’ use of university property
that needs to be considered. Indeed, that using it for the democratic expression of
grievances is not considered legitimate, is further illustrated by the outcome of a
meeting that the Rootes occupation had with university management:
“The academic registrar affirmed that the only options open to us to express
our opinions are via the ‘democratic’ procedures linked with the SU, and that
occupations are both invalid and pointless methods of protest”
(warwick4freeducation 2014)
The use of the space for protest through occupation is pre-positioned as illegitimate
because it challenges the overall designation of what counts as a sensible use of and
appearance in that space. But this measure of illegitimacy and sensibility is one that
is only in line with the view that the university is and should be a neoliberal
institution, managed along market principles. This distribution of the sensible,
therefore, is what gives the police legitimacy to act violently and with impunity,
whilst simultaneously positioning those who wish to resist this university model as
an always-already irrational and illegitimate appearance. The alternatives of what the
university could be are limited by the prevailing structure and, as such, this is an
aprioi foreclosure of the possibility of possibility.
This is why, I argue, that occupation is simultaneously a potentially useful tool for
forcing such ‘non-sense’ to appear in the context of neoliberal hegemony, but also an
extremely risky thing for activists to take part in. On the one hand, not only do
‘illegitimate’ occupiers risk physical violence or social disapproval and exclusion, but
also, within a neoliberal market, they risk their own competitiveness, future and
happiness by putting the completion of their degree on the line (no wonder so many
of student-activists chose to hide their faces). The problem with resisting
neoliberalism, in a society where it is hegemonic, is that you have to “play or get
played” (Burrows 2012:369) and this increases the risks of political or democratic
expression. On the other hand, much more than a march, picket, strike or internet
campaign, the occupation of space is effective because it asserts a different –
radically alternative and therefore 'impossible' – conception of what the space should
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be through its very longevity and commitment. In this sense, the permanence of
occupation can actually become performative.
What’s more, the discussions which take place within an occupation entail a
commitment on behalf of activists to thought, giving space and time to considering
questions such as: how is the police violence legitimised by the neoliberal university?
What are the connections? What is the best way to resist this? Indeed, as Žižek
warns, the tendency of activists to ‘act now’ rather than take time to reflect is
potentially counter-productive because it risks ‘pseudo-activity’ (simply reacting in
order to cover up a lack of thinking). This leads him to conclude, in trademark
controversial terms, that “the overpowering horror of violence acts and empathy with
the victims inexorable function as a lure which prevents us from thinking… a
dispassionate conceptual development of the typology of violence must by definition
ignore its traumatic impact” quickly adding “yet there is a sense in which the cold
analysis of violence somehow reproduces and participates in its horror” (Žižek
2008c:3). In other words, Žižek invites us to resist the temptation of immediate
(re)actions to such horrific events, because “there is a fundamental anti-theoretical
edge to these urgent injunctions… ‘there is no time to reflect: we have to act now!’”
(2008c:6) and instead allow the time for critical reflection and discussion. Indeed,
rather than speeding up in the face of such events, perhaps it is best to ‘slow down’
(see Gane 2006) and think. Occupation, I suggest, has the potential to facilitate this.
At the #copsoffcampus rally the next day I was struck by the audience reaction to a
letter which had been sent by one of the students arrested at the sit-in senate.
Banned from campus, this student’s letter was read aloud to the huge crowd that had
gathered outside Senate House. It ended:
“The revolution is here; it is between us. We must fight together, but we must
also heal together. So the focal point of this demo is not simply that cops are
scum, but rather that they will not break us. They will not break our
movements, and they will not break our love for one another. Love and
solidarity." (warwick4freeducation 2014)
At these words, those immediately in front of the speakers began waving their
banners and cheering, turning into the chant: ‘Cops off Campus!’ Cops off campus!’
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and those around this core turned to one another to make comments or politely
applauded. But on the far edges, where other ‘non-activist’ students were walking
past and had stopped to see what was going on, the reaction was different and a
number of them began giggling and snorting… ‘what nonsense!’
More than police violence, it is here – at the edges of what ‘counts’ as sensible,
rational, legitimate appearance – where political violence is actually taking place and
power is being reasserted. This more subtle ‘policing’ maintains the borders of
possibility, of what does and does not ‘count’, and it is therefore complicit not only
with the objective violence of the prevailing order, but is also indirectly part of that
distribution which legitimised Senate House as a space for police violence. Of course,
sometimes taking action, such as organising a march or petition against police
brutality, is completely necessary (and I am definitely not trying to argue here that
the impressive #copsoffcampus protests the next day should somehow not have
taken place). But this action must not be allowed to prevent a more thorough
reflection of such objective violence that takes place everyday and forms the
supposedly apolitical ‘zero-point’ of spectacular violence. Indeed, sometimes taking
action can cover up an unwillingness to think via an expression of reactive rage
before simply returning to the neoliberal status quo. It is important to recognise,
therefore, that action is not always proactive, and that, “sometimes, doing nothing is
the most violent thing to do” (Žižek 2008c:183).
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