Neoliberalism, Development, and Organizing

(If interested, there is also a Part 2 of the above video, which can be accessed here: )

“Transparency is not a form of representation that fixes mistakes, deters corruption, and finally puts the state at the service of the common good. What transparency actually is…is a political negotiation between disparate points of reference that have become unmoored, between documents, people, bodies, laws, circulating stories, plotted ground, the intransigent material objects and processes littering the landscape, the habits of the past and the looming uncertainties of the future. Transparency is nothing more than a name for a negotiation that forges a momentary agreement about representations and that aims to facilitate future connections.” ~ K. Hetherington (2011:222)
Manufactured ambiguities have arguably always been a necessary modus operandi for bureaucratic liberal governments- a fact that becomes particularly salient during periods of national ‘transition’, ‘reform’, or ‘development’. Taking an increasingly global perspective on theorizing state formation in the post- Cold War neoliberal era, we see through the readings reviewed here how ambiguous and mundane bureaucratic practices may constitute the spaces through which people engage in relations with what forms their experience of the state as a real, spatialized entity. And as Kregg Hetherington shows particularly well, it is in and through these ambiguous spaces of bureaucratic practice that the state comes to be seen by some as something that is, at least at times, negotiable. This post aims to highlight the complex ambiguities of neoliberal state-making practice, with a particular end-goal of framing Hetherington’s ethnography of Paraguayan campesino organizing, to which the above video adds several multiple layers of complexity, as a highly instructive case in which to examine the type of transnational governmentality described by Ferguson and Gupta.

Co-authors Ferguson and Gupta, in a critical re-working of Taussig’s state-as-fetish theory, emphasize that the state’s actual achievement of spatialization, and subsequent encompassment of centralized powers in everyday life, is a reality that is achieved significantly through the state’s routinization of mundane practices and procedures that produce spatial and scalar hierarchies which constitute the imaginings of state powers as operating ‘up above’. That is, rather than seeing the importance of theorizing the state as an abstraction, they focus on what we can learn from using a practice theory approach about how people come to experience the state as something that is both spatially real and encompassing of institutional power in society, and over lives and bodies. In addition, they propose a re-thinking of questions of space and scale through what they term ‘transnational governmentality’, in order to account for new forms and degrees of the vertical bundling of regulatory practices that have permeated states, and particularly ‘developing’ states, in the neoliberal era of globalization.

An important articulation of neoliberalism is given through Ferguson and Gupta’s concept of transnational governmentality, which might be paraphrased as follows. While neoliberalism is typically associated with a project of state ‘decentralization’ — that is, the dispersal of control over what were formerly ‘public’ spheres of centralized power under the state into the so-called private sector — this does not necessarily (or even likely) translate as ‘less government’. Rather, it is a devolution of governmental risk into the private sphere, including the individual, as well as increasingly the collapsing of scales from the global to the local, making for what might be conceived as a horizontal apparatus of governmentality which has overlain and become embedded within the verticality of state practice.

Kregg Hetherington’s “Guerrilla Auditors”, in many senses, seems to represent the sort of “ethnography of encompassment” that Ferguson and Gupta call for, though, in arguably unexpected and telling ways. Ferguson and Gupta’s proposition, that the challenge for such an ethnography is to understand the spatiality of all forms of governance within neoliberal globalization, is surprisingly met by Hetherington in competing Paraguayan state-making realities, which he discovers to be located in and through material documents, and particularly those tied to or surrounding land reformation. These documents surrounding the titling of campesino lands have become critical stages for contesting the neoliberalism of corporate soy farming, at the state level. Using the case of Paraguay’s post Cold War transition into neoliberal democracy, for which a project of transparency-making through the production of publicly-accessible official documents was representationally of central importance, Hetherington studies the necessary ambiguity of such documents through the “undemocratic” practices of campesinos in their making of an equally-ambiguous “transparent” state.

Significantly, Paraguayan campesinos are seen as “undemocratic” in their recognition of documentary ambiguities and their attempts to act on them as such, by the new democrats, because of campesinos’ explicit oppositional challenges they make against the state, which implicitly blur the logic of the new democrats’ conception of a universalist democratic governance. Moreover, as Hetherington writes (p.189), “caudillos and campesinos are the only ones who are capable of making bureaucracies more inclusive. Transparency is a technocratic language built on the exclusion of the political from governance, which paradoxically requires excluded political actors to make it work”.

To some degree, the above quote can be read as suggesting that governance and governmentality, as a spatial issue, takes place specifically within, through, and because of the presence of “the undemocratic”- the campesino. Nowhere in Hetherington’s book does this appear more manifestly visible, on and through bodies, than in his chapter, “lll-Gotten Land”, where the physical dichotomy between campesino protesters and state police marching along the highway “not only reinforced the law as the only legitimate terrain of struggle, but also revealed the law as subject to the dictate of violence” (p.90). That campesinos are included as members of a democracy through a status of citizenship, yet are continuously marked in practice as representing the “undemocratic” other of Paraguay’s nationhood, and are therefore excluded by necessity for making the transparent bureaucracy function “democratically”, represents the sort of red-lining that increasingly seems to be appearing in scholarly studies of neoliberal globalizing states and state-making. I would even speculate as to whether this may be seen as a tacit, foundational property of neoliberal global capitalism today, both in developing states and developed states. It is, in other words- the “subprime inclusion” of particular marked groups at the margin into democratizing spaces of “transparency making”, by means of a necessary process of redlining already historically marginal groups, ultimately as a way of marking- through bodies- “the limits of democratization” (see Ananya Roy 2010:218-19).

What is truly remarkable about the campesinos in Hetherington’s ethnography, is not only that their redlining as the ‘necessary undemocratic other’ is based less on the marking of their bodies than on their identification through certain practices, but also the fact that the logic of “their reality” (“orerealidad”) turns the logic of transparency-making from the new democrats’ point of view on its head. The campesinos do this, specifically by undermining the logic of universality, and acting on the ambiguous spaces of a neoliberal democracy, for which they themselves have been made to constitute a bodily/physical border between ‘the knowable’ (democratic) and ‘the inscrutable’ (the undemocratic/campesino). What is more, they consciously act on these borders as the spatio-temporal terrain of struggle over what they see as a certain open-ended space of sovereignty-in-the-making.

To this end, the case of Paraguayan campesino political organization provides an excellent representation of how transnational governmentality is an integral project of the biopolitical era, and how deeply and necessarily ambiguous this project is. As the video at the top of this post suggests, transnational neoliberal governmentality in Paraguay is seen being played out at a level in which the transnational apparatus of Brazilian soy farming, along with the global corporate power of Monsanto, has been visibly collapsed into very localized spaces and practices. That this has provoked campesino organizing around official documents surrounding land reform constitutes, for them, the terrain in which state-making and sovereignty are produced by means of their “undemocratic” relations with state bureaucracy, exemplifies the new modes of neoliberal bundling of governance that ties together vertical notions of state making and encompassment, and specifically through new hierarchies of both space and scale.


Ferguson, James, and Akhil Gupta
2005 Spatializing States: Toward an Ethnography of Neoliberal Governmentality. In Anthropologies of Modernity: Foucault, Governmentality, and Life Politics. Ed. Jonathan Xavier Inda. Pp. 105-134. Malden and Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Hetherington, Kregg
2011 Guerilla Auditors: The Politics of Transparency in Neoliberal Paraguay. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Roy, Ananya
2010 Poverty Capital: Microfinance and the Making of Development. New York and London: Routledge.

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1 Response to Neoliberalism, Development, and Organizing

  1. francesf2012 says:

    Great post, Laura! Here’s some info on Lugo who was removed by a “parliamentary coup,” totally illegal but declared “legal” by predominantly right wing parliament last June. South American countries declared it a coup and withdrew ambassadors and froze participation in MERCOSUR, etc. Saludos, d. sposito

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