My current research project is called “Inventing the Citizen: Participatory Governance and a ‘Left Governmentality’” and is funded by a Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellowship. The project has a theoretical component and a more practical, policy orientated component. Theoretically, the aim is to explore whether the concept and framework of ‘governmentality’, standardly used to understand and analyse liberal and neoliberal governance, could be reconceptualised to understand, and help underpin left or radical-democratic governance. The nuances of neoliberal governmentality are now well understood by scholars, but what does it look like to do the opposite? What kinds of institutions, systems, practices, and institutional logics will work to reverse the atomising and disempowering effects of neoliberalism, instead building new forms of collective agency, or fostering other positive qualities such as ‘creativity’ or ‘care’ within populations?
The project draws on empirical research into several new experiments in communal and participatory democracy, in London, as well as a review of research into experiments in radical governance from around the world, to explore these questions.
On the practical, policy-orientated side, I am working with local authorities and other institutions to explore the development of policies and other governance tools which could build collective agency, amongst other transformative effects within local populations. One particular area of interest is how existing frameworks for Community Wealth Building could be adapted to more effectively draw out and foster these effects in communities.
This project builds on my earlier doctoral research, which explored some of the same themes, such as the relationship between institutions, laws and ways of thinking and being, but from a different direction. My PhD theorised the idea of ‘a-legality’, and its application as a political strategy. This refers to quasi-legal institutions and processes which lack formal legitimacy, such as citizens’ debt audits, tribunals, and referenda, but which nonetheless ape the form or tone of official processes or institutions. Significant examples include the Catalan Independence referendum or the Venezuelan opposition leader’s self-proclamation as ‘interim president’, (with swearing-in ceremony and statements of support from UK and US governments). The research aimed to show that this previously untheorised political behaviour is a distinct strategy: actors attempt to prefigure, legitimate, and institutionalise a different social order. My current research project is similarly interested in the use of governmentality to promote social change, but instead of focusing on actors without formal authority or power, I am interested in these processes when supported by the resources, reach and authority of states.