City at a Time of Crisis



Tracing and researching crisis-ridden urban public spaces

in Athens, Greece.


Governing for the market: emergencies and emergences in power and subjectivity

by Athena Athanasiou

States of crisis
The state of crisis as a mode of neoliberal governmentality raises difficult questions about the links between precariousness and action, shame and solidarity, dispossession and intimacy. More specifically, it compels a consideration of how precariousness might shape political action, how a sense of shame might (or might not) trigger practices of solidarity, and how dispossession might (or might not) become the occasion for re-imagined and re-activated intimacies. Current regimes of neoliberal governing through crisis management bring forth the (economized, but also gendered, sexed, and racialized) subject as a performative political arena of vulnerability and precariousness. They also bring forth the ways in which subjects are interpellated into crisis politics as subjects of vulnerability and precariousness.

In this context of crisis discourse, new configurations of crisis and critique are emerging with reference to questions of what counts as crisis and how critical responses are articulated. In other words, the question of thinking critically in times of crisis emerges and persists. This question(ing) involves also taking into consideration that critique is always already in crisis, as it pertains to interrogating the terms which determine what counts as an ontological claim. Thus, critique is about provoking crisis to established truth claims, including the truth claims of crisis.

In this sense, I suggest that we consider Judith Butler’s engagement with Michel Foucault’s well-known essay “What is critique?” They both pose the question of critique with reference to forces of subjectivation, self-formation, and de-subjugation. Foucault writes: “Critique will be the art of voluntary insubordination, that of reflected intractability. Critique would essentially ensure the desubjugation [désassujettissement] of the subject in the context of what we would call, in a word, the politics of truth.” [1] And Judith Butler responds thus: “But if that selfforming is done in disobedience to the principles by which one is formed, then virtue becomes the practice by which the self forms itself in desubjugation, which is to say that it risks its deformation as a subject, occupying that ontologically insecure position which poses the question anew: who will be a subject here, and what will count as a life, a moment of ethical questioning which requires that we break the habits of judgment in favor of a riskier practice that seeks to yield artistry from constraint.” [2] To echo Butler’s formulation, I would like to argue that what is at stake in current regimes of crisis is precisely a contested domain where subjects “risk their deformation as subjects”, “occupy ontologically insecure positions”, and, at the same time, “yield artistry from constraint”. In this text, I propose to explore current neoliberal governmentality as a distinct assemblage of power, knowledge, and subjectivity.

Biopolitics and governmentality of crisis
The current regimes of crisis provide the grounds for a critical re-engagement with, and a critical re-imagining of, who counts as part of the public; how the political is performed; how and where it “takes place”; what qualifies as political subjectivity, and how it is gendered, racialized, and classed; how are bodies subjugated and de-subjugated in these times of neoliberal governmentality and precarization?

In light of this questioning, I argue that neoliberalism is not just a mode of capitalist financialization in the strict sense, but rather a more encompassing regime of truth and a more diffuse matrix of social intelligibility, which includes particular modalities of power, subjectivation, governance, self-governance, and self-formation. Such modalities take the interwoven forms of biopolitical (self-)management, self-interested and competitive individualization, securitization, responsibilization, a reconfigured relation between public and private, and a particular logic of economy and the market.

As “crisis” becomes a complex assemblage of power relations which both manage life and expose to death, the “state of exception”, which is usually deployed to signify the element of emergency at the heart of the normative administrative discourses of crisis, proves to be not exceptional but rather ordinary, systematic, canonical, and foundational. The normative terms of subjectivity emerging from such configuration are defined by exclusionary norms of gender, capital, and nation. It is through such (un)exceptional forces of power and subjectivation that crisis becomes the production of life and death as economic and political currency, as an economic and political ontology of life-and-death itself.

In the analytics of biopower developed by Michel Foucault, if sovereignty seeks to rule on death, biopolitics is about administering “life” through managing surplus populations. In Security, Territory, Population, Foucault suggests that liberalism is the paradigmatic mode of governmentality for the exercise of biopolitics. Liberal forms of governing, contrary to the police-like political doctrines of Raison d’État, entail a limiting of the power of the state. The role of the state and state institutions is to ensure and safeguard the pervasive functions of the market. As Foucault writes: “One must govern for the market, not because of the market” (Birth of Biopolitics, p. 121).

In this context, one must account for and critically engage the significant trajectories in Foucault’s method from the introduction of the concept as an aspect of his engagement with the problem of sexuality in The History of Sexuality (1976) and, especially, from a more totalizing treatment of biopolitics as a modern configuration of power in Society Must Be Defended (1976) to the lectures of 1978 (Security, Territory, Population) and 1979 (Birth of Biopolitics), where different co-present modes, structures, and techniques of power (i.e., the disciplinary, the juridical, security, population) are presented in their hierarchical correlations, re-articulations and transformations. In Security, Territory, Population, biopolitics is interrelated with questions of governmentality (the linking of governing [“gouverner”] and modes of thought [“mentalité”] and what Foucault calls “apparatuses of security”; in fact, biopolitics tends to be analytically displaced by the idea of “governing” and the organized practices (mentalities, rationalities, and techniques) through which subjects are governed. In this text, Foucault addresses the “pre-eminence over all other types of power –sovereignty, discipline, and so on- of the type of power that we can call ‘government’” (STP, p. 108). In The Birth of Biopolitics, Foucault seems to deploy governmentality to signify power relations in general. In this text, he continues to pursue the theme of a governmental rationality which seeks maximum effectiveness (in mastering life) by governing less, and focuses on a detailed analysis of the forms of this liberal governmentality, including the role of neoliberalism in twentieth century politics.

So in order to deal with the multiplicity of directions in Foucault’s work on biopolitics and his closely connected discussions of governmentality, it is important to account for the ways in which biopolitics, in the form of a crisis-oriented normalization, gives the ground for today’s re-articulation and re-configuration of governmentality. This perspective runs counter to a teleological conceptualization of governmentality as a form of rule which gradually displaces those technologies of power, namely sovereignty and discipline, that are considered archaic, more “repressive”, “authoritarian”, “irrational, and “uneconomic” than governmental technologies. In this light, neoliberal rationalities and techniques of power involve an articulation between “productive” and “destructive” aspects of power, discipline and freedom, choice and competition, authoritarianism and self-determination, subjectivation and subjection.

Neoliberal governmentality denotes an authoritative apparatus of producing dispensable and disposable populations, and, at the same time, producing and demarcating the normative codes of the human by regulating the (economic) vitality, affectivity, potentiality, embodiment, vulnerability and livability of subjects. Within the purview of this governmentality, the biopolitical imaginary and administration of life and death is reinvented, revitalized, and reconfigured, as resources and vulnerability are differently and unevenly distributed among different bodies – differently economized, racialized, and gendered bodies.

Thus, in the Greek neoliberal context of plurality of power technologies, steep economic disparities and deprivation, the normalization of poverty and the widespread condition of precarity are combined with, and supplemented by, various forms of securitization, such as tightened migration policies, the abjection of undocumented immigrants, as well as an intensified politics of racism, sexism and homophobia. Economic hardship and austerity measures required under the bailout, loss of jobs, pay cuts, disposable labour, unemployment, pension reductions, poverty, evictions, loss of dignity, and the dissolution of the public healthcare system are attended by an overall authoritarianism: emergency legislation is deployed to curtail rights; a citizenship law repeals citizenship rights for second-generation migrants and increases the number of years of residence and schooling that the children of immigrants need to prove before they are eligible to apply for citizenship; governmental invocation of an emergency law and the “threat of civil disorder” forces strikers back to work; the Health Minister targets HIV-positive women as a “public health bomb”; and the police detains trans people in order to “clean and beautify the city”.

Emergency politics, emergent politics
As crisis management turns into a crucial mode of neoliberal governance through a political and moral economy of life itself, at the same time, new radical movements are emerging in different parts of the world as well as different topologies where these movements are being performed. As people are forcefully relegated by the market logic to subjugated subjects and disposable bodies with no rights, new modes of agonistic embodied citizenship have been emerging, through which challenges to neoliberal policies have been posed.

Crisis becomes an arena in which different forms of publicness are enacted and negotiated. As emergent subjectivities, affective communities, and spaces of non-compliance take shape in various multilayered city-scapes of crisis, different forms of civic protest address a range of concerns including austerity, the privatization and corporatization of public space, poverty, precarity, social injustice, and state authoritarianism.

In this sense, as present neoliberal regimes increasingly expose to death, through differential exposure to the injuries of poverty, demoralization, and racism, a performative politics of protest emerges, one which mobilizes the radical potentiality of transforming such injurious interpellations. Assembled bodies in the street, but also in various collectivities and alternative networks of solidarity (often organized in ways alternative to the archetype of the heroic activist), reclaim the unconditionality of public space, demanding a democracy with demos, and enacting a demos with differences.

The tension between, on the one side, the differential distribution and regulation of the terms of precariousness as an instrument of neoliberal governmentality and, on the other side, the struggle to reclaim the terms of a livable life without erasing vulnerability is precisely what I would like to call “precarious intensity”. Precarious intensity implies an agonistic (instead of antagonistic) way of attending to vulnerability; an agonistic engagement which often takes place within a contested public space, or within a contested realm of embodying public space.

The state of crisis, where people are (differentially) faced with economic dispossession, the political violence of authoritarianism, and a state of deadly living, has inspired a philosophical critique of neoliberalism based on a theoretical reconsideration of Foucault’s conception of biopolitics, especially its emphasis on making live and letting die. But how might we rethink biopolitics as a performative resource for agonistic political engagement and contestation? How might we think together a politics of emergency and a politics of emergence? [3] And, to further complicate this line of inquiry, how should we reconsider this question taking into consideration that “emergence” is also one of the administrative, managerial, and affective modes deployed by neoliberal governance?

The figure of the emergent resonates with Jacques Derrida’s notion of arrivant, as a disposition to the other, and an openness to what lies outside of oneself. In this regard, it indicates the moment of the possibility of an impossibility: a radical transformation of the social and political (rather than merely economic) ontologies upon which neoliberal governmentality is founded. Taking up such line of investigation would help make us attentive to the manifold, plural, and contradictory ways in which “emergence” might signify and complicate the unexpected, the dissonant, and the subversive; how it could be reclaimed by an aporetic ethics and poetics and thus be activated as a trans-formative critique of the fixed totality and propriety inherent in states of emergency that structure and regulate our present governmentality.


[1] Michel Foucault, “What is Critique?” in The Politics of Truth. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e) (1997): 41-82 (p. 47).

[2] Judith Butler, “What is Critique? An Essay on Foucault’s Virtue” (Transversal, 2001).

[3] Bonnie Honig, Emergency Politics: Paradox, Law, Democracy. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009.



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City at the Time of Crisis is a research project tracing and researching the effects of the ongoing financial crisis on urban public spaces in Athens, Greece. Read more...