In today’s post Professor Jonathan Davies draws on Gramscian theory to argue that network governance ideology fails to engage with real power structures, and that state-society partnerships cannot stop climate change. This post was originally published on the Innovations in Climate Governance (INOGOV) website and republished with their permission
The idea of “network governance” began to grip academics and policy makers as part of the turn to the “third way” in the 1990s. Enthusiasm for networks arose from a particularly influential reading of social change. Confronted by dramatic processes of globalisation and de-traditionalisation, often associated with the passing of modernity, many thinkers reasoned that states could no longer exercise sovereign power and instead have to involve a multitude of other actors to govern successfully. Governing systems, in other words, have to become de-centred, or polycentric. As INOGOV research demonstrates, climate change governance has been strongly influenced by these ideas.
At the same time, with the decline of trade unionism in many countries, the language of “working class” disappeared from mainstream political discourse, to be replaced by “civil society”. Civil society with its networks of voluntary and community organisations is a far more palatable partner for neoliberalising states than the unions. It can be incorporated into state projects, and provide links into dispossessed and alienated communities that are abandoning the institutions of representative democracy. Working through “civil society”, state-organised networks could focus on the practical business of problem solving within the parameters of neoliberalism: trying to balance competitiveness with social cohesion, while setting aside the structural foundations of inequality and injustice. Urban living labs seeking to innovate around smart cities and sustainability are a good example of this ideology in practice. For the most idealistic thinkers, network governance ushers in a new, cooperative and communicative form of sociability capable of replacing the crumbling hierarchical edifice of modernity.
Much of my work has been concerned with the critique of this exaggerated and normatively charged theory of change (see , , , ). I argue that the idea of network governance as an “innovation” transforming the way we are governed is hopelessly idealistic. At best it is the vague premonition of a post-capitalist society incubating within the bowels of a nasty, authoritarian neoliberal conjuncture. There are multiple reasons for skepticism about “network governance”. First, there is nothing new about it. Any brief survey of early 20th century literatures show that the kinds of institutions considered “innovative” by network enthusiasts have been around for a very long time. Second, when studied close-up, “networks” look very much like the “hierarchies” they are supposed to replace. Participatory networks, like urban living labs, tend to be cosmetic. States and corporations are by far the biggest drivers of climate change, and they determine how it is governed through duplicitous practices like carbon trading. Moreover, networks entrench inequalities of wealth and power – the very reason they are attractive to elites. They leave the dispossessions and human disasters of climate change untouched and require us to think about injustice in de-politicized vernaculars of “innovation”, “adaptivity”, “inclusion” and “sustainability”. They promise relentless “change”, but always within the parameters of the present. Like a washing machine, we are in continuous motion but never move.
To try and put network governance in its place, and situate it in a better understanding of historical continuity and change, I turned to the work of Italian revolutionary, Antonio Gramsci (see , ). Gramsci developed a theory of politics, in which state and civil society are deeply enmeshed. He argued that the coercive and consensus-building tactics and strategies of government play out on the terrain of civil society. Gramsci’s definition of civil society was much broader than the rather benign world of voluntary organisations depicted in democratic theory. He included the media and education systems, while today’s Gramscian scholars also point to the power of charitable foundations. Much of what we call “civil society” is either closely linked to corporations and the state, or depends on them for donations, grants and contracts. Swathes of civil society are hierarchical, predatory and conservative. Gramsci called this deep web of entanglements and inter-dependencies “the integral state”, Lo Stato Integrale. He argued that government “educates” civil society through a myriad of coercive and consensus-building techniques. When states are threatened with revolution, he said, a well-organised civil society turns out to be their best protection.
Studied through the lens of the integral state, what we call “network governance” looks very conventional and not at all “innovative”. States may be shedding their postwar welfare and redistributive functions, but its coercive functions have not disappeared. On the contrary, they are coming to the fore. When we look at the anatomy of state-organised governing networks, we find coercive managerialism everywhere. In participatory mechanisms state managers control agendas, while those seeking to politicize an issue are often quickly marginalized. Informal networks, on the other hand, reinforce the power of governing elites and corporate interests, which dominate climate change decisions. Under austerity, participatory mechanisms are either set aside or tasked with advising on where the state should make its cuts. Even the much-vaunted participatory budgeting mechanisms of Latin America are widely recognized to be in decline. And, in hindsight, they didn’t exercise that much control over the governing apparatus to start with.
The point is not that public participation is bad, or that polycentric systems do not exist in some circumstances. It is rather that branding unremarkable practices as new, radical or innovative can be dangerous because it conceals deep continuities and asymmetries in the structures of power. In the age of authoritarian neoliberalism, network governance is little more than a sticking plaster for the gaping wounds of late capitalism, of which climate change is among the worst.
Jonathan S. Davies is Professor of Critical Policy Studies and Director of the Centre for Urban Research on Austerity at De Montfort University, Leicester, UK