The regime is…us

In my Cities in a Global Society course, I have been pressing the point that we need to rethink organized political power. The classic English/German worldview is that there is a thing called “the state,” which is separate from “the people.” This is effective rhetoric for elections, especially for candidates who want to portray themselves as “outsiders” to the power-elite, and as reformers of the political system. Political candidates use “us-and-them” rhetoric to appeal to potential voters by promoting identification with them, against both leaders and bureaucrats who are supposedly different, separate, “them.”

However, this “us-and-them” model fails to explain how societies are actually governed. For the most part, the population governs itself. The population generally stops at red lights; drives on one side of the road; agrees to a standard time-of-day and calendar; standard weights and measures; and several thousand other daily practices that have all arisen since 1800. Foucault reminds us that the original, broader meaning of government includes personal behavior: a person who cannot govern their own emotions is considered intemperate and volatile. Not only do people ggenerally rule their own behavior, but they have a comprehensive set of expectations about what it means to be governed. Foucault coined a term for this mental-model of government: “governmentality.” Furthermore, he argues that this is the primary manifestation of government.

Governmentality varies between societies. When I first worked in Kabul, I was shocked to discover that residents of neighborhoods all across the city were willing to answer lengthy government questionnaires. I worked with a team of Planning Ministry staff to survey housing and infrastructure conditions. They would knock on doors, and if a resident answered, they would say ‘We are from the Ministry of Planning. We need you to answer a survey about living conditions.’ The survey was 55 questions, and took more than ten minutes to answer. I never saw a resident refuse to take the survey! In Kabul, it is assumed that if a government official wants to ask you questions, you should answer them. If this were the United States, I would have expected at least 2/3 of the residents refuse to take the survey–a pattern that reflects a strong tradition of skepticism about government in the United States. In other words, our collective American sense of how we expect to be governed is significantly different from that of Afghans. That skepticism is consistent across the highly-partisan political spectrum in the U.S.

In his 1998 book Seeing like a State, James Scott argues that modern governments imposed standard units, language, and history upon their populations in order to “render society legible to the state.” Yet, even in his own evidence he undermines this presumption of a top-down imposition by a ‘state.’ During the French Revolution, Scott points out that it was the peasants who asked for the development of standard weights and measures, in order to facilitate trade across the new Republique. This is not just an example of collaboration between the commoners and the state. Rather, it is an example of the commoners as the government.

Since I oppose the standard conception of “the state” as an entity somehow separate from a governed population, I avoid using the term “state” to describe governments. Instead I follow the post-structuralist practice of referring to regimes to refer to anything that actually governs people, practices, and spaces. Elected officials do exert governing power; I do not deny that they are part of the regime that governs over people and places. However, the overall urban regime is a much more complex entity: it includes not just the elected leaders and administrative staff of the formal government, but also the shared  practices and assumptions of the entire urban population. This may sound strangely abstract, until you test it against an actual example such as the chronic housing crisis in California. With the shocking increase in house-values in urban California, the population has increasingly shifted away from conceiving of residences as homes and toward seeing them as investments–or, more generally, as capital assets. This was not officially imposed by decree from above; this was a collective shift in assumptions about the meaning of a major component of the built environment. Furthermore, this shift has powerful, tangible consequences in the attack on renters’ rights (the Costa-Hawkins Act(1995), and the Ellis Act of 1985). As Don Mitchell argues, this shift means that Californians value the right to own property above the right to survive–a position that is expressed violently every time a homeless person dies of exposure.

How are cities in California governed? Mostly through our collective practices, assumptions, and agreements. In fact, overt government intervention may be most significant because it occurs during those rare moments when there is significant disagreement about what is considered acceptable and normal behavior.

In summary: The regime is us, for better or for worse.