Urban regimes and political rationality

In my courses I often contrast Max Weber’s concept of “the state” with Michel Foucault’s much more nuanced concept of regimes. American policy debate often assumes the existence of a discrete entity, sometimes called ‘the government’ and sometimes called ‘the state.’ Americans often ascribe intentionality to ‘the state,’ such as: “They want you to think that Bush didn’t know about 9/11 before it happened.”

Who are “They?” What if there is no difference between “they” and “us”?

If we assume that there is a monolithic entity, an active and intentional agent which we call ‘the state,’ it is easy to believe in government conspiracies. It is easy to imagine that this conscious entity can be all-seeing, all-knowing, supremely calculating and premeditating. However this tidy model of governing power fails to explain what we observe in reality.

There is no “there” there

Urban spaces are governed, yes. But by what? First of all, most urban spaces are governed by at least three levels of government: local municipality, the state or province, and the national government. Second, each space is governed by a very different agencies and laws, at each of these levels of government. Any street in San Francisco has curb-ramps dictated by the Federal ADA Architectural Guidelines, and pavement governed by the specifications of the local Department of Public Works. The California Department of Transportation also governs street design and signage standards. So the street is governed, but we should not assume that there is only one entity doing the governing.

The example I often use to explain the nature of urban regimes is my experience in trying to get building permits for a public housing development in the Western Addition of San Francisco. I had to submit eight complete sets of plans to different city agencies and the local utility company (PG&E). These agencies made no effort to coordinate with each other, and burdened the architect with the responsibility of coordinating responses to comments from all of them. There is no such thing as applying to ‘the City’ for a building permit. Rather, you need to enter into multi-way negotiations with a loose aggregation of mutually hostile agencies. Do they govern the space in the Western Addition? Oh yes, very much so. But is there a deliberate, intentional, coherent ‘government of San Francisco’ doing the governing? Not at all. It may seem strange to think of a loose aggregation of disparate agencies as a strong regime, but in practice the result is that urban space in San Francisco is intensely regulated.

Based on my experiences in San Francisco and in Kabul, I am very skeptical about conspiracy-theories. The regimes that I have seen in action are far too incoherent to collectively keep a secret. I propose a two-level test for any conspiracy theory. Yes, it is possible for an agency to keep an official secret, such as the method the U.S. Army Air Corps used to generate the firestorm that incinerated Dresden during World War II. However, it is exceedingly difficult to keep the existence of the secret operation secret

Governmentality and a de-centered theory of regimes

What does Foucault mean by ‘regimes’? To begin with, he points out that we all have expectations about governing. Those expectations include how we govern ourselves, how we govern others, and how we expect to be governed. To some degree these expectations are conscious and explicit; but many of our expectations are embedded in daily habits. It is a whole mentality; a govern-mentality.

This concept de-centers and disrupts many of our assumptions about government. And it also explains a lot of details in real-world practice. For instance, it disrupts the idea that there is a fundamental distinction between the government and the people. Not only am I acting as part of the government because I teach at a public university, but I govern/and I am governed by my own expectations and through hundreds of practices every day, like getting in line for the bus and telling my children to say ‘please.’ Yes, there are also many formal agencies that we fund through tax dollars. And yes, they do also govern through laws and practices. But “they” are not any sort of unitary entity. In fact at each geographic level of government, there are long-term staff (the bureaucrats) and much shorter-term elected officials, the political leadership. Political leaders are often much more partisan than the career-term bureaucrats.

Furthermore, the ‘culture of governing’ can vary over time ans space. In the Bay Area the culture of governing varies quite a bit between each city. If you are a building-contractor or an architect, you will tend to specialize in specific cities because you learn how to get things built there. Getting something built in San Francisco does not mean you know how to get something built in Palo Alto, or vice versa. The reputation of police departments varies a lot, city-by-city. Altogether, this means that the urban regime of every city is unique and quite distinctive.

As a ‘culture of governing,’ each regime is comprised of more than just the official municipal departments. Government includes the internalized expectations, assumptions, and habits of every person within that city. It is transmitted and re-shaped by a series of stories, by a governing narrative. The stories that we tell each other to justify the way we rule ourselves and each other depend upon specific understandings, specific bodies of knowledge. Therefore in academia, for instance, we sometimes refer to regimes of knowledge; but more generally, we can explain the pervasive, diffuse nature of governing by recognizing that in every context, there is a regime of truth.

Political rationalities

What are political rationalities? A close parallel in English-language political thought is “political logic.” We justify policy decisions by arguing that they are rational; this is the same terminology used by lawyers if a policy gets disputed. Over time, as a culture changes in terms of meta-narratives and assumptions, the logic-of-governing also changes. In 1896, when the U.S. Supreme Court formalized the “separate but equal” doctrine in Plessy v. Ferguson, the justices expressed a strong fear that there could be a race-war in the United States. The justices reasoned that the best solution for all parties was to keep them apart, to keep America segregated. Most 21st-century Americans would find those arguments embarrassing, even “cringe-worthy.” What our current reaction reveals is how far our assumptions and governing stories have shifted over 120 years. Conversely, “rational Americans” from the 1890s would think we are utterly insane (unreasonable) for tolerating cohabitation, fornication, out-of-wedlock children, same-sex relationships, and widespread divorce. The justification for laws, public behavior, and standards of decency have shifted dramatically within the United States, and they continue to vary between countries. What has NOT changed is that, if you want to get elected and stay in power, you need to express the political rationalities of your time and place. In this respect, we govern ourselves through political rationalities.