Govern by numbers to rule better
This article was originally published in French. Click here to access the original interview.
These few lines introduce the book Gouverner sans gouverner (Governing Without Governing.) A Political Archeology of Statistics (PUF), by Thomas Berns, professor of philosophy at the Université Libre de Bruxelles. In this work, he defends two theses. First, the political and moral idea of transparency emerges from the Renaissance and the first census practices. Then, by governing by the real rather than by governing the real, by refraining from governing, paradoxically, we are governed more than ever. Explanations.
Your book is called “Governing Without Governing. A political archaeology of statistics. ” How can you govern without governing?
Statistics make it possible to govern without governing, without a plan, in a kind of restraint offered by reality itself. This mode of government was born at the end of the Renaissance and carries with it, from its embryonic form, an ambivalence. Statistics, in the form of census registers, refer both to a purely administrative logic, which is very effective, but also to the development of new knowledge making it possible to define a policy. This double possibility makes it essential to modern politics.
To this first duplicity is added a moral layer through which statistics are also directly and explicitly an action on collective mores, even in the privacy of individuals. For it is in the heart of homes that the greatest corruption is lodged and against which the law, which struggles to go into the detail of singular existences, can do nothing. Where the law governs the real, statistics govern from the real. It is from there that this mode of government, which renounces to govern "something", derives its legitimacy.
In the collective imagination, statistics are about collecting information. What link can you make with the government?
When I talk about governing or government, I mean being able to direct behaviour, which means that companies like Google or Amazon are more concerned than a “state government” like that of Emmanuel Macron. What characterizes these companies is that they govern by numbers and algorithms, in a gentle way, with a form of restraint that embraces the details of every existence. Google and Amazon don't impose anything on us, they don't tell us “do this, do that”. They are content to analyse reality from all angles and make recommendations to us based on our behaviour. And within such a framework, we continue to choose freely, in appearance at least.
On Amazon, the selection of books, calculated and offered from your previous readings, is unique, and helps make you an individual who thinks of yourself in a unique way. Ratings are another example: we rate, compare, choose, sanction, each in our own way, without Google or Uber intervening directly. Behind the scenes, big numbers and statistics are at work. Four centuries after its birth, thanks to computer algorithms, statistics have therefore taken on another dimension which covers almost all of reality and impacts almost all of our behavior: we have never been governed so much!
When consent is exercised, it is in the mode of reflex, of automatism, which is in no way reflexive vis-à-vis the government practices that are developed on this basis.
“We have never been ruled so much!”. This sounds like a paradox, even though, for example, choice and consent seem to be the rule on the Internet.
What is at stake is the extent to which a practice of government is accompanied, or not, by interesting practices of subjectivation.
How can we be more active subjects, then?
T. B.: Let's take the example of personal data. As I was saying, the question is not or no longer to consent, to say yes or no individually to their collection. The question is: how is it used, and for what purpose, and these questions must necessarily be addressed collectively. The RGPD (General Data Protection Regulation, in force since 25 May 2018), if we had not rushed to outsource its management, could have produced this type of reflection in certain companies, certain groups, certain universities, and that is what is important. What is at stake, then, is the extent to which a practice of government is accompanied, or not, by interesting practices of subjectivation, in whatever space they occur - and possibly in spaces other than those intended. Algorithmic government produces very little of this in individuals. It is painless, it affects us little, even when it is absurd, stupid, unbridled, liberticidal in its effects.
In algorithmic government, individuals are seized in their singular existence and exercise little reflexivity.
Has this always been the case?
T. B.: Each form of government produces a type of individual by facilitating, or not facilitating, his or her reflexivity (which can therefore also develop elsewhere, in resistance). For example, the confessional has produced individuals who, while confessing, question their sexuality and desire. There is therefore a certain production of the individual that results from the confessional, even if it is to control him: the desiring individual. In the same way, the law, by wanting to control them, produces individuals who think they are equal to other subjects of law. As for statistics, they produce individuals who think they are average and must therefore be protected and insured. In algorithmic government, individuals are captured in their singular existence and exercise little reflexivity. We are therefore not yet, at this stage, subjects of algorithmic governmentality.
Could the concept of privacy, which is increasingly defended in the public space, feed a form of reflexivity towards algorithmic government?
T. B.: This concept, defended in and of itself, is not sufficient to be a source of subjectivation - just as reflexive consent does not produce any form of reflexivity. Let us return to the idea of the emergence of a subjectivation of individuals. In this perspective, the concept of privacy will only be interesting when it produces subjects who are collectively interested in the future of their data. And not individuals who systematically cling to a private space, very individually envisaged, considering it to be naturally given, even though they are constantly exposing it. And this is something that the thinkers of the quantification projects at the end of the Renaissance had already anticipated, relying on a morality of light and transparency to explain, like Google or Facebook now, that after all, good citizens who have nothing to hide can only wish to be seen!
Thomas BERNS is professor of political philosophy at the University of Brussels. A specialist of the Renaissance and a philosopher of politics, law and norms in the broadest sense, he is, among others, the author of Gouverner sans gouverner - une archéologie politique de la statistique (PUF, 2009), Du courage. Une histoire philosophique (Editions des Belles Lettres, 2010) and La guerre des philosophes (PUF, 2019).
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