Labyrinths and fabrications: public administration and the people.

Author:Witt, Matthew T.
Position:Critical essay


In his provocative book, Fabricating the People, Thomas J. Catlaw (2007) seeks to explain the "rising tide of hostility toward government" in the past thirty years and the (in his view) related "crisis of legitimacy" in the field of public administration (Catlaw, 2007, p. 1). Catlaw traces these problems, not (as we would) to the deep and growing corruption, corporatism, militarism, and hypocrisy of America's political class, but to a sort of conceptual mistake at the heart of modern representative government. He says representative government rests on a model-copy theory of representation following from the presumption that government represents a singular unity, a fictive One. But Catlaw, following the German legal theorist Carl Schmitt, claims government is always founded on a division between us and them by the derivation of an always incipient if not categorical "Other" excluded from the People, sine qua non. This division may be contested and the coordinates of its targeted exclusion may change, but the division itself persists. In Catlaw's view, this contradiction between the unitary conception of the People and the multiplicity inherent in political order induces a compulsion--the "biopolitical project" (Catlaw, 2007, p. 13)--to make the People whole by molding, subjugating, eliminating, removing, or otherwise neutralizing those whose otherness cannot be assimilated. Hence in the title and subtitle of his book, Catlaw says "politics and administration in the biopolitical state" are "fabricating the People."

Public administration has as a result been likewise fabricated, according to Catlaw, made into an enterprise committed fundamentally and inexorably to "a diagnosis in a historical narrative of disjuncture" (Catlaw, 2007, p. 97) between the fictive People conjured through the circuits of the state on the one hand, and what the constituent individuals of this fictive People would otherwise wish to become. As such, in Catlaw's analysis, public administration is always lagging behind an impetus for beckoned reform in order to re-align that which the people wish for with how the People has/have otherwise been derived.

The People Catlaw is concerned with are not those declaring allegiance to a singular Leader, as in a fascist state. Catlaw writes (in accordance with Lefort, 1986/1980; Laclau, 2000): "It is the ability to contest the terms of the universal in political hegemony that distinguishes and makes great the institutions and practices of constitutions. On the other hand biopolitical struggle means that there is considerably more at stake than the mere articulation of a representation of the People. Modern politics concerns the determination of Life and the processes that 'make us up.' Yet it takes up these matters in a specific manner--that is, representationally" (Catlaw, 2008, p. 114-115).

After explicating this armature of given dilemmas and veiled ontological maneuvers constituting the State, Catlaw proposes to eliminate politics and government as they are conventionally understood, calling for a "politics of the subject" and a practice of "subtraction" by which the people (not to be mistaken with the People) should/could/must disavow identifications that submerge into immanence what are actually inscriptions making people the People; a reification occurring through the circuits of the State under the logic of the model-copy by which fictive divisions are fabricated, as with people/government, public/private, friend/enemy. Via such practices of subtraction--also derived as "refusals" to submit to statist inscriptions of the One--the people can be restored to an essential plurality. This is to be done in small, isolated settings: the classroom, the boardroom, the bedroom, etc. It is not clear whether this politics and practice are a discourse. If they are, they are a "private discourse," and/or a "discourse of refusal."

Catlaw marshals Foucault's (1978/1994, 1995, 2006) account of modern representative government as an organ for population-management and improvement via industrial scale incarceration, socialization, etc. But, significantly, Catlaw drops Foucault's recommended political strategy of verbal confrontation: parrhesia. Greek for "fearless speech," this is a discourse that challenges the smug self-assurance of tyrants by disregarding their sensitivities while announcing true but disparaging observations about their behavior or character (Foucault, 2001, 2010). Foucault implied consideration should be given to other confrontational discourses, too. He argued that a new "discourse of the historian" had emerged in the 1600s to counter the historical discourse of the British and French kings by recollecting that the kings came to power by conquest and violence, not by acclamation or right (Foucault, 1997). Foucault investigated discursive tactics for challenging power because he assumed the powerful would always be with us. The best we could do is hold them accountable to us, their subjects. Catlaw wishes for a government-less community of humankind, so he cannot rely on a discourse for confronting power to transform power. We must transform ourselves. We must (silently) refuse to participate in the fiction of representation and all it implies.

This paper challenges Catlaw's analysis empirically and, on this basis, critiques his account of popular hostility to government and scholarly anxiety about the legitimacy of public administration. The first section sketches the ontology of U.S. governmental "foundings" and explains that the nation's founders and re-founders have always understood the citizenry to be a multiplicity of distinct groupings with different aims and competing ambitions. This expository section is followed by an account of how a "fabric of suspicion" toward government is neither new nor problematic but rather is endemic to U.S. political praxis. The third section traces the concerns of Catlaw and other scholars about anti-governmentalism to elite insecurities fueled by elite secrecy, duplicity, and antidemocratic intrigues. The paper closes with an inventory of how the People that Catlaw argues, with remarkable alacrity, to be fabricated we believe can be better understood morphologically as the People(1) and the People(2), existing in "double movement," and what this augurs for public administration in our time. We find a great deal of remarkable insight in Fabricating the People worth close reading by public administrationists and, further, that by taking the "people" intellectually seriously, Catlaw produces a major, original contribution to the field and raises the bar, considerably, for further such inquiry. What we find missing in this work we believe warrants close scrutiny this paper is intended to canvass.


Not in synch with the premise developed by Fabricating the People, America's founders and the Constitution's framers envisioned the people as a disunity ad infinitum. Their thinking was, and the political traditions they established remain, firmly rooted in classical political philosophy, especially the works of Aristotle, Polybius, and Machiavelli (Rahe, 1992). The founders adhered to the classical theory that all societies are divided into distinct groupings based on age, occupation, property, natural ability, and other factors. The challenge, the founders thought, was to prevent any one group or class from tyrannizing the others.

Whereas Catlaw concludes that government (or at least modern representative government) can and should be dissolved by a "politics of the subject," classical political philosophy teaches that political organization is intrinsic to human existence and that in all political entities someone rules. At the level of cultivating individual integrity and interpersonal competence, Catlaw's prescriptions for the subject are well taken. As for matters of governance, Aristotle had a simple and somewhat biopolitical answer to those who claimed humans could exist without rulers. At the very least, the old must rule the young, that is, there must be childrearing (The Politics, VII, xiv, in Aristotle, 1992, p. 432) To prevent tyranny, Aristotle advocated "mixed government" in which different classes control different political offices and each plays a role in governing. Mixed government balances the young against the old, poor against the rich, demos against aristoi.

The constitutional order was never intended to represent a unified electorate but instead a citizenry assumed to be fractious and disorderly. Most scholarly consideration of balance of power doctrine has for decades dropped close scrutiny of how "the people" are constructed under such doctrine. Catlaw's learned exegesis raises the bar considerably for pinning down this facet of constitutional balances and imbalances. The House of Representatives, which, in the Constitution of 1789, was the only body directly elected, represents the common people. The Senate represents the states, which is to say, in the early years of the republic, the main units of production (farming/slavery, manufacturing, commerce, finance). Age groups are reflected in the age requirements for different offices (a predilection indicative of concerns at least as timeless as classical Greece): 25 for the House, 30 for the Senate, and 35 for the President. Also pertinent is that the original system of American governance had dual executives: the President and the Vice President were originally rivals, because (until the 12th Amendment) the vice president was the runner up in presidential elections. The President controls the soldiers. The Vice President presides over the Senate, which can veto treaties. To declare war requires agreement between House and Senate. The Courts enforce laws, which means they protect the propertied interests from the property-less. Thus the Constitution gives various groupings within the country elements of both positive and negative...

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