The last decade witnessed the rapid proliferation of modalities of rating in most spheres of social life. Whether products or services, the people who provide them, or work colleagues, we are increasingly invited to judge—often instantly—their value and performances. Our opinions and value judgements are continuously elicited by ubiquitous public rating systems which claim to constitute platforms allowing the instantaneous expression of our preferences. Increasingly, the value of objects, people, relationships, and institutions has come to depend on the scores obtained through these rating exercises.
In the sphere of work, these modalities appear concretely in various performance appraisal systems entailing the assessment of each individual by all those surrounding them. The logic is that, based on continuous evaluations by everyone surrounding us, our ‘true’ individuality will be fully mobilised. Whilst appearing democratic, liberating and emancipatory, we argue that such systems appropriate the moment of genuine judgement and deliberation using rigid frames of reference that fix how individuals can be perceived and judged by others. The political and ethical consequences of performance appraisal frameworks amount therefore to a narrowing down of possibilities of genuine democratic expression and dissent.
In order to understand this paradox, we employ conceptual elements rooted in analyses by Rancière (2010) and Mouffe (2000, 2005) which show how such concrete managerial practices of appraisal can be seen as paradigmatic expressions of the increasingly problematic relationship between (neo)liberalism and democracy. Thus, the first section contextualises our analysis of the political and ethical significance of ubiquitous rating system within the consolidation of neo-liberalism in the last three decades. We examine how managerial practices have been central ingredients in this process, and how their rapid diffusion expands the range of what Rancière called “policing”. The following sections analyse concrete examples of systems of rating in the workplace. The case of omnipresent rating systems is an example of the paradox of highly managed instances of apparent democratic exercise which conceal their closely controlled character. We focus on performance appraisal systems whose growth over the last decades is being intensified by the use of various devices which make possible instantaneous systems of rating the worth of work colleagues. We explore how such systems gradually place users in a relationship of reciprocal “policing” and so how collective democratic affinities and dissent are endangered.
Of course, the relationship between (neo)liberal regimes and democratic practices has preoccupied political theorists (Barkan 2013; Brown 2015; Mirowski and Plehwe 2009; Rancière 2010; Slobodian 2018; Wolin 2008) since the dawn of the post-communist era in Europe. Among them, Mouffe (2000, 2005) has shown how aspects of democratic government have been subverted by the apparent triumph of a revived and increasingly hegemonic vision of global (neo)liberalism. In the euphoria of the 1990s, various politicians and parties rushed to reinvent themselves as ‘centrists’, ‘modernisers’, seekers of a new ‘way’ of managing (quite literally) the spoils of the victory of liberalism over modern totalitarianisms. As Mouffe argues:
Neo-liberal dogmas about the inviolable rights of property, the all-encompassing virtues of the market and the dangers of interfering with its logics constitute nowadays the ‘common sense’ in liberal-democratic societies. […] Blair’s ‘third way’ and Schröder’s ‘neue Mitte’ [‘new centre’], both inspired by Clinton’s strategy of ‘triangulation’, accept the terrain established by their neo-liberal predecessors (2000, p. 6).
These regimes claimed that their project was genuinely ‘democratic’, legitimated historically by the popular will which overthrew communism in eastern Europe. Were those movements of liberation not democratic in their very essence? ‘Indeed!’ was the answer in western political circles. So liberalism felt entitled to absorb ideas of democratic life as if they had always been its own, when, in fact, liberal principles “do not have their origin in the democratic discourse…” (Mouffe 2000, p. 2). She also explains that the self-certainties and closed horizons of the liberal tradition “constituted by the rule of law, the defence of human rights and the respect of individual liberty” cannot be simply juxtaposed and imposed upon the complexity and openness of the democratic ideas of “equality, identity between governing and governed, and popular sovereignty” (2000, pp. 2–3). Yet, renewed liberal ideologies claim the ability to resolve the inherent and irreducible incompatibility between individual liberty and popular sovereignty. For Mouffe, this very claim “represents a threat for democratic institutions” (2000, p. 6) since “both perfect liberty and perfect equality [are] impossible” (2000, p. 10). As a result, the productive democratic space for contesting the liberal consensus has been increasingly marginalised by a sentiment of moral certainty, while dissent itself became suspect and somewhat immoral, standing against the incontestable values of an unbounded individualism.
This historical process did not take place simply in the realm of politics. Various managerial discourses and practices also grew as parallel vectors for political optimism, and business itself is presented as a necessary condition for securing the historical promise of modernity: self-assertive individualism (Du Gay 2004; Jones and Spicer 2005; Essers et al. 2017; Hanlon 2018). Indeed, in the 1990s, following a decade of Reaganite and Thatcherite politics, doctrines of entrepreneurial cultures (Rose 1990, 1998; Dean 2009; Brockling 2015) and sanitised free markets (Mirowski and Plehwe 2009) replaced almost entirely traditional party programmes. Politics was reduced to the administration and management of the body-politic through ‘healthy’ business competition seen as essential in the expression of individualism. The world was gradually reconceptualised through categories promising the end of political antagonisms:
Notions such as ‘partisan-free democracy’, ‘dialogic democracy’, ‘cosmopolitan democracy’, ‘good governance’, ‘global civil society’, ‘cosmopolitan sovereignty’, ‘absolute democracy’ […] all partake of a common anti-political vision which refuses to acknowledge the antagonistic dimension constitutive of ‘the political’. Their aim is the establishment of a world ‘beyond left and right’, ‘beyond hegemony’, ‘beyond sovereignty’ and ‘beyond antagonism’ (Mouffe 2005, p. 2).
Despite claims to a genuine emancipatory project for individuality, this image of consensus led, paradoxically, to the closure of spaces for democratic self-expression. To the contrary, neo-liberal visions are predicated upon a homogenous conception of individuality which Foucault called “Homo oeconomicus [as] an entrepreneur of himself” (2008, p. 226). Possible spaces for self-expression were rapidly occupied by universal, yet empty tropes, such as the freedom to ‘self-actualise’, or as the self-styled ‘#1 life and business strategist’, Tony Robbins, exhorts us: “Don’t settle for anything less than you can be! Make your life a masterpiece!” (in Curtis 2002). As Foucault anticipated,
… the stake in all neoliberal analyses is the replacement every time of homo oeconomicus as partner of exchange with a homo oeconomicus as entrepreneur of himself, being for himself his own capital, being for himself his own producer (2008, p. 226).
The main principle of (neo)liberalism (the ethos and ethics of individual freedom) now lies beyond political debate, contestation or dissent. Such dissent would appear as a moral offence, and as a gesture of coercion similar to the totalitarian mentalities now overthrown by historical consensus: “Individual liberty can only be understood in a negative way as absence of coercion” (Mouffe 1993, p. 62; also Mirowski and Plehwe 2009, p. 437). To question this principle is not just politically insensitive, but, morally, almost impossible because no individual could stand legitimately against others without violating the principle itself.
The dangers to democracy identified by Mouffe and others recall de Tocqueville’s (2003 ) penetrating early critique and warnings about the dangers of despotism within the fabric of democratic nations. Asking, “What sort of despotism democratic nations have to fear” (2003, p. 803), de Tocqueville argued that democratic authority, both public and private, has a paradoxical tendency to concentrate power in the name of benign guarantees of securing individual freedom. The political space would acquire, consequently, a new character: “The very constitutions and needs of democracies make it inevitable that their sovereign authority has to be more uniform, centralized, widespread, searching, and powerful than in any other nation” (2003, p. 810). To ensure the comprehensive guardianship of liberty, modern democratic institutions tend to become co-extensive with the social body as a whole since the normative requirements for peaceful coexistence in a society of equals have to infuse every single aspect of human interaction. So, de Tocqueville argues, “above these men stands an immense and protective power which alone is responsible for looking after their enjoyments and watching over their destiny. It is absolute, meticulous, ordered, provident, and kindly disposed” (2003, p. 805). He draws our attention precisely to the positive character of the rules claiming every individual: “public customs become more humane and gentler as men grow more alike and equal” (2003, p. 804). In this way, the system of governance grounds its claims to authority in the name of benevolence and kindness of a paternal sort.
The ethos avowed by “democratic despotism” has to be further emphasised. As opposed to the repressive instincts of totalitarian regimes, modern democracy operates in the register of ethical and moral positivity. It does not seek to rule from “above”, but from among equal individuals, as it were, whose own benevolence and kindness has to be individually ensured. This subtle shift, de Tocqueville argues, means that governing now moves into the territory of the individual soul, with its inclinations and actions, which therefore has to be rendered visible and manageable. Individual sensibilities become objects targeted by political rule in as much as the individual is the very substance of liberal-democratic politics. For de Tocqueville, democratic rule appears,
… like a fatherly authority, if, fatherlike, its aim were to prepare men for manhood, but it seeks only to keep them in perpetual childhood; it prefers its citizens to enjoy themselves provided they have only enjoyment in mind. It works readily for their happiness but it wishes to be the only provider and judge of it. It provides their security, anticipates and guarantees their needs, supplies their pleasures, directs their principal concerns, manages their industry, regulates their estates, divides their inheritances. […] Equality has prepared men for all this, inclining them to tolerate all these things and often even to see them as a blessing (2003, pp. 805–806).
This is the paradox identified by Mouffe too: “The democratic nations which introduced freedom into politics at the same time that they were increasing despotism in the administrative sphere have been led into the strangest paradoxes” (de Tocqueville 2003, p. 808). As the “administrative sphere” becomes one of the concrete dimensions of governance, de Tocqueville emphasises how “democratic despotism” articulates its claims in a positive and productive ethical register. Behind an affirming vocabulary for the management and administration of everyday life, opportunities for dissent and contestation are gradually and subtly eroded.
Within this context, we aim to investigate certain processes through which new spaces of governance are shaped by this positivity, and how it envelops the purportedly free individual. Our argument will highlight how, cloaked in the positive vocabularies of liberal individualism, we can witness the corrosion of possibilities of genuine political contestation and dissent. To capture how a tendency toward “democratic despotism” manifests in the managerial sphere, one further conceptual step is necessary. It appears in Thesis 7, of the “Ten Theses On Politics” in Rancière’s Dissensus (2010, pp. 27–44). It offers a distinction needed for understanding the possibility of a viable democratic space, a space where there is a genuine opening for political freedom:
Thesis 7. Politics stands in distinct opposition to the police. The police is a distribution of the sensible (partage du sensible) whose principle is the absence of void and of supplement (2010, p. 36).
Rancière explains “police” as the process by which social and symbolic orders are first constituted, and not as a mere administrative institution. “Police” entails the establishment of categories, boundaries and modes of conduct which become objects of what can and cannot be admitted into the legitimate political space and what cannot—or ought not—even be seen, heard, perceived at all. Rancière’s key category—the “distribution of the sensible”—explains how policing works in contradistinction to the political. “Sensible” refers to the ensemble of elementary experiences. What is society allowed to see, hear, listen to, and partake in? What is allowed to appear as legitimate behaviour? What law, in other words, defines “the forms of partaking” characterising a body-politic at its very basis? This is, for Rancière, the essence of the police. It is not simply a function through which a society manages the upholding of its laws. Rather, policing is the manner in which law is established by allocating legitimacy at the most basic level of every possible social gesture, individual or collective, that is, at the level of the sensory experience itself:
A partition of the sensible refers to the manner in which a relation between a shared common meaning (un commun partagé) and the distribution of exclusive parts is determined in sensory experience. […] [It] presupposes a distribution of what is visible and what not, of what can be heard and what cannot (ibid.).
What Rancière describes is not only the establishment of an administrative system, but also the constitution of an ethical order. Within that order, values are not predicated as possible aspirations, or choices, for social and political life. Rather, they appear as exclusive modes in which a ‘good life’ has to be lived and whose adoption becomes self-evident and beyond choice. There is thus no space left, no “void”, in Rancière’s sense, in which any individual or collective element of society can add, or “supplement”, alternative realities and conceptions of a ‘good life’, or be free to explore other versions of the “sensible”, other avenues of thinking about what it might mean for human existence to unfold. “Society”, Rancière argues, thus becomes a closed space,
… made up of groups tied to specific modes of doing, to places in which these occupations are exercised, and to modes of being corresponding to these occupations and these places. In this matching of functions, places and ways of being, there is no place for any void. It is this exclusion of what ‘is not’ that constitutes the police-principle at the core of statist practices (ibid.).
Politics changes its goal and the nature of its functioning. Assuming societal consensus, democratic life becomes ‘administration’, “policing” as opposed to “politics”. Within this broad process, one of the areas in which “policing” shapes practical politics is that of managerialism. Among the most significant features of contemporary political practices is the emergence of a “new class of managers”, a political vector whose spread, “wealth and power” have become firmly entrenched beyond formal political institutions (Mouffe 2000, p. 15). Meanwhile, as we explore below, everyday existence comes to be governed by an increasingly authoritarian and widely disseminated vocabulary of individuality and self-assertion. This idiom is proclaimed by complex, quasi-private cultural and social systems of “power relations which structure contemporary post-industrial societies” (Mouffe 2000, p. 15). As these scholars argue, managerialism underpins an all-encompassing administrative political mechanism which merits detailed examination in order to highlight the limits and inherent dangers of the neo-liberal promises of a general consensus.
One of the dimensions of systems of management and business administration is their tendency to become frameworks of “policing”. Through them, everyday lives are ordered, normed, softened and bent, whilst their procedures claim to mobilise and liberate ‘true’ individuality. Against this background, our aim is to explore ethical dangers arising from the growth and diffusion of managerialism through performance rating systems in contemporary organisations. Through them, we seek to explore critically how managerialism contributes to the radical transformation of the democratic gesture of voting into a constant process of rating. We suggest that the last decade witnessed an intensified deployment of modalities of rating in most spheres of social life, increasingly invading spaces of possible democratic debate, collective association and dissent. In this way, democracy’s roots are, as Wolin (2008) shows, increasingly “managed” through, and “incorporated” into, an ethics of life understood as an individualistic process of self-construction (through what Heelas called “the self-work ethic”, 2002, p. 80).
This article explores how this individualistic “political rationality” (ref. Brown 2015, pp. 115–150) appears in concrete managerial practices. We focus upon a particular kind of practice (performance rating systems) because it allows us to examine in detail the uneasy relationship between democracy and (neo)liberalism, and how spaces for dissent are narrowed and marginalised. We aim to contribute to investigations such as those suggested by Mouffe, Rancière, and Wolin (among others) by highlighting how the power of these “policing” practices stems from the positive articulation of their ethical imperatives. Claiming to offer ‘positive’ opportunities for the expression of one’s ‘true’ character, such rating systems seek to “police” personal self-understanding, as well as relationships of work, consumption, service, and inter-personal sociality.