Capitalism, Steering, and the State

This on-line version is the pre-copyedited, preprint, English version. The published version can be found here:

‘Kapitalismus, Steuerung und Staat’, in S. Buckel, R-M. Dackweiler, and R. Noppe, eds, Formen und Felder politischer Intervention. Zur Relevanz von Staat und Steuerung, Münster: Westfälisches Dampfboot, 30-49, 2003.


There has been growing interest in the last 25 years in new (or revived) forms of steering, such as networks, public-private partnerships, multi-level governance, the kooperativer Staat, and their contribution to solving complex coordination problems in and across a wide range of specialized systems and the lifeworld. These have been subsumed under the general notion of heterarchy. This is a concept that is widely used in cybernetic and autopoietic systems theories to refer to horizontal self-organizing network-like modes of coordination in contradistinction to vertically organized imperative coordination and anarchic market-mediated coordination (cf. von Foerster 1984; Willke 1992; Messner 1995). The distinctive feature of these heterarchic steering mechanisms is the reflexive self-organization of independent actors involved in complex relations of reciprocal interdependence. Such actors are expected to engage in continuing dialogue and resource-sharing in order to develop mutually beneficial joint projects and to manage the inevitable contradictions and dilemmas associated therewith. Thus heterarchy can be distinguished from the ‘invisible hand’ of uncoordinated market exchange based on the formally rational pursuit of self-interest by isolated market agents; and from the ‘iron fist’ (perhaps in a ‘velvet glove’) of imperative coordination in pursuit of substantive goals established from above by business managers, state officials, etc.. Together, these three forms of coordination – markets, hierarchies, and heterarchies – provide the main poles around which economic, political, and social governance are organized in complex societies.

Reflexive self-organization has been welcomed as a new social-scientific paradigm, as a new mode of problem-solving that can overcome the limitations of anarchic market exchange and top-down planning in an increasingly complex and global world, and as a solution to the perennial ethical, political, and civic problems of securing institutional integration and peaceful social co-existence. In part, recent interest in heterarchy involves little more than an attempt to put old theoretical wine in new bottles and/or reflects one more turn in the never-ending policy cycle whereby disenchantment with one mode of coordination leads to excessive faith in another – until that too disappoints. But one could also argue that there has been a secular increase in resort to heterarchy because society itself is becoming more complex. This has several sources: (a) increased functional differentiation combined with increased interdependence among the resulting functional systems; (b) the increased fuzziness of some institutional boundaries, for example, concerning what counts as ‘economic’ in an era of increased competitiveness in an increasingly knowledge-based economy; (c) the multiplication and re-scaling of spatial horizons in an era of globalization; (d) the increasing complexity of temporal horizons of action; (e) the multiplication and hybridity of identities; (f) the increased importance of knowledge and organized learning; and, as a result of the above, (g) the self-potentiating nature of complexity, i.e., the fact that complex systems operate in ways that engender opportunities for additional complexity (Rescher 1998: 28).

Such complexity leads to worries about the continuing governability of economic, political, and social life. It implies that major problems have emerged that cannot be managed or resolved readily, if at all, through top-down state planning or market-mediated anarchy. Thus, as Scharpf argues:

‘the advantages of hierarchical coordination are lost in a world that is characterized by increasingly dense, extended, and rapidly changing patterns of reciprocal interdependence, and by increasingly frequent, but ephemeral, interactions across all types of pre-established boundaries, intra- and interorganizational, intra- and intersectoral, intra- and international (1994: 37)

A similar argument could be made about the declining advantages of market coordination. These changes have promoted a shift in policy-makers’ preferences regarding these modes of coordination. In addition, political theorists now suggest that governance is an important means to overcome the division between rulers and ruled in representative regimes and to secure the input and commitment of an increasingly wide range of stakeholders in policy formulation and implementation. In this sense governance also has normative significance. It indicates a revaluation of different modes of coordination not just in terms of their economic efficiency or their effectiveness in collective goal attainment but also in terms of their associated values. Thus ‘governance’ has acquired positive connotations such as ‘middle way’, ‘consultation’, ‘negotiation’, ‘subsidiarity’, ‘reflexivity’, ‘dialogue’, etc., in contrast to market ‘anarchy’ and the state’s ‘iron fist’.

All of this poses the question whether the increasing significance of heterarchy in different policy fields challenges the basic ideas of a materialist state theory and critique of capitalism that Jupp Esser has spent so much of his professional life developing and defending. Accordingly, my contribution to this Festschrift seeks to develop a materialist account of the apparently paradoxical co-existence of network or heterarchic steering euphoria and network or heterarchic steering pessimism and to draw some general political conclusions about the recurrence of market failure, state failure, and steering failure. In doing so I will build on some of Jupp Esser’s own trenchant theoretical and ideological critiques of steering theories and his insistence that currently fashionable forms of steering cannot suspend the operation of the basic laws and tendencies of capital accumulation (e.g., Esser 1975, 1993, 1994). Something far more radical will be needed for this suspension to occur and, unfortunately, we cannot rely on the ‘present state’ (or ‘present Empire’) or the currently disorganized ‘multitude’ to deliver this.

The Material Bases of Coordination

A materialist analysis of governance should inquire into the bases of different modes of coordination and the constitution of different objects of governance. References to markets, hierarchies, and networks occur systematically in work on capitalism. This is evident in the repeated attempts to distinguish variants of capitalism through concepts such as uncoordinated liberal market capitalism; the developmental state and state-led, dirigiste, or governed capitalism; and corporatism, coordinated capitalism or the negotiated economy (cf. Nielsen and Pedersen 1993; Amin and Thomas 1996). Likewise, many students of welfare policy distinguish between liberal, social democratic and conservative-corporativist regimes (cf. Esping-Andersen 1990; Ebbinghaus and Manow 2001; Jessop 2002). Theorists of public administration and policy-making tend in turn to distinguish market, bureaucratic and participatory modes of policy-making and delivery (Considine 2001; Wallis and Dollery 1999). A materialist explanation for these distinctions might well refer to institutional and organizational features of capitalist social formations. In addition it should ask why the three modes of coordination vary in importance across different stages and varieties of capitalism.

Liberalism and Market Exchange

Liberalism emphasizes the role of market exchange as a coordination mechanism. Economically, liberalism calls for the commodification of all factors of production (including labour-power and knowledge) and the extension of formally free, monetized exchange to as many spheres of social relations as possible. Politically, it implies that collective decision-making should involve: (1) a constitutional state with limited substantive powers of economic and social intervention; and (2) maximizing the formal freedom of contracting parties in the economy and the substantive freedom of legally recognized subjects in the public sphere. The latter sphere is based in turn on spontaneous freedom of association of individuals to pursue any social activities that are not forbidden by constitutionally valid laws. Ideologically, liberalism claims that economic, political and social relations are best organized through the formally free choices of formally free and rational actors who seek to advance their own material or ideal interests in an institutional framework that, by accident or design, maximizes the scope for formally free choice. Conflict between these three principles is possible over the scope of anarchic market relations, collective decision-making, and spontaneous self-organization, as well as over the formal and substantive freedoms available to economic, legal and civil subjects. As Marx noted, however, ‘between equal rights, force decides’ (1996: 243). Thus, within the matrix of liberal principles, the relative balance of economic, political and civic liberalism depends on the changing balance of forces within an institutionalized (but changeable) compromise.

The resurgence of liberalism in the form of neoliberalism is often attributed to a successful hegemonic project voicing the interests of financial and/or transnational capital. Its recent hegemony in neoliberal regimes undoubtedly depends on the successful exercise of political, intellectual and moral leadership in elaborating a response to the crisis of Atlantic Fordism (on Atlantic Fordism, see van der Pijl 1984). And it is also clearly related to the increased importance of the money concept of capital. But its resonance is also rooted more deeply in the general nature of capitalist social formations. For liberalism can be seen as a more or less ‘spontaneous philosophy’ within capitalist societies insofar as it is a seemingly natural, almost self-evident economic, political and social imaginary that corresponds to general features of a bourgeois society. It is, in particular, consistent with four such features.

The first of these is the institution of private property – that is, the juridical fiction, which nonetheless has real effects, of autonomous private ownership and control of the factors of production. This encourages individual property owners and those who control fictitious commodities such as labour-power, natural resources and, especially in the past two decades or so, intellectual property, to see themselves as entitled to use or alienate their property as they think fit without due regard to the substantive interdependence of activities in a market economy and market society. In this realm, ‘rule Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham, because both buyer and seller of a commodity, say of labour-power, are constrained only by their own free will’ (Marx 1996: 186). Second, and relatedly, there is the appearance of ‘free choice’ in consumption, where those with sufficient money may choose what to buy and how to dispose over it. Third, the institutional separation and operational autonomies of the economy and state make the latter’s interventions appear as external intrusions into the activities of otherwise free economic agents. Initially this may be an unwelcome but necessary extra-economic condition for orderly free markets. However, if pushed beyond prevailing social definitions of this minimum nightwatchman role, it appears as an obstacle to free markets and/or as direct political oppression. And, fourth, there is the closely related institutional separation of civil society and the state. This encourages the belief that, once the conditions for social order have been established, any state intervention is an intrusion into the formally free choices of particular members of civil society.

However, opposition to liberalism may also emerge ‘spontaneously’ on the basis of four other features of capitalist social relations. First, growing socialization of the forces of production, despite continued private ownership of the means of production, suggests the need for ex ante collaboration among producer groups to limit market anarchy, whether through top-down planning and/or self-organization. This is reinforced to the extent that competition assumes an increasingly systemic form that subordinates entire social formations to the logic of competition (cf. Messner 1995). Moreover, as such socialization becomes more global, the greater is the need for forms of global coordination. Second, there are the strategic dilemmas posed by the shared interests of producers (including wage earners) in maximizing total revenues through cooperation and by their divided and potentially conflictual interests regarding the distribution of these revenues. Non-market governance mechanisms may have a role here in helping to balance cooperation and conflict. Third, there are contradictions and conflicts posed by the mutual dependence of the institutionally separate economic and political systems. This leads to different logics of economic and political action at the same time as it generates a need to consult on the economic impact of state policies and/or the political repercussions of private economic decision-making. And, fourth, there are problems generated by the nature of civil society as a sphere of particular interests opposed to the state’s supposed embodiment of universal interests. This indicates the need for some institutional means of mediating the particular and universal and, since this is impossible in the abstract, for some hegemonic definition of the ‘general interest’ (on the always imperfect, strategically selective nature of such reconciliations, see Jessop 1990).

In short, if liberalism can be seen as a more or less ‘spontaneous philosophy’ rooted in capitalist social relations, one should also recognize that it is prone to ‘spontaneous combustion’ due to the tensions inherent in these same relations. This was noted in Polanyi’s (1944) critique of late nineteenth century liberalism, which argued that, in response to crisis-tendencies in laissez-faire capitalism, many social forces struggled to re-embed and re-regulate the market. The eventual compromise solution was a market economy embedded in and sustained by a market society. Attempts are now being made to re-embed neo-liberalism in an entrepreneurial society and culture as well as to displace or defer its contradictions and conflicts elsewhere and into the future (Jessop 2002).

The Division of Labour and Corporatism

The recurrence of corporatism in different forms is also deeply rooted in the economic, political and social organization of capitalism. Corporatism can be defined as a form of functional representation characterized by an interconnected system of representation, policy-formation and policy implementation based on the alleged (socially defined) function in the division of labour of the various forces involved. Corporatism first emerged in modern Europe as a reactionary and utopian politico-ideological critique of liberal capitalism with strong organicist overtones. Its second coming was linked to ‘organized capitalism’ in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This version was not opposed to capitalism as such (which was now consolidated and had begun to develop monopolistic and imperialistic tendencies), but was more concerned about the revolutionary threat represented by organized labour. A third phase saw the emergence of tripartism as an alternative to fascism and liberal capitalism in the context of postwar Atlantic Fordist reconstruction and restructuring and its associated Keynesian welfare national states. It was revived again in some Atlantic Fordist economies in the 1960s and 1970s in the hope of moderating emerging stagflationary tendencies and/or, in a more selective form, to facilitate crisis-induced restructuring (cf. Esser 1982). A fourth variant has become prominent in the 1980s and 1990s and is likely to expand further in the coming decade. It is less often explicitly discussed in corporatist terms (in part due to the latter’s negative association with the crises of the 1970s and with trade unions) although there is now increasing recognition of corporatist social pacts in several European welfare regimes. More often, it is discussed in such terms as networking, public-private partnerships, strategic alliances, inter-organizational collaboration, regulated self-regulation, stakeholding, productive solidarities, productivity coalitions, learning regions, the social economy and associational democracy. This is where the fashionable concept of heterarchy finds its material justification but also functions to mystify the continuing asymmetries of power in a capitalist social formation.

This recurrence of corporatism, albeit in quite varied forms, is rooted, like liberalism, in material features of capitalist formations. These are the same features that tend to generate limits to a purely market-based form of capitalist organization, and were listed above. In brief, they comprise: (1) the growing socialization of the forces of production despite continued private ownership of the means of production; (2) the dilemmas posed by the shared interest of producer classes and groups in maximizing total revenues and the conflict over their allocation; (3) the need for consultation among operationally and organizationally distinct but functionally interdependent forces about the economic impact of state policies and the political repercussions of private economic decision-making; and (4) the problems generated by the nature of civil society as a sphere of particular interests. Each of these bases is inherently contradictory and each prompts instabilities in the very corporatist tendencies that it also helps to generate. These contradictions partly explain the recurrent rise, fall, and return of corporatism. This can be seen in corporatist policy cycles within given stages of capitalism and in the rise of new types of corporatism associated with different stages of capitalism.

Institutional Separation and Statism

Imperative coordination is a feature of many economic and political organizations. It is especially evident in the sovereign state, i.e., that inclusive hierarchical organization that is not itself subject to control by a superordinate organization. Although often defined in terms of its constitutionalized monopoly of organized coercion, the state’s routine operations more often rely on legislation enacted according to the rule of law, its control over fiscal and monetary resources (linked to its monopoly of taxation grounded in its monopoly of coercion and to its control over legal tender and the central bank), a relative monopoly of organized intelligence, and powers of moral suasion rooted in the articulation of hegemonic accumulation strategies, state projects, and hegemonic visions (Jessop 1990, 1992; Bieling 1999). This is why state theorists such as Gramsci regard the modern capitalist state in the West as comprising ‘political society + civil society’ and state power as based on ‘hegemony armoured by coercion’. Whilst the different powers of the state can be combined in support of centralized command or top-down planning, they can also be deployed in support of heterarchic interventions in the ‘shadow of hierarchy’ and/or to promote privatization, market liberalization, deregulation, and so on. The weight of imperative coordination in the overall pattern of state intervention varies across stages and varieties of capitalism and it is certainly wrong to exaggerate the extent to which the recent expansion of administrative re-commodification and public-private partnerships marks a radical break with past patterns of state intervention. This is evident in critiques of state monopoly complexes, ‘crisis cartels’, selektiver Korporatismus, parallel power networks, the nature of power blocs (Blöcke an der Macht), and so forth. But resort to imperative coordination can occur in response to the need for the provision of physical and social infrastructure that would be unprofitable for private capital and/or the rational planning of an increasingly complex technical and social division of labour in the face of market failure and corporatist stalemate; the setting of collective economic goals in the face of economic competition and particularism; the desire to transcend the particularisms of civil society and the ‘war of each against all’. Reliance on organized coercion is at its most significant, of course, in the initial stages of exceptional periods when the sovereign state declares states of emergency and suspends the formal principles on which normal bourgeois democratic forms of the constitutional state are based. But the state’s exercise of imperative coordination is also resisted by market forces and social interests that claim that their formal economic freedom and/or rights to self-determination and concerted action are infringed by top-down state intervention. Whether this leads to a genuine roll back of the state and/or to changes in its forms of representation and modalities of intervention will depend on the changing material, organizational, and discursive balance of forces. In any event, social forces tend to appeal for state intervention as a last (if not first) resort when market failure and/or network failure damages their interests and threatens their identities.

There are strange complementarities in these modes of governing the capital relation. For example, while liberalism tends to regenerate itself ‘spontaneously’ on the basis of key features of capitalist societies, its regeneration meets obstacles from some of their other key features. And, while the latter encourage the resurgence of other discourses, strategies, and organizational paradigms, such as corporatism or statism, their realization tends to be fettered in turn by the very features that generate liberalism. Thus these mutually related tendencies and countertendencies generate significant variations in the weight of different kinds of coordination and modes of policy-making. This said, different principles of governance seem more or less well suited to different stages of capitalism and/or its contemporary variants. Thus liberalism was probably more suited to the pioneering forms of competitive capitalism than to later forms – though Polanyi and others would note that it has clear limitations even for competitive capitalism; and it is also more suited to uncoordinated than coordinated market economies, for which statism and corporatism are better. Specific patterns of specialization and growth dynamics within different stages and forms of capitalism are also likely to be structurally coupled with different patterns of governance.

Potential Sources of Coordination Failure

The recurrence of different modes of coordination and changes in their relative weight over time are related not only to the basic forms and contradictions of capitalism but also to the respective propensities of these different modes to fail. All modes of coordination are characterized by structural contradictions, strategic dilemmas, social biases, and eventual failures. But they fail in different ways. State failure is seen as a failure to secure substantive collective goals based on political divination of the public interest; and market failure is said to occur when markets fail to allocate scarce resources efficiently in and through pursuit of monetized private interest. Disillusion with the utopias of communism, the welfare state, and, more recently, the unfettered dominance of market forces should not, however, lead us to put all our trust in the atopic vision of governance based on horizontal and vertical solidarities and the mobilization of collective intelligence (Willke 2001). For it is not just markets and imperative coordination that fail; heterarchic governance is also fallible – albeit for different reasons, in different ways, and with different effects. Reflexive self-organization need not prove more efficient procedurally than markets and states as means of economic or political coordination mechanism; and it is by no means guaranteed to produce more adequate substantive outcomes for particular interests. For a commitment to continuing deliberation and negotiation does not exclude eventual governance failure. The criterion for such failure nonetheless differs from that for markets or the state. There is no pre-given formal maximand or reference point to judge governance success, as there is with monetized profits in the economy and/or the (imaginary) perfect market outcome. Nor is there a contingent substantive criterion – the realization of specific political objectives connected to the (imagined) public interest – as there is with imperative coordination by the state. The primary point of governance is that goals will be modified in and through ongoing negotiation and reflection. This suggests that governance failure may comprise failure to redefine objectives in the face of continuing disagreement about whether they are still valid for the various partners.

Given the general possibility that reflexive self-organization may fail, we can identify four more specific factors behind its failure. First, it may fail because of over-simplification of the conditions of action and/or deficient knowledge about causal connections affecting the object of governance. This is especially problematic when this object is an inherently anarchic but complex system, such as the capitalist mode of production. Indeed, this leads to the more general ‘governability’ problem, i.e., the question of whether the object of governance could ever be manageable, even with adequate knowledge (Mayntz 1993). At best one is likely to find partially successful governance of delimited objects of governance within specific spatial and temporal horizons of action – at the expense of deliberately neglected or unrecognized costs elsewhere. Second, there may be coordination problems on one or more of the interpersonal, interorganizational, and intersystemic levels on which heterarchy operates. These three levels are often related in complex ways. Thus interorganizational negotiation often depends on interpersonal trust; and de-centred intersystemic steering involves the representation of system logics through interorganizational and/or interpersonal communication. Third, linked to this is the problematic relationship between those engaged in communication (networking, negotiation, etc.) and those whose interests and identities are being represented. Gaps can open between these groups leading to representational and legitimacy crises and/or to problems in securing compliance. This is a well-known problem with corporatism, political parties, and social movements. And, fourth, where several heterarchic arrangements exist to deal with interdependent issues, significant meta-coordination problems can arise due to inconsistent definitions of the objects of governance, different spatial and temporal horizons of action, and their association with different interests and balances of force.

These generic tendencies to heterarchic failure are overdetermined by two sets of features specific to capitalist social formations. The first set is inscribed in the nature of capitalism, which has always depended on a contradictory balance between marketized and non-marketized organizational forms. Although this balance is often understood in terms of the relative weight of market and state in reproducing the conditions for accumulation, heterarchy does not introduce a neutral third term but adds another site where the balance between market and non-marketized solutions can be contested. This is why the promise of symmetry in social partnership as a form of reflexive self-organization may not be realized. For there are marked structural asymmetries in the capital-labour relation and in the forms of interdependence between the economic and the extra-economic conditions for accumulation. And there are basic structural contradictions in the capital relation that persist through all its stages and varieties. Heterarchy cannot suspend these; it can only change their forms of appearance.

The second set of potential sources of governance failure concerns the contingent insertion of heterarchic arrangements into the more general state system – especially in terms of the relative primacy of different modes of coordination and access to the institutional support and material resources needed to pursue reflexively-arrived at governance objectives. There are three problems here. First, there are problems about the interscalar articulation of hierarchy and heterarchic arrangements insofar as the basic form of the state is the territorialization of political power and heterarchic arrangements can crosscut different scales of government and their associated territorial boundaries. Second, there are major problems in the intertemporal articulation of hierarchy and heterarchy. One function of contemporary forms of governance (as of corporatist arrangements and quangos beforehand) is to enable decisions with long-term implications to be divorced from short-term political (especially electoral) calculations. But disjunctions may still arise between the temporalities of different hierarchical and heterarchic mechanisms. Third, although various coordination mechanisms may acquire specific techno-economic, political, and/or ideological functions, the state typically monitors their effects on its own capacity to secure social cohesion in (class-)divided societies. It reserves to itself the right to open, close, juggle, and re-articulate governance arrangements not only in terms of particular functions but also from the viewpoint of partisan and overall political advantage. In short, all forms of coordination are exercised under the primacy of the political.

Responses to Coordination Failure

Markets, states, and heterarchy all fail. This emphasis on the improbability of coordination success serves to counteract the tendency for advocates of one or another form of coordination to highlight achievements rather than failures and, where they recognize failure, to see it as exceptional and corrigible in regard to their preferred mode of coordination even as they see coordination failure elsewhere as inevitable (for a partly self-critical comment on the naïve faith in decentralized steering in German research, see Mayntz 2001). One response to these failures is the above-noted cycle within and across governments in preferred modes of coordination as different approaches succeed each other as the difficulties of each become more evident (cf. Offe 1975).

There are at least two levels of coordination failure – the failure of particular attempts at coordination using a particular coordination mechanism and the more general failure of one or other mode of governance. Failure is a routine feature of everyday life. Nonetheless, the multiplicity of satisficing criteria and the range and variety of actors with potential vested interests in one or another outcome means that at least some aims will be realized to a socially acceptable degree for at least some of those affected. Unsurprisingly, actors will also reflect on their failures, adjust their projects, and consider whether individual modes of coordination should be modified and/or a new balance should be struck between them. This can be discussed in terms of ‘metagovernance’, i.e., the organization of the conditions for coordination. In this context, we can distinguish three basic modes of metagovernance and one umbrella mode.

First, ‘meta-exchange’ involves the reflexive redesign of individual markets (e.g., for land, labour, money, commodities, knowledge – or parts or subdivisions thereof) and/or the reflexive reordering of relations among two or more markets by modifying their operation and articulation. Market agents often resort to market redesign in response to failure and/or hire the services of those who claim some expertise in this field. Among the latter are management gurus, management consultants, human relations experts, corporate lawyers, and accountants. More generally, there has long been interest in issues of the institutional redesign of the market mechanism, the nesting of markets, their embedding in non-market mechanisms, and the conditions for the maximum formal rationality of market forces. There are also ‘markets in markets’. This can lead to ‘regime shopping’, competitive ‘races to the bottom’, or, in certain conditions, ‘races to the top’. Moreover, because markets function in the shadow of hierarchy and/or heterarchy, non-market agents may try to modify markets, their institutional supports, and their agents to improve their efficiency and/or compensate for market failures and inadequacies.

Second, ‘meta-organization’ involves the reflexive redesign of organizations, the creation of intermediating organizations, the reordering of inter-organizational relations, and the management of organizational ecologies (i.e., the organization of the conditions of organizational evolution in conditions where many organizations co-exist, compete, cooperate, and co-evolve). Reflexive managers in the private, public, and third sectors may undertake such meta-organizational functions themselves (e.g., through ‘macro-management’ and organizational innovation) and/or turn to alleged experts such as constitutional lawyers, public choice economists, theorists of public administration, think tanks, advocates of reflexive planning, specialists in policy evaluation, etc.. This is reflected in the continuing redesign, re-scaling, and adaptation of the state apparatus, sometimes more ruptural, sometimes more continuous, and the manner in which it is embedded within the wider political system.

Third, ‘meta-heterarchy’ involves the organization of the conditions of self-organization by redefining the framework for reflexive self-organization. This can range from providing opportunities for ‘spontaneous sociability’ (Fukuyama 1995) through various measures to promote improved forms of interpersonal networking and interorganizational negotiation to institutional innovations to promote more effective inter-systemic communication.

Fourth, ‘metagovernance’ re-articulates and ‘collibrates’ (modifies the balance) among different modes of governance by managing the complexity, plurality, and tangled hierarchies found in prevailing modes of coordination (on collibration, see Dunsire 1996). It involves the judicious mixing of market, hierarchy, and networks to achieve the best possible outcomes from the viewpoint of those engaged in metagovernance. In deciding this, they often refer to the structurally inscribed strategic selectivity of different modes of coordination, i.e., their asymmetrical privileging of some outcomes over others. Since every practice is prone to failure, however, metagovernance and collibration are also likely to fail. There is no Archimedean point that ensures the success of governance or collibration.

Governments play a major and increasing role in all aspects of metagovernance: they get involved in redesigning markets, in constitutional change and the juridical re-regulation of organizational forms and objectives, in organizing the conditions for self-organization, and, most importantly, in collibration. They provide the ground rules for governance and the regulatory order in and through which governance partners can pursue their aims; ensure the compatibility or coherence of different governance mechanisms and regimes; act as the primary organizer of the dialogue among policy communities; deploy a relative monopoly of organizational intelligence and information with which to shape cognitive expectations; serve as a ‘court of appeal’ for disputes arising within and over governance; seek to re-balance power differentials by strengthening weaker forces or systems in the interests of system integration and/or social cohesion; try to modify the self-understanding of identities, strategic capacities, and interests of individual and collective actors in different strategic contexts and hence alter their implications for preferred strategies and tactics; and also assume political responsibility in the event of governance failure. This emerging role means that networking, negotiation, noise reduction, and negative as well as positive coordination occur ‘in the shadow of hierarchy’ (Scharpf 1994: 40). It also suggests the need for almost permanent institutional and organisational innovation to maintain the very possibility (however remote) of sustained economic growth, effective social policies, and other forms of political effectiveness.

Metagovernance does not eliminate other modes of coordination. Markets, hierarchies, and heterarchies still exist; but they operate in a context of ‘negotiated decision-making’. On the one hand, market competition will be balanced by cooperation, the invisible hand will be combined with a visible handshake. On the other hand, the state is no longer the sovereign authority. It becomes just one participant among others in the pluralistic guidance system and contributes its own distinctive resources to the negotiation process. As the range of networks, partnerships, and other models of economic and political governance expand, official apparatuses remain at best first among equals. For, although public money and law would still be important in underpinning the operation of such networks, partnerships, and analogous governance arrangements, other resources (such as private money, knowledge, or expertise) would also be critical to their success. The state’s involvement would become less hierarchical, less centralized, and less directive in character. The exchange of information and moral suasion become key sources of legitimation and the state’s influence depends as much on its role as a prime source and mediator of collective intelligence as on its command over economic resources or legitimate coercion (Willke 1992, 1997).

Metagovernance Failure and the Need for a Romantic Public Irony

Resort to metagovernance does not guarantee success. It is certainly not a purely technical matter that can be settled by experts in organizational design or public administration. For all the technical activities of the state are conducted under the primacy of the political, i.e., the state’s concern with managing the tension between economic and political advantages and its ultimate responsibility for social cohesion. This fact plagues the liberal prescription of an arms-length relationship between the market and the nightwatchman state – since states (or, at least, state managers) are rarely strong enough to resist pressures to intervene when political advantage is at stake and/or it needs to respond to social unrest. More generally, we can safely assume that, if every mode of governance fails, then so will metagovernance! This is especially likely where the objects of governance and metagovernance are complicated and interconnected.

Overall, this analysis leads to three conclusions, intellectual, practical and philosophical respectively. For, once the inevitable incompleteness of attempts at coordination (whether through the market, the state, or heterarchy) is accepted, commitment to social transformation requires adopting a satisficing approach based on three interrelated principles:

  • a reflexive orientation about what would be an acceptable outcome in the case of incomplete success, comparing the effects of failure/inadequacies in the market, government, and governance, and re-assessing regularly the extent to which current actions are producing desired outcomes.
  • deliberate cultivation of a flexible repertoire of responses so that strategies and tactics can be combined in order to reduce the likelihood of failure and to change their respective weights in the face of failure and turbulence in the policy environment.
  • a romantic public ‘irony’ such that participants in governance must recognize the likelihood of failure but proceed as if success were possible. The need for irony holds not only for individual attempts at governance using individual governance mechanisms but also for the practice of metagovernance using appropriate metagovernance mechanisms.

Reflexivity involves inquiring into the material, social, and discursive construction of possible objects of governance and reflecting on why this rather than another object of governance has become dominant, hegemonic, or naturalized. It requires thinking critically about the strategically selective implications of adopting one or another definition of a specific object of governance and its properties, a fortiori, of the choice of modes of governance, participants in the governance process, and so forth. It also requires that a reflexive observer recognizes that she cannot fully understand what she is observing and must therefore make contingency plans for expected as well as unexpected events. This involves monitoring mechanisms to check for problems, modulating the coordination mix, and reflexive, negotiated re-evaluation of objectives. A further step in strategic self-reflection occurs when actors deliberately build their capacity to switch among different modes of governance. And it requires learning about how to learn reflexively. There is a general danger of infinite regress here, of course; but this can be limited when reflexivity is combined with the second and third principles.

The second principle involves practical recognition of the ‘law of requisite variety’. To minimize the risks of (meta-)governance failure in the face of a turbulent environment, a repertoire of responses is needed if actors are to retain the ability flexibly to alter strategies and select those that are more successful. This may well seem inefficient from an economizing viewpoint because it introduces slack or waste into organizations and movements. But it also provides major sources of flexibility in the face of failure (Grabher 1994). For, if every mode of economic and political coordination is failure-prone, if not failure-laden, relative success over time depends on the capacity to switch modes of coordination as the limits of any one mode become evident. This provides one way to displace or defer failures and crises in response to internal and/or external turbulence. It also suggests that the ideologically-motivated destruction of alternative modes of coordination could prove counter-productive: they may need to be re-invented in one or another form. This is one lesson from the growing disillusion with neo-liberalism. In addition, since different conjunctures and periods require different kinds of policy mix, the balance within the repertoire will need to be varied. Since there are no simple governance solutions, appropriate complex solutions must combine different scales and different temporal horizons, and orient them to “fit” the nature of the object to be governed.

Third, an approach based on ‘romantic public irony’ rather than fatalism or cynicism is needed. The fatalist concludes that, since everything fails, there is no point in trying to achieve anything. The cynic shares this ‘pessimism of the intellect’ but seeks to deny evident failures or else redefine them as successes, manipulates appearances so that success seems to have occurred, or decides to exit before the failure becomes apparent so that others are left to bear its costs. In contrast to the cynic, the ironist acts in ‘good faith’ and is prepared to admit to failure and bear its costs. This is the romantic dimension of irony. Recognizing the inevitable incompleteness of attempts at governance (whether through the market, the state, or networking), the ironist makes a reasoned decision in favour of one or another form of failure and adopts a satisficing approach. Moreover, in line with the law of requisite variety, ironists must be prepared to change modes and mixes of governance. A further requirement for romantic ironists committed to a radical reformist programme is to involve others in the process of policy-making. This is the public dimension of irony. Maximum feasible public participation should not occur for manipulative purposes but to bring about conditions for negotiated consent and self-reflexive learning. In the interests of empowerment and accountability, radical ironists should place self-organization at the heart of governance in preference to the anarchy of the market or the top-down command of more or less unaccountable rulers. And, in working collectively to this end, they should expand the conditions for effective self-organization through reflection, learning, and collective self-empowerment. There is no ready-made blueprint for this, let alone one that can be posited ex cathedra by master thinkers, a vanguard party, or some other superordinate body. It is something to be pursued collectively on the basis of ‘pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will’.


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