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Conclusion

  • Jannick Schou
  • Morten Hjelholt
Chapter

Abstract

This concluding chapter summarizes the main arguments presented in this book, reflects on their theoretical as well as empirical implications and carves out some potential paths of future research. Recounting the main arguments presented throughout the book, the chapter specifies its contribution to the study of governmental digitalization. The chapter argues that while this book has explored a particular geographical setting, its findings may provide a broader, critical intervention within the political and academic landscape. Closing off, the chapter highlights a number of areas for future inquiry. Armed with cultural political economy, the book paves the way for studies concerned with how class politics and social exclusion are being redefined through governmental digitalization.

Keywords

Digitalization State transformations Cultural political economy Class Digital outcasts 

The purpose of this book has been twofold. First, to argue for a theoretical reorientation to the study of governmental digitalization informed by key insights from the post-disciplinary terrain of cultural political economy (CPE). Within the confines of this small book, we have suggested that in order to understand, explain and critically dissect the implications of this new area of policymaking, we would do good to adopt theoretical tools and analytics that are able to work on both a micro level, concerned with the implementation and negotiation of particular policies, and with an eye to broader structural mechanisms, tendencies and trajectories. CPE allows us to do just that, while posing a series of questions that are often left unspoken. Second, to provide an empirical study of digitalization efforts in Denmark employing CPE concepts and ideas in action. Using the analytical toolkit presented in the first part of the book, we have showcased what a CPE-driven analysis of digitalization might look like, including the kinds of results, problematizations and generative outputs it may yield. Taken together, these two parts may help to showcase the potentials and possibilities that a cultural political economy of digitalization may afford going forward. Before pushing this research agenda a bit further in this concluding chapter – reflecting on this book’s implications and potential pathways for future research – we want to briefly reiterate the most substantial arguments presented in the previous chapters.

In the first part of the book, we provided a brief presentation of some of the main themes, concepts and arguments developed by CPE (Chap.  2). In an effort to contextualize the second part of the book and showcase the rich explanatory potential offered by this research program, we then retraced some of the empirical arguments found within existing CPE research. In particular, we zoomed in on the complex state restructurings taking place from the aftermath of the Second World War and up until the present day (Chap.  3).

In these two chapters, we argued that CPE carefully manages to integrate important arguments and concepts from a number of diverse sources, including the works of Marx, Gramsci and Foucault (Sum and Jessop 2013). We described how it does so by performing a certain set of twists and turns within an internally consistent critical-realist and strategic-relational frame of reference. Armed with these key insights and concepts from CPE, we proposed a fundamentally different approach to governmental digitalization. We suggested that taking a CPE approach to this area of governance requires us to leave essentialized conceptions of what it is and does. We cannot simply assume that digital technologies are inherently capable of delivering more efficient and flexible forms of government. Instead, recognizing the both path-dependent and path-shaping moments implied in the selection and retention of certain ways of doing digitalization, we ought to dissect the processes that goes into the making of this area. This also means locating digitalization, as a particular area of governance, against wider structural changes within the capitalist state and capitalism itself. Chapter  3 painted a backdrop for this, outlining in broad strokes the transition from the Keynesian Welfare National State to contemporary post-Fordist accumulation regimes, underpinned by discourses of competitiveness and the rise of diverse competition states. Doing so might allow us to break the historical and contextual vacuum that governmental digitalization has all too often been caught in.

Taking these trajectories, questions and problems as our lead, Part II provided a case study of digitalization efforts in Denmark. We focused on how digitalization has become a new means of policy-making and statecraft in this country, particularly in the context of public sector institutions and welfare service delivery. In Chap.  4, we showed the different discourses that have been tied to national digitalization strategies in Denmark over time. Investigating the complex relation between different agential and discursive selectivities, the chapter highlighted how ideas of ‘sustainability’, ‘equality’, ‘access to information’, ‘participatory democracy’ and ‘solidarity’, especially prominent in the early 1990s, were gradually replaced with notions of ‘flexibility’, ‘efficiency’, ‘optimization’, ‘competitiveness’, ‘growth’ and ‘digital self-leadership’ within the official policy narrative. We argued that digitalization had gradually come to be aligned with the hegemonic state project pursued from the beginning of the 1990s. In being so, this area of governance has come to be increasingly framed within the political grammar usually associated with the competition state and the rise of neoliberalism.

This story was, however, simultaneously one about governance failures, problems and contradictions. Indeed, as a specific site of governance, we showed how digitalization had implied a trail-and-error process consisting of the articulation and recreation of multiple and internally contradictory hegemonies. Making “digitalization work” has involved a large amount of administrative and political labor. In this sense, what digitalization has become today is only one out of many possible alternatives: it is the outcome of a complex evolutionary process in which different discourses have been crafted, discarded and partially retained over time.

Moving from this national policy scale to local institutional sites made the story even more complex. In Chap.  5, we highlighted how the translation between these national policies and local municipal contexts had been mediated through various legal, economic and technological means. We showed how this had paved the way for new institutional and structural logics within municipal citizen service centers. In crucial aspects, the institutional logics governing these centers had been restructured and recreated as a consequence of national digitalization efforts. Yet, rather than a story of direct policy transfer, it was instead one of complex, contradictory and even partially counter-hegemonic struggles.

Digitalization and State Transformation: Implications and Limitations

With these findings, this book adds to our current understanding of how advanced capitalist states have been restructured and refunctionalized since the 1990s. Based on the empirical pathways advanced in our study, we want to argue that digitalization (as a partially new means of governance and policymaking) has been deeply implicated in the structural changes taking place since the gradual breakdown of the Keynesian-Fordist world order in the 1970s and 1980s. At least in a Danish context, digitalization has slowly, but surely, been enrolled and mobilized as part of a broader state project aimed at transforming and restructuring the welfare state into a competition state. Relying increasingly on neoliberal tropes of entrepreneurialism, continuous disruptive innovation, flexibility, growth and competitiveness, digitalization has served to both reinforce and further consolidate these already existing master narratives and hegemonic visions.

Yet, we want to push this argument even further by suggesting that digitalization does not just reproduce these existing rationalities. Instead, this area of statecraft also extends, reworks and rearticulates these in important ways. As we have shown in the specific context of the Danish state, national policy initiatives have implied significant changes to the relation between the state and its citizens. Through a combination of legal, discursive and technological means, Danish citizens have increasingly been expected to use and understand digital means of communication. To be considered a proper citizen – in the deeply normative sense of this term – increasingly implies being able to utilize digital technologies in order to communicate and interact with the state.

What emerges from this is a new image of how digital technologies, digital citizenship and digital governance are being added to the itinerary of advanced capitalist states. These genuinely novel forms of statecraft – made up of a complex ensemble of policy visions, regulatory changes, institutional developments, and much more – serve to extent and rework existing state projects. Competitiveness, and the fostering of flexibility, innovation and entrepreneurialism, starts to become premised on digital competences and skills. The state expects its citizenry to be digital, as being digital is increasingly considered the unquestionable, desirable and necessary form of citizen-subjectivity.

In this precise sense, digitalization carves out new modes of governmental intervention and public sector change. Wrapped in the current lingo of advanced neoliberalism, this new political instrument has served to simultaneously downsize governmental institutions, through a combination of automation and budgetary reallocations, and turn citizens into their own caseworkers through technologies of responsibilization and self-leadership. Digitalizing the competition states redraws and rearticulates the boundary between the state and its citizens. It refurbishes the division of labor between governmental employees and citizen-subjects. In the digitalized state, each citizen is his or hers own administrator, caseworker and bureaucrat. There is more to this than simply activation or workfare (Peck 2001b; Jessop 2002). And it is not just a question of the persistent trope of individual responsibilization either (Wacquant 2009). These changes do include elements of both, but there are more to them. To our mind, these changes signify the gradual blurring of the boundaries between the state and its citizens, as (seemingly) all parts of the population are transformed into their own governmental agents tasked with solving their own problems and requests. Through unpaid labor, carrying out work that were previously handled by governmental employees, citizens now have to do what the state used to do. And those who cannot fulfill these new expectations are relegated to the discretion and softly spoken discipline of state professionals in local municipal centers. To our mind, these changes are indicative of wider structural reconfigurations of the (future) capitalist state form.

Taking CPE’s self-reflexive turn seriously, we ought to ask ourselves: what are the limits to these findings? And, more substantially, how far can they be extended and generalized? One of the questions we have been asked repeatedly at academic conferences and workshops when presenting the contents of this book is to what extent this Danish case study might have wider implications. As one observant colleague directly asked us: “Is it not just your Danish case that is a bit weird and extreme?” Looking across Europe, we might be tempted to conclude so. While a number of comparable countries, like Sweden, Finland, and the Netherlands, have pursued partially similar policymaking trajectories, none of these countries seem to have gone quite as far as Denmark. The increasingly mandatory and coercive legalization of digital technologies does (to a certain extent) seem unique. Premising citizenship, if not de jure then de facto, on digital capabilities remains specific to Denmark to the best of our knowledge.

Yet, while of all this may be true, the case study presented here might still hold some wider implications. We should definitely not attempt to simply generalize from this specific study, as if our results had some trans-national and trans-historical applicability. They do not. What these findings might foreground and highlight are some of the nascent trajectories or pathways currently explored by policymakers as viable solutions. Indeed, as mentioned towards the beginning of this book, Denmark is often labelled as a digital forerunner. The country is being branded as an example to be followed. In this way, there are good reasons to believe that other policymakers might begin to follow suit. Thus, Denmark might be a weird case, but precisely in its weirdness it tells us something about the political trajectories and policymaking visions that are possible. The case seems to anticipate, if not necessitate, a range of potential developments in other countries.

The second question we are often asked is whether and to what extent there has emerged any kind of resistance or public outcries to these changes. To this question, we have often felt compelled to answer that despite a fairly large portion of public scandals, with infrastructures costing millions and millions of tax-payers’ money, and despite the relatively aggressive policy vision pursued by state officials, resistance has been relatively sparse. Or, at the very least, without any clear voice. There may be a number of reasons for this, one being that digitalization is often considered a fairly niche subject with little to no resonance within the wider citizenry. Another reason might be that for many citizens, the digital solutions provided by the public sector have to a certain extent proven more efficient and easier to use than previous ones. It would be far too simplistic to simply read these processes as inherently negative, alienating and repressive. And as this book has attempted to showcase, small-scale counter-hegemonies are beginning to form within the state itself. But as we have also shown, such resistances are often implicated in the reproduction of the very logics they seek to challenge. So these matters are, indeed, complex and it remains to be seen whether a re-politicization might be possible.

In the opening chapter of this book, we borrowed a phrase from Jamie Peck (2001a), formulated more than 15 years ago, to explain some of our rationales for writing the present work. Using his words, we argued that we wanted to “tease out the wider implications of complex changes in the practical and ideological strategies, organizational and normative structures, and political-economic and sociological situation of the state under conditions of accelerated neoliberal restructuring” (p. 446). Nearing the end of this work, we might return full circle. Not to repeat this statement once again or to evaluate how far we have come in our ambition to tease out these changes. Instead, using the words of Jamie Peck anno 2017, we might say that this work is “a story without closure” (p. 203). Indeed, not unlike Peck’s recent work in Offshore, there also seems to be “no final stage, no settled geography, and no moment of equilibrium in the continuously restructuring world” (ibid.) of governmental digitalization.

Pushing on and Reclaiming Class: The Digital Outcasts

In the face of these continuously unfolding processes – both unpredictable, variegated and enormously complex – the present book should be conceived as only one sign-post in what we perceive to be a much wider research program. Indeed, the terrain for pushing the presented findings even further, advancing the CPE agenda in new and exciting ways, seems wide open. To our mind, especially one area of future research stands out. It concerns some of the core structural mechanisms within capitalism and advanced capitalist states, namely questions of class, domination and inequality.

If digital citizenship, digital governance and digitalization are, indeed, becoming potent means of statecraft and public sector change within advanced capitalist states, then we ought to inquire into the ways in which these political tools reproduce, extend and create structures of exclusion, marginalization and stigmatization. What kinds of subjectivities become (even more) dominated within the transition towards digitalized societies and states? To what extent do digital technologies work along already existing lines of social stratification? And are we witnessing a new means of class domination by ‘other means’? Yet another tool to ‘punish the poor’ (Wacquant 2009) for failing to constitute the reserve army of labor for capitalism? When we start to look at digitalization through a CPE lens, these are the question we can begin to ask. These are the questions that we should begin to ask.

The existing research dealing with the so-called digital divide(s) and associated concepts has given little to no attention to questions of digital exclusion in the context of the capitalist state. There might be historical reasons for this, seeing that the turn towards mandatory digital citizenship (premising access to the state on digital technologies) is a recent process that is still in the making. To our mind, however, there are also structural reasons for this. If we want to account for the new forms of domination and marginalization that emerges in the context of governmental digitalization, we have to bring in questions of class, capital and hegemony. All too often, these concepts have been banished from the mainstream academic literature for reasons that have been more political than scientific.

In the last number of years, we have begun to work on some of these questions ourselves, exploring how the political changes discussed in this book have led to new forms of class domination and marginalization. We are very much still in the early phases of understanding the precise structural mechanisms involved in these novel means of class politics. However, some of our tentative empirical findings do seem to suggest that the coercive implementation of digital technologies is leading to new forms of exclusion and marginalization. Functioning through a combination of the legal, discursive and technological mechanisms discussed in Chaps.  4 and  5, we are beginning to see how already precarious and disenfranchised parts of the class hierarchy are being locked into new forms of exclusion. Indeed, reproducing pre-existing class mechanisms, governmental digitalization seems to reinforce and reinvigorate the punishment of the nether regions of the material and symbolic class structure. Homeless, sick, (dis)abled, long-time unemployed, poor pensioners, drug addicts and unskilled laborers thus seem to be reconfigured into a new group of excluded others.

In a tentative manner, we have proposed to conceptualize this new group as the ‘digital outcasts’ (Schou and Hjelholt 2017; Hjelholt and Schou 2018; Hjelholt 2015). This is a group that reassembles the bottom of the class structure into an emergent semi-collective entity whose members all seem to share one trait: namely that they cannot follow the rapidly accelerating structures of an increasingly digitalized competition state. Not unlike the mechanisms laid out in this book, we are once again dealing with a dialectic of continuity and discontinuity: the digital outcasts both reproduce, on the one hand, deeply sedimented class relations, but the precise mechanisms and consequences of these exclusionary mechanisms also, on the other hand, involve new patterns, technologies and instruments. In the years to come, we hope to focus our energy on providing a cultural political economy of the digital outcasts, further dissecting the profound changes taking place at the very core of advanced capitalist states.

References

  1. Hjelholt, M. (2015). The Digital Outcasts: Advanced Margins in Digital Societies. In P. Kommers & P. Isaías (Eds.), Proceedings of the 13th International Conference E-Society (pp. 239–243). Madeira: International Association for Development of the Information Society.Google Scholar
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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Jannick Schou
    • 1
  • Morten Hjelholt
    • 1
  1. 1.IT University of CopenhagenCopenhagenDenmark

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