Tag Archives: feminism

The maternal state: the gendered politics of soft paternalism

stilletto by eatmorechips@flikrIs the state becoming too much like your nanny? Does it act like your dad or more like your uncle? Does it tell you what to do, protect you from harm, or nurture you just like a mother? Which familial figure should the state aspire to be in relation to the cultivation of citizens and the appropriate extent of government regulation?

The justifications for libertarian paternalism are sometimes based on insights from highly gendered accounts of human behaviour derived from behavioural economics, popular psychology and neuroscience. The Cabinet Office discussion paper, Personal Responsibility and Changing Behaviour: the state of knowledge and its implications for public policy (2004) seeks political justification for this new form of governing from a rather narrow range of psychological and neuroscientific theories.  Insights from feminist psychology, political theory, and philosophy are notably absent.

In a recent publication from the Royal Society for the Arts, Manufacturing and Commerce (RSA), for example, an excerpt from Jonah Lehrer’s New York Times bestseller, The Decisive Moment (2009) is accompanied by a garish full-page illustration of a stiletto, embedded with metaphors of conspicuous consumption, vice and unclean living – make-up, perfume, cigarettes, mobile phones, cocktails, credit cards and baby bottles [!?].  In describing the division between reason and feeling ‘proven’ by the new neurosciences and Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) technologies, Lehrer deploys a sexualised discourse of temptation, impulsiveness, indulgence and enticement to account for the way in which the ‘emotional brain’ fools the rational mind into increasingly damaging levels of debt.

Whilst feminists have somewhat rejected the need for a ‘theory of the state’ as a blunt and abstract instrument, unpacking the concept of the state and its practices of governing from a feminist perspective is an important task. Questioning the claims of the ‘new neurosciences’ and the appeal to popular psychology and business innovation literature is an equally pressing concern, where state policies are being designed around novel messages from this work.  As feminist sociologist of science, Hilary Rose has pointed out, understanding the social context of consciousness has been a critical oversight of the neurobiological approach.  Others have challenged common interpretations of neuroscientists such as Damasio and LeDoux where the importance of pre-cognitive and automated modes of thinking is inflated, particularly where such authors are used to derive political projects in cultural theory and human geography (Papoulias and Callard, 2010).