Honor Brabazon – Juridification, Technocratisation, and Strategies of Dissent in the Neoliberal Political Sphere


Event Date: 30 April 2014
The Institute of Advanced Study
Millburn House
Millburn Hill Road
University of Warwick Science Park

The Kent Law School presents:

The Public Life of Private Law

An ESRC Seminar Series

Seminar 4: Protest, Precarisation, Possibility

Increasingly, private law appears in the the government of unruly political movement and resistance – through the privatisation of public space and the designation of protest as trespass; through the contractualisation of public services and the discipline of labour; through the generation of private spheres where government power is deployed in unanticipated ways.  How should we characterise the experience of government through private law? What vulnerabilities does  private law highlight in those it governs? To what extent does private law confer overlooked capacities on troublesome actors, which can generate new strategies of resistance?

Honor Brabazon –  Juridification, Technocratisation, and Strategies of Dissent in the Neoliberal Political Sphere

Whilst the neoliberal restructuring of economic relations and political institutions is well documented, the manner in which resistance to the neoliberal agenda is also shaped by the specificities of the neoliberal period has been relatively neglected. Observations of the changing parameters of resistance have focused largely on the policing of protest as an increasingly militarised and networked exercise of power by ‘officers of the law’.  Less attention has been given to the increase in the policing of protest by non-police officials or to self-policing by protesters themselves.  This paper looks to the broader shifts taking place in both the public and private realms to develop a more robust account of current restrictions to protest.

One such shift is the increasing governance of resistance and other traditionally ‘public’ activities by private law.  Yet public law itself has also been altered in ways that structure and condition political debate.  Whilst private law increasingly is infused with public purpose and authority, the issues and relations still found in the public purview are increasingly governed by the logic and imagery underpinning private law.  The paper discusses accounts which set the increased material interpenetration of the public and private spheres against the revival of the formal ideological distinction between them (e.g., Cutler, 2003).  Yet it also examines the informal seepage of private law’s image as neutral, equitable, apolitical, and fixed into common understandings of public law, which typically has been associated with these characteristics to a lesser degree.

The paper argues that this image’s ability to mask the political and distributional functions of law allows political processes in the political sphere itself to appear to be apolitical, technical, and administrative.  The paper contends that the expansion and intensification of this formalist image constricts the political sphere, reducing possibilities for public debate, accountability, and dissent.  This ideological function of law is not specific to neoliberalism, but the paper contends that law’s ‘technical’ appearance is now mobilised increasingly to conceal political processes and side-step dissent in both the public and private realms.

The paper examines the impact of this ‘technocratisation’ of the political by elaborating two examples wherein law’s image as technical and apolitical has been mobilised to police protest — one using private law and one public law.  The paper compares the two instances, discussing why law was invoked in this way and with what impact on the protesters and on their traditional tactics.

The paper argues that, whilst this aspect of the reformulation of the private/public divide has constricted the tools, spaces, opportunities, and motivations for resistance, the increased reliance on a technical and apolitical image of law which stands so far from law’s material reality highlights certain vulnerabilities which can be (carefully) harnessed by creative opposition. The paper concludes with examples of the types of creative social movement tactics that have arisen to counter these restrictions, which attempt to turn law’s ‘technocratisation’ of the political on its head.


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