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Communication, Culture & Critique ISSN 1753-9129


In Search of Ordinary People: The
Problematic Politics of Popular Participation
John Clarke
Faculty of Social Sciences, The Open University, Milton Keynes, UK

In this article, I explore the contemporary political and governmental enthusiasm for the
participation of ordinary people in fields of economic, social, and political life. I sketch
some examples of this growing enthusiasm, beginning with the transformation of welfare
states. I then explore different accounts of the centrality of ordinary people to contemporary
political and governmental strategies, considering the emergence of advanced liberal efforts
of construct ‘‘responsible’’ subjects; the role of popular participation in neoliberalism’s
de-politicizing tendencies; and the ambiguous place of the people in authoritarian populist
politics. I consider the capacity of the idea of ‘‘ordinary people’’ to connect different sites of
political and governmental innovation—and the failure of ordinary people to live up to
their idealized status.

‘‘Ordinary people’’ are the object of proliferating political and governmental strategies
that seek to activate them, enroll them, and make them responsible for their own,
and others’, well-being. They are addressed as the potential agents of enterprise,
development, renewal, governance, well-being, order, and—in the UK—a ‘‘Big
Society’’ (Cameron, 2009). Rather than being merely the objects of governmental
interventions—populations to be managed or improved—ordinary people are
increasingly identified as the objects, subjects, and modality of governing the social.
Governments seek to discover and enroll ordinary people; they seek to empower
them as agents; and they are the means through which desired social, economic, and
political transformations might be accomplished. In what follows, I explore some of
the incarnations of ordinary people in political and governmental practice in the UK
context, and some of the ways in which their current salience might be explained.
Ordinary people represent a significant political and analytical puzzle. After
exploring what constitutes the virtuous quality of ordinary people, I consider three
possible routes to accounting for their contemporary visibility. I begin from the
Foucauldian with constituting empowered and responsible selves, suggesting that

Corresponding author: John Clarke; e-mail:

Communication, Culture & Critique 6 (2013) 208–226 © 2013 International Communication Association

ordinary people are being addressed as such knowledgeable selves—capable of knowing their own needs and identifying how they should best be met (see. in public services as in other services. but at its center is a vision of ‘‘ordinary people’’ as active. Smith. as articulated by then Prime Minister Blair in 2004: In reality. The discourse of moving welfare from a process in which ‘‘passive recipients’’ absorb publicly provided welfare (more or less gratefully) to a situation in which people actively promote and manage their own well-being draws on a variety of political perspectives. self-governing. patients seeking medical treatment. This view was central to the changes to public service developed by New Labour governments between 1997 and 2010. Clarke. & Westmarland. but in this context what interests me most is the conception of activation as a process of bringing to life the capacities. choice isn’t an end in itself. or adults needing forms of social care.g. how we might deal with the paradox of unpopular populism.g. 2007) between insurgent and dominant conceptions of participation is worth further attention. Betzelt & Bothfeldt.. Clarke Ordinary People although this view illuminates many contemporary governmental strategies. confluence (Dagnino. talents. the parent. while acknowledging the importance of the analysis. Finally. Culture & Critique 6 (2013) 208–226 © 2013 International Communication Association 209 . 2007.. Second. I believe people do want choice. Vidler. Newman. van Berkel. We are proposing to put an entirely different dynamic in place to drive our public services. decision-making agents whose active involvement in these processes will both deliver better results for them (as individuals and families) and improve system efficiency and effectiveness at the same time. citizens. I am keen to keep ordinary people in a sort of double focus—as idealized objects of governmental desire and as rather intractable and potentially recalcitrant sites of agency which might not fit perfectly with the ways in which they are imagined and addressed. there are important questions about how the enrollment of ordinary people works in practice. 2010). Again. Choice puts the levers in the hands of parents and patients so that they as citizens and consumers can be a driving force for improvement in their public services. Studies of reform reveal different models and practices of activation (e. or even perverse. I suggest that the peculiar.J. 2007. I ask whether the current coalition government in the UK forms part of a wider ‘‘authoritarian populism’’ and. Hvinden & Johansson. if so. Newman & Tonkens. the Communication. 2011. Needham. welfare reforms in the UK have sought to position ordinary people as knowledgeable.’’ As welfare users and consumers. and self-knowledge of ‘‘ordinary people. I consider critical accounts of the deployment of ‘‘participatory’’ strategies in contemporary neoliberalism. Activate the ordinary: New modes of governing the social ‘‘Ordinary people’’ are being activated as citizens and workers in the transformations of welfare states. In each of these discussions. e. But anyway. one where the service will be driven not by the government or by the manager but by the user—the patient. It is one important mechanism to ensure that citizens can indeed secure good schools and health services in their communities. Whether parents selecting schools for their children. 2011). 2011.

and communities have become one of the favored scales.. public service reforms have been accompanied by an approach to organizational governance that allocates a central role to ‘‘lay’’ representation: from parent governors in schools. inter alia. & Sullivan. Such developments have identified ‘‘lay’’ perspectives as an essential element of governing. community cohesion. approaches to reforming public government and governance have placed an increasing premium on the active participation of ordinary people. It can: 210 Communication. For example. in the 2008 White Paper Communities in Control: Real People. localities. through tenant representative in social housing. Newman. in practice. they are mobilized through a discursive register in which the value of engaging ‘‘ordinary people’’ in the mix of political and administrative decisions affecting them and their locality is a central and typically uncontested value. 2007. Barnes. In the following section. Such contrasts are visible across a wide set of institutional settings: For example. even though. Such participatory orientations contain a more or less explicit critique of both existing forms of political representation and the technocratic culture of governmental administration. I will return to these contrasts and the positive gloss that they attribute to the ordinariness of ordinary people. fulfilment and personal growth that active citizenship brings. For example. the government argued that: As well as the feelings of satisfaction. Mahony. Nancy Thumim (2009. p. levels. 2008. 2010. 2009. Although such participatory practices certainly take very different forms. 2010. In the UK. Culture & Critique 6 (2013) 208–226 © 2013 International Communication Association .Ordinary People J. June 24. McKee & Cooper. & Barnett. 2010) has explored the ways in which museums invite ‘‘ordinary people’’ to engage in processes of self-representation. community empowerment can also have wider benefits for society. the National Institute for Clinical Excellence. Previous New Labour governments were strongly committed to mobilizing communities (for community development. Such participatory orientations are paralleled in approaches to governing forms of social or public provision. 2010. ordinary people are constantly being summoned to the processes of self-governance in the guise of ‘‘communities. & Barnett. particularly. 1) This view of empowering ordinary people—in their various situated identities—extends well beyond the fields of welfare and public service reform. 2007. Real Power. or sites of governing the social in the UK and elsewhere (Mooney & Neal. there are important issues about who represents the ‘‘lay’’ perspective and what is at stake in such representation (see.g.. Equally. Newman. Neveu. Wetherell. community regeneration. McDermont. on the problem of political representation more generally). (Tony Blair. and more). Mahony. 2009). Anxiety about declining political legitimacy—of both national and local government—has produced an enthusiasm for ‘‘participatory’’ processes and practices (e. community safety. 2004. Davies.g.’’ Neighborhoods. 2007). Clarke pupil and the law-abiding citizen. quoted in The Guardian. established by New Labour to advise on medical best practice issues). Saward. 2007. to lay participants in apparently scientific domains (e.

it will lead to innovation. . Greater openness about decision making and greater involvement in those decisions can remove perceptions of injustice that can fuel extremism • help revive civic society and local democracy as more people become directly involved in the things that affect them—whether it is their local neighbourhoods. criminal justice system and local council services. schools. or practical steps in tackling big problems like climate change • create mechanisms of citizen participation (for example systems of accountability. As individuals engage with their neighbours. transparency and accountability. we can create the opportunity for people to take responsibility. In that alliance.J. things to do for young people. . pp. with community groups and local decision makers on how to tackle shared concerns. . there is more interaction between people of different backgrounds and more emphasis on shared goals. Clarke Ordinary People • support more cohesive and integrated communities. redress and compensation) which help drive forward continuous improvements in the quality and efficiency of public services such as the NHS. and attracting little enthusiasm. That way. a long-standing Liberal Democrat enthusiasm for localism and communities encountered an equally long-standing Conservative antistatism. police.’’ Much discussed. as people have the freedom to Communication. voluntary organisations and social enterprises seek solutions to some of the difficult problems facing contemporary society. (Department of Communities and Local Government. glossed by the Conservative leader David Cameron in terms of a commitment to create a ‘‘Big Society. Our plans for decentralisation are based on a simple human insight: if you give people more responsibility. and engage people in delivering successful outcomes • it can build a strong civil society where committed individuals. This decentralisation of power from the central to the local will not just increase responsibility. Culture & Critique 6 (2013) 208–226 © 2013 International Communication Association 211 . Cameron’s idea of the Big Society nonetheless continues the theme of ‘‘transferring power’’ to ordinary people: The first step is to redistribute power and control from the central state and its agencies to individuals and local communities. This is absolutely in line with the spirit of the age—the post-bureaucratic age . community groups. . they behave more responsibly. 21–22) This view of communities as the site of an ordinariness that can be activated to add social and political value has been maintained by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition government that came to power in 2010. . 2008. So I am confident that a major redistribution of power can really help us tackle our stubborn social problems and our three key approaches will be decentralisation. strengthening public debate and building support for change.

. Culture & Critique 6 (2013) 208–226 © 2013 International Communication Association . families. and concerned to gain and keep power. where the political process lacks reach and legitimacy. inequality. (Cameron. Although each site involves a specific assemblage of politics. Politicians are venal. We do not think that only an 212 Communication. I have argued elsewhere (Clarke. the second concerns the relationship between ordinary people and technocratic administration. The first concerns the relationship between ordinary people and politics. ordinary people are to be empowered to solve them. Here. and the freedom to copy what works elsewhere. similar trends involving the valorization of ordinary people (as individuals. Although I have drawn my examples here from the UK. popular participation is solicited. Elyachar. operating ‘‘beneath the radar’’ of political organization. But their ordinariness equips them to face the challenges of governing: We believe that citizens and communities are capable of taking difficult decisions. I want to draw out two other aspects hinted at earlier. they are also ‘‘below politics’’: Those same everyday preoccupations are local and particular. ‘‘ordinary people’’ are motivated by their quotidian concerns: the everyday preoccupations of everyday lives. and practices (and I do not mean to underestimate their distinctiveness). and communities) recur elsewhere. 2010.g. policies. They appear ‘‘above politics’’ because they are not tarnished by the sordid. Clarke try new approaches to solving social problems. politics is grasped first and foremost as a ‘‘dirty business’’ (see Helms. and institutional structures. For instance. 2006). 2008). In this representation.Ordinary People J. given the right support and resources. Wherever welfare states are being reformed. Rather they are seen as standing simultaneously above and below politics. Being grounded in the everyday ensures that ordinary people are not distracted by ‘‘big ideas’’ or ideologies. there does seem to be something compelling about the ordinariness of ordinary people in the current period. Sharma. social development through microcredit or women’s empowerment aims at similar enrollments (e. 2009) Although some of the elements differ. ordinary people are being activated. 2009) that a powerful feature of the figure of ‘‘ordinary people’’ involves a view of them as not political. the enrollment of ordinary people remains the central device for imagining new ways of governing the social. and where challenges of poverty. self-interested. What is it that makes them such an object of governmental desire? Valorizing the ordinary: Governing without politics? It is clear that ordinary people are desired: They are imagined as having something distinctive and different to offer the processes of governing the social. In contrast. Newman & Clarke. Both aspects involve a view of ordinary people as ‘‘adding value’’ to the processes of governing. self-seeking obsessions with power and interest that are seen to motivate politics. or social dislocation exist. balancing competing demands and solving complex problems themselves. At the same time. mobilization. 2005.

McDermont and Communication. p. listened to. and citizens (Clarke & Newman. even as it tries to summon popular participation. grounded expertise—the self-knowledge of ordinary people—stands as an alternative pole of authority and legitimacy for service planning and delivery. 1997). Graham Martin has talked about this enrollment of ordinary people as involving a conception of them as ‘‘a strange mix of representativeness. taken on a social and political complexity that—at times and unevenly—demands a sort of physical analog of the currently visible elements of diversity (gender.’’ In their study of public service governance. Ordinary people can speak of the effects of those systems (as users. thanks to the challenges of social movements.’’ In this guise. diversity. For ‘‘ordinary people’’ (or those representing ‘‘ordinary people’’). But embodying (an element of) diversity does not excuse acting only as the representative of a narrow. Ordinary people bring ‘‘lay’’ knowledge to governing processes. they can testify to the workings (or nonworkings) of the processes. ethnicity. ordinariness. consumers. (Department of Communities and Local Government. consumers. It is articulated by governments and politicians and thus evokes popular skepticism. they are the antidote to the failings of technocratic social administration. and they can serve as representatives (as long as they represent the generality of ordinary people. etc. not any particularity). however. sectional. Culture & Critique 6 (2013) 208–226 © 2013 International Communication Association 213 . and desires. p. and risks being dismissed as ‘‘merely anecdotal. this is not a simple liberation of ordinary people from the dead hand of ‘‘monopolistic’’ welfare bureaucracies.J. They are—in the phrase of the disability movement—‘‘experts of their own condition. Of course. 13) This double movement—identifying ordinary people as both above and below politics—carries with it some problems. spoken for. or specific interest. We trust people to have the common sense and ingenuity to run their own affairs and to be the authors of their own destiny. the governance of public services forms a contested space in which ordinary people are simultaneously consulted. and tutored into better and more appropriate forms of knowledge. age. because there is then a need to redesignate them: as activists (rather than active) or as ‘‘special interests’’ rather than the embodiment of an unarticulated general interest. and they can speak of their own experiences. Whether in the form of professionals or bureaucrats.). beneficiaries. It also runs into problems when ordinary people act politically. different from the knowledge held by those who run governing systems. 2008. staffed by power hungry professionals and depersonalized rule following bureaucrats. Instead.). disability. embody the diversity of ordinary people: Representativeness has. They should. the problem is that their knowledge has only limited currency (the lay perspective). is particularized (rather than the abstract/general categories of being business-like). knowledge and expertise’’ (2007. multiple and overlapping critiques have challenged the authority of institutionalized welfare service provision in the name of users. Clarke Ordinary People enlightened and altruistic class of political leaders and administrators can deliver what is good for people. This might be unpacked a little further: They are representative (by virtue of being ordinary). So. 46). needs. etc.

New Public Management values were reiterated time and again. 301) Nevertheless. ordinary people and their views do not enter an empty field: When institutions invite members of the public to represent themselves. In what follows. Cowan. tenant representatives. however. processes of mediation may ensure that the participants stay in their place by producing representations that are recognisably amateur and ‘‘ordinary. p. Clarke her colleagues explored the relationship between elected (political) representatives.’’ and therefore located at the bottom end of a well-established hierarchy of legitimacy. The second leads to an engagement with the political project of neoliberalism. Becoming ordinary: Governing through responsibility There has been a fecund field of Foucauldian scholarship that has explored the varieties of liberal governmentality. the officers. They noted the problematic status of tenant representatives (not least around questions of what it meant to ‘‘represent’’). The first points to a Foucauldian concern with governmentality and. Managerialized politics had taken hold. from the regulator. In the final section. p. & Prendergast. 1997. 697) In a variety of contexts. and pointed to the managerialized context in which governing took place: On the RSL board. as these two terms lead to rather different views of the enrollment of ordinary people. the symbolic valorization of ordinary people continues to play a powerful role in contemporary political and governmental discourses. (McDermont. more particularly. the legitimacy of ordinary self-representations in established systems of expression depends on having and representing experience. In this view. The concept of the ‘‘well managed organisation’’ was taken for granted (Clarke & Newman. It might be that representations of ‘‘ordinary people’’ are only legitimate if they do not challenge this positioning. and the professional staff in the boards of social housing organizations. p. Moreover. and even the tenant board member who had inspected other landlords and ‘‘knew’’ what the regulator wanted.Ordinary People J. I want to distinguish more carefully between governmental and political. Culture & Critique 6 (2013) 208–226 © 2013 International Communication Association . the governmentalization of responsible subjects. a variety of advanced or neoliberal discourses and practices have (re-)constituted citizens as ‘‘actuarial subjects’’ (O’Malley. 143) and political decisions become de-politicized in the skilled and expert board. ordinary citizens must produce representations of experience. (2010. 2009. 214 Communication. the ‘‘empowered’’ ordinary person taking up a role in processes of governing the social enters fields of practice that are framed by other forms of authority. with a particular interest in the constitution of responsibilized subjects. As Thumim argues about the processes of self-representation. I explore the celebration of ‘‘ordinary people’’ as the (contradictory) focus of ‘‘authoritarian populist’’ politics.

This orientation has been particularly productive in drawing attention to the changing sites and modes of ‘‘governing the social. Brown & Baker. organisations treated forms of public involvement as a site in which both organisations and the public could be Communication. as ‘‘empowered citizens’’ (Cruikshank. Dudley.J. The ordinary—here in the form of the responsible/responsibilized individual—is always normative. 2012b).g. it is the benchmark against which subjects are judged (and the failure to behave responsibly may carry severe penalties). It also makes visible the potential problems and pitfalls of producing ordinary people in the work of governing (Clarke. and it establishes the norm against which irresponsibility can be defined (see. 1999). Culture & Critique 6 (2013) 208–226 © 2013 International Communication Association 215 . & Harris. I suggest that it is important to take the Foucauldian interest in the governmental beyond programmatic concerns with designs and strategies into the rather messier practices through which subjects are summoned and enrolled (Clarke. 2012). as Brown and Baker (2012) show in the field of mental health. 2008). At an individual level. 1999). provider organizations saw encounters with users as a site for remaking at least some of them into self-directing or self-managing subjects . as ‘‘enterprising’’ or ‘‘self-sustaining’’ selves (McDonald & Marston. The responsible subject is the medium through which the reward of ‘‘autonomy’’ is distributed (what New Labour in the UK used to call ‘‘earned autonomy’’). as ‘‘communal’’ and ‘‘consuming subjects’’ (Rose. But the failure to be ‘‘ordinary’’ in this normative sense can bring hard consequences—as Bauman (1998) has pointed out in relation to the new norm of consumption. Barns. 2006). 2009). The diversity of sites and practices through which responsibility is induced continues to grow—as does the centrality of the figure of the responsible subject to governmental imaginaries. .. This attention to the governmental enrollment of ordinary people—and the efforts to constitute them as self-governing responsible subjects—highlights the work involved in being and becoming ordinary. in a study of citizen–consumers. e. and as mediatized responsible selves ‘‘freed’’ from government (Ouellette & Hay.’’ pointing to both the changing forms of state intervention and the emerging forms of governing that take place ‘‘beyond the state’’ as other agencies and agents are drawn into the business of constructing responsible subjects capable of conducting themselves and their lives in the desired new ways. Clarke Ordinary People 2004). 1999). In more collective forms. we found that one recurrent device through which the empowered user of public services was to be disciplined through the norm of the ‘‘reasonable consumer’’: All the organizations we dealt with saw the processes of involvement and engagement with the public as a means of constructing ‘‘reasonable’’ consumers. Petersen. For example. The movement from expansive or welfarist liberalism to advanced liberalism is characterized by this shift toward the production of self-governing subjects (Dean. always imagined as a particular sort of valorized subject. . 1999. and as Wacquant (2009) and others have shown in relation to the criminalization of the poor and marginalized.

and participation in a field of activities that have little or no purchase on significant 216 Communication.’’ Service providers could learn about user/public perceptions. So. and may not work according to plan. study. As advanced liberal governmentality seeks to produce empowered. 2007. Thumim. in a recent Ph. In this section. I have also tried to suggest that the enrollment of ‘‘ordinary people’’ may require considerable governing work. participation displaces politics by the promise of involvement. it is precisely ‘‘ordinary people’’ who will be the object and subject of governmental strategies. intractable. In the following section. First. yet their enactment in specific sites is troubled by questions of authority—in relation to both politics and professional expertise (see also Needham. Ellen Stewart (2012) explored the puzzle of ‘‘nonparticipation’’ by young people in health care who simply did not hear. autonomous. 2009). recalcitrant. I turn to an alternative way of viewing—and critiquing—the contemporary salience of ordinary people. subversive rather than reasonable (Barnes & Prior. agents and agencies trying to recruit members of the public complain about always encountering ‘‘the usual suspects’’ rather than the ‘‘genuinely’’ ordinary (Needham. A second implication centers on the performance of ordinariness: When summoned to take their part in politics and governance processes. I have tried to indicate how the Foucauldian attention to the governmental work of producing responsible subjects provides one point of entry to thinking about the centrality of ordinary people to contemporary politics and policy. too. there is the problem of their recruitment—people do not necessarily appear when they are summoned. ‘‘ordinary people’’ may turn out to be both less and more than their image in governmental fantasies. or insistent. But. (Clarke et al. In these different ways. conditions and calculations of ‘‘professional’’ or ‘‘organisational’’ knowledge. or did not understand the call to be ‘‘active participants. Culture & Critique 6 (2013) 208–226 © 2013 International Communication Association . 2011. They may turn out to be activist rather than merely active. There is an emerging body of work that addresses these two critical aspects of the enrollment of ordinary people. Ordinary people are valorized for their difference from existing forms of authority (political or technocratic). 119–120) The valorization of ordinary people in processes of governing the social can thus be seen as a contradictory and unfinished process. consultation. 2011). However. 2009. even if they do turn up. ordinary people are expected to look and behave like ordinary people. Clarke ‘‘educated. ordinary people may not act like the people they are supposed to be—they may be difficult.Ordinary People J.. pp. In this view. The veneer of participation: Neoliberalism as de-politicization A rather different view of popular participation and its enrollment of ordinary people has been advanced by commentators who identify it as one of the characteristic modes of contemporary neoliberalism (especially in Anglo-American settings). and see also the important discussion in Carpentier & Hannot. wants and expectations while the public could become ‘‘knowledgeable’’ in service terms—learning to appreciate the constraints.’’ In other fields. Newman & Clarke. and self-governing subjects.D. 2010. 2009). This has implications for both their recruitment and their conduct.

p. p. and relationships that might (however imperfectly) represent alternative logics of calculation (and social imaginaries). This systematic de-politicization of voice. or empowering active citizens should not be read as dropping fully formed from the pages of the neoliberal playbook. and individualized matters. In a related vein. 581).’’ suggesting that is precisely the weakening of the public sphere under neoliberal rule that enables the proliferation of participation. Graeme Turner (2010) has drawn an important distinction between ‘‘demotic’’ and ‘‘democratic’’ forms of voice in the increasing visibility of ordinary people in contemporary media. and participation during the last 20 years provide a compelling connection to a larger political project—neoliberalism—that has reworked the relationships between the economic. Clarke Ordinary People decisions. . on the assemblage of neoliberal. Movements of disabled people launched demands for independent living that provided a key foundation for ‘‘personalization’’ (Needham. might entail beyond pure formalism’’ (Couldry. p. 581). perhaps more accurately. and social domains in profound ways. 2008. see also Couldry. Personalizing social care. They might better be understood as accommodations with—and appropriations of—other political projects and social imaginaries. e. and the global dominance of capital. Critical accounts of the development of models of choice. 2009. 581.. and registering ‘voice’ which is part of the banal oxymoron of neoliberal democracy’’ (Couldry. the approach through neoliberalism occludes some important questions—both about neoliberalism as a political project and about the ambiguous politics of participation. political. and feminist Communication. to its antidemocratic character. generates a paradox ‘‘that voice can apparently be offered. 133). marketization. in economic. 2007). but the quest to dismantle the institutions. In this way. Empowerment emerges from different political tendencies (see. He suggests that: ‘‘neoliberal Britain provides some clear examples of the conflict between the claim to offer ‘voice’ in. without any attention to whether it is matched by processes for listening to.g. participatory local events. Abram (2007) has written of ‘‘participatory de-politicization. political and cultural domains’’ (2009. and provides a marker of how ‘‘neo-liberalism has truly taken hold’’ (p. Others authors such as Wendy Brown (2005) and Colin Crouch (2004) have highlighted this tendency: not just the desire to subordinate the social and political domains to economic logics of calculation. and participation. I think it is important to ask what problems the neoliberal project imagines might be overcome by enrolling ordinary people into processes of consultation. participation furthers the larger processes of privatization. Couldry has argued that neoliberalism has produced a ‘‘crisis of voice . consultation. public services—interactive consumer choice—and a complete failure to grasp what listening. and the broader value of voice. they point to the de-politicizing quality of the neoliberal project or. Culture & Critique 6 (2013) 208–226 © 2013 International Communication Association 217 . In particular. he claims. Sharma. 2011).J. Gandhian. choice. Nevertheless. Instead. particularized. practices. Insurgent democratic movements in Latin America provided models—and discourses—of local participation (Dagnino. 2009. . say. 2010) in which gestural offerings of choice and consultation are systematically disconnected from any larger collective politics. It is the absence of effective political power that enables such forms of public involvement. they are treated as localized.

p. and translates elements of other political discourses in the quest to make itself meaningful. Clarke conceptions in India). Yet the pristine clarity of its ideological apparition. the free market. Peck argues that Neoliberalism . Ironically. at the critique of limited representative democracy which informed the programmes of the New Left. . 2006). The first is simply that neoliberalism is itself a mobile assemblage (Ong. . If we look now at the demands of that moment. is that this situation has not arisen by accident. acceptable. and desirable in the many contexts that it seeks to dominate. The second point is that those circumstances always include the recurring failure of the neoliberal project—the failure to make the world it imagines come true in practice. 2002). neoliberalism possesses a progressive. including the challenges that both residual and emergent political formations pose to the dominant (in Raymond Williams’ terms: 1977). In a recent article. however. and will keep using it). Beneath the mythology of market progress lies a turgid reality of neoliberalism variously failing and flailing forward. Jeremy Gilbert has argued that neoliberalism—and its antidemocratic tendency in particular—might be seen as not just a response to the economic problems of Atlantic Fordism but also as a response to the political problems generated by insurgent social movements of the 1960s and 1970s. .Ordinary People J. but I like it. (2010. post-democracy is the outcome of neoliberalism’s attempts to neutralise the threat posed by the democratic surge (Huntington’s phrase. it is more accurate to say that neoliberalism mutates across time and space such that although there is a ‘‘preliminary grammar’’ of neoliberalism (Kingfisher. ventriloquizes. Perhaps. but because it serves a very powerful set of interests and protects them from real threats. confer a significant degree of forward momentum on the neoliberal project. . indeed can only exist in messy hybrids. Culture & Critique 6 (2013) 208–226 © 2013 International Communication Association . This delivers my third issue: the importance of grasping the political fields in which neoliberalism is formed (and reformed) as posing problems to be overcome. It borrows. I think it is useful to draw out three issues for thinking about the ambiguous politics of enrolling ordinary people. adapts. forward-leaning dynamic by virtue of the very unattainability of its idealized destination . coupled with the inevitable failure to arrive at this elusive destination. 7) This sense of the contradictory dynamics of neoliberalism is a powerful one but it needs to be complemented by an attention to the uncomfortable cohabitations between the neoliberal project and other politics (as indeed Peck recognizes). Gilbert argues that the present conjuncture—at least in Euro-Atlantic societies—is marked by a profound mixture of heightened personal freedoms and systematic de-politicization: a mixture that is not merely the effect of neoliberalism’s economizing logic: The point I want to reiterate and to emphasise here. has only ever existed in ‘‘impure’’ form. Its utopian vision of a free society and a free economy is ultimately unrealizable. at the pioneering of decentralised and nonhierarchical forms of collective action and 218 Communication. . it is always in the process of being revised and reinvented to take account of its changing circumstances.

Clarke Ordinary People decision-making in the women’s movement. By emphasizing the mobile. users. such attempts at containment have often proved imperfect as activist citizens. challenge the limits of the social and political settlements. and workers seek to ‘‘work the spaces of power’’ (Newman.’’ the ruling elite. but for better and different ways of making decisions about ways of living together.J. In the following section. and one which posed a tangible threat to the sovereignty of capital. dominant elite. the hope for a substantial extension. and localized forms that Couldry identifies. I return to some of the ways in which ‘‘ordinary people’’ have been summoned in contemporary UK politics—particularly in the populist address of the 2010 Conservative-led Coalition government and its commitment to ‘‘austerity. Nevertheless. variously articulated as ‘‘Them. 2012) This is a very suggestive analysis. the political classes. Populism also legitimates a challenge to the distinction between the people and the power bloc—by politicians who are not part of the power bloc.’’ All in this together: Ordinary people and austerity politics ‘‘Ordinary people’’ have been celebrated and valorized in a series of populist dramas that rely on a series of distinctions and identifications: most crudely the distinction between the people and the power bloc. imperfect. Insurgent movements—of service users. It locates the politics of popular participation differently. local activists. New Labour’s rich Communication. This looks like more than a founding moment (even if it was a significant one) and perhaps identifies a recurring set of tensions and antagonisms which neoliberal strategies try to reconcile and contain in the individuated. or similar categorizations that express the social and political distance between ordinary people and those who rule. then and now—recognizing mobilizations that ask not just for more. choice. Culture & Critique 6 (2013) 208–226 © 2013 International Communication Association 219 . who are not members of the ruling classes. and participation in and around public services and their governance. My aim in this section has been to develop a reading of forms of popular participation through the focus on neoliberalism as a political project. Here. we might locate the contradictory foundations of personalization. but at the level of institutions and government. etc. even if their challenges have been contained in limited and imperfect settlements. it’s clear that not only on a symbolic level. not just about the origins of neoliberalism as a political project but also about its continuing difficulties in relation to insurgent movements and mobilizations. it becomes possible to trace some of the ambiguous politics that underpin the valorization and enrollment of ordinary people into the business of governing. at the histories of autogestion and autonomia. transformation and reinvention of democratic institutions was a central element of that surge. in the process. and contradictory forms that neoliberalism has taken. at the rise of demands for industrial democracy in the labour movement at this time. (Gilbert. particularized. 2012) and. and more—were part of the challenge to statist social democracy. Recent British politics has seen a number of variations on this theme—the Thatcherite challenge to the old consensus.

fairness means giving money to help the poorest in society . We are doing this because we have to. and Northern Ireland) is located in typically populist pieces of myth-making about the national character. 2010b. .stm). responsibility (the alter ego of freedom). driven by theory or ideology. (Cameron. . but more accurately. people will suffer and our national interest will suffer . fairness. responsible families’’). Fairness has been taken up by the Coalition as the nominal guiding principle for both social policy and distributing the pain of austerity. 5) This conception of a national ‘‘we’’ (despite the increasingly distinct political cultures of Wales. . ‘‘real people. Fairness means supporting people out of poverty.’’ understood as a series of ‘‘hard working. That’s the sign of a civilised society. the current Conservative leadership (and its Liberal Democrat allies) have struggled to find a stably populist voice through which to articulate the program of fiscal austerity and state reform to which they have committed themselves. May 2007: http://news. The Coalition has sustained the delicately adjusted commitment to what might be—as with New Labour—best described as ‘‘fairness but’’: Yes. Freedom. Fairness means giving people what they deserve—and what people deserve depends on how they behave. Culture & Critique 6 (2013) 208–226 © 2013 International Communication Association . In one characteristic rhetorical move. . fairness. This was more grudgingly. articulated by Gordon Brown in New Labour’s consistently conditional formulation as: ‘‘fairness not just for some but all who earn it’’ (Gordon Brown leadership announcement. We are not doing this because we want to. and the current Coalition that attempts to represent itself as the champion of ordinary (British) people in a number of ways. . and they are the values that will drive our efforts to deal with our debts and turn this economy around. and fairness are preferred as the current elements of a ‘‘national character. as though the poor are products with a price tag and the more we spend on them the more we value them. Scotland. responsibility: those are the values that drive this government. even more than its predecessors.’’ Fairness is a trope inherited from New Labour who were consistent enthusiasts for constructing ‘‘a future fair for all’’ (Labour Party. and responsibility into one (austere) national purpose: We are all in this Clarke enthusiasm for the people (indeed. (Cameron. We will carry out Britain’s unavoidable deficit reduction plan in a way that strengthens and unites the country. 2010a) 220 Communication. 2010). Freedom (to be enterprising).Ordinary People J. driven by the urgent truth that unless we do. and we will get through this together. . But you can’t measure fairness just by how much money we spend on However. the prime minister attempted to weave togetherness. freedom. and it’s what I believe. not trapping them in dependency .

We might.and Oxbridge-educated. not least because of the almost complete absence of Conservative politicians from the Scottish Assembly (now controlled by Scottish Nationalists).J. 2012). . To some extent. This dis-United Kingdom provides a difficult terrain for Coalition politics. For example. Northern Ireland. In these terms. and independently wealthy has faced some representational challenges in trying to align themselves with ‘‘ordinary people. we might note the troubling political and constitutional landscape established by devolution in relation to Scotland. The attempt not only failed to persuade but also elicited some remarkably detailed observations of British class formation and mores. if not contradictory. ‘‘the bankers’’) in a central material and symbolic place in the British crisis and in strategies for its resolution.’’ This statement was at the same time an attempt to proclaim his ordinariness and a dig at middle-class values.’’ Indeed. . a project of structural reform. A cabinet that is predominantly White. My point is only that describing the Camerons as middle class is pretty meaningless. underpinned by a social authoritarianism—forms an unstable. note the leading role played by the financial sector in British capitalism and in the global financial crisis. this distinctive mixture reflects specific conjunctural conditions that are peculiar to the British case. male. Second. a Daily Mail commentator observed that: David Cameron claimed on Tuesday that he and his wife Samantha are members of ‘‘the sharp-elbowed middle classes. Culture & Critique 6 (2013) 208–226 © 2013 International Communication Association 221 . assemblage. a populist inscription of austerity as shared misery. . such that the dislocations. If populism works on the terrain of what Gramsci called the ‘‘national-popular. David Cameron likened himself and his wife (Samantha) to those ‘‘sharp elbowed middle class’’ people who were able to take advantage of public service provision. One recurring paradox has been the challenge of accomplishing a populist identification of the people with the current political leadership. the Communication. for example. In a question and answer session. They do not share the experience of the great mass of middle-class people. This combination—austerity as a virtuous necessity. and Wales. Clarke Ordinary People The insistence on conditional fairness is also echoed in recurrent claims that ‘‘we are all in this together’’: ‘‘this’’ being both economic crisis and the austerity strategies proposed as a ‘‘virtuous necessity’’ to overcome the crisis (Clarke & Newman. it seemed he was attempting to mark his ordinariness. and government rescues between 2008 and 2010 both placed the UK in a critical location in the global financial crisis and placed the financial sector (more popularly. one such attempt by Prime Minister Cameron unleashed a fulsome public debate about ordinariness and social class. collapses. these populist devices have not been altogether successful in political/electoral terms—either in obtaining a decisive victory for the Conservatives in the 2010 election or in political polling since then.’’ then identifying the ‘‘national’’ that is at stake has become increasingly problematic. It is important to note some of the paradoxes of trying to articulate a populist discourse alongside a program of cuts and constraints. Nevertheless. public school.

2010. Young. This problem exemplifies the paradox of the Coalition’s ‘‘unpopular populism’’ (Clarke. But Cameron’s claims provoked a much wider debate about ordinariness. In populist politics. but to insist on two rather more mundane things. 2010. These subjects do not necessarily come when summoned. The proliferation of such strategies marks ordinary people as objects of a profound desire. Such skepticism. nor do they necessarily behave according to the plan if they do arrive. I have also tried to reflect on some of the ways in which these strategies and desires are being theorized. self-governing subjects.g. e. 2010). and summonings that marks the salience of ordinary people as objects of desire. and enrolling ordinary people is a difficult process. so it is presumably particularly sensitive to such questions of class position. summoning. strategies. however. Clarke vast majority of whom are not privately educated and not at all rich.. is not the same as political opposition—it may be mobilized in counterpolitics or it might be absorbed into a de-mobilizing politics of resignation (Benson & Kirsch. (Glover. the process of discovering. Acknowledgments I am grateful to Jayson Harsin and Mark Haywood for inviting me to the conference on Cultural Studies and the Popular in June 2011. class. ordinary people are the focus of political and governmental strategies that seek to summon and enroll them. I have explored some of the settings in which ordinary people are being imagined and summoned to participate. Culture & Critique 6 (2013) 208–226 © 2013 International Communication Association . the Coalition in particular. and political representation that both addressed the class composition of the Coalition cabinet (and its implications for the claim that ‘‘we are all in this together’’) and the wider question of political representatives perceived detachment or distance from the lives of ‘‘ordinary people’’ (see. and has encountered deep popular skepticism about politics in general. Conclusion: The problem of ordinary people In this article. Their capacity for behaving badly remains one of their other great attractions. and for encouraging me to write up 222 Communication. the comments by Martin. It demands considerable political and governmental labor and its results are unpredictable. Osler. 2012a). First. The attempt at mobilizing a populist politics appears to have foundered in the face of the contradictions and antagonisms that constitute the present conjuncture. and in the constitution of active.Ordinary People J. agencies. the desire for ordinary people is itself significant: It is precisely the intersection of so many different apparatuses. My aim is not to present an overarching theoretical conclusion. and the economic and political strategies on offer. Second. in participatory processes. 2010). 2010) The Daily Mail has been one of the core voices articulating a traditional middleclass English populism over the last 3 decades.

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