TSElosophers’ meeting  on 23.3.2018. Albrecht Becker, Katja Einola, Eero Karhu, Kari Lukka, Eriikka Paavilainen-Mäntymäki, Ekaterina Panina, Otto Rosendahl, Joonas Uotinen, Milla Wirén

Organizational Ethics and Foucault’s‘Art of Living’: Lessons from Social Movement Organizations, Iain Munro 2014

The article by Munro (2014) discusses Foucauldian ‘art of living’ in organizational practice, specifically in social movement organizations (SMOs). Art of living focuses on self-creation, which goes beyond “exploitative neoliberal mechanisms of identity formation” (Munro 2014, 1128). According to Munro, neoliberal discourse reduces the self to a machine that produces, including the production of satisfaction with consumption. SMOs often act to balance the excesses of neoliberalism, which means that the art of living is more pervasive in this context. Munro (2014, 1142) points out that “SMOs provide a rich source of possibility for the development of alternative ethical exercises as well as opening up tactical points of reversibility to dominant neoliberal forms of subjectivity”. SMOs mentioned in the article include Amnesty Intl, Greenpeace, Methodism, Quakerism, Occupy movement and Slow Food.

Munro discovers four organizational practices relating to ‘ethical askesis’: Bearing witness, direct action to create alternatives, care for self, and the use of pleasure. Bearing witness refers to finding ‘the truth’ and experiencing its injustice and oppression, e.g. Greenpeace sailing a boat to nuclear test zone. Direct action stresses the creation and enaction of alternatives. For example, having dumped a ton of dead fish in front of a pulp industry company (i.e. bearing witness with a public dimension), Greenpeace helped the pulp industry to gather actors together to create less chloride-intensive solutions for bleaching paper (Håkansson, Gadde, Snehota & Waluszewski 2009, 49–61). The practice of care for the self is founded upon self-denial and personal sacrifice. This practice is legitimized by comparing it to the suffering of people that SMO members are trying to help, e.g. the Occupy movement’s meager protesting conditions reflects solidarity for the less fortunate. Nevertheless, the ethical ascetic practices also include the uses of pleasure that contrasts with pervasive neo-liberalistic institutions, e.g. adhering to slow food instead of fast food traditions.

The discussion at the meeting of TSElophers dug deeper into the unit of analysis in the article: It seemed that the levels of the individual and of the organization (here SMO) were conflated towards the latter part of the article. It seemed that Munro metaphorically endowed the SMOs the role of Diogenes the cynic, in which case the revealed ascetic practices did indeed signal resistance towards the wider structures in which that agent is embedded. However, if we look at the individuals within the SMOs, the logic doesn’t hold, as the individuals within the SMOs do not resist their organizations (the SMOs), but conform in order for the SMO to do the resistance. That said, we also deemed that as the article leaned more towards a desire to trigger thoughts and discussions than towards an attempt to deliver crystallized conceptualizations, this blurring of the analytical levels – while it led the group to ponder some issues of academic rigour – did not significantly diminish the merits of the article in terms of identifying modes of resistance.

Munro posits that art of living requires self-mastery, which enables reversal of the relationship to an external power. According to Foucault (2005, 252; in Munro 2014, 1134–1135), ”there is no first or final point of resistance to political power other than the relationship one has to oneself”. However, this asketic self-mastery is understood differently by Stoic and Cynic ethics. Stoics established a wider perspective, where askesis translates into mastering others through the mastery of oneself. Hence this type of askesis can arguably be connected to the development of capitalistic institutions. However, Cynics adopted an underdog perspective according to which self-mastery should be used ”as an act of permanent critique of the prevailing social order”. The Foucauldian concept of ethical askesis builds on the latter definition. In sum, the ethicality of askesis for Foucault concerns the practices that aim to transform institutionalized values.

This led the TSElosophers to ponder the potential modes of resistance we could engage in, if the structures resisted were to consist of, for instance, the publish-or-perish mentality often mentioned in our conversations. It was pointed out that criticizing can also be an act of validation, as both conforming to and criticizing the structures render them more visible and thereby increasingly ‘real’. Another way of rebelling against the structures is to disengage from the boundaries they suggest, by aligning ones actions towards other goals than the ones validated through conforming or criticizing. TSElosophers club in itself could be described as a form of direct action that supports alternative research approaches, stressing the meaningfulness of scholarly work beyond the boundaries of whether something is publishable or not.

However, art of living with non-mainstream approaches involves developing one’s abilities in caring for the self as securing just the basic income for living becomes more challenging. Engaging in acts of resistance from the (relative) security of a professorial position is different than resisting the structures from the position of a doctoral candidate dependent on grants. However, we all agreed that while the acts in themselves may differ, resisting – or at the very least, reflecting on one’s own ethical acts – is possible no matter the position.

In regards to for example our university, we also discussed that an ethical asketic could engage in ‘tests’ whether the institutionalized structures live up to their expressed and/or assumed ideals. For example, the expressed ideals of University of Turku are ethicality, criticality, creativity, openness and communality (University Strategy 2016–2020). While everyone recognizes that not all of these ideals are fulfilled, ethical asketism would highlight engaging into the development of alternative solutions – and possibly defending these with explicit references to the organization’s expressed ideals. The insights delivered by Munro in the article may provide ways to think about how to go about this in practice: How would the ethical askesis of bearing witness, direct action, caring for self and using pleasure look like when transformed into practices in our setting?