AccessMyLibrary provides FREE access to millions of articles from top publications available through your library.
What does privatization really mean ? It depends on who is speaking and the specific language game in use. This article borrows an interpretive device, originally developed by Roland Barthes and further articulated by Jean Baudrillard, which lays waste to the assertion that a word has a single denotative meaning. Such an interpretation (that words represent, or correspond to, reality) is but the first step of a progressively unreal simulacrum that moves to skepticism, through masking (where a word connotes the radical absence of the object it points toward) to hyperreality. Hyperreality is the domain of self-referential imagery, where words and symbols refer only to themselves but provide titillation and visceral gratification in the process. The authors conclude that the very term privatization lacks foundational stability.
Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), a philosopher whose works included one of the great philosophical treatises on scientific knowledge (namely the Tractatus [Wittgenstein, 1961], written in the 1920s), later changed his mind about the possibility of clear language, and he repudiated his own momentous book. In the 1920s, he believed that the purpose of philosophy, in its relation to knowledge, was the logical clarification of thoughts; but as he got older, he came to believe that too much meaning-ambiguity exists for there to be the necessary correspondence between words and objects that rigorous protocols of science would require (Wittgenstein, 1958).
If one examines how language is used--as Wittgenstein did in Philosophical Investigations--it becomes apparent that word usage is not exacting in a denotative, rock-means-rock, horse-means-horse sense. The same word can serve in different capacities. Friends can "horse around"; guitar players can "rock steady." We cannot clearly circumscribe the concepts we use.
The problem is not that we do not know their real definition, but rather that there is no real definition. The flexible, usage-determined nature of language led to Wittgenstein's notion of language games, in which the meaning of a statement must be understood with respect to its cultural context, who is using the word, and for what purpose.
And so it is with this word: privatization. Its meaning depends on the language game in use. Hence, in this article, we are not interested in privatization per se. We are interested in its status among various competing systems of meaning. When listening or reading, we cannot unconditionally accept the speaker's intentions or interpretations. Rather, there are multiple legitimate interpretations of privatization, sometimes unspoken. It is our intention, through deconstruction, to show the multiple layers of meaning at work in the term privatization. We do not seek to engage the privatization debate on its own terms; we have a slightly different project in mind. The fashion of this article is ironic. As ironists, we do not necessarily take at face value the "body of knowledge" that calls itself the privatization literature. From an ironic point of view, the issues and problems that privatization claims to be interested in are aspects of its self-referential, partial view of the world.
Irony, in the dictionary definition, is the use of words to convey the opposite of their literal meaning. Socratic irony is a pretense of ignorance, a pretense of willingness to learn so that the teacher's false conceptions can be made conspicuous. Irony, as we intend it, implies an awareness of incongruity, of a peculiar disconnect between what might be expected and what actually takes place.
Edelman (1977) detailed some of the irony in American politics. He noticed a regulatory arena in which a quiescent public got symbolic legislation while activist corporate interests got well-behaved regulatory agencies. Amid hoopla, the legislature passes an "environmental protection" bill, for example. It is enacted in the name of the people, but a close look at the actual disbursement of funds reveals it is underfunded and fails to protect the environment. Businesses pollute more than before, and any environmental activism that might have existed has receded. The establishment of a federal agency was sufficient to persuade would-be activists that something was actually being done, despite the agency's lack of efficacy.
His later work (Edelman, 1988) was even more attuned to linguistic irony. The U.S. State Department statement that "El Salvador is protecting human rights" wants to mask a more profound truth: El Salvador tramples on human rights. This is the ironic way of reading a text.
Derrida (1976) has pointed out that the usual way of reading assumes falsely that language is capable of expressing ideas without changing them. He further challenged the notion that the author of a text is the definitive reference for the meaning of that text. Like Derrida, we wish to subvert commonly held assumptions and challenge the idea that privatization has a fixed, unified meaning. (See Fox & Miller, 1997b, for an essay that overviews postmodernism for a public administration audience. See also Farmer, 1995, 1998; Fox & Miller, 1995; Marshall & White, 1990; McSwite, 1997; Miller & Fox, 1997; and Woller, 1997, for further discussion of the postmodernist condition as it relates to public administration.) We will lay out strong evidence that privatization has no fixed, unified meaning by presenting multiple interpretations of the term--all richly resonant and fulsome in their own way.
The first interpretation we will take up is representation, associated with the correspondence theory of reality. Rock-means-rock representation presumes equivalence between the sign (the word rock) and reality. Privatization is what it says it is; it corresponds to reality. However, representation is but the first of several "successive phases of the image" (Baudrillard, 1994, p. 6). The symbol (in this case, privatization) may do more than reflect reality, according to Baudrillard. The symbol may denature reality, or mask the absence of reality, or it may have no relation to any reality whatsoever.
The first image (representation) is an image of truth/goodness; the second is an image of evil/maleficence; the third image is sorcery; and the fourth is simulation (Baudrillard, 1994, p. 6). The argument laid out below takes its structure from this "procession of simulacra" (p. 6). (See Fox & Miller, 1997a, for a similar deconstruction of the war on drugs.) We will explicate four interpretations of privatization in the next four sections, a procession of the simulacrum called privatization.
1. Privatization is what it says it is. The term privatization corresponds to the reality of privatization.
2. Privatization is not what it claims to be, and what it wants to be is wrong headed to begin with: (a) It is anti-government instead of pro-government, (b) it assumes that privatization is normatively desirable rather than objectionable, and (c) its claims about its achievements are inflated.
3. The term privatization masks the unreality of privatization: (a) The rent-seekers are not the expansionist bureaucrats but the expansionist private interests who seek to appropriate public authority for profit; (b) the distinction between public sector and private sectors masks the publicness of all organizations; and (c) the more one hears of privatization, the less privacy one enjoys.
4. Privatization is a titillating hyperreal epiphenomenon--attracting attention to itself, exciting its fans, and congratulating itself. But this reality is a fake, a pure simulacra, or--to simulate the French language--faux-hyper.
Our concern is to present these …