Governing ‘as if’: Global subsidies regulation and the benchmark problem

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


As a result of the extraordinary work of Foucault, Shapin and Schaffer, Porter, and many others, we are familiar with many of the practices of governance which emerged during the 19th century at the intersection of the modern social sciences and the modern state, as ‘naturalized’ knowledge of an objectified social body formed the foundation of specific kinds of social and political order. But over the course of the 20th century, critiques of objectivity have become commonplace, and a post-positivist epistemological revolution has taken root in many quarters. How, then, have practices of governance-through-knowledge modified themselves in response to a century of such critiques? This article takes inspiration from the work of Jasanoff, Riles, Latour and others to identify a mode of ‘governing as if’: a pragmatic mode of governance which works not through the production of objective knowledge as the shared epistemic foundation for political settlements, but rather by generating knowledge claims that stabilize social orderings precisely through their self-conscious partiality, contingency, and context-dependence. This argument is developed using the illustration of global subsidies regulation in World Trade Organization law, focussing in particular on the knowledge practices by which particular conceptions of ‘the market’ are produced and deployed in the course of its operation. The article argues that the standard criticisms of naturalized economic conceptions of the ‘free market’, developed in various scholarly traditions throughout the 20th century, do not provide an adequate account of economic governance working in ‘as if’ mode, either positively or normatively. It further argues, following Riles, that such regimes of governance derive their effectiveness fundamentally from their ‘hollow core’, and that it is in the constant and active work of ‘hollowing out’ that we are likely to find their characteristic modalities of power and underlying structural dynamics.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)135-168
Number of pages34
JournalCurrent Legal Problems
Issue number1
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 25 Jul 2014


Dive into the research topics of 'Governing ‘as if’: Global subsidies regulation and the benchmark problem'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this