Transparency: From Enlightenment to Neoliberalism or When a Norm of Liberation Becomes a Tool of Governing
65 Pages Posted: 23 Sep 2014 Last revised: 8 Oct 2014
Date Written: September 1, 2014
Transparency is one of the fundamental norms that structure our contemporary individual, organizational and social lives. Its influence can be felt at all levels, and it provides, in particular, the normative foundation for the current explosion of accounting, audit and other visibility-based accountability structures. The emergence and rapid expansion of international organizations – that have played a central role in structuring transnational governance around a plethora of standards and audits – has been fundamental to the theorization and global diffusion of accountability regimes. In this paper, we undertake a conceptual genealogy of the powerful notion of transparency. Starting with its Enlightenment roots, we explore the multiple competing and conflicting mobilizations of the notion of transparency through time to liberate, to deliberate, to legitimize, to control, to structure or to govern. We then trace the transposition of these various historical trajectories into the transnational space. Beginning with the League of Nations, we follow the various mutations of transnational transparency up to its contemporary and profound neoliberal transformation. We show how transnational transparency has shifted from being a norm of emancipatory accountability, “exposing the few to the many”, to one of governing by “exposing the many to the few”.
Keywords: transparency, transnational governance, accountability, genealogy, enlightenment, visibility
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By Qiang Cheng