Link: Elections in Germany, Liberal Progress

Primary version of this post, with visual content, at Barry Stocker’s Weblog .

‘Germany’s Shift to the Right’, Dennis Nottebaum. 28th September, 2009 in OpenDemocracy.

An article in the left leaning democracy and human rights website OpenDemocracy. Nottebaum points to the surge for the FDP (Free Democratic Party), a liberal party which emphasises free markets, a limited state, and civil rights, led by the first open gay to lead a major German party, Guido Westervelle. The FDP came third in German elections, which is evidently a limited kind of success, but it’s the biggest third party vote ever in the Federal Republic, the biggest FDP vote ever, and marks a big shift in power.

I don’t entirely endorse the notion of a shift to the right. It could also be descried as a shift away from social conservatism to social liberalism, and from monumental dominant parties to a more varied political scene in Germany freed from political machines linked with the churches, trade unions, and businesses seeking corporate welfare. The main parties, SPD (social democrats) and CDU-CSU (Christian Democratic Union-Christian Social Union), fell back from what was already a historically low share of the vote.

The Greens and the Left increased their proportion of the left inclined vote, and the Greens were co-lead by a German of Turkish origin, Cem Özemir.

The FDP matched the SPD in the youth vote.

The FDP ran on a platform of reducing regulation and taxation, showing that the current economic down turn is not leading to an automatic inexorable move to more regulation of the financial sector. And quite rightly so, it’s a big myth that the decline in value of financial assets was due to deregulation, seeing as the deregulation is a myth.

The existence of the FDP, and its success, shows that civil liberties, human rights, and social pluralism, are not the sole possession of the left; it shows that free market policies go with social tolerance and limitations of the security state.

Links:Thomas Gregersen. PoliticalPhilo/Political Theory

Primary version of this post, with visual content, at Barry Stocker’s Weblog.

Thomas Gregersen of Copenhagen is running two great online sites in political theory and philosophy.

PoliticalPhilo is a primarily a Twitter service, but also exists as a website with an RSS feed, which is how I keep up with it, as I do not use Twitter. Great selection of links to books, interviews, blogs, articles, news item etc in political philosophy. Alright, it did link to my first ‘Liberal and Libertarian Foucault’, which is how I know about it, but great links in general.


Political Theory – Habermas and Rawls A blog devoted to news and items relevant, broadly defined, to those two recent giants. Not favourite thinkers of mine, but certainly thinkers who cannot be ignored and who continue to inspire important discussions. I particularly recommend a recent item, with links to articles in the German press, about a dispute in German newspapers between Peter Sloterdijk and Habermas’ student Axel Honneth, referring to Sloterdijk’s Nietzscheanism and leanings towards cutting down the state, including the social state.

O Fortuna: Foucault, Rawls, Habermas, Nussbaum

Primary version of this post, with visual content, at Barry Stocker’s Weblog.

In Security, Territory, Population, Michel Foucault is concerned, amongst other things, with the way that the early modern state tries to master fortune and chance. I’m not sure if Foucault quotes Machiavelli’s rather notorious suggestion in The Prince that fortune is a woman who needs to be beaten, but he brings The Prince (but unfortunately not The Discourses on the First Ten Books of Livy) into his discussion on the early modern state, and the issue of the state controlling chance is a persistent one. As Foucault suggests in Lecture II, there is a tendency from the Renaissance to Napoleonic times, to think of nature and history containing uncontrollable fortune of a rather personified, something that could be traced back to earlier ideas of a wheel of fortune. and the work of the fates.

Yesterday I posted on Foucault and the Physiocrats, which really approaches the issue of new attitude to fortune, fate and chance, in which allowing the market to work ends the repetition of famines which had seemed like the results of harsh fortune. Chance of one kind is limited by allowing chance of another kind.

A contrast can be made with John Rawls’ concern with minimising chance in A Theory of Justice. Chance is limited in these ways, and possibly more: the initial situation and veil of ignorance attempt to eliminate chance from the rational design of principles of justice; theoretical equilibrium between intuitions and reasoning aims to ensure that the optimal principles will be revealed; the attitude to inequality is that it should be compensated and eliminated where it is the result of chance, which must be an unfair outcome.

I would not want to reject all that Rawls says, but this urge to minimise and eliminate chance is unsatisfactory for various reasons, including the way it must allow extremes of state intervention in the emergent outcomes of market, and other voluntary, networks of actions and decisions. There could be a strong case for wanting to modify some outcomes, some kind of state supported social minimum is something I would support, but Rawls’ approach inevitably leads to a gigantic and ramifying apparatus of intervention and rectification from above.

It is is important that Jürgen Habermas, though more Marxist than Rawls in his formation, shows concern with this possibility, though not while discussing Rawls. I don’t see that Habermas has a solution, but at least he recognises the problem.

Martha Nussbaum’s case is interesting here. She pushes further than Rawls in an interventionist rectifying direction than Rawls, or further than Rawls mentions in A Theory of Justice where Rawls is trying to accommodate neutral comparison between many designs for justice. In that respect, Rawls does allow chance in, through accepting many possible outcomes of the initial position.

However, in Nussbaum’s ethics, certainly as presented in The Fragility of Goodness, she is very concerned with arguing that strong rational control of chance is not the best option for ethics as it lacks sensitivity to chance and the passions. Something argued largely against Plato, or some moments in Plato, with reference to Aristotle, tragedy, poetry and some moments in Plato.

As far as I can see Nussbaum has failed to apply the lessons of her ethics to her political theory. I think she would probably reply that the complex kind of welfarist interventionism she favours is necessary to respond to the complexity of different kinds of human, and human situation, and she would want to add the complexity of allowing for animal rights as well.

I claim that Nussbaum has overlooked the dangers of too much control of chance in the socio-political sphere. It would be a good idea to reflect on what she has written with regard to her ethics, and with regard to Habermas and Foucault.

O Fortuna. Not in the rigid sense of fortune as an agent, but in the sense of pure chance and indeterminacy in the natural and social universes.

Liberal and Libertarian Foucault III: Physiocrats

Primary version of this post, with visual content, at Barry Stocker’s Weblog.

Michel Foucault, Security, Territory, Population, Lecture Two (page 207)

Actually, we can say that thanks to these measures, or rather thanks to the suppression of the juridical-economic straitjacket that framed the grain trade, all in all, as Abeille said, scarcity becomes a chimera.

The context of this quotation is a discussion of the impact of Physiocrat doctrines in 18th Century France. Quesnay, Turgot and others argued that grain shortages could not be cured by the measures the French monarchy had been using, that is measures of state coercion to keep down prices and prevent hoarding. The measures of the absolutist French monarchy to prevent farmers from storing grain and pricing it according to demand, are still the kind of things a lot of people find immediately convincing. Many states in the United States now, have laws against ‘gouging’, that is charging high prices for goods in an emergency which causes shortages. The issue of hoarding is linked, since those selling grain, or any other good, will not hoard it unless they expect to charge high prices for it in some future shortage. A reaction popular now, shared by despotic French monarchs is that shortages arise from hoarding, and shortages arise from sellers charging too much during an emergency.

Foucault endorses the Physiocratic policies, which anticipate Adam Smith who met the Physiocrats in a visit to France. As Foucault points out, it’s the Physiocrats who coined the phrase ‘laisser faire’ (letting it happen) in economics, and linked phrases like ‘laisser aller’ and ‘laisser passer’; and as Foucault implies, that policy worked. Allowing farmers and merchants to ‘hoard’ and ‘gouge’ ensures that enough grain is produced, and stored, to mean that there is no starvation even in times of relative shortage. As Adam Smith pointed, France was much more prone to hunger than Britain with less measures to restrain prices and prevent large scale storage ‘hoarding’. As Foucault recognises, the starvation of the poor was alleviated by following English style policies, which allow prices to go up. That benefits the poorest, since such market incentives mean there will still be grain available in times of relative shortage and much more cheaply at those times, than if the price of grain has previously been restrained.

In these lectures, Foucault is as much describing, or analysing, as judging or evaluating. The evaluations often have to be inferred, nevertheless the context really does not allow any interpretation other than that Foucault thought that the Physiocrat policies were an improvement on Mercantilist regulation. The quote above makes it clear that Foucault thinks such policies limit the power of the state in a desirable way.

It would be wrong to present Foucault as simply celebrating the market policies of 18th Century governments; he is constantly concerned with the way that limits on the ‘juridical-economic straitjacket’, or more generally sovereignty, biopolitics and disciplinarity, are consistent with their expansion. The French monarchy accepted Physiocratic policies in order to keep its power. That does not change the reality that Foucault recognises a preferable kind of power where state regulation is limited.

On a more general note, I ma titling this series of notes ‘liberal and libertarian Foucault’. Making this more precise, I would not link Foucault with those who insist that Classical Liberalism, or Libertarianism, means the end of all welfare and all regulation; and certainly not with those who think the state should be abolished or turned into a nightwatchman only, minarchist entity. Somewhat earlier, when Foucault was in contact with Maoists was the time he was closer to anarchism. Later text display anarchistic tendencies, but are overall disposed to look for a reasonable limitation on state power, and more dispersed forms of power, rather than abolition.

Foucault was always a man of the left, but I would argue on the basis of his later texts, that he was moving closer to an earlier sense of ‘left’ or ‘radical’ which regarded state intervention on behalf of sectional interests, or increased statism in general, as the enemy of liberty and of opportunities for the poorest to improve their living standards. Again, we must recognise the critical side of this; Foucault also points out that the original radicals, along with later socialists and anarchists, had attitudes based on ‘race war’, that is identifying the state and privilege with a non-national entity. I also doubt that Foucault thought all the forms of growth in state intervention since the early Nineteenth Century could, or should be, terminated. Extrapolating from these late texts, what others close to him have said, and so on, I would say that Foucault moved towards a position where he was in broad culture and allegiance on the left wing of politics, but in details on the left, or more moderate, side of free market libertarianism, allowing for state welfare but suspicious of the consequences of allowing state activity beyond very strict limits. I should also add that his concerns with disciplinarity and the dispersed nature of power, precludes a position in which the presence or the absence of the state is the definitive issue.

Nietzsche’s Positive Ethics (Not his Genealogy)

Primary version of this post, with visual content, at Barry Stocker’s Weblog.

In Ecce Home, Nietzsche refers to a distinction between his no-saying philosophy and his yes-saying philosophy. The book which has been most discussed in recent years, On the Genealogy of Morality, is listed as no-saying and we cam take it that genealogy is part of his no-saying philosophy. Three books are listed as part of his yes-saying philosophy: Dawn, Gay Science, Thus Spoke Zarathustra. There’s certainly nothing wrong with studying the Genealogy or the wave of work concentrating on it, but we should be wary of taking that book as definitive of Neitzsche’s ethics. It might be definitive of his diagnosis of ethical illusions, but not of the ethics he is offering. Recent studies of the Genealogy may sometimes recognise it as a diagnostic work with regard to previously existing, but tend to stop there rather than move onto any kind of fully considered positive ethics in Nietzsche. Where Nietzsche is considered as an ethicist with a positive ethics, this often becomes Nietzsche as moral élitist or Nietzsche as aesthete of life. Neither position is necessarily wrong, but there could be more work on the details of what Nietzsche has to offer.

One problem is that at least some of the time, Nietzsche is saying that ethics, or morality, as such is an illusion, and a barrier to life. With that in mind, it could be said that Nietzsche has a philosophy of life rather than an ethical philosophy. However, I don’t think it is necessary to do this, as Nietzsche sometimes distinguishes between better and worse ethics rather than denouncing ethics as such. If we do resort to talking about ‘enhancement of life’, we risk talking about ethics, while calling it something else. In any case, ‘enhancement of live’ sounds like ‘virtue ethics’, though in that context the phrase ‘flourishing of life’ is more normal. It’s useful to discuss Nietzsche in the context of ‘virtue ethics’, and he fits better into that category than the other normal categories of moral theory, nevertheless Nietzsche should also be seen as challenging virtue theory, as it has normally been defined with reference to Aristotle, or maybe Plato, or the Stoics. A complete discussion of virtue theory would bring in (Saint Thomas) Aquinas, certainly complicating things. That’s not something I can go into now. What I do have is a list of points about Nietzsche’s ‘yes-saying ethics’, largely inspired by a recent reading of The Gay Science, Book III.

Virtues are something we should learn to be sceptical about, with regard to defining ourselves with regard to courage, generosity etc.

Virtues begin with adaptation to herd living in the earliest stages of human existence. Later stages of human existence break up the herd, and lead to more individualistic moral systems, or systems of virtues.

The separation of individuals from each other is progress in the human species and leads to progress in ethics. Growth, abundance and variety and signs of natural strength.

Ranking, and comparative evaluation, are necessary and admirable activities. It is important to say what or who, is better or worse than some other thing or person.

We can expect a future in which art, science and ‘practical wisdom’ are unified to create something which would make current law givers, doctors artists, and scholars, look petty (Gay Science 2nd edition, 113). The reference to ‘practical wisdom’ looks like a reference to phronesis in Aristotle, which includes ethics, an impression reinforced by Nietzsche’s reference to law givers, who by Aristotle’s standards are engaged in phronesis, or practical wisdom.

The loss of the world of God based ethics, particularly ethics based on Christianity, creates a sense of being lost in an ocean, and being on the verge of the infinite (Gay Science 2nd edition, 124).

The sense of moral scepticism advocated by Nietzsche partly comes from Christianity because of its scepticism about Ancient virtues. The sceptical work is taken further in Enlightenment’s scepticism about Christian virtues.

Christianity gives use the sense that Ancient virtues of courage, generosity etc, conceal sin, or in Nietzsche’s terms undermine any idea of perfection in a personality dominated by any one virtue (Gay Science 2nd edition, 122).

Nietzsche does not advocate a return to Ancient ethics, he says that it looks childish to us now, and as we have seen thinks Christianity has done a useful job of undermining Ancient ethics.

One criticism Nietzsche has of Ancient ethics is that is morality based on mores (der Sittlichkeit der Sitte), which was challenged by Plato and others, when they tried to introduce new moralities. Nietzsche criticises any ethics which is just a following of existing customs. (Gay Science 2nd edition, 149)

Nietzsche regards the different moralities of different nations as evidence of illusion about the nature of ethics. He also advocates new ethics, and the multiplication of ethical views. This apparent contradiction can perhaps be resolved by thinking about the value Nietzsche gives to the integration of multiplicity and conflict into one organism, or one work of art.

Every experience, and every judgement, is moral, because always embedded in our sense of honesty and justice (Gay Science 2nd edition, 114). This is one reason why Nietzsche is not arguing overall that we can abandon ethics, even if we try to expose ethical illusions. We are always concerned with what justice and honesty are.

One thing that justice requires is to see that different people are not the same and are not equal. Presumably different morality, or different virtues, are good for different people.

I don’t see that Nietzsche is saying that some people should be denied rights, though he does think some people are better others. These are two distinct points in any case.

Nietzsche is against altruism, we should not do something because it is good for someone else, and we should not wish to sacrifice ourselves for that reason. Some of what comes about through altruism may still come about through a self-interested desire for strength, growth and health. Individual health may be associated with generosity and indifference to injury.

Mill:Liberty/Socialism, Principles of Political Economy

Primary version of this post, with visual content, at Barry Stocker’s Weblog.

Returning here to a topic I addressed on September 9th. The ways in which Mill seems to depart from On Liberty in Principles of Political Economy, though he was working on it at about the same time. The several editions the Principles went through somewhat confuses that interpretative issue.

More ways in which Mill departs from the On Liberty perspective, in Book II on Distribution (which does not appear in all versions currently in print).

Wages are at least to some degree determined by custom rather than markets. Mill here seems to be referring to those upper professions which tend to be linked with the upper classes and have social power, law, medicine and so on. One might expect Mill to suggest that that non-economic power had enabled members of these professions to increase their welfare through restricting entry, monopoly of practice of that profession through compulsory member of a professional body, and so on. Adam Smith had already made similar points. However, Mill seems to regard these examples as evidence that distribution of income can generally be separated from supply and demand in the market.

The previous point feeds into the consideration he gives to the possibility of communism, which I have already mentioned. In connection with what he says on custom determining income, he suggests that income distribution could be flattened and there would still be an efficient economy.

The last point itself connects, if indirectly, with the suggestion that there could be a static economy, with no further development. It might be easier to conceive of a state reallocation of income, of the economy has reached some kind of plateau, in which case rearranging who gets what income might not seem like to harm the economy. Mill thinks such a state could be reached if existing materials and technology have been exploited to the full. This ignores the tendency to innovate with regard to the use of materials, technological innovation and the possibilities of innovation in the organisation of labour.

There may be societies which have reached some stasis. I would guess irrigation based agricultural communities in Pharonic Egypt, or pre-Columbian Guatemala. In both cases, a despotic political system presided over, and was reinforced by control of irrigation. In both cases, the political and economic stasis killed innovation and I believe led to a lack of adaptation which led to catastrophic collapse in the face of climate change or over use of fixed resources. Mill’s hypothesis of a static economy would be the product of political despotism, and a connected killing off of incentives to innovate. If that is part of Mill’s argument for the possibility of socialism, then it’s a rather dark picture, counteracting Mill’s growing tendency to believe over time that personal liberty might co-exist with communism.

Link: Return of Jefferson’s Deism in the US

Primary version if this post, with visual content, at Barry Stocker’s Weblog.

Steven Waldman, ‘Deism: Alive and Well in America’, Wall Street Journal

Waldman refers to the Deism influential among the Founding Fathers of the United States, particularly Thomas Jefferson. That is a position according to which religious scriptures are regarded as unreliable, but God is accepted, along with aspects of religious teaching falling short of complete acceptance of the standard dogmas of religious tradition. Waldman could also have mentioned that Abraham Lincoln had Deist inclinations, though was also inclined to think of God as a providential force in history in late life. Deism in its strictest sense may exclude all intervention by God in the universe he created, but as Waldman points out, a kind of impure Deism was what Jefferson and others of that generation followed. The main contemporary point is that as the more conservative forms of religious belief are declining in the US, Deism is on the increase along with complete non-belief.

Liberal and Libertarian Foucault II: The Bosphorus

Primary version of this post, with visual content, at Barry Stocker’s Weblog

Michel Foucault

Security, Territory, Population. Lecture Two. 18 January 1979

To tell the truth, this structuring function of space and territory is not something new to the eighteenth century. After all, what sovereign has not wanted to build a bridge over the Bosphorus or move mountains? Again, we need to know the general economy of power within which this project and structuring of space and territory is situated. Does it involve marking out a territory or conquering it? Is it a question of disciplining subjects, making them produce wealth, or is it a question of conquering something like a milieu of life, existence, and work for a population?

(page 29)

The Bosphorus stands here for chance which government attempt to overcome. For Foucault, a major feature of the period from the 16th to the 18th centuries is the growing awareness of chance, and the need for an art of government which can master it. This is embedded in the rise of commercial life, and its analysis through ‘economy’. and with the growth of interest in chance and the analysis of probability. Foucault notes the 16th century rise of books of government, advice on how to control chance in affairs of state. Machiavelli’s The Prince is taken as the main example. Foucault seems to ignore the republican aspect of Machiavelli, which would have suited his argument perfectly well. He treats Machiavelli’s book as guide on how the Prince can maintain, and extend his estate. What he fails to note, as far as I can see, is that Machiavelli is also referring to a notion of public interest which the Prince ought to serve, as well as failing to note Machiavelli’s wish to recreate Roman republicanism. This fits with Foucault’s analysis because he sees the move to state control as fitting with the growth of some forms of freedom. The interest in state control for thinkers like Francis Bacon and thinker-statesmen like Richelieu, or even writers of tragedy like Jean Racine, arises from the growing sense of uncontrollability. The people are always inclined to rebel, as is the upper class. Attempts to subordinate the economy to state edicts, as in price controls on wheat, prove to be counter productive: enforcement of a lower price for wheat reduces supply and causes starvation.

In the reference to bridging the Bosphorus, Foucault may have the story of the Persian King Xerxes, recorded by Herodotus, bridging the Hellespont (Turkish Straits) during his attempted invasion of Greece. Xerxes succeed in the building the bridge, but not in subduing Greece. The point of the permanent desire to bridge the Bosphorus (which now has two bridges), is that dramatic efforts to master nature may sometimes produce great results, but this may create an illusion of complete mastery of fortune. Xerxes could not conquer Greece, and the mighty absolute monarchs of early modern Europe could not guarantee sufficient bread for all by attempting to conquer the forces of markets and prices

Liberal and Libertarian Foucault I: Overview

Primary version of this post, with visual content, at Barry Stocker’s Weblog.

Michel Foucault is often taken as emblematic of radical leftism, but it is also well known that from about 1975 he showed considerable interest in ideas of limited government and the role of market economies in limiting government.

In 1975, he published Discipline and Punish, which famously refers to the forms of punishment as a way of understanding social power in general. Also famously, he suggests that there has been a movement from spectacular punishment (public execution) to disciplinarity (confinement in prison). In explaining disciplinarity, he seems to be targetting liberal thought at various points.

As is very well known, he illustrates disciplinarity with Jeremy Bentham’s design for a model prison, the panopticon, In bringing this up, Foucault was not just commenting on the history of prison architecture, he was referring to a whole phenomenology of the relation between visibility and surveillance. In the panopticon, the prison authority can observe all prisoners at all times, so even if they are not being observed at any one time, their behaviour is modified by the constant possibility of being under observation.

This is how power in general works, as all institutions have such an architecture in their buildings which make strategies of power visible. This is also a strategy which conceals itself behind talk of reforming prisoners, and more generally of the movement from coercion to norms as the social foundation.

The targetting of liberal thought can be seen in the apparent unveiling of Bentham’s panopticon. Jeremy Bentham was associated with early British liberalism and was the godfather of John Stuart Mill, a very big figure in mid-Nineteenth Century liberalism, and liberalism since. The reference to norms as new ways of coercing people, but without manifest violence, could be taken as a dig at Max Weber, the sociologist closely associated with German liberalism. There is critical discussion of Enlightenment thinkers who exaggerate the offence to humanity of torture and death, as compared to long periods of imprisonment. This might be taken as a dig at Montesquieu, a major influence of liberal political thought, though Montesquieu does refer to the ‘inhumanity’ of all forms of extreme punishment including long prison terms.

In general, Foucault has appealed to a kind of left wing thinker who regards ‘liberal’ as a purely negative terms for a way of thinking which denies real relations of power behind formal appearances. The other aspect of this way of thinking about liberalism is to associate it with ‘humanism’, something criticised by Foucault. Foucault did criticise the idea of ‘humanism’ in at least two senses: taking humanity as an ideal, taking the individual human as an undivided agent which is completely aware of itself and is the same over time. However, humanism in either sense is not a necessary aspect of liberalism. Who criticised the idea of a undivided agent, unchanging over time? Most famously David Hume, usually taken as a liberal thinker, though perhaps at the more conservative end of the spectrum. It would be a travesty of the thought of Montesquieu and Weber to talk as if they thought any society had, or ever could, end coercion and allow the completely spontaneous development of human essence. I can think of someone who did think like that though, Karl Marx.

Even given these apparent digs at liberalism in Discipline and Punish, the text does not fit neatly into any left wing classification. If claims to emancipation lead to new forms of power, where does that leave radical left wing claims to emancipation? Why should we think that the socialist revolution, or any socialist transformation, will be less prone to violence and coercion than the liberal state? In Discipline and Punish, Foucault comes close to a rather anarchist position, in which all power should be resisted, though he does nor provide an anarchist program of how a society could exist without coercion. His assumption that power has a positive constitutive aspect could just as well be taken to support the view that society rests on the existence of coercive power.

In introducing the themes of anarchism and constant resistance to power, we have introduced libertarianism. This is itself a highly ambiguous word. It was originally associated with French anarcho-communists but from the 1950s was used in the United States to refer to pure free-market anti-state ways of thinking. In general this sense of libertarian has become dominant, so that in political philosophy, libertarianism is usually taken to refer to the kind of minimum state property rights society advocated by Robert Nozick. Even here there is some ambiguity since there are left-libertarian political theorists who aim for redistribution of wealth in a minimum state context. The other aspect of that ambiguity is the way that libertarian is often used as a another word for conservatism.

It would offend less people to call Foucault a libertarian rather than a liberal, since the left Foucauldians certainly appreciate the idea of liberation from authority, though strictly speaking they should be just as sceptical about that as they are about liberal calls for a society purely based on law, individual rights, and representative institutions. It seems consistent with the kind of Marxism proposed by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari in the early 70s, with which Foucault associated himself for a while; and with the ‘Italian Marxism’ of Giorgio Agamben, who provides a dominant perspective on Foucault for many. We might see Discipline and Punish as a flowering of that anarcho-marxism. Politically Foucault had Maoist leanings for a while and you cannot get more radically Marxist than that. This Maoism was based on illusions that Foucault later rejected. It’s a strange reality that Maoism, a version of Stalinism that was every bit as nasty as Stalin’s original, appealed to those who wanted liberation from all forms of state authority. Mao’s claims to be challenging bureaucratic authority in the Cultural Revolution were amazingly successful at convincing large numbers of educated leftists that some kind of liberation movement was going on in China, rather than the violent and sadistic destruction of anyone, and anything, independent of Mao Zedong, or which might possibly weaken his power in any way.

However, since Foucault’s sadly early death in 1984, his weekly lectures at the College de France have been published going back to 1974. It’s certainly interesting to compare Discipline and Punish with the lectures of 1975-6, published as Society Must be Defended. Anyone who sees the lectures as justifying a Marxist, or post-Marxist or neo-Marxist reading of Discipline and Punish is engaged in tortuous interpretation. Any kind of Marxism in power is referred to with the greatest of suspicion in the book, and the book does what the title suggest. It concentrates on the idea that society could be independent of the state, and that the role of government should be limited. A distinction is made between more absolute and more limited forms of government. Left wing politics is given a history linking it with ideas of race war against a supposedly foreign ruling class. The overall direction of the book is to establish some value for liberty in the sense used by liberal thinkers, before liberal started to mean left wing and statist; and in the sense used by libertarians when the word is not a synonym for a kind of right wing conservatism rebelling against the liberal state.

Later lectures develop ideas of governmentality, as limited government (in the spirt of Montesquieu’s idea of moderate government), against the absolute power of the state, rooted in ideas of the sovereign as shepherd of the people. Foucault does not lose his sense that apparent freedoms are tied up with coercion, but he emphasises the reality of those freedoms. He emphasises the superiority of Physiocratic free market solutions to wheat shortages in 18th Century France over Mercantilist attempts to regulate prices. In doing this, he is essentially repeating arguments mades by Adam Smith. He emphasises he the role of Ordo liberalism, that is a very free market liberalism, in the intellectual opposition to Naziism. He examines the work of Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises, the Austrian economists and political thinkers who have had a major impact on Classical (free market limited government) Liberalism and Libertarianism. He emphasises the way state power has been extended through biopolitics, the ways in which the state takes on the role of improving and extending life.

We do not even need to read Foucault’s lectures. A lot of this is apparent in the three volumes of the History of Sexuality which Foucault was able to write before his death. Extensive discussion of antique attitudes reveal a strong inclination towards the idea of the self-creation of character, in a kind of self-mastery strongly linked in the antique world with ideas of citizenship and political rights, what we would not call republican virtues. So Foucault’s later work is deeply influenced by ancient and modern notions of individualism and limited government.

Of course there are those who prefer to find some way of taking this up in terms of Marxism, or some kind of radical left thinking at least partly rooted in Marxism. However, even among the left Foucauldians there are those who recognise and regret his shift towards ‘neo-liberalism’. Amongst those associated with Foucault, Jacques Donselot has referred to liberal aspects of Foucault’s thought. His assistant at the Collège de France, François Ewald, has worked on the rise of state welfarism from a liberal point of view.

More to come, expanding on the points above.

Link:Me on Hayek, The Road to Serfdom in LiberalVision

Primary version of this post, with visual content, at Barry Stocker’s Weblog

A summary of The Road to Serfdom and a a brief introduction to F.A. Hayek for LiberalVusion. A statement of Classical Liberalism greatly praised by John Maynard Keynes, amongst others.