Foucault, Libertarianism and Europe

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

I’ve pasted in a conference abstract below. It’s an expanded version for the conference book of abstracts and serves as a summary of themes I am interested in around liberal political philosophy, European identity and politics.

‘Political Theory and the End of Europe: Foucault against Habermas’

I’ve taken the opportunity to look at Habermas’ status as a philosopher of the European idea, examine his political concepts critically and take up Foucault from a Classical Libertarian political point of view. Thee Foucault versus Habermas debate is well established, but the the best of my knowledge no one has looked at them in these terms before. I’ll look at how the anarcho-conservative Hoppe takes up Habermas, and the areas of difficulty that suggests in Habermas’ progressive liberal-Marxist synthesis; and look at Foucault’s relation to Antique Republican and Classical Liberal ideas in his later texts. This is in the cause of suggesting that Foucault provides a better basis for European political integration, because it is less reliant on ideal harmonisation than Habermas.

The conference is Beyond Boundaries: Media, Culture and Identity in Europe, hosted by Bahçeşehir University in Istanbul, 2nd to 3rd October 2009. The conference is supported by an EU funded project run by Bahçeşehir University, University of Potsdam, and the University of Applied Sciences, Potsdam.

Jürgen Habermas is almost the uncrowned Philosopher Prince of the emergent European polity (the European Union, and more loosely the Council of Europe, with the EU as its ‘hard core’); and its cultural and media ecology. Habermas’ analysis of deliberative democracy, and cosmopolitanism, is of obvious relevance in constructing a European polity; and is embedded in theories of discourse ethics and communicative action which provide strong, ethical, and epistemological context for his political theories. Habermas tries to overcome two polarities: hierarchy of the political system versus democratic participation; individual rights versus economic egalitarianism. He works on this through notions of ethics, and rationality, in which it is assumed that both lead the individual to act according to the rules of the public sphere and a cosmopolitan political order. Habermas is sometimes troubled by the relation between the consensual aspect of the state and its more coercive ‘steering aspect’; and the difficulties of instituting democratic, and legal, accountability for the complex bureaucracy, which administers the social state through administrative orders, rather than to democratic political decisions, or court judgements, in accordance with legal norms. Habermas’ analysis also, more indirectly, suggests a problem with harmonising democratic decision with the power of judges in a law governed democracy. These tensions in Habermas’ work find expression in the work of Han-Hermann Hoppe, who wrote his doctorate with Habermas, but has since turned discourse ethics into a foundation for a ‘propertarian’ anarcho-conservative position. Without endorsing Hoppe’s position, it does give a very useful indication of how Habermas touches on areas of concern to Classical Liberal and (free market) Libertarian thought. Foucault’s thought is better adapted to these problems. From Society Must be Defended onwards, Foucault distinguishes between the more despotic forms of power and the more limited form of power; between absolutism, or totalitarianism, and govermentality. The idea of governmentality is not the idea of a perfect liberal consensus based on government by consent; it is investigated itself with regard to attacks on the body in biopower and disciplinarity (power over life and death; imposition of regularised activity). Foucault’s approach to liberal government is highly critical, but his analyses of political and ethical thought, and practices, since Antiquity, strongly suggest that he finds individualistic liberty, market economics and limited government to be the best possible counter to the most coercive aspects of power. Comments by associates like Jacques Donzelot on Foucault’s later thought, and the social theory of associates like François Ewald, confirm the impression that Foucault was aiming for balance of individualistic market liberalism, and welfarism. His late comments on Austrian School free market economics, certainly suggest Classical Liberal, and Libertarian, sympathies. The cultural, and media, legitimacy of the emergent European polity can be best elaborated through this kind of analysis, which address those aspects of trans-national European sovereignty which cause most disturbance to critics of European integration. Foucault allows us to avoid the utopian dream of a seamless relation between individualism and collective welfare, between democratic participation and political hierarchy, because he sees legal sovereignty and coercive power, autonomy and mastery as intertwined, in an unavoidable paradox. This establishes a way of thinking in which European sovereignty, including its cultural, and media context, can be both affirmed and seen as in need of restraint, and dispersion. Though Foucault did not directly address issues of the emergent European polity, his later texts are deeply concerned with pan-European ideas of sovereignty and government, including the way that modern European nations emerged as fragments of Roman sovereignty, which they saw themselves as preserving.

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