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.

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