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.

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