Foucault’s Two Perspectives on Liberalism: 75-76

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This is a somewhat delayed thought coming out of the Beyond Boundaries conference on European studies at Bahçeşehir University, Istanbul earlier this month (check blog archive for earlier posts).  In between leaving the conference, and giving my paper, a conversation came up about the relation between Michel Foucault’s 1975 book Discipline and Punish and what I said in my conference presentation about Society Must be Defended based on lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-6.  The books appear to overlap in time, though presumably Foucault did most of the work for Discipline and Punish before 1975.

Even if we take the two books as sequential rather than simultaneous, comparison between them suggests a dual attitude to liberalism, which illuminates his attitude to liberalism from 1975 until his sadly early death in 1984.

The political understanding of Foucault has on the whole been to take him as very left inclined, and as both Marxist influenced, and as establishing the grounds for a Post-Marxist radical left, maybe under the name of radical democracy.  There has been a gradual shift away from that in the understanding of his work from 1975 onwards, but the shift is far from complete. Discipline and Punish was the key text for most of this kind of understanding of Foucault as it puts sovereignty, power, law, and coercion at its centre, and could be taken to endorse a strategy of localised struggles against alliance between state power and economic power.  Even that has an ambiguity not noticed by many, which is that classical liberal/free market libertarian thought is also against that alliance.  Left wing Foucault followers are not likely to notice that, since like most left thinkers they assume market liberalism is about defending the corporate-state alliance.  This is partly because self-styled libertarians and classical liberals have often done that in practice, however, that is in contradiction with the principles of classical liberalism.  The most radical parts of that spectrum share with Marxists a utopian belief in the abolition of all state connections with economic interests, in a completely spontaneous socio-economic order.

At least one commentator noticed that the Foucault of that time was open to the free market kind of liberatarianism, Martha Nussbaum.  That’s a rather awkward example since Nussbaum has a very dismissive attitude to French ‘theory’, regarding Foucault as no more than the best of a bad bunch.  Still, she gives Foucault some credit, and sometimes the person outside the community of enthusiasts is better equipped to pick up on aspects of the thinker concerned.

There is a critique of liberalism in Discipline and Punish, but in retrospect that can be seen as critique in the Kantian style, that is the way that Kant thought of critique as establishing the foundations, and limits, of thought.  Here is a list of what we might regard as criticisms of liberalism in Discipline and Punish

Enlightenment concern for the sufferings of those exposed to torture and execution in the judicial process, is a step on the road to the greater coercion of long term imprisonment and attempts at inner ‘reform’ .

The struggle of the accused, and the convicted, with torture and execution, gave them more power to resist power, that the hidden process of the prison regime.

Public execution provide opportunities for popular revolt against sovereignty, which are eliminated in the world of ‘humane’ punishment.

The claims to rest punishment, and all laws, on internalised ‘norms’ of reason is a greater aggression and coercion than judicial torture, and public execution, on the body of those facing sovereignty.

The most direct critique of liberalism maybe in the account of the ‘panopticon’, the model prison designed of Jeremy Bentham, a major figure in early British liberalism.  The panopticon is analysed by Foucault as a diagram of modern power, which rests on the internalisation of norms.  All prisoners can be observed at any time from the central observation of tower, and them ‘internalise norms’ by following rules at all time and they could be under observation at any time.

Politics as war

The first thing to note here is that ‘liberalism’ has not necessarily ignored these issues.  The idea of the movement to universal social rationality was very much noticed by Max Weber, the great sociologist, who played a role in German liberalism.  He did not regard this as an entirely good thing, and Foucault’s account is dependent on Weber’s though I am not sure if this is directly or indirectly, consciously or unconsciously.  Confirmation can be found in David Owen’s 1994 book, Maturity and Modernity:  Nietzsche, Weber, Foucault and the Ambivalence of Reason, though I doubt that Owen would support the political conclusions I am drawing.

Society Must be Defended, and other books based on Foucault’s Collège de France lectures,  suggests that for Foucault, disciplinarity and other forms of modern power, like biopolitics, can occur in more despotic state and more moderate state systems.  It’s difficult to see any political project for a going beyond the moderate state, which can also be called the liberal state.  There are things going beyond liberal politics as previously understood, such as the self-creation of the self, or selves, and the interest in the rebellious actions of the most marginal groups.  Neither of these things are in contradiction with liberalism though, particularly as Foucault puts them in the context, respectively, of antique republican government and resisting state power as such, even where justified by Marxist and other radical left discourses.  Liberal thought contains accounts of the value of differing and varied personalities.

On war, Locke recognises that the state is always close to the point where it is war with the population, because it breaches natural rights and government by consent, Humboldt saw war as having value in he formation of independent personalities.  Weber emphasised the irreducibility of force and violence in the existence of the state.

In general, what emerges in Foucault’s 75 to 84 phase is a dual attitude to liberalism.

A strong critique of  any idealisation of abstract norms and universal laws; and any humanist ideal of a unifying ideal human direction in history.

A strong critique of all non-liberal politics, and the recognition of the value of a civil society which has a market economy at its core in limiting state power.

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