Foucault’s Counter to the Democracy/Republic Distinction

Michel Foucault’s writings on antique liberty, democracy, republicanism, self-perfection and free speech are more normally referred to in terms of parrhesia (free speech in a very active sense), care of the self, and use of pleasure.  One obvious feature of these terms used by people who write on Foucault is the non-engagement with some basic terms in political theory. In addition to the terms mentioned to do with Foucault’s discussion of antiquity, we can consider the widespread terms ‘Foucauldians’ use from texts referring to other periods, which  gives us ‘disciplinarity’, ‘governmentality’, and (politics of) ‘bioethics’  This vocabulary is part of a Foucauldian scene which has not done all it could to put Foucault in the context of the history of political theory, or current political theory which is  not ‘French’ or ‘Italian’ in style (the style does not neatly correspond to nationality).  More can be said about this on another occasion.

Returning to the democracy/republic issue, there is a distinction in Aristotle between ‘politea’ which becomes ‘res publica’ in Latin; and demokratia, itself following on from the distinction Plato makes between his ideal ‘politea’ in The Republic and democracy (along with other inferior forms of government).  We can connect this with unhappiness about demagogy, the corruption of law, and the eagerness for war with Sparta, in democratic Athens.  This unhappiness is stronger in Plato who regards democracy as the second worst form of government after tyranny, and as what inevitably produces tyranny (though I can’t see any justification for that claim in Athens).  Aristotle is more lenient, defining democracy as the least bad of the three bad forms of government.  Tyranny (unlimited power of one bad man) is also the worse kind of government for Aristotle.  However, he does not see democracy as leading to tyranny, but rather the degeneration of monarchy.  Monarchy is the best form of government, but a ‘politea’ is to be preferred because its degenerate form is democracy which is the least bad form of bad government.  So the argument partly about minimising the risk of the worst kind of government.  ‘Politea’ combines elements of democracy (rule of the poor who happen to the majority), oligarchy (rule of the rich, a bad form of government) and aristocracy (rule of the best, and a good form of government).  The benefits of mixed government carry on through the elevation of the Roman system, first by the Greek historian Polybius, and then the Roman writer-lawyer-politican Cicero.

For Aristotle-Polybius-Cicero a polity-republic avoids the dangers of democracy, but also contains a democratic element; with the most extreme enemy understood to be tyranny which might come out of a good form of monarchy.  Even Plato, the polity might include some democratic element, at least in the Laws, that is in Plato’s discussion of states that exist and might exist, rather than the pure ideal of a state.  We can see here both a rejection of democracy and a belief that it is an essential component of the best kind of state, sticking to the kind of state that might exist in a long term way, not the pure ideal of a state, or the state under an exceptionally  good monarch, governed by moderation, ethics and law.

What Foucault emphasises in his writings on antique politics is the element of democracy in the republican theory of Plato and Aristotle.  The criticisms are never  complete rejection, though the Republic  and The Apology (Socrates’ speech at the trial which condemned him to death) may make it appear that Plato is a strong rejectionist.  So for Foucault the Plato-Aristotle republican tradition is a tradition of the defence of democracy, though not an uncritical apologia.  The two brief points I’d like to draw out of this and expand on later are as follows

1.  Foucault is much more invested in the  ideal of antique republicanism and democracy than is often thought.  Yes, he made some denunciations of antique societies, but who does not condemn the slavery and the subordination of women?  There is a element of return to the Greek and Roman democracy-republcanisn in his thought, in a critical way which brings in other commitments, but a real element of return.  The insistence that antique political though, including Plato’s, affirms democracy if within limits, is part of that.

2.  In America, we see a strong tendency to say it is a republic not a democracy, in a positive way.  This can be found across a wide political spectrum but is a particularly important talking point and reference for the right, particularly of the Tea Party, small government conservative, libertarian-conservative variety.  This is tied up with an idealisation of the ‘original’ meaning of the Constitution, and this is tied up itself with a view going back to the Founders of the Republic, of an opposition between democracy and republicanism, which was a choice of Sparta and Rome over Athens.  The Sparta bit is not such a popular talking point for the American right.  This is all dressed up in the prestige of early modern republican thought, and its antique roots.  However, it is never clear what is being opposed here.  The US Constitution can be changed by democratic means if very laboriously, and where are the non-republican  democracies with which the American republic is compared, where are the democracies now and in the past unlimited by law, custom, institutions and tradition?  If the antique tradition is as Foucault says it is, and believe it is, then the democratic-republican opposition is a futile one, no more than a matter of setting up straw men to knock down.  The radical left version of this is to condemn republicanism as an impediment to democracy.  There is also a right wing kind of democratic fanaticism which can co-exist with the ‘republicanism’ in which American social democracy (known as progressivism or liberalism in America) is a an attack on ‘we the people’ and therefore on pure democracy, because it puts hands in the federal branches of government rather than the pure virtuous ‘people’.

Tocqueville, who the Tea Party style right would like to claim as its own, himself referred to America as a democracy, meaning a combination of a spirit of moral and political equality with free political institutions.  Like Foucault, Tocqueville saw that democracy and republicanism go together.  I’d rather take Foucault as the continuation of Tocqeuville and of the republican tradition (including the classical liberal tradition,  than the sort of conservative who thinks something meaningful and important has been said in claiming that America is a republic rather than a democracy.


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