Synopsis of a Project on Foucault and Liberty

An account of antique liberty in Foucault, contextualising Foucault with reference to earlier discussions of the contrasts between ancient and modern liberty, Liberty as it exists in antiquity as care of the self, which is itself emergent from the use of pleasure. How Foucault interweaves a discussion of sexuality, embedded in broader concerns about the development and health of the self, with the understanding of antique ideas concerning civic liberty, political participation and forms of government. Foucault brings out an ethical aspects of this as style of life or aesthetics of existence, the kind of ethics and self-control which precedes ethics understood as a formal external constraint on individual choices.

How Foucault takes that discussion in the direction of republican government and of individual ethics. The two are combined in the ideas of government of the self and government of others. To be capable of one form of government is to be capable of the other in ancient republics. However, as the Roman republic degenerates and moves to the Imperial system, Foucault suggests a split between the ethical and governmental aspects, as citizens are excluded from the political sphere.  Foucault discusses how antiquity loses sone of the connections between growth of the self and the exercise of political power. He anticipates the move towards confessions as a church form of control, developing out of asceticism. He also anticipates the Inquisitorial growth of church power in the Middle Ages, and the phenomenon of ‘juridification’, which replaces self-government into a rigid code to legitimise power.

Foucault’s accounts of ‘parrhesia’, free speaking, in ancient Greece, stating with its essential place in Greek polities based on equality, law and citizenship. How this is distinct from modern understandings of free speech as essentially a freedom from  interference, but also how we find that the antique conception is important in the early modern and 19th century development of free speech as part of liberty and democracy. Foucault is compared with John Milton and John Stuart Mill in that respect.The ways in which the account of free speaking connect with Foucault’s view of language, particularly the role of discourse in his thought. A contrast is made with J.L. Austin’s view of the performative aspect of language. Some similarities exist with regard to speech which changes social reality, but Foucault pushes ‘parrhesia’ to a risk taking level of existential commitment which goes beyond Austin’s understanding of the structured status of the performative. The contrast is partly made with reference to Austin’s treatment of a  passage in a Euripides tragedy, which establishes a context for examining Foucault’s discussion of ‘parrhesia’ in Athenian tragedies and the political aspects of those tragedies.

How Foucault examines the impact of Christianity in late antiquity, continuing and modifying earlier thought about ethics, individuality and power. Foucault sees the Church notions of power as rooted in Plato’s understanding of government modelled on the shepherd,  government as pastorate. The ways in which Foucault understands that the ethical schools of Hellenistic and Roman philosophyæüi m P Mlfeed into the asceticism and inner self exploration of Christianity. These developments converge in the emergence of the confessional as a core part of Catholic ritual. The process begins with extreme isolated asceticism which is then institutionalised in monasteries, where practices are developed which begin universal in the Catholic community.

The evolution of the Confessional itself converges with the Medieval re-discovery of Roman law, what Foucault calls ‘juridification’. Juridification reinforces absolutist notions of church and state government. Combined with the Confessional interest in inner conscience, juridification provides the justification for Inquisition and for Crusades. Inquisitional practices become models of general criminal justice. Though there is much that Foucault finds very constraining on liberty, in these institutional and violent enforcements of law, he also finds much of the development of the inner self and its self exploration, to be a development of liberty, amongst other things anticipating Renaissance and Early Modern philosophy, including two literary-ethical thinkers, concerned with the free thinking individual, who are models for Foucault: Montaigne, La Rochefoucauld. Foucault associates the Early Modern philosophical exploration of the self in Descartes with attitudes to madness, leading into his massive study of individuality, the constraints on individuality, and therefore attitudes to liberty, through changing Early Modern attitudes to madness.

Foucault’s discussion of the Early Modern state in terms of territoriality, the move from the personal power of the prince, the amount of land over which the prince claims sovereignty, and the basic drive to increase that territory. How that is tied up with an understanding of wealth as the treasure of the prince.  How both the political and economic poles develop towards administration of that territory as an increasing complex and rationalised task, along with the understanding of wealth as something that is national, initially through a Mercantilist understanding of keeping the most valuable commodities within a country. This growth of state power is despotic, but can also turn to liberty when that focus on government as an activity, becomes an art of government (governmentality) focused on self-limitation. That goes along with the development of political economy in the Mercantilists and Adam Smith as something committed to free trade, and with an interest in the isolated ‘savage’ as a model of liberty and of economic actors.

Foucault does not just celebrate 18th century liberalism and political economy, though he presents them as preferable to ‘despotism’, he also develops an analysis of ‘disciplinarity’ which itself goes back to the emergence of the Confessional, and is linked with all the later expressions of interest in inner consciousness. Disciplinarity is power based on inner adaption to rules combined with the visibility of the individual in a society based on surveillance of individuals, so that individuals behave as if observed at all times. This is mainly discussed by Foucault with regard to the emergence of the prison as the dominant means of punishment of criminals after the Enlightenment, in an analysis critical of Enlightenment claims to humane values. The prison he suggests is no more humane than earlier forms of punishment and prison reforms always based on refining methods of disciplinarity. Nevertheless, Foucault also has much that is affirmative to say about Enlightenment ethics as a challenge to power, and a challenge of truth the self should pose to itself.

Foucault looks at the emergence of revolutionary and radical politics in relation to Enlightenment and the formation of the modern state, looking at how this kind of politics might reinforce power as well as challenging it from the point of view of affirmative liberty of some kind. He argues that ideas of revolution are tied up with ‘race wars’, of hopes of removing what is foreign from the nation, because the ruling class is identified with invasions of the past. The result was that revolutionary politics was for some time expressed as ‘race wars’ in which everything alien was the target. Foucault suggests that left wing radicalism became less associated with race war during the şate 19th century, but that the race war is given another form in biopolitics. Biopolitics is the move of the state from a central preoccupation  with sovereignty expressed through the power to take life in execution, to maintain and increase life through growth of population and life expectancy, Foucault has an account of this becomes the very intrusive business of prolonging life to the extreme maximum, perfecting the health of the population and purifying ‘racial health’, which can become the most extreme violence against anything defined as bad for ‘racial health’.

Foucault’s analyses continue to suggest that apparently human concerns of the state and of power can become violent destruction of autonomy and of life. The same can apply to revolutionary reactions to that state power. He traces resistance to these attacks of the state on autonomy through Marx, Weber, the Frankfurt School, and Neoliberalism. So he accepts both Marxist and liberal thinking as sources of resistance to the state, though also both tending to become entangled with power. There is more about the aims of Neoliberals to resist power than there is about any Marxist, or Marxist related way of thinking. Foucault provides a quite detailed account of the beginnings of Neoliberalism in mid 20th century Germany, where partly describes Ordoliberalismus, or the Freiburg School, as a Phenomenological style of resistance to naturalism in economics, that is to the original liberal belief that the economy is a spontaneous natural phenomenon. At all stages of analysis of Neoliberalism he sees it as something that is motivated by the wish to restrict state power, if often entangled with biopolitical forms of power.

There is  an idea of active liberty that Foucault wishes to retain from the ancients. This can be followed up with discussion of the role that art plays in Foucault of the existential disruptor. References to Borges, Beckett, Kafka, Roussel, ancient tragedies, and Velazquez, along with Foucault’s own disruptive use of images, dramatic descriptions and enigmatic language, are ways of preparing us to be challenged by truth and the possibilities of different ways of understanding the world. This a way of promoting an aesthetic existence in which we are existentially committed to ways of grasping the world, and are open to changes in how we grasp the world.

That is a form of active liberty, in which modernist aesthetics, sometimes applied to art of the past, continues the influence of styles of living which Foucault discusses in the ancient world. The styles of living are below the threshold of law, certainly law as encoded and reinforced by ‘juridification’. The Medieval juridification eliminates the possibility of the antique aesthetics of existence, but allows new equivalents in the resistance to governmentality and disciplinarity. Some of this can be seen in Foucault’s dialogue with Maurice Blanchot, the ways that extremes of experience are a central issue in History of Madness, and moments like the suggestions in Discipline and Punish that prison is the loss of tragedy and of a poetics of existence.

We need to place Foucault as a political theorist, and a politically interested individual, within debates about basic values in politics. This partly refers to historical debates, such as the understanding of ancient republicanism, in its various forms. Such debates, like the comparisons of the ancient Greek and Roman republics, come up in recent political theory debates, as in more Athenian and more Roman styles of republicanism. Different preferences with regard to political values always inform work on ancient politics, and we can see Foucault’s preferences for democracy, free speaking in provocative forms, and forms of individual autonomy not guaranteed by law in the ancient world.

Moving on from political interpretations of antiquity, through the history of political thought Foucault is discussed in relation to Marxism, egalitarian liberalism, libertarianism, and communitarianism in recent political theory. We never see Foucault completely articulate a political vision, leaving room for various political schools of thought to claim, or maybe target, Foucault. The argument presented here is that Foucault is somewhere between a left-wing egalitarian form of individualistic libertarian and an egalitarian liberal with libertarian tendencies. That is he is a mixture of libertarian and egalitarian liberal, with the emphasis varying with context. Apparent gestures towards Marxism as misleading in terms of political position, even if he does take an interest in the analytic and descriptive merits of Marxism. He ends up in a position, which was never completely absent from his thought, which emphasises self-creation, human rights, civil liberties, shows of resistance to power, a wish to integrate the most marginal into political concerns. He also has respect for the capacity of market economies to provide ways of limiting power, even while criticising the ways that elites use the economy.

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One thought on “Synopsis of a Project on Foucault and Liberty

  1. Pingback: Commentary on Foucault’s lectures at Stockerblog (2012-3) « Foucault News

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