Answer to a Question on Foucault and the Invisible Hand

I was responding recently to a query from a graduate student back in Britain about Foucault and liberalism, focused around he famous ‘invisible hand’ in Adam Smith, in which self-interest in the market place promotes a general welfare. There is some debate about how important the idea of the ‘invisible hand’ is in Smith, but it is widely used and understood as shorthand for his view that a more ‘liberal’ form of political organisation, with more free trade allows general economic improvements that do some extend flow from self-interest rather than charitable intentions or a public plan, and I levee aside questions about the meaning of the ‘invisible hand’.

I’m  not going to reproduce a private message and a private response as a post, but my response was about the right length for a post, and after some revision, will convey some of my current thoughts on Foucault.

In his treatment of David Hume and Adam Smith, Foucault is connecting them with a model of art of government in which governemnt limits itself, so that the lower level can flourish. That lower level was seen by Smith, Hume, and others, in terms of nature, of a kind of spontaneity that owes nothing to state action (including the invisible hand) , invented laws, or designed institutions, because natural processes make them redundant, or create such designs through the development of human co-operation, without a conscious overall plan. There is some ambiguity in these authors, as assumptions about the dominance and desirability of  ‘natural order’ as the basis of social institutions, are undercut by discussion of the value of institutions and the right kind of state action, but not to the extent that eliminates the natural order aspect.

Foucault is wary of any idea of a natural social order independent of human design, but is also highly wary of rationalistic total designs or constructions that claim to be neutral with regard to power and various kinds of discourse. In his writing on neoliberalism’, he displays some sympathy for the way that a non-moralistic view of economic efficiency, or value, can challenge the impositions of moralistically justified state power, or other expressions of power. One of the things he thinks characterises ‘neoberalism’, at least in its Freiburg University Ordo liberal manifestation. That is in the group of free market Austrian influenced economists in Germany from the 20s, 30s, and 40’s who had some influence on post-war German reconstruction, as Foucault notes, through their ideas on the need for a less statist more market based economic model for post-National Socialist Germany.

The Freiburg/Ordoliberalismus current recognises the role of institutions and rules, which to some extent are designed, in promoting markets.  This is different from the ways totalitarianism might try t encourage economic activity, because it is more rules based and less based on direct forms of intervention. That is basis of  the ‘Ordo’ in Ordoliberalismus. Foucault further emphasises the Husserlian phenomenological influence on Ordoliberalismus and linked the ‘anti-naturalism’ in Husserl’s account of conscciousness with the critique of naturalism in Smith and Hume. That is Foucault looks at Husserl’s criticisms of taking ‘natural’ psychological states as the basis for the philosophy of pure ideas and structures of consciousness  and sees that as entering into ways in which ‘Neoliberalism’ distances itself from that natural order aspects of Hume and Smith.

Foucault’s relationship with liberalism, in all its forms, is shaped by his resistance to idendeifying power with just the legalistic sovereigty of the central state.  ‘Disciplinarity’, as discussed in Discipline and Punish, is emergent or spontaenous in its totality, rather than the product of the design of a sovereign. In that sense it is an example of spontaneous or emergent order in Hayek. For Hayek, generally speaking the spontaneous order formed over time through co-operation between individuals is preferable to state designs and the products of a sovereign political will. However, this must be balanced with Hayek’s acceptance that there are significant areas of legitimate stare activity, which can include income maintenance, basic public services, administrative courts, and stabilisation of the economy, though the total of such activities should be less than what the state stated to take on after about 1870.

‘Disciplinarity’ is not pure spontaneous order, it includes elements that are the consequence of design, as in the prison reforms plans of the Enlightenment and later, even if they always fail to achieve their goal of moral, human, or religious reform and rehabilitation. Disciplinarity is I believe rather ambigouous in the evaluation Foucault gives to it. To some degree it is an expression of the creativity of power, and the formation of a kind of individualism which has some benefits from Foucault’s point of view, but he is certainly arguing for arguing for a critical renewal, as he finds the individuality of disciplinarity too isolating and inclined to rigid internalisaiton of norms.

Foucault was not a complete rejectionist with regard to disciplinarity, or all the other forms of power including biothetics, which is tied up with his account of disciplinarily and neoliberalism,  as he was not  an anarchist, which seems to be the inevitable conclusion of total rejection of power.  Nevertheless, he did certainly the currents of localist and workerist anarchism in French history as a corrective to political and economic power concentrations; and regarded the anarchocapitalism he connected with America, as also offering a challenge to the administrative (disciplinary or bioethical)  power of the state.

Like Foucault, Smith and Hume also had critical attitudes to concentrations of economic power backed by the state, whether feudal-monarchist remnants or more recent developments. They were also very ambiguous between being radical critics of the Whig (I take this to cover Tories as well, who had really accepted the classic Whig agenda by the late 18th century) mercantile-aristocratic liberal leaning British state and being intellectual pillars of it. There is plenty of ambiguity in Foucault, but I think his ambiguity leaned further towards a Tom Paine style radicalism than Smith and Hume tended towards. Though there are some elements of Foucault’s thinning sympathetic to Hayek, consciously or unconsciously, including his account of Ordoliberalismus, the strong sense of opositionism, the wish to be with the marginals and the lower orders (some of the time anyway, no need to pretend that Foucault was not a privileged academic of upper middle class origin, with some very bourgeois and intellectualist aspects to his life style), removes him from the Burkean element in Hayek, the preference for the evolution of traditions and old hierarchies in a more inclusive and open direction over radical challenge.

I should finish by emphasising that there is an element in Hayek, as in Smith and Hume, which is challenging of tradition and sceptical of the self-justification of old elites, so that there is no clean neat line between Hayek or the Scottish Enlightenment thinkers on the one side, and radical anti-conformist, egalitarian challenges to power and tradition, of a kind which clearly motivate Foucault, motivated him so thoroughly he could see the power interests embedded in various forms of state encouraged, or imposed, welfare he labelled as ‘bioethics’, and which have become central to ‘progressive’ politics.

 

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s