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.



Nietzsche’s Influence on Political Thought IV

We can find some direct indications in Nietzsche that he is concerned with a contrast between heroic antique republican liberties modern liberties of comfort. He gives a big indication that is the way he is thinking in On the Genealogy or Morality I, when he quotes from the Funeral Speech of Pericles to the ancient Athenians (GM I 11), as recorded and possibly to some degree invented by Thucydides. Nietzsche quote favourably from Pericles on his pride in how the wickedness of the Athenians is known to the world as well as their goodness. That is in the middle of a speech which is in praise of democracy as it appears in Athens. This is an instance of the heroic republicanism of the ancients, heroism in the sense that is disturbing to the moderns of pride in how the power of a people, its toughness and unity of will, may be known to other peoples in painful ways, though maybe that pride is still there in more submerged forms.


Pericles represents the opposite pole to Platonic philosophical rule on the face of it. He was elected constantly by the Athenian people to provide military and governmental leadership in a democracy where all free men who were descended from Athenians on both sides had the votes, so an electorate where day labourers and the owners of tiny farms had more votes than aristocrats and philosophers combined. Plato, however, appears to have respected Pericles as a leader and an individual, and since he was a man of great culture, connected with the most famous families in Athens, he had some of the qualities of Plato’s ideal ruler. That raises the question of how far democracy is the opposite of Platonic philosopher rule. Of course Plato, like other aristocrats and oligarchs of the time, identified democracy with irrational passions, economic greed and corruption of the law, but even so the Laws at least makes some gestures to participatory government, as does Aristotle in the Politics. Even these critics of democracy found that it often had to be tolerated in at least limited form in order to establish an enduring state, and that idea was fully developed by the later Roman republican, Polybius and Cicero. Polybian and Ciceronian republicanism aims to combine democracy with aristocracy and monarchy, in a mixed state, extending on the ideas of Plato and Aristotle.


Moving into Nietzsche’s own time, enthusiasm for democracy could be combined with aristocratic suspicion of the uneducated majority, and of uncontrolled majorities in general. Those anxieties were expressed in the idea of the tyranny of the majority in Tocqueville (1988) and then in John Stuart Mill (On Liberty). For Mill, democracy had to be combined with education of the poorer classes and barriers against abuse of power by temporary majorities, driven by plebian ignorance and indifference to liberty (Considerations on Representative Government). Despite the scorn heaped on Mill by Nietzsche, there was much in common between them. Dana Villa discusses the relation between Mill, Nietzsche, Max Weber, Leo Strauss, and Hannah Arendt with regard to antique citizenship focused on Socrates in Socratic Citizenship, showing the best way to deal with Nietzsche’s place in political philosophy, unless we wish to consign him to some place irrelevant to nearly all political thought, that of a very reactive nineteenth century ultraconservative railing against democracy and equality, with no contribution to make to the design of modern political institutions, modern political thought, and modern political culture. Even if we are to take Nietzsche’s most elitist and pro-slavery comments as definitive of his political thinking, he was concerned with liberty, in a manner focused on the maximum flourishing of the highest kind of self, and concern with liberty for a few tends to spill over into ideas of liberty for all. That is all part of the process Tocqueville describes of the inevitable step by step triumph of democracy. John Locke wrote from the point of view of the Whig aristocracy, but his political theory was taken as an inspiration for democratic revolution. The English barons forced King John to sign Magna Carta for their own selfish reason in 1215, but demanded rights for all free men within England, rights which eventually applied to the lowest in status as velleinage, a form of serfdom, declined and disappeared. This spill over from an elite to the whole population in mass democracy has been repeated many times over, and when Nietzsche writes about the Overman, the man free from self-restraints he provides a model, willingly or not, for citizenship in a mass democracy, in the forms of political engagement suggested by Foucault, Deleuze and Derrida. We can think of Nietzsche’s famous comment about liberal institutions betraying liberty in Twilight of the Idols (GD Streifziege eines Unzeitgemässen a38) , and reflects on how that applies to the liberty of all members of a political community. On this context it is particularly important to reflect on his friendship with Jacob Burckhardt, and the kind of aristocratic liberty Burckhardt discusses in Ancient Greece  and the Renaissance, which itself includes an awareness of the cost for the lowest classes in the formation of aristocratic dominated political communities, and that has been compared with the liberalism of Mill and Tocqueville (Alan S. Kahan, Aristocratic Liberalism, 1992). Hannah Arendt is a prime source of thought about how antique and aristocratic concepts of liberty can becomes part of a participatory mass democracy, and therefore an important source of thought about how to take up Nietzsche’s political theory, as Dana Villa suggests. In the field of Nietzsche commentary, the key references here, part from Villa, are Lester Hunt in libertarian thought and William E. Connolly in egalitarian liberal thought. Further discussion and references can be found in Stocker’s contribution to the present volume, on how Nietzsche cam be contextualised with regard to liberal, and liberty oriented, political thought.



Situating Tocqueville in Debates about Republicanism, Liberalism and Libertarianism III (concluding)

One of the various clichés floating around with regard to Tocqueville is that he was in favour of decentralisation in every respect, and that the value he placed on the American republic refers largely, or exclusively, to participation in local politics.  It’s true he does put high value on that participation, but he is particularly referring to New England (now the northeastern states of New Hampshire, Vermont, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Maine), so this is not something he though applied equally across the Republic.  What he is referring to is a tradition, still present in New Hampshire, of local government through participation of all citizens in a town hall meeting.  Though he does not choose to say so explicitly, we are clearly expected to think of Athenian democracy in those passages, and as noted above he indirectly refers to Aristotle on the tendency of humans to live in towns, in this context.  What Tocqueville also says is that there should be administrative decentralisation and political centralisation.  What he meant was that the federal institutions should have sovereignty with regard to what was necessary to maintain and preserve the Republic, while administration of public services should be done at the most local level possible.  In his discussion of tyranny of the majority, influenced by the Federalist Papers and influencing Mill, that tyranny is thought of as most dangerous at the local level where a nearly completely dominant majority can emerge and deny rights to the minority.  He also mentioned the related difficulty of enforcing legal rights for blacks in the non-slave states at the local level.  He also thought there were considerable dangers in centralisation, and thought those dangers might become very active in America.  He suggested that the United States was more politically centralised than the absolute monarchies of European history, and that this could threaten liberty.   The answer is to a large degree the decentralisation which provides  a version of antique liberty against the danger of the state which guarantees modern liberty becoming too big and interventionist.

In his attitude to the relation between decentralisation and centralisation, localism and federalism, Tocqueville expresses a way of handling the competing claims of ancient and modern liberty.  Ancient liberty can be established at the local level, but should be constrained by a higher level of political sovereignty, which protects individuals against complete domination by the social body, and which guarantees individual rights.  That sense of balance, or creative tension, between the two kinds of liberty, runs throughout Democracy in America.  We can also see this in what he says about ‘individualism’, in America.  Despite his attachment to individual rights, he is concerned that individualism can become a form of narrow self interest which is morally inferior and provides a poor basis for resisting tyranny.  The answer is partly for individuals to look to the overall plan of their life rather than immediate desires.  That anticipates Rawls’ discussion of ‘plans of life’ in A Theory of Justice, section 63.  Ideally for Tocqueville, this should lead individuals to a religious point of view, but even without that step, thought about life as a whole provides a barrier against individualism.  Tocqueville’s idea of individualism has much in it of what Rousseau says about ‘self love’ (amour propre) as opposed to ‘love of self’ (amour de soi).  ‘Self love’ is where we seek to feel good about ourselves in comparison with other people, with regard to how we imagine they compare us with others, in their imagination.  Another example of how Rousseau belongs to classical liberal thinking, and so libertarian thinking, in some respects.  Another constraint on individualism is the press, which Tocqueville regarded as bringing something of antique republicanism to modern liberty.  In  political communities where geographical distance and population size prevent all citizens from gathering to make political decisions in a public space, newspapers provide the nearest equivalent.  They bring people together through reading of common material which leads them to concern with common issues.  As Tocqueville notes, the post office enabled newspapers, and other forms of written or printed communication to spread simultaneously across the republic, and create a common political life.

For Tocqueville, the best modern state combines ancient and modern liberties, and we can call this libertarian republicanism, or it should at least lead us to break down barriers between republicanism and classical liberalism or libertarianism.  His political thought shows that a classical liberal-libertarian can be more of an enthusiast for ancient Athenian republicanism that an egalitarian liberal, or the school of republicanism which defines republicanism as a form of egalitarian liberalism.


Tocqueville is not part of Pettit’s egalitarian liberal version of republicanism, but that does not mean he is further from antique republicanism, Athenian or Roman, than Pettit, or that he is further removed from Rousseau.  Tocqueville uses Aristotelian republican language rejected by Pettit, but favoured by Arendt, who as we have noted above was deeply influenced by Tocqueville.  ‘The township is the association so well rooted in nature that whenever men assembles it forms itself (62/ Book I, Part One, Chapter IV).  The echo of Aristotle famous comments on the place of life in the town or city as the natural end of human life (Politics I) is clear. Returning to Rousseau, Tocqueville’s language is permeated with that of Rousseau.  He declared himself a daily reader of Rousseau, along with Montesquieu and Pascal in a famous letter to Louis de Kargolay, and it shows.  The reading of Pascal and Montesquieu is consistent with the Rousseauesque element in Tocqueville.  Pascal’s view of humanity as torn between its Godlike and animal like aspects, the confusion of humans arising from the multiplicity of desires, and the dissatisfaction left when those desires are met, flows into the way Rousseau refers to humanity as it experiences inequality in The Discourse on Inequality and The Social Contract, and the way it experiences the tensions between individual will and general will in The Social Contract. The language of general and particular wills partly comes from Pascal’s essay on grace.  The contrast in Rousseau between the moral purity of a small republic based on patriotic virtue and equality in poverty; and a large monarchical commercial state, has parallels in Montesquieu.  On the whole, we might think that Montesquieu is more open to commercial society and states with a large territory, nevertheless he was  quoted by Saint-Just, the ideologue of the Jacobin terror, with regard to the virtues of simple republics.  The relation between Rousseau and Tocqueville is sometimes acknowledged (e.g. Melvin Richter’s ‘Rousseau and Tocqueville on democratic legitimacy and illegitimacy’ in Rousseau and Liberty, edited by Robert Wokler, 1995), but not often enough. As mentioned above, Tocqueville draws on Rousseau in explaining the nature of individuals in a democratic society, torn between conflicting and ever renewed desires, with regard to commercial life and all social connections.  It even incorporates the laws in democratic America, which are forever changing and conflicting.  The Constitution and the Supreme Court provides some counteraction to that, representing the general constraints that democracy requires if it is not to self-destruct.  Law as practised by advocates and by judges is key for Tocqueville, in that restraint and brings some of the virtues of aristocracy to democracy.  Tocqueville sees aristocrats as more concerned than the people with intellectual excellence, the long term, administration of the state, the survival of the nation and of basic institutions.  Rousseau’s own favoured system of government is elective aristocracy, rather than participatory democracy, and that is an outcome of his distinction between general will and government.  Like Rousseau, Tocqueville  refers to he unity of the political body.  Rousseau had opposed the unity of government to the Lockean idea of a separation between executive and legislative functions, which Rousseau regarded as an absurdity. Tocqueville has a version of the savage in Rousseau, in the American Indians.  The American Indians are beyond the pure savage stage in Rousseau, as they are not wandering the forest as isolated individuals.  They still serve as something that is ‘natural’, compared with the democracy of European settlers.  The situation of American Indians puts them in comparison with the early stages of private property and inequality in Rousseau.  He presents American Indians as individuals who are perfectly integrated into a group, who only exist as part of that group, as well as in a relation  with nature.  They demonstrate both perfect hospitality to guests and unlimited cruelty to prisoners of war.  These virtues are even those of antique city state, a comparison made by Tocqueville.  There is a relation between violence and simple freedom reminiscent of Adam Ferguson, with precedents going back to Tacitus’s view of ancient Germans and Britons. Tocqueville finds equivalents to European history in America, so while thinking of it as the place where British settlers could reproduce British ideas of law and free institutions in a pure form, he also thought of it as a place of traumatic history where all the worst aspects of European history could be found in a kind of clear simultaneity, where barbaric, antique and modern phases exist together.  Tocqueville is very taken with the idea of America as an offshoot of Britain, thought there were also Dutch, German and French settlers as well.  Tocqueville notes the terrible consequences for the American Indians of white settlement.  He thinks of it as violence which takes place with perfect legality.  All the expropriations of American Indian land, expulsions of people and forced movements, are within the law.  There is probably over simplification by Tocqueville on that point, but in the cause of an argument about the limits of law.  Much as he respects the rule of law as a guarantor of liberty with order, he is strongly aware that is can be an instrument of, or a cover for, the violation of the principles that we hope institutions of law serve.  Law requires a spirit amongst the people, for it to be used and applied properly.  He thinks of America as divided between three races (white European, black African and American Indian) and is pessimistic about the chances for just co-existence and integration between them, despite his respect for aspects of the American Republic.  He has a melancholic view of the fate of American Indians, which later history justified, and gives us the memorably sad image of American Indians leaving ancestral lands behind, near Memphis, crossing the cold river Mississippi, leaving their dogs behind, who then jump into the freezing waters in despair.

Situating Tocqueville in Debates about Republicanism, Liberalism and Libertarianism I

The overall argument here is that Tocqueville is an example of what could be called libertarian republicanism, what for Tocqueville is simply a concern for liberty in its political, civil and personal aspects.  In recent political theory ‘republicanism’ has been largely identified with egalitarian liberalism, particularly in the work of Philip Pettit and the many influenced by him, a theory of republicanism serves as a way of giving political support to the kind of egalitarian theory found in Rawls, which refers to ethics and rationality.  Pettit’s normative theory is tied up with the historical work of J.G.A. Pocock and Quentin Skinner.  For our purposes, Skinner is the more relevant.  Skinner’s view is that republicanism represents a theory of liberty which precedes liberalism.  Liberalism is understood by Skinner to mean a mixture of utilitarianism and negative liberty.  The vital figure for him is William Paley though he is not widely read anymore, and who was a 19th century theological utilitarian.  Theological utilitarianism did have an influence on 19th century liberalism, the paradigmatic liberal statesman, William Ewart Gladstone, edited the works of Joseph Butler, an eighteenth century bishop whose writing has been taking as anticipating utilitarianism.  Nevertheless, this is a bizarrely narrow way of looking at the origins of liberalism.  Skinner makes this move in order to defend a theory of republicanism as ‘Neo-Roman’ liberty, a new form of the liberty of the Ancient Roman Republic.  Neo-Roman liberty exists in a polemical contrast with liberalism which Skinner understands as a defence of apolitical, and maybe social, individualism.  The kind of republicanism advocated by Skinner and Pettit is nevertheless rather a political.  Roman or neo-Roman republicanism exists in a contrast with Athenian republicanism, or Civic Humanism.  That is in contrast with the position that  human life receives some significant part of its meaning from the political sphere and from participation in civic affairs.  The Athenian republic rested in its democratic phases on regular gatherings of all citizens in the city centre to make major political decisions, and to  make laws.  Leaders of the Athenian republic (most famously Pericles) had to convince citizens  to support government policies, even in the middle of wars.  The Roman republic had similar meetings, but the centre of power was in the Senate, a gathering of the aristocracy.  Though the Roman republic rested on participation as much as the Athenian republic, just with more emphasis on aristocratic participation, the Skinner-Pettit claim is that Rome was a very different kind of state, more a republic than Athens.  They see something intrusive, conformist and over politicised about the Athenian state, compared with the Roman state.  This leads them to take the position they attribute to emergent liberalism in the 19th century, that is the position of the individual isolated from political union.  Pettit equates Athenian republicanism with Rousseau, joining a tradition in which Rousseau is taken to be the enemy of individual liberties, and the prophet of democracy turning to totalitarianism.  In these arguments, Pettit and Skinner are very close to Isaiah Berlin’s view of liberty.  That is the view that Berlin expresses in ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’ (1958).  Berlin draws on late eighteenth and early nineteenth century discussions of moral and political liberty, in a rather schematic way which does not give much sense of the scope and ambiguities of this issue.  Nevertheless, his discussion is very influential in its presentation of a clearly drawn opposition between negative and positive liberty.  Negative liberty is the liberty to be left alone; positive liberty is the capacity for self-development.  However, positive liberty is quickly taken up as an aspect of state power, directed to elevating individuals and the society as a whole, according to ideas of perfection.  In Berlin’s account it becomes the source of totalitarianism, with Rousseau, Fichte, and Hegel picked out as the philosophical villains who supposedly opened the way to totalitarianism with their notions of positive liberty.  Rousseau is contrasted with his fellow Swiss-French novelist and political thinker, Benjamin Constant (1767-1830), who apparently had more respect for negative liberty in his account of the difference between the liberty of the ancients and the liberty of the moderns.  Pettit accepts the Berlin schema, old and schematic as it is.  He offers what appears to be a departure from Berlin in presenting ‘non-domination’ as a third form of liberty, in which interference by government, or other sources of power is part of liberty if we consent to it. .  However, ‘non-domination’ is presented as closer to negative liberty than positive liberty, and Rousseau is a target, with the addition of Arendt who is supposedly too besotted by nostalgia for ancient Athens.  Tocqueville is briefly mentioned as part of the right sort of Roman Republicanism, along with Locke and Mill.

So should we think of Tocqueville as anti-Rousseau, like Constant.  That is as someone opposed to Rousseau from the point of view of his liberal objection to the unlimited sovereignty of Rousseau’s general will.  If Tocqueville is somewhere on the classical liberal/libertarian spectrum then do we expect him to be more opposed to Rousseau (and Arendt) than Pettit.  Any such expectation would be false.  Let us go back to Constant.  Does he have criticisms of Rousseau with regard to liberty?  Certainly.  Does he just condemn Rousseau as the teacher of tyranny.  Certainly not.  Constant is much more measured than Pettit or Berlin with regard to Rousseau, and he is far more sympathetic to the Athenian model than Pettit.  Constant’s criticism of Rousseau is that he sometimes confuses the general will, the sovereign creator of law in Rousseau’s Social Contract with government.  Hayek makes very similar comments.  This is in line with Rousseau’s own doctrine and is simply a suggestion that Rousseau is not always consistent.  The implications of his inconsistency are quite serious as that is what allows limitations on individual independence from the social body.  Constant famously compared antique and modern liberty to the advantage of modern liberty, because he thought that is more possible in the liberty of the moderns, as opposed to that of the ancients where liberty is to be part of the social body of an independent city state.  Constant does not condemn Athens as the paradigm of antique restraints on liberty though, he refers to its commercial life, the individuality and diversity that allows, and suggests it is the ancient state closest to modern conceptions of liberty.  Constant is closer to Arendt and Athenian republicanism than Pettit.  Hayek also has favourable comments to make about Athenian republican liberty.  In particular, he refers to the role of a court in Athens which checks the constitutionality of laws as a model for the modern world.

Me on Montesquieu at LiberalVision

My summary of The Spirit of the Laws (1748), by Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu (1689-1748). Liberal Vision, 3rd December.
Main points:
The impossible ideal of democratic republicanism based on equality of poverty and law which comes from custom, and is obeyed without coercion.
The possible ideal of a republicanism which may influence modern monarchies or be present in confederations of city-states.
The role of commerce and trade in this kind of realistic liberty, which brings different peoples into peaceful communication.
The principle of honour in monarchy, which incorporates the ideas of a harmonious competitive individualism with regard to wealth and status, fusing aristocratic and bourgeois competition.
Any state should be a moderate state limited by law.
Law should apply punishments in the mildest way possible, as harsh punishments are intrinsically undesirable and are part of despotism.
The value of a division between government and legislation, and decentralisation of government.
Enlightenment values present throughout, including opposition to slavery and oppression of minorities.
A social-historical method unifying the study of geography, history, law and political institutions.

Foucault’s Two Perspectives on Liberalism: 75-76

Also available at

Barry Stocker’s Weblog ( with visual content

Bosphorus Reflections (Blogger)

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.

Link: Elections in Germany, Liberal Progress

Primary version of this post, with visual content, at Barry Stocker’s Weblog .

‘Germany’s Shift to the Right’, Dennis Nottebaum. 28th September, 2009 in OpenDemocracy.

An article in the left leaning democracy and human rights website OpenDemocracy. Nottebaum points to the surge for the FDP (Free Democratic Party), a liberal party which emphasises free markets, a limited state, and civil rights, led by the first open gay to lead a major German party, Guido Westervelle. The FDP came third in German elections, which is evidently a limited kind of success, but it’s the biggest third party vote ever in the Federal Republic, the biggest FDP vote ever, and marks a big shift in power.

I don’t entirely endorse the notion of a shift to the right. It could also be descried as a shift away from social conservatism to social liberalism, and from monumental dominant parties to a more varied political scene in Germany freed from political machines linked with the churches, trade unions, and businesses seeking corporate welfare. The main parties, SPD (social democrats) and CDU-CSU (Christian Democratic Union-Christian Social Union), fell back from what was already a historically low share of the vote.

The Greens and the Left increased their proportion of the left inclined vote, and the Greens were co-lead by a German of Turkish origin, Cem Özemir.

The FDP matched the SPD in the youth vote.

The FDP ran on a platform of reducing regulation and taxation, showing that the current economic down turn is not leading to an automatic inexorable move to more regulation of the financial sector. And quite rightly so, it’s a big myth that the decline in value of financial assets was due to deregulation, seeing as the deregulation is a myth.

The existence of the FDP, and its success, shows that civil liberties, human rights, and social pluralism, are not the sole possession of the left; it shows that free market policies go with social tolerance and limitations of the security state.

Liberal and Libertarian Foucault I: Overview

Primary version of this post, with visual content, at Barry Stocker’s Weblog.

Michel Foucault is often taken as emblematic of radical leftism, but it is also well known that from about 1975 he showed considerable interest in ideas of limited government and the role of market economies in limiting government.

In 1975, he published Discipline and Punish, which famously refers to the forms of punishment as a way of understanding social power in general. Also famously, he suggests that there has been a movement from spectacular punishment (public execution) to disciplinarity (confinement in prison). In explaining disciplinarity, he seems to be targetting liberal thought at various points.

As is very well known, he illustrates disciplinarity with Jeremy Bentham’s design for a model prison, the panopticon, In bringing this up, Foucault was not just commenting on the history of prison architecture, he was referring to a whole phenomenology of the relation between visibility and surveillance. In the panopticon, the prison authority can observe all prisoners at all times, so even if they are not being observed at any one time, their behaviour is modified by the constant possibility of being under observation.

This is how power in general works, as all institutions have such an architecture in their buildings which make strategies of power visible. This is also a strategy which conceals itself behind talk of reforming prisoners, and more generally of the movement from coercion to norms as the social foundation.

The targetting of liberal thought can be seen in the apparent unveiling of Bentham’s panopticon. Jeremy Bentham was associated with early British liberalism and was the godfather of John Stuart Mill, a very big figure in mid-Nineteenth Century liberalism, and liberalism since. The reference to norms as new ways of coercing people, but without manifest violence, could be taken as a dig at Max Weber, the sociologist closely associated with German liberalism. There is critical discussion of Enlightenment thinkers who exaggerate the offence to humanity of torture and death, as compared to long periods of imprisonment. This might be taken as a dig at Montesquieu, a major influence of liberal political thought, though Montesquieu does refer to the ‘inhumanity’ of all forms of extreme punishment including long prison terms.

In general, Foucault has appealed to a kind of left wing thinker who regards ‘liberal’ as a purely negative terms for a way of thinking which denies real relations of power behind formal appearances. The other aspect of this way of thinking about liberalism is to associate it with ‘humanism’, something criticised by Foucault. Foucault did criticise the idea of ‘humanism’ in at least two senses: taking humanity as an ideal, taking the individual human as an undivided agent which is completely aware of itself and is the same over time. However, humanism in either sense is not a necessary aspect of liberalism. Who criticised the idea of a undivided agent, unchanging over time? Most famously David Hume, usually taken as a liberal thinker, though perhaps at the more conservative end of the spectrum. It would be a travesty of the thought of Montesquieu and Weber to talk as if they thought any society had, or ever could, end coercion and allow the completely spontaneous development of human essence. I can think of someone who did think like that though, Karl Marx.

Even given these apparent digs at liberalism in Discipline and Punish, the text does not fit neatly into any left wing classification. If claims to emancipation lead to new forms of power, where does that leave radical left wing claims to emancipation? Why should we think that the socialist revolution, or any socialist transformation, will be less prone to violence and coercion than the liberal state? In Discipline and Punish, Foucault comes close to a rather anarchist position, in which all power should be resisted, though he does nor provide an anarchist program of how a society could exist without coercion. His assumption that power has a positive constitutive aspect could just as well be taken to support the view that society rests on the existence of coercive power.

In introducing the themes of anarchism and constant resistance to power, we have introduced libertarianism. This is itself a highly ambiguous word. It was originally associated with French anarcho-communists but from the 1950s was used in the United States to refer to pure free-market anti-state ways of thinking. In general this sense of libertarian has become dominant, so that in political philosophy, libertarianism is usually taken to refer to the kind of minimum state property rights society advocated by Robert Nozick. Even here there is some ambiguity since there are left-libertarian political theorists who aim for redistribution of wealth in a minimum state context. The other aspect of that ambiguity is the way that libertarian is often used as a another word for conservatism.

It would offend less people to call Foucault a libertarian rather than a liberal, since the left Foucauldians certainly appreciate the idea of liberation from authority, though strictly speaking they should be just as sceptical about that as they are about liberal calls for a society purely based on law, individual rights, and representative institutions. It seems consistent with the kind of Marxism proposed by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari in the early 70s, with which Foucault associated himself for a while; and with the ‘Italian Marxism’ of Giorgio Agamben, who provides a dominant perspective on Foucault for many. We might see Discipline and Punish as a flowering of that anarcho-marxism. Politically Foucault had Maoist leanings for a while and you cannot get more radically Marxist than that. This Maoism was based on illusions that Foucault later rejected. It’s a strange reality that Maoism, a version of Stalinism that was every bit as nasty as Stalin’s original, appealed to those who wanted liberation from all forms of state authority. Mao’s claims to be challenging bureaucratic authority in the Cultural Revolution were amazingly successful at convincing large numbers of educated leftists that some kind of liberation movement was going on in China, rather than the violent and sadistic destruction of anyone, and anything, independent of Mao Zedong, or which might possibly weaken his power in any way.

However, since Foucault’s sadly early death in 1984, his weekly lectures at the College de France have been published going back to 1974. It’s certainly interesting to compare Discipline and Punish with the lectures of 1975-6, published as Society Must be Defended. Anyone who sees the lectures as justifying a Marxist, or post-Marxist or neo-Marxist reading of Discipline and Punish is engaged in tortuous interpretation. Any kind of Marxism in power is referred to with the greatest of suspicion in the book, and the book does what the title suggest. It concentrates on the idea that society could be independent of the state, and that the role of government should be limited. A distinction is made between more absolute and more limited forms of government. Left wing politics is given a history linking it with ideas of race war against a supposedly foreign ruling class. The overall direction of the book is to establish some value for liberty in the sense used by liberal thinkers, before liberal started to mean left wing and statist; and in the sense used by libertarians when the word is not a synonym for a kind of right wing conservatism rebelling against the liberal state.

Later lectures develop ideas of governmentality, as limited government (in the spirt of Montesquieu’s idea of moderate government), against the absolute power of the state, rooted in ideas of the sovereign as shepherd of the people. Foucault does not lose his sense that apparent freedoms are tied up with coercion, but he emphasises the reality of those freedoms. He emphasises the superiority of Physiocratic free market solutions to wheat shortages in 18th Century France over Mercantilist attempts to regulate prices. In doing this, he is essentially repeating arguments mades by Adam Smith. He emphasises he the role of Ordo liberalism, that is a very free market liberalism, in the intellectual opposition to Naziism. He examines the work of Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises, the Austrian economists and political thinkers who have had a major impact on Classical (free market limited government) Liberalism and Libertarianism. He emphasises the way state power has been extended through biopolitics, the ways in which the state takes on the role of improving and extending life.

We do not even need to read Foucault’s lectures. A lot of this is apparent in the three volumes of the History of Sexuality which Foucault was able to write before his death. Extensive discussion of antique attitudes reveal a strong inclination towards the idea of the self-creation of character, in a kind of self-mastery strongly linked in the antique world with ideas of citizenship and political rights, what we would not call republican virtues. So Foucault’s later work is deeply influenced by ancient and modern notions of individualism and limited government.

Of course there are those who prefer to find some way of taking this up in terms of Marxism, or some kind of radical left thinking at least partly rooted in Marxism. However, even among the left Foucauldians there are those who recognise and regret his shift towards ‘neo-liberalism’. Amongst those associated with Foucault, Jacques Donselot has referred to liberal aspects of Foucault’s thought. His assistant at the Collège de France, François Ewald, has worked on the rise of state welfarism from a liberal point of view.

More to come, expanding on the points above.

FNS 09: War and Liberty; Aristocracy and Liberalism

Primary version of this post, with visual content, at Barry Stocker’s Weblog.

In my first post (three posts ago) on the Friedrich Nietzsche Society 2009 conference, I mentioned a point I made in the discussion after Brian Leiter’s presentation. I suppose this might be making a big deal out of a question, but I was dealing with some things I find important and have been working on for some time.

My point was in response to two claims from Leiter

Nietzsche links fighting in war with liberty, and no other philosopher has done so. Therefore Nietzsche cannot be linked with political liberalism.

Nietzsche attributes different moral worth to different kinds of individuals. Therefore Nietzsche cannot be linked with political liberalism.

My counter claims

Kant refers to war fought according to the laws of humanity as sublime in the Critique of the Power of Judgment. The experience of the sublime is way, for Kant, in which we encounter out transcendental self which stands outside natural determinism. This is our free self. This itself connect with remarks in the Metaphysics of Morals about the positive freedom, with reference to a will to perfection in following moral law which goes above mere minimal obedience, and again refers to our freedom in the most perfectionist way of rising above mere impulse and determinism. This clearly connects with Kant’s view of politics as a kind of perfectionist liberal republicanism, that is citizens rise to the highest levels of human personality in respect for law, as the basis for freedom in a state based on political participation. It also feeds into discussions about the liberty of the moderns and ancients in Benjamin Constant, and Wilhelm von Humbldt’s discussion of positive and negative welfare, two great figures of liberalism. Humbold also linked war with liberty saying that power of the state was less dangerous to liberty in the Ancient Greek states because constant war enhanced independence and strength of character. This is in Humboldt’s great contribution to political philosophy, The Limits of State Action.

Various major liberal thinkers have not been purists with regard to moral equality between humans. Before Alexis de Tocqueville they mostly assumed that only the propertied classes should have political rights. Tocqueville accepted the inevitability, and desirability, of democracy but with reservations and thought it would require a new kind of aristocracy in the legal profession and political leaders. John Stuart Mill thought the educated should have more political rights and that backward peoples should have no political rights until educated to the necessary level. Mill even suggests that some people are just lacking in moral character, suggesting that universal education would not make everyone equal. In politics, William Ewart Gladstone, the great British Liberal Prime Minister, and symbol of democracy and liberty throughout Europe, explicitly believed in aristocracy in the political system rather than pure democracy. As Tocqueville pointed out, representative government under law tends to produce its own aristocracy in any case. These liberal thinkers were picking up, though also revising, ancient republicanism in Aristotle, Cicero, Tactitus etc, which was rooted in the belief that liberty required an aristocracy proud of its rights and national independence. This continued into early modern republicanism, and then fed into Classical Liberalism.