Adam Smith: Statism and Distributive Injustice in the Wealth of Nations

I’ll be giving a paper at a panel on Adam Smith I convened for the conference Pluralism and Conflict: Distributive Justice Beyond Rawls and Consensus, Fatih University, Istanbul, June 6th-8th 2013. Below is the abstract, which will appear in the conference booklet, as the final paragraph. Preceding paragraphs give the context of debate.

Discussion  of Adam Smith as a political and social thinker tends to be polarised between a minarchist view and a left-liberal/social democratic view. The minarchist view as in the minimal  state position according to which the only public goods the state provides are those of the defence of external frontiers and the maintenance of a criminal justice system to protect individuals against violence, theft and fraud, and in which the state leaves the private economy to distribute income and wealth.. The left-liberal/social democratic view as in the belief that the state can provide public goods of a kind which lead to around half  of national wealth going through state hands, and  the belief that the state should redistribute income and wealth from the richer to the poorer, to reach some predetermined ideal level. That could also be summed up as the difference between the political philosophy of Robert Nozick and that of John Rawls. No one could seriously claim that Smith was a strict minarchist, nevertheless there is a definite tendency for free market libertarians to talk as if Smith did have that view, and remarkably little contribution to the recent growth of interest in Smith as a social, ethical and legal philosopher (Craig Smith is a rare exception,and he is not the most influential Smith scholar around), with many other interests of a cultural, philosophical and scientific kind. Even in the field of institutional economics, the well known book by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, Why Nations Fail, which is a tribute to Smith’s most famous book, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, in its title and its approach, is centrist in approach rather than libertarian or classical liberal. At a more absurd level we have Ha-Joon Chang in a recent item in The Guardian associating Smith with Karl Marx or Noam Chomsky equally trying to make Smith out to be a very left socialist.

Chomsky and Chang are certainly not stupid, far from it, so more shame on them for talking in a such a misleading way on this issue. Smith like many free market libertarians now, just about everyone who sails under that banner as opposed to the conservative, or sometimes centrist, establishment types, who use market economics since Smith as a defence of the establishment. Smith was not completely an outside with regard to the British establishment (certainly not in the way he would have been if he had been a Chomsky-Chang type leftist, though as they are faculty at very famous universities they are a bit establishment themselves), but he had a very critical view of the way that the state, and the conservative forces allied with it, use it to protect economic privileges. The examples of economic privilege in Smith are very largely to do with state interference in the economy, with anti-competitive behaviour by colluding groups of merchants firmly linked with state power. Smith’s solution is very largely to withdraw state intervention, not expand it. He was not a strict minarchist, advocating for example state involvement in promoting education, though within what he thought should be largely a private education economy (as noted below). The influential economist and social philosopher Amartya Sen interprets this as justification for a ‘public option’ in United States heath care (which despite popular misunderstanding has long been heavily subsidised and regulated by the federal government) within the insurance options provided by ‘Obama Care’, or more properly the Affordable Care Act. Jumping from Smith’s position on education, which is to recommend far less state involvement in education than is now the case in any country, to a growing state role  in health care in the USA is a perverse argument.

There are perhaps some genuine difficulties in understanding how to apply the thought of an 18th century writer to the present day, but it is not a good procedure to insist that someone who preferred less state should be interpreted as demanding more state now. If we look at a very admirable Smith commentator like Samuel Fleischacker (A Third Concept of Liberty: Judgement and Freedom in Kant and Adam SmithOn Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations: A Philosophical Companion), we see a tendency to say that Smith must have meant that in the societies of our time which have expanded various areas of state activity enormously since Smith’s time, the state should do more than it is in reducing inequality and other supposed ‘market failures’. Smith was concerned that some forms of inequality flow from manipulation of the political process by the privileged, and had related concerns about balance between geographical  and economic sectors. He was also rather scornful about the luxuries consumed by the rich. However, he never declares economic equality to be an end in itself, and argues for ‘natural liberty’ (liberty as it exists without the state, or maybe through the unplanned growth of institutions) as a basis for the growth of wealth. I can agree with some of the left Smithians that a concept of natural liberty is open to criticism, as if liberty as we know it, and desire it, could exist without any element of state design and sovereign political institutions. However, that is still no reason to say that Smith favoured state designed distributive justice beyond whatever is necessary to support the basics of life (as in the Poor Law of the time which Smith accepted though he did not argue for them), in a civilised society (such as public schemes to promote transport networks, preferably with tolls, as was happening in his time).

There is now a richer and growing ecology of political and social theory between Nozick and Rawls, of which left leaning commentary on Smith is an honourable part. However, for a away of thinking which is as close to Smith as is now possible, it is best to look at what has been labelled variously as Rawlsekiansim, liberaltarianism, Bleeding Heart libertarianism and Arizona libertarianism (various previous posts have explored these, please use search window to find them). That is the growing stream of thought which regards state provided public goods, beyond minarchism, and state action to maintain the living conditions of the poorest, as allowable and desirable, within an overall pattern of economic distribution which comes from the market rather than the state, and where civil society is clearly bigger than the state, and which is suspicious of attempts to always look to the state as the first solution to economic and social problems. Relevant figures here include Jerry Gaus, David Schmidtz, John Tomasi, and  Jacob Levy.

In An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith has much to say about distributive injustice. This has two aspects: injustice towards the poor and injustice between sectors of society. In both cases, the cause is largely the activity of the state rather than the results of markets being left free of state legislation and public schemes. Smith sees injustice as resulting from collaboration between merchants in the same sector, but sees this as more the consequence of state intervention than of free commerce. The state enabling, encouraging and even requiring enterprises to form  corporate bodies in the same sector is the biggest reason for merchants conspiring against the public. The great injustices that Smith mentions to the poor come from the way the Poor Law tends to tie those under suspicion that they might apply for public funds to the Parish of birth only, and the way that requirements for seven years of apprenticeship, before practising a craft, limits the chances to the poor to improve their economic situation. Another source of injustice to the poor is the application of taxes on the necessities of life. Smith’s favours taxing luxuries rather than necessities, but he nowhere calls for progressive (graduated) taxes, and only a tortuous interpretation of his work can support such an idea. Public debt results in a distributive injustice for Smith, which rests on the assumption that ‘natural liberty’ is a better basis for political economy than state interventions. Public debt leads to a forced transfer of income from the productive sectors of the economy to creditors, that is the financial sector of the economy. The solution that Smith advocates is reducing debt, which includes reducing public expenditure, particularly on war. There is a welfare, or ethical, aspect to Smith’s political economy which includes a bias towards the interests of the poor, and against wealth that arises from the less productive parts of the economy. However, these aspects of his thought do not lead him to state designed schemes for distributive justice. Rather he demands an end to those state activities which harm the poor, and the most productive parts of the economy. The assumption is that state action is to very limited, and beyond education, which Smith still  believes should be largely private, he does not suggest expanded state activity.

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.

Cato Institute getting it badly Wrong about Carl Schmitt.

I’m referring  here to a post on Carl Schmitt’s The Concept of the Political which appears in the Libertarian Library at , which is itself connected to the Cato website. That is the Cato Institute, the Washington DC foundation which promotes libertarianism (in the sense of free market limited government thinking). Generally I regards its work with sympathy. It’s strongest work is on public policy, where it offers solutions that allow more scope for government than is favoured in principle by the pure nightwatchman view of the state, at the core of Cato thinking, though not universal amongst all its fellows and employees. There is some interesting discussion of more theoretical issues at Cato Unbound, but apart from that I find the discussion of libertarian theory at Cato and its affiliates, to be rather disappointing. There is far too much boiler plate, comforting formulae, self-confirmation and putting too much emphasis on some of the better known but weaker thinkers and themes within libertarianism (or classical liberalism). These problems reach a level of pure disaster in the anonymous post, on Schmitt which is quoted in full below, and to be very polite is just not good enough.


Schmitt’s The Concept of the Political comes from a perspective so far removed from a libertarian’s view of politics—and even what it means to be human—that it can be a profoundly difficult book to wrestle with. For Schmitt, politics defines humanity. This means that the liberal ideal of reducing or doing away with the sphere of politics means reducing or doing away with humanity itself. Even more troubling, politics only exists because of friend-enemy distinctions. A people genuinely without enemies is a people without politics—and so not really a people at all. The liberal project of toleration and scaling back the power of the state is thus doomed, Schmitt thinks, because it is impossible to abandon our nature, meaning we cannot abandon politics—or enemies. Perhaps even more distressing than the details of Schmitt’s argument is the deep and continuing influence it has had on much modern political thought, particularly that of the neoconservatives and the more radical, collectivist strains of the Left.

The problems with this.

1. The most glaring and most obvious problem with this is that the author clearly does not understand that Hayek refers to Schmitt, not very often but sometimes in favourable terms, particularly with regard to the law-legislation which I have blogged about frequently recently. Please use the search box to find all these items. Schmitt’s reference to growth of    The writer has attacked Schmitt strongly and has failed to realise that he is a major influence on one of the biggest figures in Cato style thinking. This is really not good.

2. Politics does not define humanity for Schmitt, or certainly not in the way that the author assumes. Schmitt was certainly aware that other things are necessary to full human existence. He does believe, like Aristotle for example, that politics is an essential part of life in human communities.

3. The author assumes that liberalism means less or not politics. Liberalism here meaning the thinking of the earlier, classical, liberals from John Locke to John Stuart Mill, along with the ways libertarian though has built on them in the period that ‘liberal’ has come to mean social democrat. . Both Locke and Mil, and other classical liberal thinkers, would have been stunned to hear that they wanted to eliminate politics. They wanted to restrict the role of the state in society, which is not the same as condemning, or minimising the place of law making and institutional formation in human communities, that is the areas of politics less concerned with administration of society.

4. It is hard to believe that the author read The Concept of the Political at all, since Schmitt makes it very clear that he is against the weakening of the distinction  between state and society, and the growing tendency of the state to intervene in the economy and in society.

5. The author has clearly failed to grasp that while there is an authoritarian aspect to Schmitt’s thought about the nature of political sovereignty, including the struggle between friend and enemy, Schmitt is just as much concerned to restrict the state to these areas of responsibility, and that the claim that Schmitt favours socialism is just nonsense. It is true that Schmitt had some sympathy for corporatists authoritarian right regimes in Europe of the 20s and 30s, but he clearly thinks of them asa bulwark against socialism. Who else thought this? No other than Luwig von Mises in Liberalism, an author and a book recognised by Cato as part of libertarian thinking. The author is also clearly unaware that the prominent Paleoconservate Paul Gottfried is a Schmitt enthusiast. Paleoconservatism in American means very traditionalist and very small government conservatism. That current is a major influence on Ron Paul, a political figure generally regarded with sympathy by Cato.

6. The authors refers to Schmitt’s influence on Neoconservatism, I have made a lot of effort to research commentary on Schmitt, and I have yet to find a Neo conservative paper or book on Schmitt. Perhaps some vague misunderstanding of Schmitt, like that in the post under discussion, circulates and has some influence though that that is not what the author says. The author is at least correct (hurrah, at last) in saying that there are many leftwing Schmitt enthusiasts. However, that is not the same uncritical endorsement, and the left wing enthusiasts for Schmitt are not arguing for war, aggression in international relations or hostile conflict as  a constant in politics. They are concerned with politics as a process of conflict, unavoidable in human affairs. They are certainly correct to so, and the author’s real argument with Schmitt seems to be that he provides argument against the apolitical utopianism that influences the author.

7. The author is also apparently unaware of left wing critique of ‘neoliberalism’, and earlier forms of market liberalism, as based on a Schmittian belief in action to preserve a strong state. Hayek has been brought into those critique, as has the free market element in the polices of dictatorship of Augosto Pincohet in Chile. I certainly do not think that market liberalism/neo-liberalism can be defined in those terms, but there are certainly moments where market based economic change is associated with authoritarian governments.

8. The author is hopelessly unaware that Concept of the Political is distinct in relation to most of Schmitt’s writing in the extreme importance attached to politics as an existential struggle with the enemy. Much of Schmitt’s writing is concerned with achieving stability in constitutional arrangements, and a stable order in international relations.

For a balanced short appraisal of Schmitt as a political and legal thinker see Lars Vinx’s item on Schmitt in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Readers of this, of all political inclinations, will learn far far more from that item than from the post under discussion, which really is a failure.

Free Market Libertarians and Left Egalitarians Agree on Third World Poor

Some links on how egalitarian left moral and political philosophers concerned with Third World poverty and under development can find themselves in agreement with free market libertarians.
Peter Singer, a leading moral philosopher committed to strong egalitarianism, in conversation with Bill Easterly at
Easterly is a passionate advocate of Third World development and a passionate critic of state and celebrity based aid politics. A Professor of Economics at NYU, who runs the blog AIDWATCH: just asking that aid benefit the poor.
Singer and Easterly agree on the following points: the moral obligation of individuals to help the poor, the wasteful of many aid organisations and the importance of getting information about organisations before donating (details of useful websites given), wastefulness of state aid when as often happens it is designed to help a constituency in domestic politics rather than the Third World poor.
Also listen to Thomas Pogge being interviewed by Alan Saunders, or read the transcript at ABC’s The Philosopher’s Zone, ‘The Right to Property and the Right to Health’.
Pogge has a very different philosophical foundation from that of Singer. Singer is a Utilitarian, Pogge is a follower of Rawlsian reasoning from first principles about justice. Like Singer, he is deeply concerned with equality between nations as well as within nations. Though definitely not an advocate of libertarian (i.e. free market individualistic limited government liberalism), Pogge points out that there is an mportant areas of agreement between egalitarians and libertarians, on issues concerning the Third World poor:
Property rights and patent laws.
Patent laws which prevent all physical production of objects which are covered in very broad interpretations of intellectual property conflicts with basic property rights which have at their centre ownership and control of physical possessions. The importance for the Third World here is that patent laws make it extremely difficult for Third World pharmaceutical producers to manufacture medicine which has any resemblance, however accidental, or secondary, with already patented medical product. The same issue applies to developing new seed strain.

As Pogge points out this only applies to the position that some libertarians take on property rights, but he is certainly right to point out that there is a form of free market libertarianism which opposes broad and strict intellectual property rights. This often comes up in discussion software and computerised products. Two ‘libertarian’ points come up: it stifles innovation and interferes with property rights if companies can prevent others from incorporating existing knowledge into new products; innovation is an interactive discovery process involving many people and this should not be covered over by IP laws which presume that one person or company is solely responsible for innovation. On this version of libertarianism, complete reproduction of someone else’s product is wrong but no use of knowledge incorporated into that product.

No Democratic Perfection in the Birth of the USA

‘A Constitutional Counterfactual’, FreedomDemocrats, 1st December, 2009.

I’ve linked with this item from the FreedomDemocrats, a free market libertarian group within the US Democratic Party, because though it does not mention the Lisbon Treaty which amends the core treaties of the European Union, it is very relevant.  I’ve got quite a lot of detailed argument coming, so here is the big point up front.  The United States was founded through a process which makes the process of ratifying European Union treaties look like text book democratic fastidiousness, despite which the right-leaning element amongst opponents of European integration, which is the dominant element in the UK, tend to be hyper-enthusiasts for the United States as an example of liberty, constitutionalism and limited governments (things I’m rather supportive of myself).  That would be a model of federalism, instituted through considerably less fastidious means than those used by the EU political elite.

In addition it should be noted that the United States fought a Civil War to prevent the secession of the Confederate (southern) States of America.  I am sure a few Confederate enthusiasts can be found amongst the Eurosceptics, but not many.  No one can deny that the American Union was created by abrogating the Articles of Confederation in favour of the more centralising Constitution of the United State of America; and no can deny that this federal Union was re-founded, and strengthened by President Lincoln and the Republican Party of the time, in the blood and iron of a war fought to coerce the Confederacy to stay in the Union.

The methods employed in that war included a deliberate policy of the destruction of the property of southern whites, suspension of habeas corpus in the Union, and covertly sanctioned illegal violence against the anti-war press.  One could argue about how much of this was justifiable, but I would say the price was worth paying to the recreate the Union as a unified democracy freed of slavery, showing as Lincoln argued in the Gettysburg address that the government by the people, of the people, for the people, could succeed and endure.  That’s not an unusual argument, and its one shared by most Eurosceptics as well as Euro-federalists who give any thought to American history.

What is the ‘Eurosceptic ‘ criticism of the Lisbon Treaty? In part, that it is the rape of democracy, because only one country held a referendum to ratify it, Ireland, and that country held the referendum a second time, after a no vote on the first occasion.  In the language of the Eurosceptics, this was like a rapist who never accepts ‘no’ for an answer from a woman, and a form of totalitarian oppression equivalent to that prevailed in the USSR and its satellite states.  I’m not making this up, or exaggerating, this is the standard discourse.  Rapists do not request a second answer which might be the same as the first, they  use violence.  Totalitarian regimes do not hold a referendum a second time, they rig elections in the first place through falsifying results in an atmosphere of terror against opposition.

Even if we take the Eurosceptic language in its (rather rare) calmer moments, it makes accusations of lack of democracy which cannot be sustained.  It is the Eurofederalists who are arguing for more direct accountability of EU institutions to a European electorate, through increasing the power of the Parliament,  and maybe considering a directly elected head, and certainly a head selected through an open and competitive process in the Parliament.  The Eurosceptics oppose such ideas, fiercely, so reducing the EU more and more to a venue for intrinsically unaccountable diplomatic manoeuvres between states lacking a common democratic decision making body.

The second vote in Ireland was held in the context of assurances from the European Union and the Irish government that the claims made by treaty opponents about restricting Irish sovereignty, particularly with regard to military neutrality and the constitutional ban on abortion. were not at all true.  No one of any honesty and integrity whatsoever can deny the truth of those assurances and the misguided nature of contrary claims made by anti-Treaty campaigners.  Of course politics is a rough nasty business, and everyone tells lies, directly or implicitly.  Nevertheless, those who directly use obvious lies, or at least rely on their widespread circulation, cannot reasonably complain when a referendum is held a second time, to test whether the electorate will still vote No after some of the more blatant lies have been countered by official assurances, based on clear law.  The Irish people were very free to say no a second time, they did not.  The Irish government was very free to block the Treaty of Lisbon, it did not.  The Treaty was ratified in other countries through votes in freely elected parliaments in 27 of the world’s more solid democracies.  Each of these 27 parliaments was very free to derail the Treaty, none did.

All of these countries have experienced moments of change in national political and constitutional arrangements without a referendum, no one denies that these countries are democratic.  Of course a referendum can be appropriate in deciding on constitutional issues, but most established democracies in the world allow constitutional change without referendums.  A referendum is a tool of democracy, not the only aspect of democracy; and while a few Eurosceptics may be advocates of government by direct democracy, most are not, and no one has tried to argue that established democracies are not democracies, because at least part of their constitutional development took place without legitimation through referendum.

It must also be noted that while the Eurosceptics shriek about undemocratic repression, the Lisbon Treaty increases the power of the European Parliament in relation to the non-elected decision making elements of the European Union (Council of Ministers and the Commission).  That would be the kind of ‘totalitarianism’ that keeps transferring more and more powers to freely elected, multi-party bodies then.  A variety I had previously overlooked, and which Hannah Arendt, Albert Camus, and George Orwell carelessly ignored.

So back to the FreedomDemocrats.  Like many of the UK Eurosceptics, the FreedomDemocrats identify themselves as libertarians of a kind who advocate free markets.  There are other Eurosceptics, but the dominant tendency, such as the United Kingdom Independence Party and Daniel Hannan, a well known Conservative Member of the European Parliament (!), the current Big Man in Conservative Eurosceptic circles.  UKIP Libertarianism is the kind which favours reducing immigration, that would be the kind of libertarianism that reduces individual liberties to cross borders freely.  I would like to say that this kind of nonsense is unusual, but unfortunately it is all too normal for militant social conservatives to adopt the ‘libertarian’ label to mean freedom to be oppose rights for people they don’t like.  The point of the item I’ve linked to, is that the (federal)Constitution of the United States of America was adopted without  a popular vote, and that it is clear that a popular vote would have failed.  The only consultative vote that would have had any chance of succeeding would have been one restricted to the biggest property owners.  The FreedomDemocats like the idea of a history in which the Constitution was not ratified, which they think would have meant a number of regional confederacies lacking the power to violently expropriate Native Americans or create a militaristic interventionist superpower.

That brings up the whole question of the ‘libertarian’ (in the sense of individualist property owning and limited government principles) basis of the United States Constitution.  The idea that the Constitution is either a perfect libertarian document, or at least that the adoption of the Constitution was the nearest the United States has ever come to libertarian perfection and that is has been in constant decline since some later point at which it apparently started to move away from the Constitution, is rather prevalent amongst US libertarians, though particularly those who could best be described as conservative-libertarian fusionist, and who tend to think conservative and libertarian mean the same thing.

The FreedomDemocrats in this item, and others posted on their website, correctly insist that the US Constitution was designed by large property owners who wished to use political power to preserve an existing pattern of property distribution, including ownership of slaves, and the freedom to increase property by violating the rights of Native Americans, along with various trade, tax and monetary rules designed to give their property a privileged status.  The FreedomDemocrats lean towards minarchism (a state that does nothing but uphold the right to life and property rights in a purely neutral way), and even outright anarchism.  I cannot go along with them on that, partly because I think what they say in a critical way about the US Constitution is really inevitable, in some form, to stabilise and legitimise the state body that is necessary to uphold law.  A feasible libertarianism can only try to make the trades of self-interests around the constitution and around state policy, as balanced and as genuinely beneficial to the common good as is possible.

The other tendency in libertarian thought, to make the Constitution a quasi-religious document is just bad for liberty, bad for legal thinking, and bad for critical rational thought, for reasons I cannot explain in this already long post.  But returning to the right-wing UK Eurosceptics, they cannot both: commend a US Constitution adopted with no referendum and designed to be very difficult to amend; and condemn the European Union for a process of progressive integration through Treaties, all ratified by representative assemblies elected by popular vote.  The Treaties have been ratified by the unanimous agreement of all parliamentary bodies in all member states.  It is difficult to reverse these treaties, but that is because the requirement of unanimity goes both ways.  It would be good to see easier means of amending treaties, or even rejecting them at a later date. but that would only be possible if the ratification became easier in the first place.

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.

Liberal and Libertarian Foucault III: Physiocrats

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

Michel Foucault, Security, Territory, Population, Lecture Two (page 207)

Actually, we can say that thanks to these measures, or rather thanks to the suppression of the juridical-economic straitjacket that framed the grain trade, all in all, as Abeille said, scarcity becomes a chimera.

The context of this quotation is a discussion of the impact of Physiocrat doctrines in 18th Century France. Quesnay, Turgot and others argued that grain shortages could not be cured by the measures the French monarchy had been using, that is measures of state coercion to keep down prices and prevent hoarding. The measures of the absolutist French monarchy to prevent farmers from storing grain and pricing it according to demand, are still the kind of things a lot of people find immediately convincing. Many states in the United States now, have laws against ‘gouging’, that is charging high prices for goods in an emergency which causes shortages. The issue of hoarding is linked, since those selling grain, or any other good, will not hoard it unless they expect to charge high prices for it in some future shortage. A reaction popular now, shared by despotic French monarchs is that shortages arise from hoarding, and shortages arise from sellers charging too much during an emergency.

Foucault endorses the Physiocratic policies, which anticipate Adam Smith who met the Physiocrats in a visit to France. As Foucault points out, it’s the Physiocrats who coined the phrase ‘laisser faire’ (letting it happen) in economics, and linked phrases like ‘laisser aller’ and ‘laisser passer’; and as Foucault implies, that policy worked. Allowing farmers and merchants to ‘hoard’ and ‘gouge’ ensures that enough grain is produced, and stored, to mean that there is no starvation even in times of relative shortage. As Adam Smith pointed, France was much more prone to hunger than Britain with less measures to restrain prices and prevent large scale storage ‘hoarding’. As Foucault recognises, the starvation of the poor was alleviated by following English style policies, which allow prices to go up. That benefits the poorest, since such market incentives mean there will still be grain available in times of relative shortage and much more cheaply at those times, than if the price of grain has previously been restrained.

In these lectures, Foucault is as much describing, or analysing, as judging or evaluating. The evaluations often have to be inferred, nevertheless the context really does not allow any interpretation other than that Foucault thought that the Physiocrat policies were an improvement on Mercantilist regulation. The quote above makes it clear that Foucault thinks such policies limit the power of the state in a desirable way.

It would be wrong to present Foucault as simply celebrating the market policies of 18th Century governments; he is constantly concerned with the way that limits on the ‘juridical-economic straitjacket’, or more generally sovereignty, biopolitics and disciplinarity, are consistent with their expansion. The French monarchy accepted Physiocratic policies in order to keep its power. That does not change the reality that Foucault recognises a preferable kind of power where state regulation is limited.

On a more general note, I ma titling this series of notes ‘liberal and libertarian Foucault’. Making this more precise, I would not link Foucault with those who insist that Classical Liberalism, or Libertarianism, means the end of all welfare and all regulation; and certainly not with those who think the state should be abolished or turned into a nightwatchman only, minarchist entity. Somewhat earlier, when Foucault was in contact with Maoists was the time he was closer to anarchism. Later text display anarchistic tendencies, but are overall disposed to look for a reasonable limitation on state power, and more dispersed forms of power, rather than abolition.

Foucault was always a man of the left, but I would argue on the basis of his later texts, that he was moving closer to an earlier sense of ‘left’ or ‘radical’ which regarded state intervention on behalf of sectional interests, or increased statism in general, as the enemy of liberty and of opportunities for the poorest to improve their living standards. Again, we must recognise the critical side of this; Foucault also points out that the original radicals, along with later socialists and anarchists, had attitudes based on ‘race war’, that is identifying the state and privilege with a non-national entity. I also doubt that Foucault thought all the forms of growth in state intervention since the early Nineteenth Century could, or should be, terminated. Extrapolating from these late texts, what others close to him have said, and so on, I would say that Foucault moved towards a position where he was in broad culture and allegiance on the left wing of politics, but in details on the left, or more moderate, side of free market libertarianism, allowing for state welfare but suspicious of the consequences of allowing state activity beyond very strict limits. I should also add that his concerns with disciplinarity and the dispersed nature of power, precludes a position in which the presence or the absence of the state is the definitive issue.

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.