Liberal and Libertarian Foucault II: The Bosphorus

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

Michel Foucault

Security, Territory, Population. Lecture Two. 18 January 1979

To tell the truth, this structuring function of space and territory is not something new to the eighteenth century. After all, what sovereign has not wanted to build a bridge over the Bosphorus or move mountains? Again, we need to know the general economy of power within which this project and structuring of space and territory is situated. Does it involve marking out a territory or conquering it? Is it a question of disciplining subjects, making them produce wealth, or is it a question of conquering something like a milieu of life, existence, and work for a population?

(page 29)

The Bosphorus stands here for chance which government attempt to overcome. For Foucault, a major feature of the period from the 16th to the 18th centuries is the growing awareness of chance, and the need for an art of government which can master it. This is embedded in the rise of commercial life, and its analysis through ‘economy’. and with the growth of interest in chance and the analysis of probability. Foucault notes the 16th century rise of books of government, advice on how to control chance in affairs of state. Machiavelli’s The Prince is taken as the main example. Foucault seems to ignore the republican aspect of Machiavelli, which would have suited his argument perfectly well. He treats Machiavelli’s book as guide on how the Prince can maintain, and extend his estate. What he fails to note, as far as I can see, is that Machiavelli is also referring to a notion of public interest which the Prince ought to serve, as well as failing to note Machiavelli’s wish to recreate Roman republicanism. This fits with Foucault’s analysis because he sees the move to state control as fitting with the growth of some forms of freedom. The interest in state control for thinkers like Francis Bacon and thinker-statesmen like Richelieu, or even writers of tragedy like Jean Racine, arises from the growing sense of uncontrollability. The people are always inclined to rebel, as is the upper class. Attempts to subordinate the economy to state edicts, as in price controls on wheat, prove to be counter productive: enforcement of a lower price for wheat reduces supply and causes starvation.

In the reference to bridging the Bosphorus, Foucault may have the story of the Persian King Xerxes, recorded by Herodotus, bridging the Hellespont (Turkish Straits) during his attempted invasion of Greece. Xerxes succeed in the building the bridge, but not in subduing Greece. The point of the permanent desire to bridge the Bosphorus (which now has two bridges), is that dramatic efforts to master nature may sometimes produce great results, but this may create an illusion of complete mastery of fortune. Xerxes could not conquer Greece, and the mighty absolute monarchs of early modern Europe could not guarantee sufficient bread for all by attempting to conquer the forces of markets and prices

Carl Schmitt and the Origin of Law

Continuing my discussion of the The Nomos of the Earth by Carl Schmitt. Schmitt refers to mythical material on the origin of law, going from Homer to Giambattista Vico’s 18th Century investigations of myth. His account is of the origin of law in the earth.

Earth contains an innate justice in that it rewards the farmer according to productive effort. This is in contrast with the sea which lies outside law. The Greek word equated with law is Nomos. As Schmitt points out, it does not exactly correlate with law, which is why he uses the Greek word in his title. The Greek word equates with custom and in an even more basic way with appropriation. Schmitt argues that the opposition between Nomos as law or custom and phusis as nature comes later than the sense of appropriation, division and taking.

Schmitt compares this with the fundamental definitions of property in social contract theory. He argues that Social Contract theory is essentially about the definition and division of property. The original Ancient Greek sense of property is linked to the home as in the word oikos divide and protect land. which is at the origin of the word economy, which in Ancient Greek times is concerned with management of the home rather than with cash exchange or a market economy, or a national economy of any kind.

The original appropriation/division of property brings in sovereignty, since it is the state which establishes ownersip rights and the division of labour, and furthermore it is the state which carves out land for a people, and it is states whichThe state and sovereignty exist through land and through the possibility of working on the land.

In an appendix Heidegger suggests that we should abandon appropriation, but this is presumably an ironic way of agreeing with what he takes to be the liberal and Marxist approach to appropriation. Both want to replace the violence of appropriation, with a self-governing of the world of economic things without violence, where wealth is produced through socialist planning or liberal spontaneity, with no need for a political order, or at least the minimisation/separation of liberal order . For Schmitt his still always leaves the problem of division, I presume that at the non-ironic level he thinks that distribution is part of appropriation and that both liberal and Marxist approaches are utopian.

Schmitt conjoins sovereignty, law, labour, land, property, division of property, in an ironic struggle with Marxism and Liberalism which both try to eliminate the struggles within politics.

Hayek, Habermas and Schmitt Together

Friedrich Hayek, Jürgen Habermas, and Carl Schmitt do not look like a group of the like minded. Schmitt was the legal and political theorist who emphasised that law and politics rest on the capacity of someone to make a decision.

Schmitt thought that political theory should take sovereignty as its object not the state. If political theory takes the state as an object, it becomes primarily concerned with the institutional and administrative aspects of the state. He took a critical view of confusion of the state with civil society. Where politics itself engages with civil society, the state becomes one of various pressure groups. The order and unity of the state which is necessary to the exercise of sovereignty is undermined in a pluralist view of the state. Democracy itself is not best represented by the divisive nature of parliamentary politics, since the single ruler is much better suited to representing the majority as a unity, rather than as a divided aggregate of many points of view, where no unified will of the majority can emerge. Politics also contains the dimension of struggle between friend and foe, in which we struggle to defend ourselves against the enemy who threatens our existence. Schmitt considered that to be the basis of international relations. Attempts at world confederation, and world government, can only produce new wars with an enemy who inevitably resists other countries ganging up on it.

Habermas, a Marxist in principle but more of a social democrat/left liberal in practice, condemns Schmitt for reducing international relations to this constant war which leaves no room for the just war that enforces international order. One point at which Habermas raises this criticism is when he writes on the NATO intervention in Kosovo. Habermas does not think this intervention can be fully justified by the international law as it previously existed. The UN charter strongly opposes interference in the internal affairs of member states. Habermas did not write to condemn the Kosovo intervention It is an intervention which refers to morality rather than existing law, it is the intervention based on acting as it there is a global civil society, though it does not yet exist. The intervention was not wrong, it was however a precedent that should not be taken as a precedent. Self-legislating improvement should not be accepted. Habermas talks about being between morality and law, but he is halfway between legalism and decisionism. Some force took the decision to intervene rather than follow international law, and that itself is a welcome intervention There is an Enemy, Slobodan Milosevic who must be defeated regardless of previous law. With regard to internal law and administration, Habermas emphasises the difficulties that arise from social legislation This is inevitably administered outside the apparatus of parliamentary supervision. Increased administration is inevitable for these kinds of programs The regulatory nature of social intervention must come into conflict with the universality of law, democracy is fragmenting ştself.

Hayek, the best know advocate of pure free market and an almost non-existent state, condemns Schmitt, like Habermas, always in passing He appears to be condemned but disappears before he contaminates the surrounding text. Hayek thinks democracy should be limited, or should limit itself, in order to restrict the state to state matters, including the foundation of law, a foundation which must also be an apex. The state should not be interfering in society, it should be protecting its own sovereignty from any confusion about its role. The state is most admired before the establishment of mass democracy, and is most legitimate when defending itself against enemies. There is a strong element of elitism in Hayek, who would like constitutional constraints on democracy to the advantage of property owners. Hayek’s wariness of democracy follows a tradition that goes back to Humboldt Humboldt recommended the free development of the individual after paying very little tx. Humboldt also opposed democracy, because he thought that would lead to increasing social demands on the state. Humboldt thought there should be just a king, remote from and above society. That itself recalls Hobbes. Hayek, and others with similar views, attack Hobbes as a supporter of a strong state. This misses the point that Hobbes thought the only purpose of the state was to leave people to be free in civil society while defending the state against its enemies. Hobbes preferred monarchy to democracy, a monarchy of the sword unconcerned with social questions, but wielding immense force to protect sovereignty within and without.

This is all consistent with Schmitt’s enthusiasm for a separation between the political sphere and the economic sphere. Hayek assumed that since Schmitt refereed to the modern tendency for society and the state to be confused, that he was endorsing that tendency, and saw in the Nazis an ideal aspect of that trend. However, there is no reason to believe that Schmitt supported the Nazis for socialsit or statist reasons. He justified the idea of a Caesar like leader, and the rights of any large nation over its smaller neighbours. That is all. Schmitt was complicit with a totalitarian state, but that should not lead us to the conclusion that totalitarianism was his goal. A post-war speech to business people strongly suggests he though that the state should concern itself with politics without interference from above in the economy.

Like Habermas, Schmitt did not think all war must be founded on existing international law. Like Hayek, Schmitt was suspicious of democracy and particularly of welfarism.
Like both Hayek and Habermas, Schmitt thought that the modern state is fundamentally lost in a contradiction between general laws and administrative bodies which regulate more and more of life.

Martha Nussbaum and Michel Foucault on Eros and Ethics in Antiquity

Michel Foucault and Martha Nussbaum covered some similar territory with regard to the ethics of the Ancient world with regard to desire, sexuality, eros and love. In Foucault’s case, this was work towards the end of his life in Hermeneutics of the Subject, Uses of Pleasure, and Care of the Self (the last two were volumes two and three of History of Sexuality). In Nussbaum’s case, this was the work that really made her name: Fragility of Goodness and Therapy of Desire.

Comparisons of the two are not very frequent. Foucault tends to be best known amongst literary theorists; Nussbaum is known to philosophers (particularly those working in Ancient Philosophy, Philosophy and Literature, and Ethics) and also to people in legal and political theory. There would be great benefits in more philosophers reading Foucault, there would also be benefits in cultural theorists reading Nussbaum.

There are intermittent comments on Foucault in Nussbaum. As far as I know, Foucault never had anything to say about Nussbaum. As far as I know, Nussbaum’s major comment on Foucault on antiquity, is that Foucault looked at sexuality with regard to the individual, and paid insufficient regard to the interest in its harmful effects on others in Antiquity. I don’t really see a great difference between the fundamentals in how Nussbaum and Foucault present Antique ethics as concerned with the health of the individual.

The underlying difference between the two maybe in what they try to build on Antique ethics. Nussbaum wants to build Aristotelian social democracy, Foucault is concerned with the difficulties of building a theory of political obligation on Aristotle’s ethics, or any Antique ethics. For Nussbaum, Aristotle shows a way out of a rigid concern with inner correctness. Aristotle becoems the bearer of an Antique moral externalism (morally significant actions have causes other than inner intentions). Foucault insists on exploring the difficulties Antique ethics poses for generating a sense universality in ethics and politics. The question for Foucault is how a self partly described in sexual terms has the right to sovereignty because it is sovereign over its passions. Upto the Meditations of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, this poses difficulty for universalising theory. Aurelius does not even think it worth discussing the state directly, it is his daily rule of his passions which settles the question of the legitimation of his power. Foucault explores to the limit, the idea of particular right to sovereignty. This is important to him as it confirms his libertarian tendency to find all power alien. It should also be said that in Hermeneutics of the Subject that Foucault is working on the distinction between pastoral power and governmentality, which is the difference between state absolutism and limited state. So Foucault is beginning to get beyond the gestures towards libertarianism which leave open the question of what the least bad government is in its exercise of power.

Nussbaum is comparatively indifferent to the problems of power in Aristotle, that it rests on a particularistic understanding of who is fit to govern. Despite her discussions of sexuality and a feminine point of view, there is a Puritan desire for morally perfect government with the right to make people good lurking in Nussbaum. This may look harsh but she clearly does not get why Foucault is suspicious of all power and she is advocating a Communitarian type political theory in which the government is moral in purpose. Some of her reactions show a neo-Puritan political correctness completely lacking in Foucault despite his adoption/kidnapping by the politically correct cultural progressives. In Nussbaum’s Neo-Puritanism, consider her support for Cartherine McKinnon’s proposal to make pornographers open to civil damages because of the supposed consequences of their publications, or her resentment on video that someone commenting on her position on ethical responsibility to animals referred to her ‘hunting bigger game’ (than Rawlsian political contractualism). I’m concerned about the same issues as Nussbaum is, but I thought that was funny remark and that her response was slightly sinister in its wish to enforce her own very constrained view of civility. She clearly thought the editor should not have allowed such a remark.

Foucault was an irresponsible provocateur, Nussbaum is the New Engşand moralist. Clearly Nussbaum is the greater scholar of Antiquity, by a very long way, but she is not convincing when she tries to criticise Foucault for emphasising the distance between Antique ethics and general theories of obligation. It is important that at this time Foucault was developing a more nuanced view of different types of political regime. In all cases he was trying to learn from Antiquity how politics always refers to particularistic sovereignty.