Michel Foucault: Arch-Leftist or Subversive Conservative?

Michel Foucault is one of the great thinkers of (post) modern thought, and arguably the most influential figure in the humanities and social science from the second half of the twentieth century. He is also widely regarded as a beacon of leftist thought—hailed by outlets such as the Guardian and Aeon; and reviled by pundits, such as Jordan Peterson and Stephen Hicks, and right wing magazines such as the National Review. Foucault has been characterized as everything from a genius to a nihilistic pedant, the heir to Kant and Nietzsche and a largely uninteresting bore. In the pages of this magazine, too, he has received a fair amount of attention: he has been accused of ruining the West, on the one hand, and, on the other, defended as a figure who can help us understand our troubled age.

But understanding the underlying message of Foucault’s thinking remains a serious challenge. One of the most interesting recent accusations to be resurrected is that—despite the vitriol directed against him by the Right—Foucault was actually a closet conservative. These accusations have been around since the 1960s, when he was ridiculed by Marxists for his lack of dedication to—or interest in—the cause of class conflict, and persist to the current day, when Foucault is accused—not entirely unfairly—of providing intellectual support for the project of neoliberalism. Perhaps the most classic accusation was made by seminal critical theorist Jürgen Habermas in a series of scathing articles and books published in the 1980s. In his 1981 paper “Modernity versus Postmodernity,” Habermas accuses Foucault and other postmodern writers of being “young conservatives,” who abandoned the modernist project of emancipation and equality in favor of aestheticizing cultural and political concepts and traditions. As he puts it at the climax of the paper:

The Young Conservatives recapitulate the basic experience of aesthetic modernity. They claim as their own the revelations of a decentered subjectivity, emancipated from the imperatives of work and usefulness, and with this experience they step outside the modern world. On the basis of modernistic attitudes, they justify an irreconcilable anti-modernism. They remove into the sphere of the far away and the archaic the spontaneous powers of imagination, of self-experience and of emotionality. To instrumental reason, they juxtapose in manichean fashion a principle only accessible through evocation, be it the will to power or sovereignty, Being or the dionysiac force of the poetical. In France this line leads from Bataille via Foucault to Derrida.

While Habermas backed up these accusations in his interesting book, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, the accusation of Foucaultian conservatism has never permanently stuck. The French iconoclast remains the patron saint of many Leftists, and—as I discuss elsewhere—the subject of repeatedly crass interpretations by self-described classical liberals such as Peterson. In this article, I examine the accusation that Foucault’s work may provide intellectual support for certain conservative positions, perhaps unintentionally. I have no doubt that Foucault sincerely considered himself a radical, but I also think there is some basis to this accusation.

The Problems With Historical Empiricism

In his article “What is Conservatism?,” published in American Affairs, nationalist Yoram Hazony argues that the philosophical basis of conservatism is not the empirical realism of Locke, or the traditionalist idealism of people like Michael Oakeshott. Instead, it is what Hazony calls “historical empiricism”:

What is the substance of the Anglo-American conservative political tradition? We can summarize the principles of conservatism as they appeared in the writings and deeds of the early architects of this tradition as follows: (1) Historical Empiricism. The authority of government derives from constitutional traditions known, through the long historical experience of a given nation, to offer stability, well-being, and freedom. These traditions are refined through trial and error over many centuries, with repairs and improvements being introduced where necessary, while maintaining the integrity of the inherited national edifice as a whole. Such empiricism entails a skeptical standpoint with regard to the divine right of the rulers, the universal rights of man, or any other abstract, universal systems. Written documents express and consolidate the constitutional traditions of the nation, but they can neither capture nor define this political tradition in its entirety.

(For a more detailed analysis of Yoram Hazony’s ideas, see my writings here and in this magazine.) As Hazony defines it, historical empiricism entails taking a “skeptical standpoint” towards “abstract, universal systems.” It does not mean adopting the kind of empirical realism characteristic of the more ambitious human sciences. Conservative thinkers from Burke onwards knew that such empirical realism can just as readily be used to justify utility maximizing equality á la Jeremy Bentham and his contemporary heirs such as Peter Singer, as it can free markets (see Stephen Hicks and Milton Friedman). Hazony argues that the conservative understands that our reasoning “in political and legal matters is based upon inherited national tradition,” which “overcomes the weakness of individual judgement.” In effect, tradition fills the epistemic gap between our individual conscious apprehension of the world and the world as it is “in itself.”

This epistemological position isn’t fundamentally that different from the one staked out by Foucault in works such as The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Science and The Archaeology of Knowledge. In The Order of Things, Foucault analyzes the historical development of the “human sciences” in great detail. Over several hundred pages, he demonstrates how what were once taken to be universally valid systems of knowledge were in fact highly contingent upon the traditions and mores of the societies within which they developed. The book examines changes in the epistemes of our thinking, which are the sets of unspoken rules and traditions that govern our sense of the world and develop through history. Foucault implicitly criticizes the belief that any of these epistemes actually produced genuine universal truth applicable to all time periods and all people. He points out that “epistemic breaks”—what philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn might call paradigm shifts—occur when one dominant episteme gives way to another. At the end of The Order of Things, Foucault almost paradoxically flirts with the idea of describing the historical, empirical study of the archaeology of these epistemes as the foundational discipline, which enables us to grasp the historically empirical process by which epistemic breaks occur.

In his spiritual sequel, the Archaeology of Knowledge, Foucault deepens his historical-empirical analysis of what has since become known as discourse theory. He argues that modern people are too prone to consider themselves the rational masters of language, subjects who determine the meaning of their discrete “statements”:

The statement is not a direct projection onto the plane of language of a particular situation or a group of representations. It is not simply the manipulation by a speaking subject of a number of elements and linguistic rules. At the very outset, from the very root, the statement is divided up into an enunciative field in which it has a place and a status, which arranges for it its possible relations with the past and which opens up for it a possible future.

Foucault argues that the meaning of seemingly discrete statements is determined by their place within a “discursive formation”—i.e. what Ludwig Wittgenstein calls a traditional “form of life” for members of a distinct community of speakers. Understanding language, then, means empirically examining the “archive” of intersecting meanings which each discursive formation has generated over its long history. One can do this by examining the traditions, practices and so on associated with that discursive formation.

This approach to understanding epistemes and knowledge has political and moral consequences for our understanding of the human being. At the conclusion of The Order of Things, Foucault makes the striking claim that the episteme which produced our conception of modern man is fading away. New epistemes reveal that man is definitely not an emancipated individual, who is free to create his own destiny. Indeed, they reveal that this may well be a fruitless quest—though Foucault is never willing to go so far as to state this. But his historical empiricism demonstrates that human beings are determined by the time periods in which they exist, and—to invoke Hazony—emphasizes the need to understand ourselves as the product of the practices, traditions and languages we inherit.

Conclusion: A Conservative Reading of Foucault?

 Freedom is the ontological condition of ethics; but ethics is the deliberate form assumed by freedom. —Michel Foucault, “The Ethic of Care for the Self as a Practice of Freedom,” Interview by Raul Fornet-Betancourt.

Much more could be said about Foucault’s historical empiricism. The tremendous richness of his thinking comes through primarily in his analyses of individual phenomena, such as the treatment of the mad, the prison system or the history of sexuality. Foucault interpreted his work as emancipatory and progressive because it was meant to expose the contingency of various kinds of knowledge/power which set themselves up as universally valid. Once one recognized, say, that a violent Talonic system of retributive punishment was a historical way of understanding justice for criminals, one might be less inclined to think that all traitors to the sovereign must be drawn and quartered. This has vital consequences now, when many postmodern conservatives feel that an expansion of the disciplinary prison system is necessary to curb dramatically falling crime rates. At base, Foucault’s personal ethics was one of Nietzschian self-creation. Once one has completed the Kantian project of critiquing the contingency of our knowledge of the world, one is freer to develop one’s independent sense of self, without being determined by the heteromony of the world. This is probably why Foucault was always careful to keep one foot firmly planted in the Enlightenment camp, even when he chastised its “impatience” for liberty.

But it is not hard to see how Foucaultian historical empiricism can be used to justify far more conservative positions, such as Hazony’s. Habermas and Chomsky are right to criticize Foucault for providing exceptionally little guidance on where our human capacity for free self-creation comes from, if we are largely the products of historical circumstance. Foucault presents an image of human beings as determined by the circumstances which surround them, and is highly skeptical of any and all efforts to draw up abstract or universal plans for a fairer or more emancipatory society. In his debate with Noam Chomsky, Foucault displays an almost Burkean reticence to embrace any progressive agenda, cautioning that we risk simply replacing one system of power for another. He also criticizes modernists who argue that there is a universal human nature which is constrained by contemporary societies, arguing instead that who human beings are is determined by the historical traditions into which they are thrown. It is therefore perhaps not coincidental that Foucault was fascinated by neoliberalism, occasionally framing it as a cautious move towards a more socially libertine form of governance. Foucault was undoubtedly impressed by the scale of neoliberal transformations and by how the philosophy could potentially spread a more permissive kind of liberalism across the globe, without miring itself in the wholesale transformations called for by egalitarian utopians, such as the Marxist-Leninists. But he and Chomsky expressed concern over how neoliberalism worked to overthrow the conventional sovereignty of the nation state via the processes of globalization, and emphasized the ways in which it imposes alien forms of crass individualism onto local cultures and traditional practices. While these concerns are certainly not exclusive to the political right, there is no doubt that postmodern conservatives have picked up these anxieties and run with them more successfully than their left-wing peers.

None of this invalidates Foucault’s contributions to left-wing thought. It is the mark of an interesting thinker that his or her work can be taken up and interpreted in many different ways, by people who profoundly disagree with one another. However, I wanted to emphasize that the denigration of Foucault—as a mere left-wing “cultural Marxist” etc.—belies the subtle nuances of his thinking. His historical empiricism could very comfortably be used to support Burkean skepticism towards progressive universalism, by emphasizing that we are invariably determined by the circumstances in which we exist. It is not mere chance that figures on the postmodern right often invoke—probably unwittingly—Foucaultian tropes and ideas. Progressives need to look for additional, new sources of theoretical guidance and inspiration when pushing for a more egalitarian society. I largely agree with Habermas and Chomsky that one of the serious limitations of Foucault’s analysis is his complete dismissal of any efforts to develop an account of human nature that would support concrete projects of emancipation. While Foucault’s flirtation with a Nietzschian ethics of self-creation is certainly interesting, it is less prominent than his repeated observations that we will always be determined by the society we live within and any efforts to develop a freer or more equal society may well make things worse.

Fortunately, there seems to have been a sea change in certain circles of left-wing thought. What I have elsewhere called the engaged Left has absorbed much of what is interesting about Foucault’s analysis, while discarding those dimensions of his thought that are beholden to skeptical historical empiricism. Most notably, those on the engaged left are more willing to view epistemic claims about knowledge and morality as valid, outside of their historically determined circumstances. This leads to a style of engagement which is more argumentative than declaratory, and which seeks to demonstrate why the claims of conservatives are not just contingent or undesirable, but often simply wrong. I consider this a vital development, since the Left will not be able to weather the current rise of postmodern conservatism unless it is able to offer a more concrete and inspiring vision of what an equal society should look like.

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10 comments

  1. It’s a pity that a piece about Foucault’s (possible) conservative leanings doesn’t mention Iran or Khomeini. It would seem quite topical…

  2. Interesting piece, but it seems you need to cut Foucault a lot of slack to get past the glaring problems with his ideas in regards to political action.
    Given his views on the individual, ‘truth’, talk of ‘regimes of truth’ and reluctance to embrace anything normative and just talk of ‘disruption’, the logical conclusion of his ideas seems to be either inaction or a kind of relativism that sees you embrace a revolution that in alll likelihood would have murdered him had he lived under it.
    I don’t see how you get past that, without reducing much of his thought to merely a pretentious defence of the need to think critically about how ideas and concepts are formed (far less profound than is made out).
    You’ve not convinced me that his influence on the political left isn’t almost entirely pernicious.

  3. Thank you for this piece, which is thought provoking. It provoked the following thoughts…!

    We need to divorce the influence of a thinker from their quality. Often it is the second-rate thinkers – those who simplify and concentrate the message – that tend towards the most influence. This is no fixed rule, of course, but marvellous or mediocre Foucault is influential only because his core ideas are in tune with the times.

    The argument that Foucault shares the conservative intellectual background is well-argued and fascinating. Yet I wonder… The idea that the environment conditions thought is far more of a (classical) liberal than a conservative position; Marxism, to which Foucault & Co reacted in the 1960s, merely the most extreme development of this liberal intellectual history. Conservatism is, surely, more resistant to the environment (our continuous present) and change. The value of tradition for a Conservative is its normative effect: the past enables a society to protect itself against both the contingent and radical transformation.

    Then there is Foucault’s politics. In my view Foucault considered the academy a place for political activity. He used his epistemological ideas to establish the Nietzschean insight – that truth is will to power – inside scholarship itself. The pursuit of knowledge was replaced by a war to win, where self-created myths, that could capture the imagination, were used to demolish the claims of knowledge; Foucault’s oeuvre a radical attempt to create a new episteme where his ideas would dominate. His importance as a thinker is that he saw that this was possible and he succeeded.

    Lots more to say…but I’ve said a lot already. Then there is my piece on Foucault (https://serenityscience.blogspot.com/2018/08/the-boss.html), which you might find interesting.

    Thanks again

  4. Look, when the far left calls someone a conservative, it doesn’t actually mean he’s conservative. It means that they themselves are so far to the left that anyone to the right of Mao Zedong looks like a fascist to them. You don’t need to read any more into it than that.

    Leftists are not liberals. They do not believe in free speech. They believe in censoring us for our own good and will censor us without end for they do so with the approval of their own consciences.

  5. Thanks for this. Where I hang out, Foucault is seen as the very prince of darkness, it’s really useful to see him presented in a more positive light.

    1. He is a great thinker. I disagree with a lot of what he says, but the mark of real insight is to be able to dispute the position while still learning from it.

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