Michel Foucault has been a kind of godfather to progressive intellectuals since the 1960s, when he ousted Karl Marx as the de facto theoretical fountainhead for the academic left. According to Google Scholar, he is the single most cited author in academe. Foucault’s worldview has spread throughout the humanities and social sciences, and he is correctly viewed as the theoretical forebear of what its critics pejoratively call grievance studies. Women’s studies, critical theory, queer theory and a profusion of feminist fields, among others, all owe a heavy debt to Foucault. When some conservatives grumble about cultural Marxism, what they are often criticizing—without knowing it—is Foucauldian thought, as progressive scholars often point out. However, Foucault deserves a sympathetic treatment independently of the culture wars. I will focus here on the most relevant aspect of his work. This will doubtless do some violence to Foucault’s ideas, but to confine a text in order to assert power over it is a Foucauldian strategy anyway, as we will see.
Now, while some ideological excesses can largely be traced back to Foucault, it would be a strategic error to ignore him completely because his work amounts, in part, to a technology of cultural conflict, which can be serviceable for correcting real problems. To understand what the Social Justice ideologues are doing, and how, it helps to understand Foucault.
Paul-Michel Foucault was born in 1926, to an upper-middle-class family in Poitiers, France. His father was a surgeon: socially conservative, nominally Catholic and very strict. Michel was rebellious, independent, strong-willed and homosexual. In 1948, after he attempted suicide, he began consulting a psychiatrist at his father’s bidding. Much of Foucault’s work revolves around madness, punishment, confinement, psychology, sexuality and medicine, and he had a notable sympathy for marginalized groups, such as prisoners and madmen. Much of his work consists of critical history, or close skeptical examinations of historical texts. The Archaeology Of Knowledge, published in 1969, is a lucid, if dense, manifesto, which provides deep insights into the thinking of Foucault and those he influenced, which currently includes most of the humanist side of the academy.
Foucault’s basic method is to take a text and, studiously ignoring the truth or falsity of its claims, understand its use of words in terms of power, justification, authority and subjection. Rather than asking, is this true? or what reasoning led to this conclusion?, Foucault invites us to ask, who said this, on what authority, and what are they justifying? I call these the three Foucauldian questions.
Take the diagnosis of sluggish schizophrenia, a common political abuse of psychology in the Soviet Union. Political dissidents who could not be disappeared to a gulag were often confined to mental hospitals and diagnosed with various mental disorders, both to justify their continued confinement and to discredit them. When we read the term sluggish schizophrenia in Foucauldian terms, we would not say that it is a political abuse of psychology because it is false—since truth and falsehood are irrelevant to us. Instead, we assume that the use of this term was an outgrowth of institutional power. We don’t ask, were the patients really schizophrenic? but who said this, on what authority, and what was justified by saying this? The answers are, respectively, the Soviet psychiatrists, the Soviet government and the confinement of political dissidents.
There are more subtle examples too. Observe the use of the word equality in news media and you will notice that it generally occurs alongside an argument for the extension of state power. This piece from CNN couches gender equality in terms of the degree of adherence to a set of metrics outlined by the United Nations:
The SDGs [sustainable development goals], which 193 countries signed up to in 2015, create a global road map to eradicate poverty and protect the planet, with a 2030 deadline. But “with just 11 years to go, our index finds that not a single one of the 129 countries is fully transforming their laws, policies or public budget decisions on the scale needed to reach gender equality by 2030,” Alison Holder, Director of Equal Measures 2030, which is a civil society and private-sector led partnership, said in a statement.
In this context, we can ignore whether or not “gender equality” is a legitimate category or a desirable goal. Instead, we ask what function this plays in terms of the dynamics of institutional power: who said this, on what authority and what does it justify? The speaker is the news media; they have the authority to say this because news networks, until recently, have been largely trusted by the public; and the appeal to gender equality justifies the extension of the UN’s power over various states. If we note that the UN is arguably an instrument of American hegemony—especially if we connect this to the justification of American military action by under the guise of ending “human rights violations” in certain targeted countries— a rather dismal picture emerges, in which the rhetoric of equality functions as a justification for the extension of domestic state power in western countries and the imposition of American power abroad.
Foucauldian analysis is essentially destructive. By concentrating solely on institutional power, a Foucauldian can cast any institution as oppressive. When a discourse assumes from the outset that everything is reducible to power relations, the final analysis will always look a bit dismal. For this reason, progressive academics are generally not keen on subjecting their own values to such an analysis. One never encounters Foucauldian analysis of equality, because if you analyze anything through a Foucauldian lens, you are ipso facto attacking that thing.
One final example: populist is a term of derision often used by academics, reporters and politicians. Let’s ask ourselves the three Foucauldian questions: who says that, on what authority and what does it justify? The three most common users of the term are those who work in the university system, the media and politicians. It is said on the authority of being broadly reputable, as belonging to an established institution that has the right to inform (in Foucauldian terms, dictate reality to) the public, and as having the sanction of the elite political class. And it justifies the exclusion of certain varieties of thought and certain groups of people: Trump voters, Brexiteers, independent dissenting journalists and media outlets and anyone else who challenges the prevailing narrative. Most dictionaries define populism as a belief system or movement relating to the concerns of ordinary people, and established institutions have made their view of it very clear.
There is a danger here, however: abuse of Foucault’s way of thinking can lead to the attitude that truth itself is irrelevant. If you have ever wondered why so many academics feel the need to throw words like “truth” and “reality” inside sneer quotes, this is one of the reasons why. When one is accustomed to analyzing everything in terms of institutional power, domination and control, it can be tempting to dismiss the veridicality of a claim as irrelevant or—even worse—to see any appeal to truth as a means of asserting control. Foucault himself seemed to be conscious of this, and spent a great deal of time hedging his claims by emphasizing that his way of thinking was only one way to see things, not the way. All the same, Foucault, like everyone else who adopted his standpoint, came to find truth irrelevant after a while. Many conservative commentators cast Foucault as a skeptic or relativist, but, in fact, Foucault, and his (knowing or unwitting) disciples are simply not interested in the truth or falsehood of a claim when subjected to this kind of analysis.
Even a cursory reading of Foucault’s work, particularly The Archaeology Of Knowledge, can illuminate how activists and academics in grievance studies really think. Foucault is important enough that even conservatives ought to hold their noses and read him.