The year was 1971. Thomas Pynchon had published his first two novels, the Pentagon Papers were published and Richard Nixon was withdrawing troops from the massively unpopular Vietnam War. In November, the postmodern philosopher Michel Foucault met with MIT linguist Noam Chomsky to debate whether or not an innate human nature exists, and was paid a brick of hash for his trouble.
This collision between Chomsky and Foucault has remained relevant—clips of Chomsky referring to postmodern critiques of science as “pretty embarrassing” continue to float around YouTube, as the Intellectual Dark Web and Jordan Peterson have re-energized anti-postmodernist polemic. The spirit of Foucault continues to permeate discussions of human nature and social justice.
Chomsky and Foucault agreed on much—until the subject turned to politics. Their full discussion reveals the split between the postmodernist worldview and traditional epistemology, represented by Chomsky, who stands up for “old-fashioned concepts,” such as justice and truth. In retrospect, it is remarkable Chomsky and Foucault agreed on so much, despite their distinct moral underpinnings. But Chomsky and Foucault were destined to drift apart. Today, I contend that changing political circumstances have separated the left-wing and postmodern worldviews almost entirely.
The discussion between Chomsky and Foucault provides insight into the positions held within the international left in 1971, when postmodern theory was just beginning its monumental academic ascendance.
Visions of Utopia
Chomsky and Foucault’s most pressing disagreement was on the inherent conflict between justice and power.
Chomsky believes that there is a real, definable human nature, characterizable via scientific knowledge, and bound up with a need for creative expression. He grounds this in his own linguistic theory: the discovery and assembly of words by children reveals innate human creativity. Because twentieth-century capitalist societies constrain that creative freedom, it is necessary to create an alternative system of governance that more closely reflects the innate needs of creative human beings. Chomsky’s desire for revolutionary politics, then, is driven by his understanding of human nature.
Foucault, on the other hand, believes that human nature is historically contingent and colored by society and politics. Until the Cartesians, Foucault notes, life was an organizing biological principle. In Cartesian science, however, life is not a scientific concept. Living things are studied in the same way as dead things, via their chemical, biological and physical properties. Ancient and modern views of human nature have entirely different conceptions of living things. Foucault thus concludes that basing human nature on life would be shortsighted, and that similar attempts to understand human nature today are inherently limited. Human nature is an amorphous, historical concept, subject to the changing conclusions and definitions of science.
Foucault argues that Chomsky conceives of a creative human nature “in terms borrowed from our society, from our civilization, from our culture.” He points out that would-be revolutionaries in the Soviet Union, for example, envisioned their utopia in accordance with cultural bourgeois notions of what was good for human beings. Even in revolution, they failed to give human beings a new vision of what they could become.
Foucault has a point—Chomsky’s understanding of human nature as intrinsically creative is entrenched in the liberal cultural background of the Enlightenment. The idea originates with thinkers like Rousseau and Locke, who believed that liberty and autonomy were the future of politics, just as modern science was emerging as a discipline. Chomsky argues that scientific evidence from linguistics shows that human beings are intrinsically creative. For Foucault, both Chomsky’s politics and his scientific assumptions are rooted in a particular historical development, and therefore lack objectivity.
Because Foucault rejects the concept of a settled human nature, he is not able to suggest what type of society might be best for humans. He has no utopian vision. Instead, Foucault tries to understand which elements of current society are oppressive and must be removed. In this sense, Foucault demonstrates how left-wing ideology and postmodern critique can become closely linked.
Postmodern critiques that expose the biases of society have been historically aligned with the left-wing project of liberating the working class, women, gay people and minorities from oppression. Foucault’s chief political concern in 1971 was those designated insane: “The definition of disease and of the insane, and the classification of the insane has been made in such a way as to exclude from our society a certain number of people.”
Understanding how systems of knowledge exclude certain categories was central to Foucault’s thought. It is not difficult to see how this critique of exclusion has translated into a focus on inclusion.
Liberty and Justice for All?
Foucault’s most radical disagreement from Chomsky is on the concept of justice. Foucault is skeptical of the idea of a just uprising of the proletariat class:
the proletariat doesn’t wage war against the ruling class because it considers such a war to be just. The proletariat makes war with the ruling class because, for the first time in history, it wants to take power. And because it will overthrow the power of the ruling class it considers such a war to be just.
For Foucault, this is a question of class power, not justice. The proletariat might well inflict violence against the deposed bourgeoisie. However, if they were to turn violent towards each other, that could only be because “a class outside the proletariat, a group of people inside the proletariat, a bureaucracy or petit bourgeois elements had taken power.”
Chomsky speaks of class justice, while Foucault speaks of class power. For Foucault,
the idea of justice … has been invented and put to work in different types of societies as an instrument of a certain political and economic power or as a weapon against that power. But … the notion of justice itself functions within a society of classes as a claim made by the oppressed class and as justification for it … in a classless society, I am not sure that we would still use this notion of justice.
Justice, for Foucault, is a power differential, dressed up in moral language. For Chomsky, however, a conflict is only worth waging if there is some moral motivation, such as the quest for justice, at stake. A conflict over power alone—such as World War I—is not worth waging. Foucault finds this incoherent.
Foucault’s position recalls G. K. Chesterton’s remark that the modern-day revolutionary demands political justice, whilst believing in his heart that there are no such things as justice or objective moral standards at all. If justice is only the expression of a power differential between two classes, then there can be no moral justification for seeking a different world.
Chomsky characterizes postmodern philosophy as a convoluted power grab: “a way of insulating sectors of a kind of radical intelligentsia from popular movements and actual activism, and serving as an instrument of power.” He comments: “A lot of postmodern work I just don’t understand … It seems to me, uh, some exercise by a lot of intellectuals who are talking to each other in very obscure ways and I can’t follow it, and I don’t know if anybody else can.” This is reminiscent of Camille Paglia’s remark that the finest minds of her generation were gobbled up by the universities and made to speak in an impossible language.
Paglia and Chomsky both view postmodernism as a language invented by academics who wanted to retain their status and power in an isolated wing of the university system. Applying a postmodern analysis to postmodern theory, one could argue that the entire enterprise was created to allow them to gain esteem and tenure, by inventing a science outside of the natural sciences, which could subvert and dethrone the latter.
However, if truth and justice were merely invented to disguise the all-consuming Nietzschian lust for power, then the claims of left-wing groups cannot be taken at face value—in this view, activists only wish to dethrone the current masters so that they can become the new masters. Postmodern skepticism is an acid that eats through all philosophical systems, including the moral convictions of leftists.
The Future of Postmodernism
Foucault’s rejection of the concept of justice led him to espouse several other views that were out of step with the left-wing consensus. For example, Foucault was skeptical of the notion of a “universal desire—much less a ‘right’—to any social good, including health care.” Daniel Zamora has argued that Foucault abandoned collective revolution entirely, focusing instead on “a wide array of micro-powers that operated at the level of sexual relations, schooling, family structures, expertise, science,” and everyday nuances in “social and cultural organization”. Foucault reduced revolution to a question of individual lifestyles—a trend we can see reflected today in the preoccupation with microaggressions, the need to oppose patriarchy in the family structure and the idea that using nonbinary pronouns is a revolutionary action. Foucault transformed revolution into a lifestyle of inclusion.
With his emphasis on lifestyle and individual choices, Foucault laid the foundation for the culture of the wokescold, which replaced the Chomskyite vision of a collective, class-driven left, focused on structural change. Foucault’s postmodern critique was not intrinsically married to any particular system of human organization. Foucault opposed Marxism for most of his life and his thought is consistent with neoliberal capitalism in striking ways.
Foucault’s revolutionary critique was largely concerned with social issues, particularly sexuality and mental health. However, there is nothing inherently revolutionary about a libertine social politics. The rejection of traditional childrearing practices, for example, is a boon to corporations, who would prefer not to have to give employees time off for parenting.
Foucault is insistent that the bourgeois mode of existence is wrong, and he is in favor of revolutionary thought, yet what happens when the systems of knowledge and power in a society reject the bourgeois mode of living? When the heteronormative patriarchy that has traditionally excluded all other identities is itself excluded, what is a postmodern thinker to do? Where should he focus his critique of systems of knowledge and power?
Foucault insisted upon the necessity of unmasking political power, which “exercises itself through the mediation of a certain number of institutions which look as if they have nothing in common with the political power, and as if they are independent of it, while they are not.” These institutions include business, education, the university, advertising and all the constituent elements of Theodor Adorno’s “culture industry.” Historically, postmodernism and the left-wing have been married. But how do we know that that was not simply a marriage of convenience?
The idea of Chesterton’s fence is that if we stumble upon something that has no immediately obvious reason for existing, we should assume there is a reason and leave it undisturbed. The anarchism of Noam Chomsky and the postmodern skepticism of Foucault instead call on us to demand the fence explain itself, and—if it cannot justify its existence—uproot it.
Yet, what if the white picket fence America of 1971 has changed beyond recognition? When white heteronormative Christian America is no longer the status quo, postmodernism should pick apart the invisible relations that are holding society together. If left-wing intellectuals inhabit most of the academy, if businesses are eager to support the cultural left and books and films are concerned chiefly with diversity and inclusion, the tools of postmodern critique may be used to attack that new regime.
There are anti-capitalists on the new right. Tucker Carlson argues that “big business hates your family” and Mencius Moldbug has described contemporary society as “The Cathedral”: an ironclad ideological fortress of left-wing social thought, which encompasses corporate life and the culture industry. The traditional alignment of left-wing social issues with revolutionary ambition is outdated. If capitalism can absorb excluded racial, psychological and gender identities unperturbed, then Chomsky may be the lone voice of protest against it. Foucault might have been wholly satisfied with woke capitalism.
If justice does not exist, and power is all that matters, then perhaps the right are now the rebels against power, as they take potshots at the consensus of the credentialed elites at Harvard, Vox and the United Nations, the levers of power and exclusion in contemporary society. When people like Jordan Peterson and Tucker Carlson allege that the modern left is motivated by vengeance, envy and a lust for power, rather than by justice, they are echoing Foucault’s objection to Chomsky.
In The Rise of Postmodern Conservatism, Matt McManus writes:
Postmodern conservatives increasingly regard strong truth claims about knowledge and morality with active suspicion and even hostility. This is because they regard the intellectual and cultural “elites” who produce knowledge and popularize moral norms as progressive, abstract and unlikely to sympathize with their concerns.
As libertine left-wing culture becomes the norm, it will be critiqued by the same postmodernists who historically would have sided with the libertines against repressive, patriarchal culture. Thus, Foucault becomes neoliberal, and neoliberalism can accommodate Foucault.
For the left to succeed, it must reject the postmodern critique of justice and truth and anchor its claims in an objective human nature. Otherwise, all roads lead to Foucault.