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Sympathy for the Devil: The Unlikely Uses of Michel Foucault by Harrison Pitt

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Essay

Sympathy for the Devil: The Unlikely Uses of Michel Foucault

The Irish philosopher Mark Dooley boasts the distinction of having actually read Jacques Derrida. He further believes that there is a surprising conservative side to the father of deconstruction. It would be preposterous to make the same claim for Michel Foucault. Derrida’s fellow French philosopher and brief associate was a revolutionary to his core. Nevertheless, finding themselves hemmed in by the rise of left-wing power structures, as opposed to the ‘bourgeois’ norms on insanity, sex, and crime against which Foucault so profitably railed, some conservatives may be beginning to wonder whether the Foucauldian critique of ‘truth’ as an elaborate guise for power might have its merits.

Foucault’s work was always more seductive than the well-written but bloodless histories of Eric Hobsbawm or the impenetrable epigrams churned out by Jacques Lacan. Foucault wrote in a straightforward yet powerfully symphonic style, heaping image upon recurring image to produce thunderously subversive sentences. In the hands of the heroic intellectual, these could be thrown as lightning bolts against ‘bourgeois’ hegemony and the flimsy claims to ‘truth’ upon which its power is based.

In fact, ‘truth’ is itself complicit in the charade, ‘knowledge’ being little more than an ingeniously constructed mask behind which the sordid interests of a dominating power can advance without notice. Foucault applied his hermeneutics of suspicion to any and all institutions that call on our loyalty and affection. This sentence will thus seem like genuine insight to anyone who grants Foucauldian premises: “Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons?” Indeed, there is nothing either true or false but power makes it so. The fact that these associations pursue their own distinct and honourable purposes, far removed from those of the prison warden (who also occupies his proper place), is irrelevant to someone who disregards the very possibility of honour among authorities. The factory might pursue technical productivity, the school academic virtue, the barracks military prowess, and the hospital to apply the treatments of medical science. Ultimately, however, they are no different from our prisons, for their definitions of ‘technical productivity,’ ‘knowledge,’ ‘virtue,’ ‘prowess,’ and ‘treatments of medical science,’ no less than the prison warden’s definition of ‘penal correction,’ is in the final analysis subordinate to whatever power sustains them. The key, then, is to expose this power. Any organised human institution becomes an endangered species, surviving only as long as the intellectual refrains from unmasking the internal power organs and freeing their apparent victims. 

Foucault devoted his own work to exposing the extent to which power upholds the ‘norms’ enshrined, and then conveniently repackaged as universal truths, by bourgeois society. He therefore attacks every established practice, from life-long marriage to advances in modern medicine, as a self-serving creation of bourgeois culture. After all, every structure of knowledge, or ‘episteme’ as Foucault put it, is merely the servant of power interests. All conventional wisdom cannot help also being convenient, at least to those with the power to describe it as wisdom. The Foucauldian vision declares war on society, language, even truth itself. 

Of course, nobody can deny the importance of power in human affairs. St. Augustine wrote critically of our libido dominandi, later valorised by Nietzsche as ‘the will to power,’ and finally adopted by Foucault as the key to explaining all human relations within the social system. But in Foucault’s hands, that key looked a great deal more like an incongruous projection onto the world of his own sadomasochistic obsessions than a proportionate description of human beings as they really are.

There is a simple critique to make of Foucault. If (1) knowledge is a slave of power, (2) all power is corrupt, and (3) Foucault comes bearing knowledge, why should we believe him? There is no obvious contrast between ‘episteme’ and an objective realm of knowledge that would enable us to entertain the Foucauldian analysis as potentially true: “There seems to be no privileged position,” argued Sir Roger Scruton, “from which the episteme of an era is discernible that is not imbued by an episteme of its own.” By assaulting the very idea of objective truth, philosophers relieve us of the only reason we might have had to pay them attention in the first place. For Scruton, this was Foucault’s fundamental problem, which “raised the question—not, I think, ever answered by Foucault—as to the method that would justify his observations, and whether or not he has obtained the impartial standpoint that would entitle him to make them.” Foucauldianism has a definite allure, but in technical terms it is self-defeating.

There is also a more heartfelt response to the Foucauldian dissection of society, to the effect that a narrow-minded fixation on power amounts to an inhuman trashing of all else that animates moral, social, and political life. Foucault leaves no room for truth, goodness, and beauty, let alone the love that drives our pursuit of all three. As covers for power, these transcendent values, even on the most charitable reading, become subordinate agents of domination.

It should be said, too, that certain thinkers of the Left with more classical tastes have taken equal exception to Foucault’s war on transcendentals. Noam Chomsky, for example, has attacked Foucault, along with other French philosophers of the New Left, as an indulgent reactionary, as an obstacle to practical politics and the real progress which, with proper direction, it can produce. By valorising marginal status as an emblem of virtuous disempowerment, argue the left-wing critics, Foucault turns that marginal status into a permanent fact. Moreover, the Foucauldian tendency towards relativism means that the progressive intellectual is robbed of the very ethical standards upon which the likes of Chomsky depend in order to hold Western governments accountable.

There is a televised debate between Chomsky and Foucault in which the Frenchman, to the American’s horror, characterizes responsibility and law as mere “tokens of ideology.” This is fatal stuff for Chomsky, who has spent his lifetime attributing “responsibility” to the seventeen U.S. presidents through which he has lived for ostensibly acting above the “law” since 1945. Chomsky may be an acquired taste, but he is a passionate believer in truth, goodness, and beauty. He realizes that no campaign movement, no withering polemic, no act of political defiance, can make sense without the first, second, and perhaps even the third. Foucault’s flamboyant posturing stands in the way of the universal standards which make progressive change possible.

Perhaps this is why Foucault has gone somewhat out of fashion among the modern Left. The activists still make use of Foucauldian language where it suits them, explaining away inconvenient facts about sex differences or disparate crime rates between communities as convenient creations of a dominating power, be it patriarchy or systemic racism. It is no accident that the radical Left is now attacking mathematics, science, and other routes to objective truth as tools for oppression by white heterosexual men, indelibly tainted by the colonial past. (Of course, the ‘wokesters’ will happily use both science and mathematics whenever doing so yields results more favourable to their narrative. They are not against counting the number of women in STEM fields or the ratio of black to white men who get stopped by police for speeding).

But this is an age of high moralism—a quality that is rather more lacking from Foucault’s repertoire. Foucault has less to say about creating some new world than about the need to expose and destroy the current one. This makes him less attractive to the present crop of budding revolutionaries than figures like Robin DiAngelo, Ibram X. Kendi, and the many others who peddle a more didactic creed of ‘equity,’ ‘diversity,’ and ‘inclusion.’

But perhaps the Left’s neglect has been a conservative gain, at least insofar as Foucault’s reputation is concerned. After all, it is no longer conservatives but the radical Left that possesses power across the main institutions of Western life. They control the academy, the corporations, the mainstream media, even some churches. What is the typical Foucauldian supposed to do once the major capillaries of cultural power have been seized by left-wing radicals, if not become a revolutionary conservative?

It turns out that Foucault’s strategic suspicion of truth-claims, especially those made by powerful vested interests, has its uses. Two popular Leftist power games warrant special attention. First, there is the sinister way in which governments and Big Tech conspire to overstate the threat of ‘misinformation’ and silence its alleged perpetrators online. Second, there is the ingenious way in which wealthy left-wing figures, somewhat ashamed of their riches, have pivoted from the traditional concern about economic inequality to the less significant, less explanatory categories of race, gender, and sexuality. Fruitless culture war bust-ups about racial, gender, and sexual identity serve to distract citizens from the more invidious socio-economic disparities of income, opportunity, and social status which truly divide advanced Western nations. ‘Eat the rich!’ is rather less appetizing as a call to action when you find yourself in the highest tax bracket.

Taking these left-wing power games in reverse order, the elite obsession with all group identities other than class has far less to do with the pursuit of truth than it does with maintaining status. Ignoring socio-economic standing in favour of irrelevant characteristics enables the likes of Lebron James, Kamala Harris, and Pete Buttigieg to pose as the disempowered members of beleaguered minorities, despite the huge advantages they enjoy over those they would condemn for benefitting from white, male, or straight ‘privilege’ respectively. In the case of such left-wing icons, the objective is to sustain themselves in positions of power by creating the illusion that they are being denied access or otherwise thwarted by a rigged system. In fact, even many old-school Leftists like Slavoj Žižek and Michael Lind have bemoaned the way in which the firestorm of tribal identity politics has ravaged the foundations of class solidarity. “Does ‘wokeism’ have the ring of truth?” is the kind of question that an intellectual untouched by postmodernism—think Thomas Sowell, Charles Murray, Christina Hoff Sommers—would ask. But the more Foucauldian angle, “Which powers advance behind its apparent truth-claims?”, is an equally worthwhile line of inquiry for conservatives to pursue.

The same applies more obviously to the attempts by elites, in collusion with Big Tech and transnational companies, to fiddle with the meaning of ‘misinformation’ to suit their own political and financial purposes. When conservative students at the University of Chicago quizzed Anne Applebaum about her dismissal of the Hunter Biden laptop story as Russian disinformation, they were in essence subjecting the rhetoric of this (admittedly very fine) historian to a quasi-Foucauldian dissection. And Applebaum came off poorly from the exchange

During the COVID-19 pandemic, too, the official understanding of scientific ‘truth’ was weaponized to insulate from criticism the new bio-security state implemented by national governments to “control” the virus. The Great Barrington Declaration, which called for protecting the most vulnerable instead of indulging the quixotic delusion that a disease as infectious as COVID-19 could just be “shut down” by plunging people into isolation and misery, had its Facebook page deleted. Meanwhile, world leaders from Joe Biden to Boris Johnson were free to spread genuine misinformation on social media. Both the American President and the British Prime Minister overhyped the power of vaccines to check viral infection. Not one of them was penalized by the army of censors at Big Tech, most likely because this authorized version of the truth was highly convenient for the pharmaceutical companies which stood to profit most from exaggerating the efficacy of their product. Yet again, Foucault’s alertness to the way in which transcendentals, including truth and goodness, can be instrumentalized by those with power and influence proves instructive. 

To use the Foucauldian jargon, the new left-wing aristocrats are forever manufacturing ‘epistemes’—that is, structures of knowledge—which serve to sustain their dominance of Western society. Moreover, they are untroubled by any need to avoid philosophical inconsistency. They will spend the morning complaining of their powerless victimhood, especially if they can brandish intersectional credentials: black, woman, gay, etc. Yet by lunchtime, these same people will be justifying their possession of the power that they supposedly lack in the most triumphalist terms. In each case, the task of a conservative intellectual is not just to point out the logical absurdities at work in the Left’s best-loved slogans, but to dig deeper. What kind of power interests, we should constantly be asking ourselves, might feel inclined to ensure that such logical absurdities are mistaken for self-evident truths? If answering such questions means taking what inspiration we can from Foucault, then so be it.

One of Donald Trump’s few virtues was that his brash, straight-talking manner utterly destroyed the Left’s favourite ‘epistemes’ like a wrecking ball. The only issue was that, in several important respects, Trump was post-modern in ends as well as means, not least by playing fast and loose with the truth himself. There was a bewildering relativism to his presidency. In fact, the 45th President might even be inclined to agree with Foucault that nothing is either true or false but power makes it so. Many of his most die-hard supporters certainly act as if they accept the post-modern assumption that life is merely a game of competing narratives.

This was the core Trumpian fallacy: to regard the appetite for battle as an end-in-itself, rather as Foucault, throwing stones at the Paris police and sporting a conspicuously shaved head, believed transgression against normality to be the sole measure of a life authentically lived. But in actual fact, courage is only as virtuous as the ends to which it is put, and so many of these became fuzzy and overshadowed as a result of Trump’s overbearing, self-obsessed, theatrical character.

The global Right has learned much from Trump, but his strange marriage of conservative policies with a post-modern style that, at times, replaced the truth with sheer force of personality can only take us so far. Of course, conservatives should not only critique the received wisdom of the liberal elite, but also unmask the power interests with which that received wisdom is so often conjoined. But most importantly, this strategy should not degenerate into its own kind of conservative cynicism—one which proclaims: “truth is only ever the slave of power, so better that it should serve mine than yours!” We should not grant the Foucauldian premise that truth is always and everywhere a guise for power, but move towards a world in which power, wielded humbly, might seek and serve the truth.

Harrison Pitt is a writer for The European Conservative. Based in the UK, he has also been published in The Spectator, Quillette, Spiked-Online, The Critic, and others.

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