From the Comments: Foucault’s purported nationalism, and neoliberalism

Dr Stocker‘s response to my recent musings on Foucault’s Biopolitics is worth highlighting:

Good to see you’re studying Foucault Brandon.

I agree that nationalism is an issue in Foucault and that his work is very Gallocentric. However, it is Gallocentric in ways that tend to be critical of various forms of nationalist and pre-nationalist thought, for example he takes a very critical line of the origins of the French left in ethnic-racial-national thought. Foucault does suggest in his work on Neoliberalism that Neoliberalism is German and American in origin (which rather undermines claims that Thatcherism should be seen as the major wave). He also refers to the way that Giscard d’Estaing (a centre-right President) incorporated something like the version of neoliberalism pursued by the German Federal Chancellor, Helmut Schmidt, from the right of the social democratic party.

Thoughts about the relations between France and Germany going back to the early Middle Ages are often present in Foucault, if never put forward explicitly as a major theme. I don’t see this as a version of French nationalism, but as interest in the interplay and overlaps between the state system in two key European countries.

His work on the evolution of centralised state judicial-penal power in the Middle Ages and the early modern period, concentrates on France, but takes some elements back to Charlemagne, the Frankish king of the 8th century (that is chief of the German Franks who conquered Roman Gaul), whose state policies and institutional changes are at the origin of the French, German and broader European developments in this are, stemming from Charlemagne’s power in both France and Germany, as well as other areas, leading to the title of Emperor of the Romans.

Getting back to his attitude to neoliberalism, this is of course immensely contentious, but as far as I can see he takes the claims of German ordoliberals to be constructing an alternative to National Socialism very seriously and sympathetically and also regards the criticisms of state power and moralised forms of power with American neoliberalism in that spirit. I think he would prefer an approach more thoroughly committed to eroding state power and associated hierarchies, but I don’t think there is a total rejection at all and I don’t think the discussion of ordoliberalism is negative about the phenomenon of Germany’s role in putting that approach into practice in the formative years of the Federal Republic.

Here is more Foucault at NOL, including many new insights from Barry.

Foucault’s biopolitics seems like it’s just a subtle form of nationalism

I’ve been slowly making my way through Michel Foucault’s The Birth of Biopolitics, largely on the strength of Barry’s recommendation (see also this fiery debate between Barry and Jacques), and a couple of things have already stood out to me. 1) Foucault, lecturing in 1978-79, is about 20 years behind Hayek’s 1960 book The Constitution of Liberty in terms of formulating interesting, relevant political theory and roughly 35 years behind his The Road to Serfdom (1944) in terms of expressing doubts over the expanding role of the state into the lives of citizens.

2) The whole series of lectures seems like a clever plea for French nationalism. Foucault is very ardent about identifying “neo-liberalism” in two different models, a German one and an American one, and continually makes references about the importation or lack thereof of these models into other societies.

Maybe I’m just reading too deeply into his words.

Or maybe Foucault isn’t trying to make a clever case for French nationalism, and is instead trying to undercut the case for a more liberal world order but – because nothing else has worked as well as liberalism, or even come close – he cannot help but rely upon nationalist sentiments to make his anti-liberal case and he just doesn’t realize what he’s doing.

These two thoughts are just my raw reactions to what is an excellent book if you’re into political theory and Cold War scholarship. I’ll be blogging my thoughts on the book in the coming weeks, so stay tuned!

BC’s weekend reads

  1. Generals and Political Interventions in American History
  2. they neglect to take account of the experiences of postcolonial states that form the vast majority of members of the international system. “
  3. The U.S. Hasn’t ‘Pulled Back’ from the Middle East At All
  4. No special sharia rules in American courts for Muslims’ wrongful-death recovery
  5. Is Gary Johnson a True Libertarian? American libertarianism has a purge problem
  6. Identity politics and the perils of zero-sum thinking

Theory versus Common Sense? The case of Free Trade

[…] the [World Baseball Classic] allows Organized Baseball to sustain the structures that constitute its inner purity, maintaining the boundaries of its regular and post seasons above all against all challenge by foreign teams, all the while increasing its global reach in recruiting talent and vending its commodity […A]ll the champions and perennial powers of the world’s other leading leagues need not apply.

[…] To call [Organized Baseball] an empire, or even a monopoly, is to seriously underestimate it. It is to fail to see the form of power it wields in shaping the separateness of its own commodious world, controlling access, avoiding and deflecting competition, limiting liability, sustaining and elaborating fictions of separate but equal, and mostly separate.

[…] For all of our ease in understanding objections to racism, for all that we can see the flaws in separate but equal when it generated the Major Leagues and the Negro Leagues, most of us now, not only but especially Americans, have no inkling how strange and immoral will someday seem our sanguine acceptance of the legal fortresses of limited liability and nation-state self-determination. (170-172)

These passages are from the last few pages of American anthropologist John D Kelly’s short book The American Game: Capitalism, Decolonization, World Domination, and Baseball. You can read it for yourself, but my short summary of the book is that it pleads for free trade. Not the theoretical free trade of economists, mind you, but of a practical free trade that opens up borders to labor (Kelly points out that it is really hard to play in the Majors if you are not an American, but shortsightedly blames US policy when other nation-states harbor just as much of the blame; if anything, the US has one of the more open immigration policies in the world today) and to marketplace competition (i.e. capital) in the realm of goods and services. I don’t know if this is a conclusion that Kelly would be comfortable being associated with, given that he is a man of the Left, but what would you call a world where baseball teams from Cuba, the US, the Netherlands, Japan, etc. compete with each other on an even playing field for labor, fans, and prestige?

The stubbornness of the Left is sometimes astounding. Kelly is right to lament the fact that the American baseball league (“Organized Baseball”) wields so much power in international baseball, but he doesn’t spell out an explicit remedy for solving this issue. Instead, it seems as if he is mystified as to how this could possibly happen. He understands and acknowledges that Organized Baseball derives much of its power from being located in the world’s most powerful nation-state, but he also understands that free trade (of labor and capital) is the answer to this issue without explicitly acknowledging this fact.

It seems to me that this is an issue where libertarians and internationalist Leftists can work together, provided we clarify a few concepts. Free trade is the answer for a lot of problems in the world today. Internationalists on both the Left and the Right realize this (see also Delacroix). The New Left intelligentsia, though, wants a practical free trade, and it often accuses economists of arguing for a theoretical free trade. But this critique is made in bad faith: Because economists are more familiar with the theoretical version of free trade, they are, as a whole, more willing to make compromises in the form of small steps towards more free trade. The New Left intelligentsia, instead of taking into account all the various options that can be done to move toward a freer world, including political limitations on what can be done to open societies up more to each other, has decided instead to poo-poo the small steps advocated by economists, and all in the name of practicality!

I agree with Kelly and others about the nation-state being a tool of segregation in today’s world. Unlike the New Left, though, I wholeheartedly embrace the pragmatic steps being taken to erode this segregation through the peaceful medium of free trade, even if it is not True Free Trade.

What is a nation?

I know Michelangelo has already asked and answered this question, and NOL has dealt extensively with “the nation” before, but:

Nations are now defined not as races or peoples but by their possession of a state, and states are legitimate only if they express political will of a nation. The strange new idea of nation-building was born, the other side of the coin of state-building in the decolonizing world. It is a game played by given rules, above all that no other forms of political will and action were legitimate, especially wars of conquest.In outcome, the poor, the small, and the marginal gain the freedom of self-determination, the telos of independence, but their democratic rights extinguish utterly at the border. They have right of influence anywhere else.(137-138)

I have just two thoughts about this nugget of insight from American anthropologist John D Kelly, writing on the Wilsonian ideal in his book The American Game: Capitalism, Decolonization, World Domination, and Baseball. 1) The “given rules” Kelly writes of are still a factor in today’s world. You can most clearly see them via international governing organizations (IGOs) like the UN, World Bank, IMF, WLO, etc. Given rules are handed down to former colonies by IGOs not as a way to control these colonies but to guide them gently into the modern era. This may seem quaint, but this is how Wilson and his ilk viewed their rules and their fellow man in the colonies of Africa and Asia. If you think about institutions, even weak ones like IGOs, you know that the rules and ideals that such institutions were created to embody are hard to break; often a critical juncture is needed to do so. So the given rules of the international system are, I would argue, still based on condescending early 20th century notions about non-European peoples. This is partly why Scots and Catalonians are allowed to vote on their secessionist arguments while Kurds and Balochs and Biafrans are labelled terrorists or rebels, and states like Montenegro and Kosovo are allowed to enter the international system with virtually no hiccups while Kurdistan, Balochistan, and South Ossetia are ignored by IGOs and only informally recognized when an official state like the US requires an ally to fight an enemy.

2) This is hard for me to admit as a libertarian, but the Wilsonian ideal has helped to almost entirely eliminate old-school imperialism (violent conquest followed by oppressive government and extractive economic policies) from the earth.

McCloskey, Western equality, and Europe’s Jews

Warren shot me the following email a few days ago:

Brandon, do you know the name Deirdre McCloskey?

She is a first-rate economist with extensive expertise in history, literature and anthropology.  She recently finished a trilogy, the third volume of which is “Bourgeois Equality.” It’s a fat book but you would be well rewarded for time invested.  You don’t have to read the first two volumes to benefit from the third.

The purpose of the trilogy is to explain why we’re 30 times richer than our forebears of 250 years ago, as best that can be estimated.  Conventional answers like the industrial revolution and rule of law don’t go far enough.  The answer lies in attitudes toward commerce.

I haven’t read McCloskey’s book yet, but it’s been on my amazon wishlist for awhile and thanks to Warren’s prodding it’ll be my next purchase. (Here is all of NOL‘s stuff on McCloskey so far, by the way.)

My first instinct on this topic is to think about Europe’s Jews. Bear with me as I lay out my thoughts.

McCloskey’s book, which as far as I can tell takes readers to the Netherlands and the United Kingdom from the 17th to 19th centuries, is about how Europeans began to reconceptualize equality in a way that was very different from notions of equality in the past.

A very basic summary is that notions of equality in Europe prior to the modern era largely aligned with notions of equality elsewhere in the world. Basically, an established hierarchy based on either inherited land ownership or clerical ranking was justified in all cultures by a religious appeal: “we’re all Christians or Buddhists or Muslims or fill-in-the-blank, so don’t even worry about what we have and you don’t have.” This way of thinking was irrevocably altered in 17th century northwestern Europe. Once I actually read McCloskey’s book, I can give you more details (or, of course, you can just read it yourself).

This argument, that northwestern Europe became free and prosperous because of a change in ideas about equality, is of course very broad and qualitative, but I buy it. The big “however” in this line of reasoning is Europe’s treatment of its Jews.

I forget where I heard the argument before, but somebody or some school of thought has argued that because Europe’s Jews were forced by legislation to go into “dirty trades” like commerce, they became more broadly open-minded than other ethnic groups in Europe and therefore more prosperous. Dutch and British bourgeois culture no doubt had a Jewish influence, and because bourgeois culture is internationalist in scope this Jewish influence must have penetrated other European societies, but anti-Semitism in these other bourgeois centers was more rampant than than it was in the UK and the Netherlands. Why was this?

My main guesses would be “Protestantism” (because Protestants at the time were more open-minded due to being at odds with the Catholic Church), or “the seafaring character of British and Dutch societies.” These are just guesses though. Help me out!

BC’s weekend reads

  1. Turkey and the Case of the Magical Vanishing Coup
  2. Is the overthrow of a democratically elected government ever justified?
  3. John and Abigail Adams educated their son, John Quincy, to become the worthy successor of the Founding generation of the new regime
  4. An American economist’s observations from Europe
  5. The Influence of Culture on Science, and the Culture of Science
  6. Confessions of an Ex-Prosecutor

PS: Did anyone else notice that the Brexit vote was 51%-49%? I mean, there’s a lot to think about there, especially for libertarians who claim that democracy sucks but Brexit/Nexit/Grexit is totally and completely justified if the people demand it…