Another Liberty Canon: Foucault

Michel Foucault (1926-1984) was a French writer on various but related topics of power, knowledge, discourse, history of thought, ethics, politics, and so on. His name to some summons negative associations of French intellectual fashion, incomprehensibility, and refinements of Marxist anti-liberty positions.

However, his influence in various fields has become too lasting, and too much taken up by people who do not fit into the categories just mentioned, for such reactions to be considered adequate. Foucault himself resisted and mocked labels, which was a serious issue for him because in his work he tried to question the absolute authority of any one system of knowledge and the  authority of isolated great thinkers.

He said that once he had written something it was no longer what he thought, which is in part a playful attempt to resist labelling, but also a rather serious point deeply embedded in his thought, about the nature of subjectivity, how it is always more than what we say or more than the identity that power relations impose on us.

It seems to me that any ethics of subjectivity has pro-liberty implications, and despite the image some might have of Foucault as morally irresponsible or indifferent, he increasing developed the idea of  self-invented subjectivity, based on care of the self, the art of existence, and related terms.

The self-invention does not mean that Foucault thought we can arbitrarily will our self to be anything, it does mean that he thought we have possibilities to cultivate ourselves to live in a way that relates to, and challenges our existing strengths and goals.

Despite the image for some of intellectual fashion round Foucault, these ideas were partly developed through study of Ancient Greek and Roman ideas about ethics and style of living, which included interaction with scholars in the field.

Another theme he developed through his interests in antique knowledge and culture was that of ‘parrhesia’, Greek word that refers to free speaking, which in the context of ancient city states, particularly the Athenian democracy, had strong overtones of courage in truth telling before the city assembly, a prince of any other source of power.

The ethic of truth telling relates to Foucault’s own work on the language of knowledge and the history of science, as well his political ideas. He did not believe in absolute final systems of knowledge, autonomous of context, but he did believe that trying to find truths within whatever perspectives was an ethical enterprise connected with the kind of self cultivation he advocated.

Foucault’s own father had been a doctor and on at least one occasion Foucault suggested his own work was a continuation of the doctors work that evidently combines ethical and scientific aspects. It must also be said that Foucault was a great critic of the authority of experts, including doctors, so he might also be seen as struggling with the memory of his father.

The ambiguity and the personal involvement in ideas suggested there is very much at work throughout Foucault’s writing, in its tension and energy. It is part of his ‘difficulty’, which also comes from the philosophical and literary interests he had, which relate to the creative possibilities of linguistic disruption. We can see that in the most obvious way when he quotes literary texts of Borges, Beckett and so on.

The existential commitments in Foucault’s work is clear if we think about the book that made him famous, History of Madness (also known as Madness and Civilisation), and his personal experience of mental ill health and psychiatric treatment, particularly in his student years.

We can also think about his constant critique of power and his individual  willingness to physically confront power, as in the beatings he received from the police at demonstrations for rights in both France and in Tunisia (where he taught for a few years just after becoming a celebrity public intellectual in France).

Returning to the topic of experts and power, one of Foucault’s most pervasive ideas now is of ‘biopolitics’, that is the way that power expresses itself through prolongation of life. As the state has moved from a basis in the power of death over criminals and other supposed enemies, to a promotion of population, public health, and prolongation of life, it has demanded corresponding powers of intervention and control.

At the extreme this means the ‘racial hygiene’ ideas that German National Socialists used to justify the Holocaust, and in a more routine way means expanding state activity justified by public health goals. We can readily see the contemporary significance of Foucault’s ideas here in relation to ever expanding state and ‘expert’ attempts to limit smoking, drinking alcohol and supersized fizzy drinks, eating sugary and fatty foods, and so on.

The ideas about biopolitics builds on the discussion of modern power in maybe his most widely read book, Discipline and Punish, which deals with the way that the prison becomes the central means of punishment after the eighteenth century Enlightenment, and suggests the dangers of Enlightenment becoming a controlling form of rationalism.

The way the prison works, around observation, or surveillance, of prisoners to ensure adherence to prison routine was the model of modern power for Foucault including factories, schools, and armies, in a model of ‘disciplinarily’. Again Foucault’s intellectual interests correspond with life commitments, as he was a prominent campaigner for prisoner rights, under the inspiration of the man with whom he shared his life, the academic sociologist Daniel Defert.

Foucault’s analyses in Discipline and Punish, and related material, draw on the ‘classical sociology’ of Emile Durkheim and Max Weber with regard to norms and authority, as his views on the emergence of the modern state draw heavily on the ‘pre-sociology’ to be found in the historical and social work of the classical liberal thinkers Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron of La Brède and Montesquieu and Alexis de Tocqueville.

There is some drawing on Marx, but one should be wary of those left socialist inclined advocates of Foucault who emphasise this strongly, since they don’t mention the other points of orientation so much. The same applies to remarks Foucault made about the importance of the twentieth century Marxist theory of the Frankfurt School, as those who emphasise such remarks ignore accompanying remarks about the importance of Max Weber and ‘Neoliberalism’ (i.e. classical liberal and libertarian thought since the Austrian Liberal school of Menger, Hayek, Mises etc).

Strange as it might seem, Foucault suggests we take Marx, Weber, the Frankfurt School, and Neoliberalism together as attempts to explore liberty and power. Maybe it shouldn’t seem so strange, however awful the consequences of Marxist ideas coming in power have been, that does not mean we should ignore Marx and Marxism, which starts by drawing heavily on classical liberalism and does have some noteworthy things to say about constraints on liberty in a capitalist society, even if offering bad solutions.

Certainly Foucault is not your man if you think a pro-liberty position means uncritical embrace of the links between private enterprise and state power, but since the liberty tradition has in a very significant way been concerned with criticism of rent seeking and crony capitalism, of the drives within capitalism to betray itself, then I don’t think we need to reject Foucault in this area. Indeed it is even a part of the liberty tradition to reject ‘capitalism’ as tied to the state and concentrations of power and argue for markets, property, and association rights liberated from state alliances with economic power.

This is the core of left-libertarianism, and even Foucault’s most Marxist leaning fans would find it hard to deny that left-libertarian is an appropriate label for Foucault. Clearly he was a natural maverick and critic of all power, including state socialist power. I suggest his life, his activism, and his writing, can be taken as an inspiration for all liberty-inclined people. Even on the more conservative side, Foucault’s thoughts about self-cultivation are a version of virtue theory, of an emphasis on cultivating virtue, so Foucault has a lot to offer to all streams of liberty thought.

Those Foucault texts most relevant to political thought about liberty


History of Madness (also published as Madness and Civilisation)

Discipline and Punish

History of Sexuality (3 volumes: Will to Knowledge, The Uses of PleasureThe Care of the Self)

Collected lectures

(Foucault’s rather early death means that much of his work was in lectures that would have been later revised into published material. The task of bringing those lectures into print is still underway).

Fearless Speech

The Government of Self and Others

The Birth of Biopolitics 

Security, Territory, Population 

Hermeneutics of the Subject 

Society Must be Defended