Foucault on Liberal Democracy, Historicism and Philosophy

9 May 2020


Liberal democracy is an oxymoron. Or rather, it’s a site of confrontation between contradictory discourses, between the universalist aspirations of philosophy and the partisanship of historiography. So insinuates Michel Foucault in the lecture series “Society Must be Defended,” delivered at the Collège de France in the spring of 1976.


This is not the ostensible point of his lectures. Foucault eschews normative claims about the nature of our regime, and insists he has no desire to ask something so naive as a “theoretical question.” Instead he pursues a historical investigation into the ways that armed struggle has been used in the modern West as a metaphor for and within domestic politics. He traces the origin of the war-metaphor from early modern writers through nineteenth and twentieth-century prophets of wars of class and race, with whom he concludes the series. But these were not his real target.


Rather, as Foucault told his audience in the first of the lectures, he wanted to explain the bewildering moral, social and political transformations that had taken place in the liberal democratic West during the 1960s and 70s. Searching for the mechanisms that had made these transformations possible, Foucault develops a provocative account of the genesis and nature of the liberal democratic regime. Our political order, his account implies, is an unhappy marriage of philosophy and historicism.


Missing Corners

The eleven lectures of “Society Must be Defended” never return to their original promise. In the opening lecture, Foucault says he will make sense of a set of “attacks” and “offensives” being waged against traditional structures of French society. He then turns to examine the history of the very idea that such phenomena can be understood in terms of military metaphors—and never returns to the French present. Nor does he recall, in the subsequent lectures, that the metaphor of violent conflict he investigates was a device he himself had used in the opening lecture. He offers no explanation of how his historical investigations illuminate either the present or his own practice.


In the Analects, Confucius says of his own teaching that he will show a student “one corner of the table.” If the student cannot “find the other three,” then the sage won’t bother teaching any further. Foucault was no Confucian—but neither, we might assume, did he lose sight of the topic of his lectures. The structure of “Society Must be Defended” invites us to apply Confucius’s maxim, and to seek those ‘other corners’. This means considering what Foucault’s historical analysis means for liberal democratic societies still embroiled in the social transformations he described as a kind of war. Doing so will entail transgressing Foucault’s own injunctions against normative thinking, and entering his texts’ provocative silence. It will mean, at the risk of naivety, posing a “theoretical question” about what liberal democracy must be given that it is—as Foucault implies—not accidentally, but essentially, at war with itself.


The Strange Efficacy of Epistemic Struggle

Foucault begins “Society Must be Defended” by bringing his audience’s attention to the “strange efficacy” of the social movements of the 1960s and 70s. The women’s movement, the gay rights movement, and movements to reform (or abolish) prisons or psychiatric institutions had flourished in France in the aftermath of May 1968. They were inspired by—and went on to inspire—similar movements of contestation throughout the Western world. Gains came quickly. For example, the prison reform movement, of which Foucault was an important member, scored policy victories in the early 1970s, as the French government improved prisoners’ material and social conditions. Cultural change was perhaps sweeping, as “attacks that have been made on, say, morality and the traditional sexual hierarchy” transformed many people’s everyday lives. Foucault began to wonder if these shifts in state policy and everyday life hadn’t been suspiciously easy.


These struggles corresponded neither in content nor trajectory to the sort of political action that French intellectuals of the era might have expected. The left and right alike looked to the French and Russian revolutions as paradigms of political transformation. Unlike these examples, movements of the 60s and 70s were not based on the seizure of economic and political power, and were organized neither by a vanguard party nor in the name of a united people that had risen up against a singular oppressor. They were rather “dispersed and discontinuous offensives” motivated by specific groups against particular institutions or situations, with tenuous connections among them. They were not motivated by a coherent set of theories, nor did they produce any; they did not generate an “ism” or an ideal of a new kind of regime. In spite of their enormous power to modify everything from penal institutions to sexual mores, it was not clear if these social movements were a fundamental challenge to the liberal democratic regime in which they had emerged. They were not, it seemed, rivals to liberalism in the way that Marxism and Fascism had been earlier in the twentieth century.


Perhaps, Foucault hints, they ought to be understood precisely as emerging from liberal democracy’s victories over these rivals, “a result of both the collapse of Nazism and the retreat of Stalinism.” Liberal democracy in the West was relatively secure from existential peril, and authoritarianisms of the right and left no longer appealed to important numbers of young Western intellectuals. This was thanks in part to Foucault’s own scholarship in the 1960s (The Order of Things and Archaeology of Knowledge) that presented Marxism as an antiquated pseudo-science trapped in nineteenthcentury structures of thought. Forms of politics motivated by discourses of “class” and “race” struggle had lost their prestige and their capacity to challenge the legitimacy of Western states. But that eclipse had allowed new struggles to appear within liberal democracies—or rather, had allowed the nature of “struggle” and “power” within the liberal regime to appear in clearer, starker terms.


At least part of what had made movements like prison reform, feminism, and gay liberation successful, Foucault argues, is their particular relationship to knowledge. These movements had two important epistemic features. First, as we have seen, they were oriented by a rejection of any “totalitarian theories.” By this, Foucault indicts not just Marxism but any theory inherently “totalitarian” in its pretensions to give an account of human nature and history. Second, the reform movements combined “the tools of scholarship” and “disqualified knowledge” against apparently neutral, objective and universal forms of knowledge, showing them to be in fact partial and partisan. For instance, as a participant in the prison reform movement in the early 1970s, Foucault had carried out research into the history of the penal system (leading to his book Discipline and Punish) and worked with the Groupe d’information sur les prisons to bring testimony from prisoners to media attention. Drawing at once on the materials of historical scholarship and on the voices of marginal figures outside the networks of academic knowledge, he used diverse sorts of information to call into question the apparently self-evident projects of punishment and reform, and categories of guilt and innocence, on which the penal system depended.


The epistemic dimension of the eras social movements might seem novel and radical. They revealed the ways that apparently objective knowledge served power, but could be exposed and transformed by alternative knowledge. Foucault talks in his first lecture in grandiose terms about the social movements (and his own!) “attempt to desubjugate historical knowledge” and apply it to liberatory ends, pointing to the need for “antisciences” that resist “the aspiration to power that is inherent in the claim to being a science.” In this struggle, Marxism, psychology, criminology and a host of other epistemic foes linked to apparently authoritarian actors and systems might be undone.

But just as the social transformations of the era seemed to come rather too easily, so too did these epistemic revolutions. Perhaps, Foucault suggests, “our adversary”—the fundamental form of power that reigns in our society—is “not afraid of us at all.” The forms of knowledge that crumble in the face of contestation, and the institutions that give way along with them, might not in fact be the citadels of power. In which case, we ought to be looking for the real power elsewhere. In fact, Foucault suggests, the ‘we’ who contest power across the West are not members of an alien group threatening the premises of the Western liberal democratic regime. Rather, this ‘we’ is intimately familiar to the regime’s structure. These social movements participate in the form of epistemic politics—the connection between political struggle and struggles about knowledge—that created liberal democracy.


In the Coliseum

Before embarking with Foucault through the history of liberal democracy’s emergence in struggles over the nature of knowledge, let us review the stakes. Foucault claims in the first lecture of “Society Must be Defended” that social movements of the 1960s and 70s were successful because they revealed the partisanship of apparently objective and scientific knowledge (about for example, prisoners, homosexuals, women, etc.). They not only brought alternative facts and understandings into battle against that knowledge, but also demonstrated, by the fact of waging epistemic struggle, that the rules about what counts as knowledge were contingent, changing, and committed on behalf of a particular cause. Historical scholarship was a critical part of these efforts. To show that sexism, homophobia, etc. have histories is to show that they are not natural and unchanging features of all societies as such. It is to show that they have changed over time through human action, and thus to demonstrate that they are open to new transformations in the present.


There is, then, an inherent political dimension to historicism, or what Foucault calls the “historical consciousness” of Western modernity. Our being conscious of ourselves as subjects in history, and as subjects made by history, is above all a consciousness of the ubiquity of “struggle” and of our participation in conflicts that demand the use of knowledge for partisan ends. It is a two-fold awareness: as the unfolding of events in time, history is composed of conflicts and is thus political. As the narration and analysis of past events, history is a weapon in such struggles. To be a human being is to be a historical subject embroiled in conflicts among different parties whose members tell stories of their struggles.


Historical consciousness is not merely a sense of our being situated within the horizon of our particular era. We are in rather a worse state of affairs. We are aware of ourselves as existing in an exit-less arena of perpetual and perpetually changing partisan conflict. We are not in the cave, but the Coliseum. Such a sense of history is the epistemic precondition of the 60s and 70s’ apparently radical politics.


Foucault recounts the history of historical consciousness—of how it became conceivable that knowledge is partisan and that present-day conflicts are the continuations of historically distant struggles. He demonstrates, over the course of his narrative, that claims to expose the partisan foundations of knowledge and historical roots of struggle are anything but present-day disruptions of liberal democracy. They go back to the very beginning of our regime. In fact, they founded it. Liberal democracy was born in the arena.


The Origins of Identity Politics

Liberal democracy can be understood as constituted by a conflict between philosophy and historical consciousness. Each of the antagonists generates a specific form of knowledge and political activity. While philosophy founds an ideal of objective, universallyvalid knowledge, historical consciousness, active in the world as “historico-political discourse,” counters these knowledges with the “anti-science” and “disqualified knowledges” Foucault describes in his first lecture.


The conflict is not between philosophy and history as such, but rather between philosophy (and its correlative forms of knowledge) and a historically specific mode of thinking about history. Foucault traces the origins of the latter to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when reactionary nobles and bourgeois radicals struggled to constrain or orient according to their interests the centralizing monarchies of Britain and France. Before these centuries, history was the “history of sovereignty” by which writers close to power judged the deeds of rulers and preserved their memory. Traditional historiography of power emphasized continuities, tracing the rulers of Britain and France back to fabulous origins in Troy, inculcating the idea that the elite of today had always held power and always would.


The early modern era, however, saw the emergence in Britain and France of a new kind of history-writing, carried out by those who mourned (and identified with) the vanquished rather than immortalized the powerful. Against the celebration of the world’s endless domination by an unchanging caste of rulers, the task of the new historiography—which is still our own—is triple. First, it reveals that those in power are a group distinct from ‘us’ and that they rose to power through historical violence against our people. Second, it posits a previous state of affairs, in comparison to which the present can be condemned, showing what possibilities ‘they’ have denied ‘us.’ Third, this historiography reawakens ‘us’ and returns us to our original condition of struggle with ‘them.’


In their struggles against the British and French monarchies, various factions out of power found it useful to recall that British and French elites were (or, at any rate, nominally descended from) “Norman” and “Frankish” conquerors of the original “Saxon” and “Gallo-Roman” populations. Historiographical research into the supposed Saxon or Gallo-Roman ‘constitutions’ implied that beneath the present state of affairs was a more natural and legitimate political order that had been disrupted but could be recovered. By appealing to history in this way—that is, by appealing to the suppressed history of the vanquished, excluded from the official knowledge of royal historiography—reactionaries and radicals could contest the legitimacy of the current holders of power, presenting them as heirs to violent, foreign, lawless barbarians.


Early modern appeals to the Saxon and Gallo-Roman past might look, from a certain perspective, like the revenge fantasies of resentful losers, or in Foucault’s words, “the sad brainchild of a few intellectuals who were indeed marginalized long ago.” Against the power of the monarchy, and the self-confident historiography by which monarchs confirmed their place in an unbroken chain of rulership that reached back to the beginning of political life, these marginal figures appealed to the memories of other people, who had been defeated by the power whose successes they brooded over. For losers to remember other losers may seem a pointless exercise of ressentiment, a masochistic adding up of failures that is only the other side of royal power’s triumphal narrative. But what is important about this way of making history is that it reveals present royal power to depend, and to have depended since its origin, on victories in a never-ending struggle with the oppressed. All the mechanisms of royal power—its historiography, laws, religion, etc.—now appear not as timeless instruments of governance, but as weapons aimed at the throats of the oppressed. By realizing that the struggle is still on-going, the defeated can begin to fight again.


Foucault insists that what began as a “sad, gloomy discourse, a discourse for nostalgic aristocrats or scholars in a library” mourning their own marginality and their ancestors’ defeat, became the basis for liberal democracy. The paradigmatic text here is the great pamphlet of the French Revolution, Emmanuel-Joseph Sièyes’ 1789 “What is the Third Estate?” Sièyes argued that not only the monarchy, but the whole of French society, its organization on the basis of distinct social ‘estates’ and the awarding of ‘privileges’ to particular individuals and groups, was a continuation of an original struggle between Frankish invaders and Gallo-Roman natives. For over a thousand years the latter had been oppressed, and so beguiled by their oppressors, that they forgot there was even still a struggle going on, and that there were still two distinct groups fighting for power in France. The non-nobles, the vast majority of France’s population, were the descendants of the Gallo-Romans. It was time for the Gallo-Romans to remember their origins and eliminate the nobility.


Modern democracy began with such appeals to history. An oppressed demos, it is said, has been held down for too long by an enemy, which has constituted the state, law, ideology, etc. to make it forget its oppression. For this demos, remembering itself and renewing its struggle are one; the first step to seizing power is to assert its identity and to contest the forms of knowledge that suppress it. Such a story, Foucault argues, underwrites every populist and national revolution, every political appeal to a collective ‘we.’ It underwrites, too, the kind of stories that seem to be tearing modern Western democracies apart, and that seemed in the 70s to have transformed their social fabric. What is referred to today as identity politics, by which supposedly oppressed groups mobilize on the basis of identitarian self-assertion and epistemic relativism to contest dominant forms of knowledge, is not a recent aberration but the basis of our democracy.


Modern democracy began with identity politics and historicism, with partisan claims to reveal the partisanship of knowledge, and with violent distinctions between enemy and friend. How can it ever have been mistaken for a regime of neutralizations—particularly by jurists and philosophers of the right, such as Carl Schmitt and his contemporary American epigones? And how can it be that ‘woke’ scholars and activists of the contemporary left, such as those behind the Pulitzer-winning 1619 Project, can insist in grandiloquent, histrionic terms that we have forgotten our democracy’s original sin of racism? By Foucault’s lights, democracy began with a declaration of what he calls “race war,” by which a group lays claim to a history of oppression in order to wrest power from others. Supposed radicals who purport to expose the false neutrality of the law and of historiography, or who chide our regime for adhering to naively color-blind and non-partisan values—like their opponents who wish ‘identity politics’ might disappear—have misunderstood the history, and therefore the nature, of democracy.


Historicism and Philosophy

Misunderstandings of these kinds have been possible because democracy, this continuous discourse of identitary and epistemic struggle, is intertwined with liberalism, its partner, rival and supplement. Each of these political forms—democracy and liberalism—depends on a different discourse about knowledge. Democracy, Foucault argues, depends on a “historico-political discourse,” in which knowledge appears as inherently partisan, contingent and context-bound; while liberalism, in its “philosophic-juridical discourse,” appeals to the possibility of neutral, objective and universal knowledge of unchanging norms.


Democracys historicist discourse exposes dominant forms of knowledge as expressions of the ruling groups will to power, and it posits new forms of knowledge to replace them. Liberalisms philosophical discourse articulates timeless rights inscribed in the very nature of human beings and susceptible of being discovered by a thinker free of prejudice “who belongs to neither side, a figure of peace and armistices.” Democratic history tells us that ‘we’ are at war with enemies and must understand knowledge to be nothing but a “truth-weapon” that serves our cause or theirs. Liberal philosophy tells us that the truth about our shared human nature will found a “general law” and “reconciliatory order.” It would seem democracy and liberalism, historicism and philosophy, ought to annihilate each other.


That they do not—and that the liberal character of our regime so often allows its defenders and critics alike to forget the partisan, historicist, identitarian nature of democracy—can be explained by what we might call the self-undermining or hypocritical character of historicism. The historico-political discourse exposes that the mode of historiography celebrating power is a set of “lies,” and more radically “that power creates illusions.” Against the self-serving histories of kings, it claims, tactically, to be pursuing an objective search for the historical truth. It posits the possibility of access to an objective historical truth, however, only as a means of challenging the legitimacy of opponents partisan truth and making one way for one’s own. For example, by revealing that the monarchy is descended from Norman or Frankish invaders, one does not seek to begin a new dispassionate historical inquiry (much less a dialogue about the proper normative basis of politics) but to establish ones own “singular right” to rule as the descendant of the displaced Saxons or Gallo-Romans. The appeal to objectivity, to a shared historical past open to the possibility of investigation, is only a tactic of parties “fighting a war” through, over and within history.


The historico-political discourse appeals to objectivity in bad faith. Indeed, historicism is, one might say, not only a discourse of war but a discourse at war with itself. It seems to depend on a (transhistorical) account of human beings as inextricably bound to their particular historical moments and to a particular side of the conflicts by which each moment is constituted. But the historically-bound figure it purports to rediscover should not be able to articulate such a transhistorical account of human nature. Historicism denies its own epistemic foundations.


Those who employ the historico-political discourse are not necessarily concerned about such objections on the part of philosophy, which can always be “cynically ignored” by those who see truth as a means of achieving victory in their struggles. But the historicist, partisan mode of politics cannot ignore the philosophic-juridical discourse for long. Foucault notes that identitarian discourses that appeal to the past and claim to reveal the partial, self-interested character of knowledge have a paradoxical character. They seek to wrest power from the powerful, to win a violent struggle that they purport has already been long underway. But they are also seeking recognition from their enemies. While partisan historians scorn their enemies knowledge, they want their own to be recognized as objective. While they reveal universal notions of human nature to be partisan fictions, they want their own humanity to be affirmed. While they reveal the law and the philosophical articulation of norms to be forms of domination, they want to be seen as having the highest form of law and right on their side. They make, as Foucault puts it, a “simultaneous declaration of war and of rights,” against and within the philosophic-juridical discourse.


Liberal democracy is in contradiction with itself. It is the point of encounter between two opposing forms of knowledge—one of which, historicism, is itself self-contradictory, attacking and appealing to the philosophical discourse of rights and objectivity. What a solution to this contradiction might look like receives no answer in Foucault’s lectures. It is worth asking, indeed, whether such a thing as a solution is necessary, given that liberal democracy has survived for over two centuries by periodically generating specious compromises between history and philosophy, which last until the next political and epistemic crisis tears them apart and generates another compromise. Whether our own regime can survive its contradictions is anyone’s guess. But Foucault’s inquiry leaves open three lines of inquiry—three corners. Further consideration of them might enable us to better understand the incoherence and durability of liberal democracy.


From the vantage Foucault offers, the history of political thought in the modern West can be rewritten as a series of efforts by philosophy to escape the corrosive partisanship of historicism. He points to Hobbes and Rousseauand Americans might extend his inquiry to think of Rawls. These escape-acts are reminders that philosophy’s pretensions are untenable in an era of historical consciousness, as is periodically revealed by figures like Nietzsche, Schmitt and Foucault himself. The history of modern historiography likewise appears as a series of groups appealing to history to constitute their identities, while endangering the epistemic basis of history as a means of accessing a shared and knowable past. The academic discipline of history muddles through with compromises as specious and short-lived as those of political philosophy. Finally, the history of modern politics appears as the endless churning of ressentiment, as groups of ostensible victims come forward one after the other, from the Saxons and Gallo-Romans down to the present, demanding, with impassioned self-contradiction, to participate in their natural rights and to take their historical revenge.


Photo Credit: Philippe, Collège de France, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0 fr.


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