The Libertarian Foucault
Michel Foucault, the French postmodernist who died of AIDS in 1984, certainly was not a conservative or a right-libertarian of any sort. But he was a perceptive critic of the state in his own way. In particular, better than anyone else who comes immediately to mind, Foucault understood the subtle and insidious nature of modern state control. This can be seen both in some of his early works, such as Discipline and Punish (about prisons), and in one of his last, The History of Sexuality Vol. I.
In the latter Foucault specifically contrasts two kinds of power and state control. The first is the ancient "right of death," that of the sovereign to kill those who threatened him or his property. The second is the more historically rare "power over life," by which the state takes upon itself the task of regulating and maintaining the minds and bodies of its subjects. To use a crude illustration, in traditional societies the punishment for theft might be the loss of a hand, or being put in the stocks, or even execution. In modern states the thief is put in a "correctional facility" that wants to "reform" his mind and generally preserves his body at least, it keeps him fed.
If the modern punishment seems more merciful, Foucault makes it clear that this is not intentional on the part of the state. As he writes with regard to capital punishment: "As soon as power gave itself the function of administering life, its reason for being and the logic of its exercise and not the awakening of humanitarian feelings made it more and more difficult to apply the death penalty."** Furthermore, for the same reasons that capital and corporal punishment have become more rare, genocide has become more frequent. "Wars were never as bloody as they have been since the nineteenth century, and all things being equal, never before did regimes visit such holocausts on their own populations. But this formidable power of death& now presents itself as the counterpart of a power that exerts a positive influence on life, that endeavors to administer, optimize, and multiply it, subjecting it to precise controls and comprehensive regulations."
The old sovereign right of death meant the power to take a man s life or property in the fashion of a robber. The modern state s power over life means the power to raise and cull entire populations like livestock.
That includes management of the livestock s sexual activity. Foucault puts the lie to the Leftist myth of "sexual liberation." The first chapter of The History of Sexuality Vol. I is dedicated to demolishing the thesis that the 20th century saw the freeing of sexuality from residual Victorian repression. Foucault notes that far from being silent about sex, modern man cannot shut up about it, and only in our culture are professionals Freudian psychoanalysts actually paid to listen to people talk about their sex lives. Foucault describes modern culture as "a society that which has been loudly castigating itself for its hypocrisy for more than a century, which speaks verbosely of its own silence, takes great pains to relate in detail the things it does not say, denounces the powers it exercises, and promises to liberate itself from the very laws that have made it function."
Part of the reason for this self-flagellation over the failure to be sufficiently progressive about sex is what Foucault terms "the speaker s benefit." In effect, someone who moans about the real or imagined repression of sex in bygone times claims for himself the progressive high ground he is holier-than-thou, or more-liberal-than-thou. And only if there is repression can the would-be Lefty rebel be fashionably "transgressive."
But there s more to it than that. Foucault sees continuity between the repressive sex laws of the nineteenth century and the permissive ones of the twentieth. Both are a mean of control, of population management, but the latter are more subtle and refined. In both cases "&the idea of sex makes it possible to evade what gives power its power; it enables one to conceive power solely as law and taboo." Repression and anti-repression both distract attention away from the way power uses sex to manage and control people.
For a further elaboration of that theme from a traditionalist point of view, see the work of E. Michael Jones. Or consider Aldoux Huxley s Brave New World, in which the benevolent world government encourages its subjects to indulge in every kind of sexual activity (and to take drugs) because it keeps them docile and distracted. What s different in America today is that the state itself is not the primary promoter of promiscuity and sexual distraction, although it does its part in the public schools, but the culture produced by Leftists in Hollywood and the academy serves the state s purposes just as well.
There is plenty about Foucault that libertarians will find objectionable. He was highly critical of capitalism, although much of the capitalism of which he was critical might more properly be called state capitalism, or even by another more controversial name. Traditionalists will similarly find his personal life and much of his work morally reprehensible. But these considerations should not stop us from taking from his work what is useful as an analysis and criticism of the modern state.
** All citations are from the Vintage Books edition of The History of Sexuality Vol. I, translated by Robert Hurley.
April 10, 2000
Daniel McCarthy is a graduate student in classics at Washington University in St. Louis.