The political philosophy of Michel Foucault

Abstract: Foucault clearly saw the bilateral relationship established between the State and citizens. When it is fluid, freedom comes out reinforced, fuel in one direction, production in the other. But Foucault lacks a transdisciplinary methodology on society and his positivist view conceals the gaps between individuals, in particular their propensity to have a social conscience, which is the basis of the very idea of society. Using the more precise method presented in Societarium, I explain the tribal destiny that awaits our contemporary democracies.

A commentary of Foucault with Societarium

On the occasion of a Philomag file on Michel Foucault (in french), prefaced by Frédéric Gros who is a specialist in his work, I will show how it fits in with Societarium. Foucault’s lessons at the Collège de France are, to say the least, complicated, even confusing. Societarium aims to be more systematic, starting from a universal philosophical method, UniPhiM.

Foucault defines three main models of governmentality:
1) by truth —the old idea that knowledge of the laws of the world must govern the decisions of a wise authority,
2) by reason of state —the State considers itself sovereign as a whole and gives priority to its superior interests,
3) liberal governmentality —the governed are assumed to be reasonable in assessing their interests and public policy is based on their choices.

Three reduced to two

There is immediately a false friend in this classification. The criterion of the first category is added to the other two. Whether we prefer to give authority to the State or to citizens, do we not need the best possible knowledge of the laws that govern them, of the laws of the social world as well as physical laws? Ignorance has never been a mode of government!

We are left with two models, which I reformulate as follows: The Whole governing its parts and the citizens/parts governing the Whole/collective. The reformulation is not innocent; here we have the fundamental principle that drives Societarium: the TD conflict (soliTary/soliDarity or individuation/belonging), and its two directions. In the first, the citizen manages his relationship with the collective to protect his individuation, including the satisfaction of his personal desires. In the opposite direction, the collective manages relations with its citizens/parties to maintain itself as a whole, representing the general interest.

A staggered conflict

These opposing directions generate conflicting perspectives on governmentality. Society is a cooperation and cannot be maintained without the support of individuals, any more than a body is maintained without the cooperation of cells. Cooperative power adds to individual power and regulates its excesses and protects the weakest. The general interest is thus judged superior to individual interest… by the soliDarity pole, that part of our mind which makes it something other than a pure soliTary desire. No social cooperation is possible without the existence of a feeling of belonging. This part demands its fusion into the collective, because the feeling is similar among all citizens. The desire for soliDarity is as authentic as the soliTary, and is satisfied in the presence of symbols of the general interest that are social institutions.

In this fundamental conflict governing society, I call the look of the Whole towards its parts “descending” and the opposite look “ascending”. This conflict has numerous levels, corresponding to the responsibilities of companion, parent, employer, administrator, legislator, etc. Each level corresponds to a social circle. Some circles are hierarchically equivalent but others are clearly superior, representing the interest of a larger collective. The hierarchy is currently not complete: a top is missing where decision-makers would make choices for the entire human species.

Don’t be afraid to be free!

Foucault thinks of governmentality as a technique, or rather as an art because the technique is poorly codified; it is the art of leading citizens. It encompasses the “micro” (the management of daily human relations, discipline and reward) and the “macro” (the major policies: economic, redistributive, natalist, foreign, etc.). The social complex dimension is thus reduced to two levels, with the laws of the base and those of the summit. Just as physics uses different laws for the quantum level and that of macroscopic objects. In reality there are a multitude of levels and ramifications of social complexity, endowed with their particular laws. Our membership in a circle creates conflicts with others. We will discuss the implications of this right after.

The classic model of governmentality is the social contract. Citizens recognize the State as the legitimate basis of authority. They give up a part of freedom. Foucault stands out by adding the opposite theme: for him the State also establishes citizens, it distributes freedom in some way. Liberal governmentality seen by Foucault is therefore more complete than in the category in which it is initially confined. Not relying entirely on the “rationality” of citizens, it works both ways with active control. Freedom is its fuel (citizens freely give power to the State) and its production (the State returns freedom to citizens). “Don’t be afraid to be free, we control you!”.

SoliTary instinct and soliDarity learning

It is a frankly positivist vision of the exchange between State and citizens, a win-win formula. Can it really work or does Foucault have a door-to-door salesman philosophy? In a performing arts society like ours, positivism is essential. You have to sell your project, promise dreams. But this only works if there is a real desire in front of it. The soliTary desire is always present, it cannot be forgotten. But is the desire for soliDarity also evident?

Foucault forgets this essential point: it takes spontaneity on the part of the citizen to be governed. The philosopher presupposes humans as social animals, tattooed with a collectivist desire. Is the newborn really programmed this way or are they learning to be social? How far does the drive push us to become social? How many circles are crossed? Learning seems essential to recognize and add them. Is this education always done correctly?

Self-governed by our social conscience?

Psychology and sociology are not mutually exclusive. The mind of the citizen is an entanglement of the rules of the circles of which it is a part. Due to their hierarchy the entanglement is not random; this is an surimposition. The laws at the top impose themselves on the underlying ones when they are in conflict. The soliTary part of the mind wishes to express its individual desires, while the soliDarity part recognizes their limits in the interest of the collective. Ideally these two parts negotiate each of our decisions, and by respecting the hierarchy of interests the citizen is capable of self-governing. He would have no need to be controlled by society since the government would already be inside his mind.

An ideal that is out of reach, you know, for two reasons: Firstly, the human mind can understand the complexity of a tribe but not of a modern society of several billion individuals. Even with advanced education, which remains an exception, our knowledge of the rules remains patchy and entire circles are unknown to us. This is why anarchism, this regime of self-government of citizens, works in a tribe but fails in a larger society.

A major defect leading to clan consciousness

Second reason: the soliTary and soliDarity parts have a contrasting balance depending on the individuals and the time. Contemporary democracy promotes ultra-individualism. Our soliTary shares monopolize power and the soliDarity suffers a general collapse, threatening the social structure in its entirety. In other eras, religions have, on the contrary, propagated particularly severe social consciences which have constrained individual desires. There are still active traces of it today, with Islamist, Hindu regimes, Christian sects, etc.

The defects of these excesses of soliDarity power are obvious, particularly when it comes to group consciences and not a true collective conscience. Entire sections of humanity are excluded: women, non-believers, other races, foreign cultures. These consciousnesses lack higher levels and they remain clannish. The human animal has not completed its evolution and perhaps does not have the means to do so with its current brain. It is threatened with extinction by its own expansion and its limited capacity to manage it.

A self-driver’s license?

A functional society requires a good balance between soliTary and soliDarity among a large majority of citizens. Strong social material needs stable atoms. ‘Balance’ does not mean ‘fixed balance of power’ but fluid communication between the two parties. The idea of a balance of power makes us believe that any strengthening of the ego or any charitable effort would threaten the balance. No, the shares can jointly increase their power. This is not obvious logic. It must be understood that in a relationship as indissoluble as the TD principle, individuation/belonging, each part gains power from what it abandons to the other when the situation allows it.

But the conflict must remain dynamic in the mind between knowing one’s own instincts and recognizing that they cannot always be satisfied. Self-government is self-observation, a mind that manages to split itself to create a dialogue between drive and evaluation. The newborn possesses no such faculty; the adult has not always succeeded in acquiring it. How can you claim to self-govern in society if you have not demonstrated your competence in this area? Because there is no such thing as a “self-driving license”. Self-governance is distributed without further formality at the age of 18. A problem ?

Positivist blindness

The fault of positivism is of course that it weakens the quality of our self-observation. The vital drive is a natural positivism and must be encouraged, that is a certainty. But does it make sense to also truncate our inner view? Is there really a separation of the mind if the impulse and the judge congratulate each other in all circumstances? The criticism to be made against Foucault is this somewhat soothing positivism which places confidence in the rationality of citizens in a uniform manner.

The philosopher’s descending look creates confusion. As it represents the general interest, it makes individuals a set of similar micro-interests. This is correct if we designate the soliDarity shares among individuals in this way. But each individual is the assembly of his soliTary and soliDarity parts. If soliDarity interests dominate, the philosopher’s image of society is rather accurate. If the soliTary shares dominate, it becomes completely false. This is the most common mistake governmentality thinkers make. The very subject of governmentality disappears if there are no united parts to support it. No amount of positivism can make them reappear. On the contrary, it effectively conceals their disappearance.

A generation of very similar soliTaries

The excesses of religions have caused their power to decline in Western societies. But what have they done to replace them in their role of soliDarity consciences? Nothing. The collapse of religion is seen only as a benefit for personal fulfillment. Certainly the ego comes out strengthened. But is personal achievement reduced to ego?

Has the school taken over? It would be hard-pressed to do so, in the midst of a crisis of authority itself. SoliDarity teaching is now an option, a discipline learned only through voluntary commitment. However, school is the only place where collectivism extended to all of our peers is taught. Parents rather instill groupism, whether class elitism, cultural or religious sectarianism. The parents form the identity of the ‘I’, of the soliTary part, into which they try to transfer theirs, while the school awakens the soliDarity part, mixes the identity with the others. But the school is experiencing a growing decline in its power, replaced by groupist social networks. Today everything favors the growth of the soliTary aspect among adolescents. Should we be worried about the fate of the society they will build together?

The soliTary part never benefits for long from an imbalance

Networks also have the effect of spreading mimicry. The soliTary shares become very similar in fact. They are easier to assemble. There is therefore a real convergence of minds in recent generations which can make us believe in the likelihood of self-government, of a modern version of anarchism. But this forgets that it is a groupist consciousness unsuitable for rubbing shoulders with other, more diverse societies and forming a larger collective with them. By threatening their institutions, these new anarchist societies will be as vulnerable as the tribes within the former colonial society.

Individuals will lose a lot. In New Caledonia, two centuries later, the former colonized have still not recovered their sense of dignity, that is, the basic satisfaction of their soliTary part.


1 thought on “The political philosophy of Michel Foucault”

  1. I have read a bit of Foucault. In my view, the relation between the State and her domiciles is less bilateral and exceeding more, bifurcated. MF noted, astutely, that the power of rule is determined, foremost, by the power TO rule. I can’t even get this tablet to print what I write, the way I write it—inasmuch as this is so, I am powerless. My suspicion, regarding Foucault, is similar to how I have regarded Nietzsche, Kant, Kierkegaard, Kafka. Even, Berkeley. These giants were sufferers. Great minds do not always, or, in all ways, suffer in silence. Nietzsche went quite mad. But not before he said what was on his mind—or much of it, anyway. Carry on, mon ami. I am in your corner.


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