What Comes After the Ruins of Liberalism
Philip Pilkington on Foucault’s nihilistic exposure of the lies and deceits of the Enlightenment — and our postliberal need to build societies in explicit accord with the natural law.
Michel Foucault was not a pleasant individual. In fact, recent reports suggest that he was very likely a criminal. Debates on whether a philosopher’s personal life should have any bearing on the evaluation of their ideas are endless. But in the case of Foucault, it seems obvious that his ideas should be judged considering his personal life for the simple reason that toward the end of his career he saw himself as working out a new system of post-Nietzschean ethics. Properly understood, his earlier work on epistemology and truth-claims in medicine and the social sciences logically led Foucault to this point. For this reason, all of Foucault’s work should be understood through the lens of how the man lived. Foucault the man is a cautionary tale in how dangerous his project was, and this should always be kept in mind.
Nevertheless, Foucault may be one of the most important 20thcentury philosophers for postliberals to study. This is because Foucault did something that is greatly beneficial to the postliberal project: he exposed the implicit moral judgements on which most social science and even some medicine rested on. These moral judgements had been built into the knowledge apparatus of Western societies for a reason. After the Enlightenment attacked traditional Christian morality, Western societies still required a means to stabilise the social order. To do this, Western societies devised a variety of social disciplines that couched moral judgements in the language of science. It was this that Foucault exposed.
Why is this of interest to postliberals? Because postliberals should not be happy with the Enlightenment arrangement. The Enlightenment arrangement is just another way of saying the liberal arrangement. While it is true that most postliberals would prefer the sort of society that existed at the high point of the Enlightenment arrangement – say, the structured social orderliness of the 1950s, underwritten by social scientific jargon – than the society of today that exists after ideas like Foucault’s have taken hold, there is no going back. Nor should postliberals want to go back. The old arrangement was based, frankly, on lies. It was always destined to collapse the moment a mischievous nihilistic like Foucault came along.
We should look instead through the work of Foucault and toward a future postliberal arrangement. Foucault’s work shows most clearly why post-Enlightenment societies were ultimately hollow. Understanding this, we can take insights from the pre-Enlightenment tradition and infuse what is of worth in the social sciences and in doing so create a new postliberal arrangement. As I’ll show at the end of this essay, the early postliberal prophet Robert Hugh Benson foresaw in his 1911 novel The Dawn of All that the social science of his day had been shown to be hollow, and that without the infusion of pre-liberal thought it would collapse. Foucault also saw this, but tragically could not see what Benson saw.
The Doctor’s Power
Foucault’s first major book was Madness and Civilisation, published in 1961. The subtitle hints at the concept: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason. Foucault had spent the early 1950s as a psychology instructor and had become interested in the history and philosophy of science under the influence of Gaston Bachelard. He became convinced, like many others around this time, that psychiatry was not an actual science. Rather it was a means of social control that sought to protect the ‘sane’ in society from the ‘insane’. Or, put differently, it was a means by which post-Enlightenment societies imposed their Reason on those that refused to conform to the diktats of this Reason.
Psychiatry was the perfect weak point to attack the Enlightenment order because it occupies a sort of liminal space within that order. Enlightenment liberalism rests on several axioms about rights and equality. One of these is the notion that depriving an innocent man of his liberty is unjust and should not be allowed. In a liberal society, it is thought, you may only be deprived of your liberty if you commit a crime that you are then convicted of. Yet psychiatry allows for the forcible confinement of people who have committed no crime. Foucault noticed this and interrogated it. He asked how these blatant violation of Enlightenment liberal values was justified.
Foucault came to believe that psychiatry was ultimately born out of an attempt to rationalise the irrational. Madness, for Foucault, was the ultimate affront to Enlightenment Reason and so it was turned into an object of study and thereby subordinated. This was justified through the nascent emergence of medicine, especially medicine as it existed in a social governance capacity; that is, epidemiology or the social management of disease. In his 1963 book The Birth of the Clinic Foucault further expanded on this line of inquiry. He claimed that the entire medical revolution was based on an attempt to subordinate all of society to what he called the ‘medical gaze’. The medical gaze was, Foucault says, born in the clinic in the attempt to distinguish between the healthy and the pathological in the human body. But it soon turned toward society itself.
Foucault’s ideas about the socialisation of the medical gaze are easy for us to understand in a world that has experienced the lockdowns of the COVID-19 period. During this time, we saw how quickly medical notions could be deployed to put rigid guardrails on society and even to carve up the social geography itself. We saw people start to classify themselves based on whether they were healthy or pathological and change their social behaviour in light of this. Citizens ceased to be citizens in a sense of having the rights allowed them by Enlightenment liberalism and instead became social subjects who self-identified with their own medical status. While the COVID-19 period was a very extreme manifestation of this tendency, Foucault argues that these processes are constantly whirring in the background of our liberal societies.
The Emergence of Governmentality
For the next few years Foucault wrote ambitious books on historiography and the history of ideas. His 1966 work The Order of Things attempted to uncover the deep assumptions behind the human sciences in various ages. It is an interesting book, albeit somewhat overambitious. In 1975 he published what is probably his most famous book Discipline and Punishon the history of Western penal systems. Once again, an interesting book but not of interest specifically from a postliberal point-of-view.
While writing these books, Foucault was giving 12 weekly lectures a year at the Collège de France where he was elected a fellow in 1969. It was in these lectures, now published in English, that he would develop his most compelling ideas. Foucault took his cue from the work of Friedrich Nietzsche, specifically his work On the Genealogy of Morals. In that work Nietzsche tried to demonstrate that systems of morality are merely a cover for what he called the Will to Power. Simply put, groups and individuals used morality to hide the fact that they were pursuing their own ends. Christian morality for Nietzsche was a means by which weaker people in society subordinated stronger people and was therefore to be thought of as a ‘slave morality’.
Foucault radically extended Nietzsche’s genealogy to the human sciences as a whole. He came to view the human sciences not as progressive disciplines that were focused on uncovering knowledge, but rather organising and rationalising structures that were used to manage human beings in society. Indeed, Foucault would come to view things in an even more radical fashion than this, viewing peoples’ self-conceptions and, on his account, their very selves as being constituted through the distribution of power in society. To understand this, consider the discipline of psychotherapy. Foucault would view this as a means to ensure that people remain functional cogs in the social machine; working, reproducing themselves through the family unit and so on. But the person who avails of psychological help starts to understand themselves through the psychological theories themselves; they start to integrate the psychological jargon into their self-understanding. In this way, Foucault would say, the power-structure of psychology creates the psychological subject.
The outcome of this was a system of what Foucault called ‘governmentality’. By governmentality Foucault means an enormously complex state apparatus that conceives of itself as a scientific machine. This machine encompasses all the institutions through which society is managed, from the courts and prisons – infused with the ‘science’ of criminology – to the schools where children are socialised in line with education theory, right down to the psychotherapist’s couch. All these institutions justify themselves through reference to various human sciences, but they are simply parts of the great social machine that seeks to create stability, order, and ultimately reproduce itself. The human sciences that are used to justify them are stand-ins for the religious morality that was used to justify the social structure in times past.
Sexuality and Biopower
These ideas culminated in what is probably Foucault’s most important book published in 1976: The History of Sexuality Volume 1: The Will to Knowledge. When Foucault wrote the book, radical critiques of Western society emerging on the left were mostly inspired by the work of Sigmund Freud and his acolytes. The Freudian views – which is now entrenched in popular culture – viewed post-Enlightenment societies up until the post-Victorian age as being repressive of sexuality. In the 18th and 19th century, this view said, sexuality was a taboo topic that was not widely discussed. This lack of discussion around the topic led to sexuality being ‘repressed’ or kept down and gave rise to a stifling society. Foucault referred to this as the ‘repressive hypothesis’. If we watch contempory dramas of the Victorian period, we see the repressive hypothesis on full display.
Yet when Foucault examined the history, he found precisely the opposite. Starting in the 18th century, discussion of sexual matters exploded. In this period, the literature focused mainly on how to contain peoples’ sexuality to the marital relationship and thereby reproduce the species in a stable environment that produced order. In the 19th century, the focus shifted to ‘deviant’ sexuality. This focus on the deviant or the abnormal was at the heart of emerging theories of psychiatry and criminology in the 19th century. In Foucault’s view, this represented a sort of deepening of social control. In the 18thcentury, the system of governmentality was content to try to direct sexual relations toward the family unit. In the 19thcentury, having fully accomplished this, the system of governmentality went in search of deviations from the norm to neutralise or reintegrate them. The culmination of this was the development of Freudian psychotherapy that focused almost exclusively on reintegrating peoples’ sexuality back into a normative structure.
Liberals may find it odd that the system of governmentality would focus so much on sexuality as odd, but postliberals will not. As Edward Feser has recently written:
“Sexual sins strike directly at our social nature, because they destabilize the family, the basic cell of society and thus the precondition of all social order. And they strike at our rational nature in that, as Aquinas teaches, they have more than any other sin the tendency to subvert rational thinking. Hence, they are very grave, even if not the most grave.”
Post-Enlightenment social thinkers realized this at an intuitive level. They transformed the moralistic language associated with both Catholic and Protestant theology into the scientific language of the human sciences. But the goal was functionally the same.
This component of governmentality Foucault came to call ‘biopower’. That is, the component of power that is focused on the bios – on life itself. At a fundamental level, society cannot function if it cannot reproduce itself. Having a perfect criminal justice system is useless if there are no people to distribute justice to. Likewise, post-Enlightenment thinkers understood at a fundamental level that socialisation took place within the family. Ensuring that the socialisation process in the family was correctly undertaken was key to later components of socialisation, from the school to the workplace.
Reconstruction after Deconstruction
In his first book Madness and Civilisation, Foucault discussed the phenomenon of the ‘ship of fools’. The ship of fools was supposedly a ship that sailed the rivers of Europe in the medieval period and was occupied by the insane. It does not matter whether any such ship existed or whether it was apocryphal, it was the importance of the image that appealed to Foucault. He came to see the ship of fools as an anarchic post-social ideal. It represented to him the ultimate in human freedom; the capacity for even the ‘deviant’ or the ‘abnormal’ to have total freedom. Ultimately Foucault’s vision of freedom was not liberal or even Marxist, but rather influenced by writers like the Marquis de Sade. Foucault was a nihilist and an anarchist in the truest sense: he wanted complete libertine freedom and the anarchy that accompanied it.
Pre-Enlightenment thought has a word for Foucault’s vision: evil. Foucault was, in his writing and his public advocacy, trying to disseminate chaos. He was driven by a deeply evil instinct. And his personal life reflected this. In purely functional terms, the spread of evil and chaos only results in human misery. In practice, we know that while it may well give rise to ships of fools it also gives rise to violence, disorder, and ultimately death. Foucault knew this but he did not care. Misery was the price that must be paid for anarchic freedom. Today we see the results of this anarchic freedom all around us, especially in our major cities. People can largely do what they want, and the results are miserable.
Why then should postliberals pay attention to Foucault? Because the system he tore down was weak. He was correct in his diagnosis. The human sciences ultimately borrowed components of pre-Enlightenment, mostly Christian, morality and cloaked them in jargon. Because they were not honest about what they were doing they were easily open to attack. Yet postliberals know what they were ultimately trying to do: they were trying to maintain intact the natural law while also fleeing from it.
Postliberals know that societies thrive, and human happiness is fulfilled the more it adheres to the natural law. This is not a scientific judgement – although empirical social science will always show it to be true – rather it is a metaphysical judgement. It speaks to something fundamental in the structure of our world.
Foucault shows us that, try as they may have to banish Christian metaphysics and replace it with Pure Reason, the Enlightenment thinkers failed. At a certain point, to maintain a functional and stable society, they had to fall back on moral judgements. But they did not want to admit this and so they tried to cloak it under a lab coat. This shows postliberals the way forward. We do not want to return to the post-Enlightenment pseudoscience, rather we want to admit quite openly that our systems of governmentality must rest on the natural law if our societies are to prosper. Postliberals should embrace Foucault’s critique and press it home, showing the pretentiousness of many aspects of the human sciences and calling for honesty. When the psychotherapists make up new terms like ‘Narcissistic Personality Disorder’, for example, postliberals should point out that they are simply talking about extreme pride – the worst of the sins.
This does not mean that postliberals should reject the tools developed by the human sciences, however. Many are useful and the system of governmentality that they produced, although now breaking down, was impressive. Rather we should infuse them with the natural law. We should be explicit about doing this. There is no need to be shy about, say, engaging in an empirical study that is explicitly based on the assumptions of the natural law. When the liberals push back on this, we should just expose the pretentiousness of their jargon. And when the postmodernists push back, we should simply agree with them, but point out that their own nihilism is chaotic and evil and will only result in misery – for themselves and for society as a whole.
In The Dawn of All, Robert Hugh Benson foresaw this development as if in prophecy:
This, then, was the result—that the Church was found to be eternally right in every plane. In plane after plane she had been condemned. Pilate—the Law of Separate Nations—had found her guilty of sedition; Herod—the miracle-monger at one instant and the sceptic at the next—the Scientist, in fact—had declared her guilty of fraud; Caiaphas had condemned her in the name of National Religion. Or, again, she had been thought the enemy of Art by the Greek-spirited; the enemy of Law by the Latins; the enemy of Religion by the Hebraic Pharisee. She had borne her title written in Greek and Latin and Hebrew. She had been crucified, and taunted as she hung there; she had seemed to die; and, to and behold! when the Third Day dawned she was alive again for evermore. From every single point she had been justified and vindicated. Men had thought to invent a new religion, a new art, a new social order, a new philosophy; they had burrowed and explored and digged in every direction; and, at the end, when they had worked out their theories and found, as they thought, the reward of their labours, they found themselves looking once more into the serene, smiling face of Catholicism. She was risen from the dead once more, and was seen to be the Daughter of God, with Power.
After Foucault there are no more moves left on the chessboard. It took Foucault’s evil, but brilliant gaze to finally destroy the system of pseudo-morality that the post-Enlightenment thinkers used to prop up the liberal system of governance. That system is now demolished. We live amongst its ruins. And our only choice is to rebuild on what is left. But not duplicitously, as the post-Enlightenment thinkers did. We must rebuild based on the truth of the natural law.