Foucault News

News and resources on French thinker Michel Foucault (1926-1984)

Ben Golder, Foucault, Rights and Freedom, International Journal for the Semiotics of Law (11 February 2012), pp. 1-17.

As dominant liberal conceptions of the relationship between rights and freedom maintain, freedom is a property of the individual human subject and rights are a mechanism for protecting that freedom—whether it be the freedom to speak, to associate, to practise a certain religion or cultural way of life, and so forth. Rights according to these kinds of accounts are protective of a certain zone of permitted or valorised conduct and they function either as, for example, a ‘side-constraint’ on the actions of others or as a ‘trump’ over governmental or community goals. In such accounts, of course, the emphasis is placed upon the forms of power against which rights protect the individual, whether that be the trespasses of others or the overweening attentions of the state. Such accounts famously do not themselves take much account of the multiple ways in which rights also function as forms of power, often delimiting the courses of action that a putative rights-holder can take and affecting the manner of its exercise, indeed often in the very name of freedom itself. Of course, there is a sizeable critical literature which does address itself to these kinds of question, most notably from the radical traditions of Marxism and critical legal theory, which see rights in terms of the relations of production, consumption and exploitation that they establish between legal subjects.

For various reasons, Foucault has not figured as prominently in critical discussions of rights. Here I do not propose to enter into debates surrounding Foucault’s engagement with, or failure to engage with, law as an object of study, nor with the emergent literature on Foucault’s deployments of rights, indeed even of human rights. Rather, what I want to do in this paper is to articulate and defend the view that through a reading of Foucault’s work, both on rights and on power relations more broadly, we can discern an understanding of the political ambivalence of rights. For Foucault (and for some of the post-Foucaultian scholars whose work I shall address, below), rights are both political tools for the contestation and alteration of mechanisms of power and simultaneously mechanisms of inscription, both disciplinary and governmental, which work to conduct those who rely upon them. Far from being an unproblematic tool for the protection of the subject’s freedom, rights emerge in this account as conflicted and ambivalent mechanisms. In the first part of this paper I develop a Foucaultian account of rights along these lines and then hope to illustrate it by reference to several examples, from the constitution of gender and cultural identity via rights to the figure of the refugee, whilst in the final part of the paper I make a return to the idea of freedom in Foucault’s work and link the view of rights developed herein to a certain conception of freedom in his work.

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