Grégoire Canlorbe and Stephen Hicks, Capitalism versus the Philosophers, FEE: Foundation for Economic Education, 2 May 2016
Stephen Hicks is a Canadian-American philosopher who teaches at Rockford University, where he also directs the Center for Ethics and Entrepreneurship.
Hicks is the author of Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault, which argues that postmodernism is best understood as a rhetorical strategy of far-left intellectuals and academics in response to the failure of socialism and communism.
FEE contributor Grégoire Canlorbe sat down with Professor Hicks to discuss how philosophers confront economic freedom.
Grégoire Canlorbe: According to French philosopher Michel Foucault, the rise of economic freedom after the 18th century coincides with the deployment of new techniques of control operating at local level through prisons, factories, schools, and hospitals. Economic policy, then, is the product of a new practice of power, present at all levels of society, whose aim is to “rationalize the problems posed to [society] by phenomena characteristic of a set of living beings forming a population: health, hygiene, birthrate, life expectancy, race.”
How would you sum up the main strengths and weaknesses of Foucault’s analysis?
Stephen Hicks: There’s a libertarian streak in Foucault that sometimes appeals to me, and of course he’s right that the rise of centralized and controlling bureaucracy is one feature of the modern world. I think Foucault can often be good psychologically and insightful philosophically, but ultimately he’s weak as a historian.
As a start on this huge topic, I’ll just say two things here. One is that the modern era is characterized by at least three types of social philosophy. The great debate between free-market liberalism and socialism highlights two of the three types. The third type is bureaucratic centralization, and that social philosophy cuts across the free-market/socialist debate.
The idea that society can be organized centrally with concentrated power used in all of the ways that Foucault diagnoses — that paradigm of technocratic efficiency is often committed to neutrally and can then be applied in either market or governmental contexts. One can envision and find examples of private factories, corporations, and government bureaucracies applying those techniques.
So the question of both history and philosophy is whether the hegemonic-controlling-power model best fits with the theory and practice of modern free-market capitalism or with the theory and practice of modern collectivism-socialism.
The other point I’ll make quickly is that Foucault consistently embraces a Nietzschean understanding of power as fixed and zero-sum. In that model, power may be constantly evolving, but it is also constantly agonistic and antagonistic. Hence the consistent undercurrent of cynicism in any Foucauldian discussion of power.
That contrasts to those understandings of power that recognize some forms of it — cognitive, economic, personal-relational, for example — as potentially generative and increasing, resulting in a net growth.