Matt McManus, Michel Foucault: Arch-Leftist or Subversive Conservative? Areo magazine, 25 February 2019
Michel Foucault is one of the great thinkers of (post) modern thought, and arguably the most influential figure in the humanities and social science from the second half of the twentieth century. He is also widely regarded as a beacon of leftist thought—hailed by outlets such as the Guardian and Aeon; and reviled by pundits, such as Jordan Peterson and Stephen Hicks, and right wing magazines such as the National Review. Foucault has been characterized as everything from a genius to a nihilistic pedant, the heir to Kant and Nietzsche and a largely uninteresting bore. In the pages of this magazine, too, he has received a fair amount of attention: he has been accused of ruining the West, on the one hand, and, on the other, defended as a figure who can help us understand our troubled age.
But understanding the underlying message of Foucault’s thinking remains a serious challenge. One of the most interesting recent accusations to be resurrected is that—despite the vitriol directed against him by the Right—Foucault was actually a closet conservative. These accusations have been around since the 1960s, when he was ridiculed by Marxists for his lack of dedication to—or interest in—the cause of class conflict, and persist to the current day, when Foucault is accused—not entirely unfairly—of providing intellectual support for the project of neoliberalism. Perhaps the most classic accusation was made by seminal critical theorist Jürgen Habermas in a series of scathing articles and books published in the 1980s. In his 1981 paper “Modernity versus Postmodernity,” Habermas accuses Foucault and other postmodern writers of being “young conservatives,” who abandoned the modernist project of emancipation and equality in favor of aestheticizing cultural and political concepts and traditions. As he puts it at the climax of the paper: