Foucault on Liberal Democracy, Historicism and Philosophy
Blake Smith. Tocqueville 21, 9 May 2020
Liberal democracy is an oxymoron. Or rather, it’s a site of confrontation between contradictory discourses, between the universalist aspirations of philosophy and the partisanship of historiography. So insinuates Michel Foucault in the “Society Must be Defended,” delivered at the Collège de France in the spring of 1976.
This is not the ostensible point of his lectures. Foucault eschews normative claims about the nature of our regime, and insists he has no desire to ask something so naive as a “theoretical question.” Instead he pursues a historical investigation into the ways that armed struggle has been used in the modern West as a metaphor for and within domestic politics. He traces the origin of the war-metaphor from early modern writers through nineteenth and twentieth-century prophets of wars of class and race, with whom he concludes the series. But these were not his real target.
Rather, as Foucault told his audience in the first of the lectures, he wanted to explain the bewildering moral, social and political transformations that had taken place in the liberal democratic West during the 1960s and 70s. Searching for the mechanisms that had made these transformations possible, Foucault develops a provocative account of the genesis and nature of the liberal democratic regime. Our political order, his account implies, is an unhappy marriage of philosophy and historicism.