Editor: UK Politician Liz Truss’s comments unexpectedly led to Foucault trending on twitter in the UK.
Liz Truss doesn’t know about Foucault, but she also doesn’t care
Charlotte Lydia Riley, The Guardian, 19 December 2020
Ironically, rightwing politicians have invented a zombie ‘postmodernism’ that cannot be killed by facts
Academics in the UK have been known, in moments of weakness, to look wistfully across the Channel at European politicians, who seem so cultured, and so intellectual, compared to some of our Westminster grey suits. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, they think, to have politicians who really kept up to date with academic scholarship? Who enjoyed talking publicly about philosophy or history or art? Imagine if our political class read Foucault!
Be careful what you wish for. On Thursday, academics across the country were bemused to discover that Liz Truss was talking about their work, although not in the way they might have hoped. In a speech called The Fight for Fairness, the equalities minister talked about her own childhood in Leeds in the 1980s, where, apparently, schoolchildren in were taught about racism and sexism, but – inexplicably – not how to read and write. “These ideas,” Truss continued, “have their roots in postmodernist philosophy – pioneered by Foucault – that put societal power structures and labels ahead of individuals and their endeavours.” According to Truss, “in this school of thought” – postmodernist philosophy? – there is “no space for evidence”, because “truth and morality are all relative”.
It is surprising to hear that Leeds City council was such a hotbed of Foucauldianism, even in the 1980s. But then again, Truss speaks without any evidence: this is not a remotely accurate description of the French philosopher’s work. When Foucault writes about the relationship between “power” and “knowledge”, he is describing the ways that, historically, power has reinforced itself by shaping and controlling knowledge – which, he would say, is always produced within the context of power structures.