When liberation isn't liberating

What happens when the injunction to be free has become the inner message of power?

When liberation isn't liberating
"The Island" by Walton Ford (Triptych)

I've long thought that Foucault provides a potent resource for politics on the Right, indicating a stream of critique in line with thinkers like Burnham, Lasch, and Illich, as well as anarchists like Scott and Graeber. This constellation of theorists takes the managerial class, its techniques, modes of knowledge production, social effects, and pathologies as its primary object of investigation.

This piece is an initial attempt to point out the potential of Foucault's thought for thinking against the State and Capitalism, in line with this anti-managerial lineage, as well as raising the question in general of how we are to handle the idea of freedom today in a system which constantly commands us to be free.

Don't miss my upcoming lecture on April 16th at noon (Pacific!). It's called "Anti-Worldview, or how I broke up with Van Til," and talks about the perils of the idea that people have "worldviews."
When liberation isnt liberating

What Foucault saw

We often see Foucault as a thinker of the Left, but this recent video from YouTube theory channel Deleuze Philosophy on the fraught relationship between Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze brings out why I find myself drawn to Foucault as a thinker with crucial conceptual resources for a contemporary theory of freedom which is neither Left nor Right (although, one which perhaps finds more purchase on the Right today).

The narrator describes the falling out that Foucault and Deleuze experienced near the end of Foucault's life, especially as Foucault started to release his History of Sexuality series, which would ultimately prove to be his final public writings. Foucault sensed that Deleuze (and others) were not willing to follow him where he was going conceptually, and this lack of support wounded him deeply.

Where did the paths in the wood diverge though? After years of political organizing together, Deleuze knew Foucault extremely well, and his public comments seem to indicate that he saw Foucault wrestling with an impasse, a niggling doubt that the liberation which he had fervently championed in his theoretical work and political activism was perhaps not what it seemed or promised.

Foucault's spent decades tracing the origins of the social sciences (medicine, psychiatry, criminality, sociology), and demonstrating how these conceptual apparatuses coincided with new forms of political power and social control. These new forms of knowledge had justified themselves on the basis of seeking to understand the underlying mechanisms of human life, thereby claiming to give us the ability to achieve higher levels of flourishing. Thus, these sciences positioned themselves as liberating discourses which would free human beings from old superstitions or dogmatisms, ultimately emancipating the inherent potential of the human being and human communities.

Where this ultimately lead Foucault was to a troublesome suspicion that the struggles for emancipation in which he had zealously participated were, perhaps, themselves an internal mechanism of power and its expansion. This paved the way for a realization that even the contemporary movements for liberation were themselves thoroughly complicit in the operation of the state and capital.

This analysis comes out clearly in the epilogue of his History of Sexuality, Volume 1 in which he describes the transition from power's operation with a "right to death" model to a "power over life" model. This simple heuristic tries to indicate a subtle shift in how the sovereign (and his subjects) understand the workings of power – on the "right to death" model, the sovereign primarily exercises power by controlling the meting out of punishment and death. Death, as the horizon of life, was the sovereign's sole purview and prerogative, and they controlled life only in so far as they retained this power to impose death as a punishment.

However, the rise of the biopolitical state which Foucault describes no longer has the sovereign's power pertaining particularly to death and punishment but rather to the active forces of life itself. The new sovereign who emerges under this biopolitical regime takes the realm of life as their domain. Instead of meting out punishment at the boundaries of life, the state takes responsibility for delivering flourishing to its citizens and cultivating their life through care.

From a people to a population, from a demos to a demographic, from subjects to citizens – these transmutations seem barely perceptible until Foucault points them out, but once understood, they affect a massive shift our perspective. The state now guides our growth, cares for us, and takes responsibility for our lives, which explains why it takes such a deep interest in our most personal matters and the innermost workings of nature. The injunction to 'speak your truth' and to 'be yourself' is necessary for the state to fulfill its role as sovereign over life.

Why Marx needs Foucault

Foucault's insight here must be rigorously maintained, and we must not cease returning to it in our age of data-driven governance. It's precisely his work in developing the theory of bio-politics which makes him so invaluable as a thinker today for those who labor in subterranean ways to practice concrete forms of freedom which fall outside the regime's lines of sight.

The problem which we face today, and which Foucault had begun to see, is that the alliance between capitalism and the bio-political state has even captured the repression/liberation couplet. Even the contemporary rhetoric of liberation has become utterly compromised, and liberation is no longer liberating today. The injunction to be free has become the inner message of power.

I emphasize the alliance between capitalism and the bio-political state because I believe that a critique of political economy is insufficient to properly analyze our contemporary situation of un-freedom and immiseration – as Bidet's book Foucault with Marx demonstrates, we need a Foucauldian supplement to Marxist economic analysis to understand the essential role that technocratic knowledge-production plays in the entire capitalist system.

While Marx certainly provides an analysis of the economic structures of material production, as well as demonstrating the necessity of certain ideological commitments which underly the smooth functioning of this system, Foucault's work performs a genealogy of those systems and sciences which produce, modify, and perpetuate the fantasies which hold the entire material system of objects together, justifying its function and the decisions of those who manage it.

We see examples of this everyday, such as in the psychological epidemic of therapeutic speech which spreads through mediums like TikTok, wherein therapists, "experts," and peers model for each other how to pathologize, diagnose, and perform mental illness in every area of their lives. The supposedly liberating discourse of psychology and mental health has now become an all-encompassing prison in which every phenomenon must be interpreted through a label from the DSM, thus demanding remediation by the medical establishment and a continual expansion of its services to meet this continually burgeoning psychological need.

Marx needs Foucault because the social sciences have become the dominant discourse through which the laborer now understands her experience in our capitalist society, and that discourse gains its foothold in us through its claims to elucidate and remediate the very suffering of the capitalist labor relation. The discourse of mental health today is a mendacious agent of capitalism's own cynical self-protection, a mechanism whereby it maintains itself precisely through its own open acknowledgement as an oppressor and source of psychological dysfunction.

How then is one to think and practice freedom today when the command to become liberated is the very mechanism whereby the system simultaneously maintains itself in its stasis and continually optimizes itself through inducing us to dredge up new data about ourselves for the system to metabolize? Our struggle for freedom is precisely what feeds the system with the information it needs to achieve its next cycle of self-revolution.

How do you have a meaningful revolution in a system which is built on the continual process of self-revolution? In what way can liberation become liberating again if the discourse of liberation forms the central thread of capitalist ideology?

This is the task set before us.

I'm also exploring this exact question in my recent book Ideology and Christian Freedom: a theo-political reading of Shusaku Endo's Silence – although I'm also mounting a critique of the dominant way that I see the Right attempting to solve this problem, that is, by calling for a return to older forms of nationalism and kinship bonds.

In the book, I argue that such a return is not only not feasible (for it's based on an imagined relationship between an individual and a fantasized social whole), but also that it's a betrayal of the core of the Gospel message – the inescapable responsibility of being a free subject in Christ.

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