Liberalism Past: Not Being an Idiot

By Outis Philalithopoulos, who met an untimely end five years ago, and now “wears the chains he forged in life” as an economist.

In our story so far, a cyclops challenged Outis to discover possibly inconvenient truths about liberalism, and proposed the help of three Spirits.

Through the gloom, there sounded the deep, hollow, melancholy note of a bell.

I turned, and there stood a strange figure.  It seemed rather aged, and yet the face, and the smooth, hairless head, had not a wrinkle in it.  The arms were very long and muscular, and the feet were bare.

“Are you the Spirit, sir, whose coming was foretold to me?” I asked.

“I am!”

He spoke with a French accent, in a voice that was even and clear.

“Who and what are you?” I demanded.

“I am the Ghost of Liberalism Past.  My name is Michel Foucault.”

“Oh,” I said.  “Should I know that name?”

“What?” the Spirit exclaimed, with a flash of pride.  Then he sighed.

“I suppose,” he said, “it is better if my phantom no longer casts its shadow upon the world, as if I were some sort of great Astrologer surveying an atemporal sky, telling people what is good and what is not.”

“But you were famous?” I asked, feeling bad that I had hurt his feelings.

“Oh, sure,” he said with a trace of self-mockery.  “Noam Chomsky once said that he had ‘never met anyone who was so totally amoral.’  I tried to teach people about madness, medicine, and sexuality, but most wrote me off as this radical anarchist with an absolute hatred of power.”

“And that wasn’t true?”

“No!” he exclaimed.  “Power is not always repressive.”

I struggled to understand. “By power, do you mean government?  Or one social group oppressing another?”

“These are only a few particular instances of power,” Foucault explained.  “Power is anything that tends to render immobile and untouchable those things that are offered to us as real, as true, as good.”

“That sounds kind of… bad,” I replied.

“Listen, listen,” Foucault replied.  “How difficult it is!  I’m not a prophet.  I’m not going to tell people, “This is good for you, this is bad for you!”  I try to analyze a real situation in its various complexities, with the goal of allowing refusal, and curiosity, and innovation.  Is it clearer, now?”

I shook my head.  “I find your world confusing.  It’s like there are no points of orientation…”

Foucault gazed at me mildly.  “Perhaps, in time…” he murmured.  Then he clasped me by the arm.  “Rise!  And walk with me!”

I took a step – and found myself outside a snowy yard covered in red brick.

“What?” I stammered.  “Here is where I wrote my thesis…”

“You remember it, then?” inquired the Spirit.

“Remember it?” I cried.  “I could walk this campus blindfolded.”

“Let us go in, then.”

We walked through the doors of the Kennedy School of Government, into the midst of a boisterous crowd of students.  Seconds later, they fell silent, and the president of the Young Democrats announced the speaker.  It was Al Franken, presenting his book Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot.

I hadn’t heard Franken’s name in a while, but something tugged at my memory.  I looked questioningly at Foucault.

“1996,” was his only response, as laughter echoed from the audience.  Franken had begun speaking.

I soon found myself nodding along with Franken’s words.  Franken pointed out that Limbaugh had “tapped into the resentments of the ‘angry white male,’” mentioning his “studio audience of rabid – but extraordinarily straight-laced – right-wing yahoos.”  He went on to talk about some of the crazy religious people he had met while touring the country.

“By now, you may be thinking I’m showing an anti-Christian bias,” Franken suggested, grinning.  “Nonsense!  Need I remind you that I married a Roman Catholic, whom I met in college, despoiled and then convinced to renounce the Pope?”

The crowd roared with laughter.  I joined them, although something about that word “despoiled” rubbed me the wrong way.  Franken added that Limbaugh believes feminists think all heterosexual sex is rape.

“The thing is,” Franken said, “I know a lot of women, almost all of whom consider themselves feminists, and I know of only one who actually holds this belief.  And we’ve been married nearly twenty years.”

As the room rocked with laughter, my jaw dropped.  Making light of the victims of marital rape?  What was Franken’s problem?

Franken said that at one point, when Limbaugh had not been famous, he had been so poor that his wife had made him go file for unemployment.  Franken addressed Limbaugh directly.

“I swear, you must be the biggest pussy on God’s green Earth.  My God, you are a sad, sad creature, aren’t you?  Sort of a she-male?”

I was sure Franken was right and Limbaugh was a horrible person, but how could he not see how problematic his statements were?  Reinforcing gender normativity?  Negative references to female anatomy?  Why wasn’t anyone in the audience besides me concerned?

Most likely people were concerned, but felt too marginalized to say anything.

Franken had meanwhile moved on to the big picture.  What was the fundamental issue with guys like Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich and Pat Robertson?

“You know what I dislike most about these guys?  They’re always so certain.  They’re always 100 percent sure of what they’re saying.”  He paused for a split second.  “This is why I like being a Democrat.  When we see a complicated, intractable problem, we have the only really genuine, authentic human reaction you can have: we’re confused.”

I stared at Foucault.  When Allan Bloom had claimed that liberals are terrified of people who think they are right, I had assumed he was describing a colony on Neptune.  Maybe he was instead talking about people like Franken and Foucault.  Foucault smiled back at me.

Franken started to discuss various controversial issues.

President Clinton’s crime bill paid for a lot of new prisons, and that’s good.


I have no problem frying a murderer.  In some cases I’d even waive the cruel-and-unusual punishment.  That is, as long as we know we have the right guy.

Right.  What kind of progressive/liberal was this guy, anyway?  Wait, what was that about a “national Ponzi scheme currently scheduled to implode in a spectacular fiscal nightmare”?

Pete Peterson, a co-founder of the Concord Coalition, did hit a home run with a very sobering speech about what will happen if we don’t reform social security.


Franken talked about watching Pat Buchanan speak to members of the Reform Party.  He counted six standing ovations, “although it’s hard to count when you’re cowering under your seat.”  The biggest ovations had come on the crowd’s “red meat issues,” such as NAFTA and the 1995 Mexican bank bailout, on which Buchanan had said:

Politicians of both parties sold us out in Washington, D.C.  They took Citibank and Chase Manhattan and J.P. Morgan and Goldman Sachs off the hook, and they put us on.  Well, […] when I get to the White House, NAFTA will be canceled!

To me, the speech sounded like something Matt Taibbi would say.  Why did it frighten Franken so much?

An uncomfortable subject that’s not discussed enough is black on black crime.  Jesse Jackson had the courage to talk about it in terms that most people can identify with.  He said it pains him that when he’s walking down the street at night and hears footsteps, he’s relieved if it’s a white man and not a black man.  I know exactly what he means.  I was leaving NBC late one night and heard some footsteps.  When I turned around, I saw it was Jesse Jackson, and it scared the living daylights out of me!

The audience thought this was hysterical.  Why hadn’t the real progressives organized to deplatform this guy?

Franken returned to the topic of anti-establishment, anti-free trade Americans in his final windup.

Some of them were crackpots, sure.  But I thought about Hank from Michigan, a retired autoworker who was worried about jobs moving overseas.  I thought about Louise from Washington state, who was scared for her children because wages for non-college graduates have fallen 20 percent in the last twenty years.

I thought about how our political system appeals to the worst, not the best, in us.  And I thought about this book.

Maybe, I thought, I’m on the wrong track.  Maybe I’m sowing the very seeds of distrust that I so decry.  Perhaps, I thought, I should throw away the 200-plus pages of cheap, tawdry, mean-spirited (yet accurate) bile, and start over on a book whose humor heals rather than wounds.

Then, as we flew over Manhattan, it occurred to me that my book was due in a week.  Then we flew over my daughter’s private school.  And then my son’s orthodontist.  Followed by the bank that holds the mortgage on my apartment.

And as the plane banked its wings, a stream of light pierced the window, bathing my face in the orange glow of the sun setting over the American continent.  And I thought to myself, “You know, Rush Limbaugh is a big fat idiot.”

“He sells out his principles to maintain his cushy lifestyle and then brags about it?” I wondered incredulously, as laughter and applause reverberated around me.  Allez, viens,” Foucault said, beckoning.

A long line of students waited to talk with Franken, who beamed and autographed copies of his book.  A rather earnest-looking young man and woman were walking towards us.

“Did you like it, Outis?” she asked with an accent a bit like Foucault’s.

“It was hilarious,” the young man said.  “But Corinne, did you…”

“Yes, it was good,” she said.  “Rush Limbaugh really is a negative person and it’s scary that there are so many insane people in your country.  But…”

“Oh, yes,” said the young Outis.  “The talk over in your department…”

“I know you’re not thrilled about it,” Corinne began.

Outis said, “The way they talk…”

Corinne completed the thought.  “It can be hard to understand.  And honestly…” and her voice lowered, as if she were afraid of being overheard, “a lot of postmodernist scholars are just BS artists who spout the jargon to get good jobs.”

The young Outis nodded.  Corinne continued with some passion.  “But sometimes people just use that as an excuse not to listen to the important things they say.  And this speaker’s different.”

“I suppose she’s not very well known…?”

Corinne eyes danced.  “Well, you are an economist…”

“But that doesn’t mean I’m a complete illiterate,” Outis shot back.  “Come on, I’m familiar with a lot of postmodernists – Derrida, Stanley Fish, Judith Butler, Edward Said…”

“But you’ve never heard of her,” Corinne finished.  “Well, maybe she isn’t as chic as some of the others, but she’s very smart – and clearer than most of them.”

“Sure,” Outis said uncertainly.

Corinne frowned.

Outis took on what he doubtless assumed was a cunning expression.  “I’d be more excited to go if afterward we slip out for a walk down the Charles.”

She smiled cunningly back at him.

I looked desperately at Foucault.  “Spirit,” I cried.  “Show me no more!”

* * *

In the next episode, Outis becomes more certain that postmodernist liberalism was not a myth after all.

Sources: For Foucault, see this interview.  At one point, the interviewer remarks, “I have to admit, I find myself a bit lost, without points of orientation, in your world […]”  All Franken statements are verbatim quotes from Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot (1996).  

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  1. Jim Haygood

    Speaking of Pat Buchanan, he’s actually sounding pretty mellow these days:

    The stench of corruption is reaching Bhopal dimensions. What appears about to happen seems inevitable and predictable.

    If Clinton is president, there is no way her Justice Department can investigate the Clinton scandals, any more than this city in the early 1970s would entrust an investigation into Watergate to the Nixon Justice Department.

    The clamor for a special prosecutor, who will, as Archibald Cox did with Nixon, build a huge staff and spend years investigating, will become irresistible.

    Realizing that this is the near-certain fate and future of any Hillary Clinton presidency, and would be disastrous for the country, Sunday night, Doug Schoen, who worked for President Clinton for six years, said he has changed his mind and will not be voting for Hillary.

    Donald Trump says this is worse than Watergate. As of now, it is only potentially so.

    But if Hillary Clinton, this distrusted and disbelieved woman, does take the oath of office on Jan. 20, there is a real possibility that, like Nixon, down the road a year or two, she could be forced from office.

    Do we really want to go through this again?

    Only if it means Mutual Assured Destruction for both wings of the Depublicrat duopoly.

    Like when ol’ Bob Livingston (R-La) blew hisself up during the televised Clinton impeachment hearing.

    That was one of the great moments in American government! :-)

    1. PKMKII

      I’ve resigned myself to the fact that, regardless of who wins the presidential election, we’re in for a level of dysfunction, obstruction, and sabotage in Washington that’ll make the Obama years look downright civil.

  2. Carolinian

    Good stuff Outis although I thought Franken’s joke about his wife was kinda funny. Worth pointing out that Limbaugh claims everything he says is also humor and sometimes that may even be true. Liberals are perfect examples of Mel Brooks’ comedy dictum. If you walk down the street and fall into an open manhole–hilarious! If I get a tiny paper cut on my little finger–a tragedy! They need to buck up.

  3. DJG

    Interesting: Camille Paglia has been criticizing Foucault for years. Yet she is beyond the pale. May be time for some reassessment of her work. I thought that Sexual Personae was remarkable. 1990. Wow. We’re back in Outis’s memories.

    Stealing from Wikipedia: “In the book Paglia argues that human nature has an inherently dangerous Dionysian or chthonic aspect, especially in regard to sexuality.[71] Culture and civilization are created by men and represent an attempt to contain that force.[71] Women are powerful, too, but as natural forces, and both marriage and religion are means to contain chaotic forces.[8]”

    1. Synoia

      and both marriage and religion are means to contain chaotic forces

      Containing and managing chaos is impossible. All that does is change it, and generally make the result worse.

      For example: Try to catch a falling plate, hit it instead of catching it and break a window. Now you have a broken plate and a broken window.

    2. Phil

      Don’t you just love Paglia’s originality? Why, she could have quoted the whole thing from Freud’s “Civilization and Its Discontents.” Freud himself was quoting from Plato, most of the time, but at least he knew it.

      Freud was a great, readable writer. The above-mentioned book, and “The Future of An Illusion,” concerning common notions of divinity, are on the required reading list of Educated Humans (TM). That makes it all the more juicy that pompous blowhards like Harold Bloom talk about the latter book as a failure. Talk about Cointelpro–foolish or invidious, it’s your call.

  4. WRQ

    The SJW stuff has always had a strong whiff of COINTELPRO about it for me.

    For all the wailing about how students can’t handle different viewpoints, the current crop really isn’t that different from the ones who preceded them. The nonsense is all coming from their erstwhile “protectors”.

    And all the while, anthropology is being systematically destroyed as a discipline, and the corporate world is plowing under local cultures the world over. Straining out gnats and swallowing camels…

    1. Outis Philalithopoulos Post author

      I think this makes sense – but for the sake of clarity, who exactly do you mean by “protectors”? Also, can you say a little more about the destruction of anthropology?

  5. Jim

    In the Foucault interview cited at the end of your analysis he seems to endorse a proceduralist concept of Liberalism when he states: “Let’s change the game. Let’s say that the intellectuals will no longer have the role of saying what is the good. Then it will be up to the people themselves basing their judgment on the various analysis of reality….to work or behave spontaneously so that they can define for themselves what is good for them.”

    Foucault seems, in this statement, to endorse a type of liberal proceduralism geared toward sustaining an instrumentalized, subordinate relationship between the private sphere and the public sphere where the individual can engage in a type of self-enactment in society, which can supposedly deepen his own individuality and responsibility.

    This type of proceduralism endorses movement over substance. It endorses uncertainty over certainty and challenges our contemporary politics (across the political spectrum) which seems more intoxicated with the necessity of certainty than ever before.

    A problem for the Left is that in real world politics they have tended to default to the intellectuals and the state for definitions of the common good when perhaps they need to look more closely at procedure as a way out of this crisis.

    What if liberalism is really institutionalized skepticism?

    1. Outis Philalithopoulos Post author

      As usual, you make interesting points. When you say our contemporary politics “seems more intoxicated with the necessity of certainty than ever before,” I think this is correct, and this theme will continue to recur in the series.

      Maybe am reading Foucault a little differently than you – I’m not sure if he’s endorsing proceduralism as the means although I think your description of his ends is reasonable. Foucault seems to have hoped for a change in perception about the role of the intellectual, so that people would start to see ideas more as intersubjective constructions and less as preexisting Platonic ideals.

      The strange thing is that a lot of Foucault’s historical work involves looking at the interaction between procedures and ideas, so you might think that he would have come up with ideas about how procedures could reinforce the ideals he supported. But I don’t know of examples of him trying to do this.

    2. animalogic

      Jim, the quote you refer to, at least outside of any larger context, reminds me of existentialism.
      Personal interpretation of reality, self definition & spontaneity are all important aspects of existentialism & the search for individual authenticity & autonomy.

  6. craazyman

    so far Outis has it a lot easier than Dante
    That was some harsh shlt Dante saw. I wonder if he had Xanax. Probably not.

    he just cruised along, frankly, as if he was uninvolved in the metaphysical reality of his surroundings. Even Virgil was sort of low key. What is it with those Romans anyway? Were they all Mr. Cool. Probaably not. Not what’s his hame — Cicero and the other dude, the Senator he denounced. I forgot but it’s on the internet, that’s for sure. The speeches. Whaat a life! Making speeches and then getting your throat cut.

    They would make impassioned speeches, but Dante just sort of watched and took it all in.

    If Outis doesn’t get ffreaked out, this may not be believable. Is this just somebody’s creative writing or is it real? If it’s real, then there should be some screaming and throwing thing. hahahah

      1. animalogic

        Senator could be Mark Antony ? Certainly Cicero’s vicious diatribes against Antony lead directly to his death. Antonius HATED Cicero.(Antony demanded Cicero’s death as part of the Second trivimarate (sp) deal between himself, Octavian & Lipidus)

  7. UserFriendly

    I never read Foucault as being particularly enamored with liberalism. THE BIRTH OF BIOPOLITlCS is a series of speeches he gave shredding liberalism in it’s current iteration. Full work can be read here:
    Below is a passage I liked… but the whole work could almost be summed up with Because Markets, Go Die. Emphasis mine.

    If I employ the word “liberal,” it is first of all because this governmental- practice in the process of establishing itself is not satisfied with respecting this or that freedom, with guaranteeing this or that freedom. More profoundly, it .is a consumer of freedom. It is a consumer of freedom inasmuch as it can only function insofar as a number of freedoms actually exist: freedom of the market, freedom to buy and sell, the free exercise of property rights, freedom of discussion, possible freedom of expression, and so on. The new governmental reason needs freedom therefore the new art of government consumes freedom. It consumes freedom, which means that it must produce it. It must produce it, it must organize it. The new art of government therefore appears as the management of freedom, not in the sense of the imperative: “be free,” with the immediate contradiction that this imperative may contain. The formula of liberalism is not “be free.” Liberalism formulates simply the following: I am going to produce what you need to be free. I am going to see to it that you are free to be free. And so, if this liberalism is not so much the imperative of freedom as the management and organization of the conditions in which one can be free, it is clear that at the heart of this liberal practice is an always different and mobile problematic relationship between the production of freedom and that which in the production of freedom risks limiting and destroying it. Liberalism as I understand it, the liberalism we can describe as the art of government formed in the eighteenth century, entails at its heart a productive/destructive relationship [with]* freedom [ … ].t Liberalism must produce freedom, but this very act entails the establishment· of limitations, controls, forms of coercion, and obligations relying on threats, etcetera.

    Clearly, we have examples of this. There must be free trade, of course, but how can we practice free trade in fact if we do not control and limit a number of things, and if we do not organize a series of preventive measures to avoid the effects of one country’s hegemony over others, which would be precisely the limitation and restriction of free trade? All the European countries and the United States encounter this paradox from the start of the nineteenth century when, convinced by the economists of the end of the eighteenth century, those in power who want to establish the order of commercial freedom come up against British hegemony. American governments, for example, who used this problem of free trade as a reason for revolt against England, established protectionist tariffs from the start of the nineteenth century in order to save a free trade that would be compromised by English hegemony. Similarly, there must be freedom of the internal market, of course, but again, for there to be a market there must be buyers as well as sellers. Consequently, if necessary, the market must be supported and buyers created by mechanisms of assistance. For freedom of the internal market to exist, the effects of monopolies must be prevented, and so anti-monopoly legislation is needed. There must be a free labor market, but again there must be a large enough number of sufficiently competent, qualified, and politically disarmed workers to prevent them exerting pressure on the labor market. We have then the conditions for the creation for a formidable body of legislation and an incredible range of governmental interventions to guarantee production of the freedom needed in order to govern.

    Broadly speaking, in the liberal regime, in the liberal art of government, freedom of behavior is entailed, called for, needed, and serves as a regulator, but it also has to be produced and organized. So, freedom in the regime of liberalism is not a given, it is not a ready-made region which has to be respected, or if it is, it is so only partially, regionally, in this or that case, etcetera. Freedom is something which is constantly produced. Liberalism is not acceptance of freedom; it proposes to manufacture it constantly, to arouse it and produce it, with, of course, the system]* of constraints and the problems of cost raised by this production.

    What, then, will be the principle of calculation for this cost of manufacturing freedom? The principle of calculation is what is called security. That is to say, liberalism, the liberal art of government, is forced to determine the precise ·extent to which and up to what point individual interest, that is to say, individual interests insofar as they are different and possibly opposed to each other, constitute a danger for the interest of all. The problem of security is the protection of the collective interest against individual interests. Conversely, individual interests have to be protected against everything that could be seen as an encroachment of the collective interest. Again, the freedom of economic processes must not be a danger, either for enterprises or for workers. The freedom of the workers must not become a danger for the enterprise and production. Individual accidents and events in an individual’s life, such as illness or inevitable old age, must not be a danger either for individuals or for society. In short, strategies of security, which are, in a way, both liberalism’s other face and its very condition, must correspond to all these imperatives concerning the need to ensure that the mechanism of interests does not give rise to individual or collective dangers. The game of freedom and security is at the very heart of this new governmental reason whose general characteristics I have tried to describe. The problems of what I shall call the economy of power peculiar to liberalism are internally sustained, as it were, by this interplay of freedom and security.

    Broadly speaking, in the old political system of sovereignty there was a set of legal and economic relations between the sovereign and the subject which committed, and even obliged the sovereign to protect the subject. But this protection was, in a way, external. The subject could demand the protection of his sovereign against an external or internal enemy. It is completely different in the case of liberalism. It is no longer just that kind of external protection of the individual himself which must be assured. Liberalism turns into a mechanism continually having to arbitrate between the freedom and security of individuals by reference to this notion of danger. Basically, if on one side-and this is what I said last week-liberalism is an art of government that fundamentally deals with interests, it cannot do this-and this is the other side of the coin without at the same time managing the dangers and mechanisms of security/freedom, the interplay of security/freedom which must ensure that individuals or the community have the least exposure to danger.

    A number of consequences follow from this. First, we can say that the motto of liberalism is: “Live dangerously.” “Live dangerously,” that is to say, individuals are constantly exposed to danger, or rather, they are conditioned to experience their situation, their life, their present, and their future as containing danger. I think this kind of stimulus of danger will be one of the major implications of liberalism. An entire education and culture of danger appears in the nineteenth century which is very different from those, great apocalyptic threats of plague, death, and war which fed the political and cosmological imagination of the Middle Ages, and even of the seventeenth century. The horsemen of the Apocalypse disappear and in their place, everyday dangers appear, emerge, and spread everywhere, perpetually being brought to life, reactualized, and circulated by what could be called the political culture of danger in the nineteenth century. This political culture of danger has a number of aspects. For example, there is the campaign for savings banks at the start of the nineteenth century; you see the appearance of detective fiction and journalistic interest in crime around the middle of the nineteenth century; there are the campaigns around disease and hygiene; and then think too of what took place with regard to sexuality and the fear of degeneration: degeneration of the individual, the family, the race, and the human species. In short, everywhere you see this stimulation of the fear of danger which is, as it were, the condition, the internal psychological and cultural correlative of liberalism. There is no liberalism without a culture of danger.

    The second consequence of this liberalism and liberal art of government is the considerable extension of procedures of control, constraint, and coercion which are something like the counterpart and counterweights of different freedoms. I have drawn attention to the fact that the development, dramatic rise, and dissemination throughout society of these famous disciplinary techniques for taking charge of the behavior of individuals day by day and in its fine detail is exactly contemporaneous with the age of freedoms. Economic freedom, liberalism in the sense I have just been talking about, and disciplinary techniques are completely bound up with each other. At the beginning of his career, or around 1792-1795; Bentham presented the famous Panopticon as a procedure for institutions like schools, factories, and prisons which would enable one to supervise the conduct of individuals while increasing the profitability and productivity of their activity. At the end of his life, in his project of the general codification of English legislation, Bentham will propose that the Panopticon should be the formula for the whole of government, saying that the Panopticon is the very formula of liberal government. What basically must a government do? It must give way to everything due to natural mechanisms in both behavior and production. It must give way to these mechanisms and make no other intervention, to start with at least, than that of supervision. Government, initially limited to the function of supervision, is only to intervene when it sees that something is not happening according to the general mechanics of behavior, exchange, and economic life. Panopticism is not a regional mechanics limited to certain institutions; for Bentham, panopticism really is a general political formula that characterizes a type of government.

    The third consequence (the second being the conjunction between the disciplines and liberalism), is the appearance in this new art of government of mechanisms with the function of producing, breathing life into, and increasing freedom, of introducing additional freedom through additional control and intervention. That is to say, control is no longer just the necessary counterweight to freedom, as in the case of panopticism: it becomes its mainspring. And here again we have examples of this, such as what took place in England and the United States in the twentieth century, in the 1930s say, when not only the economic but also the political consequences of the developing economic crisis were immediately detected and seen to represent a danger to a number of what were thought to be basic freedoms. Roosevelt’s welfare policy, for example, starting from 1932, was a way of guaranteeing and producing more freedom in a dangerous situation of unemployment: freedom to work, freedom of consumption, political freedom, and so on. What was the price of this? The price was precisely a series of artificial, voluntarist interventions, of direct economic interventions in the market represented by the basic Welfare measures, and which from 1946, and even from the start moreover, were described as being in themselves threats of a new despotism. In this case democratic freedoms are only guaranteed by an economic interventionism which is denounced as a threat to freedom. So we arrive; if you like –and this is also an important point to keep hold of- at the idea that in the end this liberal art of government introduces by itself or is the victim from within [of]* what could be called crises of governmentality. These are crises which may be due, for example, to the increase in the economic cost of the exercise of these freedoms. Consider, for example, how, in the texts of the Trilateral in recent years, there has been an attempt to project the effects, of political freedom on the economic level of cost. So there is a problem, or crisis, if you like, or a consciousness of crisis, based on the definition of the economic cost of the exercise of freedom.

    Another form of crisis would be due to the inflation of the compensatory mechanisms of freedom. That is to say, for the exercise of some freedoms, like that of the freedom of the market and anti-monopoly legislation, for example, you could have the formation of a legislative straitjacket which the market partners experience as excessive interventionism and excessive constraint and coercion. At a much more local level, you have everything which takes on the appearance of revolt and rejection of the world of the disciplines. Finally, and above all, there are processes of clogging such that the mechanisms for producing freedom, precisely those that are called upon to manufacture this freedom, actually produce destructive effects which prevail over the very freedom they are supposed to produce. This is, if you like, the ambiguity of all the devices which could be called “liberogenic,”* that is to say, devices intended to produce freedom which potentially risk producing exactly the opposite.

    This is precisely the present crisis of liberalism. All of those mechanisms which since the years from 1925 to 1930 have tried to offer economic and· political formulae to secure states against communism, socialism, National Socialism, and fascism, all these mechanisms and guarantees of freedom which have been implemented in order to produce this additional freedom or, at any rate, to react to threats to this freedom, have taken the form of economic interventions, that is to say, shackling economic practice, or anyway, of coercive interventions in the domain of economic practice. Whether·.Getman liberals of the Freiburg School from 1927 to 1930, or present day, so called libertarian American liberals, in both cases the starting point of their analysis and the cornerstone of their problem is this: mechanisms of economic intervention have been deployed to avoid the reduction of freedom that would be entailed by transition to socialism, fascism, or National Socialism. But is it not the case that these mechanisms of economic intervention surreptitiously introduce types of intervention and modes of action which are as harmful to freedom as the visible and manifest political forms one wants to avoid? In other words, Keynesian kinds of intervention will be absolutely central to these different discussions. We can say that around Keynes, around the economic interventionist policy perfected between 1930 and 1960, immediately before and after the war, all these interventions have brought about what we can call a crisis of liberalism, and this crisis manifests itself in a number of re-evaluations, re-appraisals, and new projects in the art of government which were formulated immediately before and after the war in Germany, and which are presently being formulated in America.

    To summarize, or conclude, I would like to say that if it is true that a feature of the contemporary world, or of the modem world since the eighteenth century, really has been the constant presence of phenomena of what may be called crises of capitalism, couldn’t we also say that there have been crises of liberalism, which are not, of course, independent of these crises of capitalism? The problem of the thirties I have just been referring to is indeed the proof of this. But crises of liberalism are not just the pure and simple or direct projection of these crises of capitalism in the political sphere. You can find crises of liberalism linked to crises of the capitalist economy. But you can also find them with a chronological gap with regard to these crises, and in any case the way in which these crises manifest themselves, are handled, call forth reactions, and prompt re-organizations is not directly deducible from the crises of capitalism. It is the crisis of the general apparatus (dispositif) of governmentality, and it seems to me that you could study the history of these crises of the general apparatus of governmentality which was installed in the eighteenth century.

    That is what I will try to do this year, but approaching things retrospectively, as it were. That is to say, I will start with the way in which the elements of this crisis of the apparatus of governmentality have been set out and formulated over the last thirty years, and [I will try] to find in the history of the nineteenth century some of the elements which enable us to clarify the way in which the crisis of the apparatus of governmentality is currently experienced, lived, practiced, and formulated.

    1. kristiina salo

      Thank you for the quote! Really informative! Like the entire post…makes much, much sense to me.

  8. David

    I’m glad you present Foucault’s views fairly (though I agree that he’s a strange person to associate with Liberalism). But towards the end of his life Foucault became increasingly unhappy with those who thought (especially from English translations of variable quality) that he was simply interpreting the whole world as patterns of endless submission and domination. He tried to correct this in the Collège de France lectures in the 1970s, from which, if I remember rightly, the extract quoted above comes. He emphasized several times that power could be positive and even benevolent – without it, nothing would ever get done.
    It’s important to remember that “pouvoir” in French, especially as a verb, has a much wider range of meanings than “power” in English. It’s root meaning is really “the ability to do something”. So you can say “j’ai pu passer un weekend à New York” – I was able to spend a weekend in New York – for example, without oppressing anyone else.

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