A Modest Proposal

UC Berkeley’s law school recently changed its (unofficial) name from “Boalt Hall” to “Berkeley Law” because John Boalt, after whom the building that houses the law school was named, had “said racist things,” in the words of Dean Erwin Chemerinsky.

But how does referring to the school with the name of someone who not only said racist things, but also owned slaves, solve the problem?

The city of Berkeley is named for the notorious slave-owner Bishop George Berkeley (1685–1753), an Irish philosopher who took the opportunity provided by some years spent in Rhode Island to buy some of his fellow human beings and force them to labor on his plantation.

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The Case Against Democracy

In his book Against Democracy (2017), Jason Brennan presents a formidable amount of empirical evidence to the effect that the more someone is involved in politics, the worse he or she becomes as a person.

  • The more you are involved in political debate (especially as the representative of a group or ideology), the less likely you are to reach reasonable conclusions. Participation increases people’s tendency to ignore facts that don’t support their position, to argue in manipulative and deceptive ways, to adopt extreme views, and in general it makes people more biased and less reasonable.
  • The more active you are in politics, the less likely you are to talk with people whose views run contrary to your own. In fact, you may reach the point where you are unable even to imagine a point of view other than your own. As a result, the more active you are in politics, the less good you will be at doing what politicians are supposed to do: see enough sides of an issue to craft and sell a compromise.

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Progressivism and Disciplinary Power

Over the last decade or so, “progressive” activists have exhibited a desire to regulate the personal behavior and values of their fellow citizens. Language, attitudes, expressions, gestures, feelings, and even thoughts are to be policed, with the aim of enforcing principles of conduct established by self-appointed “experts” in the workings of racism, sexism, classism, ableism, and other injustices.

Foucault’s concept of disciplinary power might conceivably help us think about the rise of illiberalism on the progressive left. There are at least as many differences as there are similarities, however, between disciplinary power and the regulation of personal behavior pursued by activists today.

What is disciplinary power? Foucault’s view was that after the Enlightenment had undermined the moral authority of religion, modern societies developed professional and academic disciplines that purported to use scientific methods to acquire empirical knowledge of human behavior. These sciences – psychology, sociology, economics, anthropology, criminology, medicine – established how human beings normally behaved under various circumstances.

Theoretically, “normal” meant “average.” But in practice, “normal” was implicitly taken to mean “good” or “ideal.” This, Foucault argued, made possible a form of oppression that was characteristic of liberal democratic societies: individuals “internalized” the norms established by the disciplines and regulated themselves accordingly. In this way, social scientific “experts” in human behavior played the role of the earlier religious and moral authorities.

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What does Foucault mean when he says “do not use thought to ground a political practice in Truth … use political practice as an intensifier of thought”?

The passage reads in full:

Do not use thought to ground a political practice in Truth; nor political action to discredit, as mere speculation, a line of thought. Use political practice as an intensifier of thought, and analysis as a multiplier of the forms and domains for the intervention of political action.

The quotation is taken from Foucault’s preface to the American translation of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus, which appeared in 1977.

Although the preface purports to be (and to some extent is) a summary of the ethical and political “message” of Anti-Oedipus, it’s really a statement of Foucault’s own attitude at the time. And it’s an elegant bit of prose, all the more effective for being so much more intelligible than the book that follows. I’m willing to bet that most readers recall Foucault’s preface more clearly than anything else in Anti-Oedipus.

As for what it means, that’s best seen in contrast to the view Foucault opposes.

Before the “five brief, impassioned, jubilant, enigmatic years” of 1965–70, Foucault writes, political thought on the left in France was dominated by Marx and, to a lesser extent, Freud. But the self-proclaimed liberators of humanity inspired by these figures turned out to be disasters. They were the “sad militants” of the Communist Party (“bureaucrats of the revolution and civil servants of the truth”), the “technicians of desire” (psycho-analysts and psychiatrists who wanted to get everyone’s desires back to “normal”), and the fascists – not the “historical” fascists but rather “the fascism in us all, the fascism that causes us to love power.” Continue reading


Michel Foucault wrote about power as if it were an autonomous and automatically functioning machine. To see the world through Foucault’s eyes is to become aware of strategies, deployments, distributions, apparatuses, spaces, adjustments, divisions, and separations, but no persons. Instead, human beings are described as “bodies.” (In The History of Sexuality vol. 1, sexuality is treated as a matter of “bodies and pleasures.”) In hundreds of pages on the topic of power, Foucault almost never mentions the other ways citizens of liberal democracies ordinarily influence their government – by means of political parties, elections, lawmaking, and debate.

The effect is to establish a climate of somewhat spurious objectivity. But it also puts readers on edge. There’s something creepy about this way of talking about power. What?

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What did Friedrich Schiller mean by “aesthetic education” and how can that form of education be put in practice?

“Aesthetic education” is the education of feelings, which had been sidelined by the Enlightenment, resulting in the corruption of moral sensibility and sensitivity. The instrument of aesthetic education is art, and artists, Schiller says, should devote themselves to creating “symbols of perfection.” If such symbols become ubiquitous, and constitute a people’s main cultural diet, so to speak, they will be inspired to raise themselves to art’s implied standards of integrity, harmony, and wholeness.

The implied standards are captured in a theory of human nature, which is to be deduced from the nature of the human mind. Human beings are constituted by two seemingly opposed principles, namely personal autonomy and freedom on the one hand, and its determining conditions on the other; in more familiar terms, mind and body or reason and appetite. The growth to maturity of any individual consists of bringing the two elements into a harmonious relationship with one another.

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Why can’t everything be free?

I assume the question is whether there’s a better way to allocate resources than the market.

Relatedly, the question is whether scarcity can be eliminated, and whether its elimination will make it unnecessary to allocate resources by a principle according to which some receive more than others. If so, then the only principle we’d need is Marx’s: “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.”

Can scarcity be eliminated? Some say that capitalism has artificially multiplied our needs. The idea is that in order to prevent crises stemming from weak demand, capitalist societies create desires for unnecessary things. Without capitalism there would be no need to create these “false needs,” and we would be able to determine what we truly need. If our true needs turn out to be simple and straightforward, we can achieve the elimination of scarcity.

Since we don’t know in advance what our true needs will turn out to be, we can’t know that we’ll be able to eliminate scarcity with respect to them. But for speculative purposes let’s distinguish between things the unavailability of which causes death, and things whose unavailability does not cause death. The first kind are needs, and the second kind are wants.

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