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.

The authority claimed by the experts differed from the authority claimed by religion in that the claims of the experts were empirical, not scriptural. The authority of the social sciences depended on the reliability of their methods and practices, and it could therefore be weakened by showing that those practices were not reliable. Foucault attempted to do this by investigating the history and especially the origin of the disciplines, and showing that they were established with the expectation that they would stabilize the “capitalist” economic regime. They were never impartial. From the beginning they were instruments of power, which was ample reason to be suspicious of the scientific validity of their findings and practices.

Our experts in racism, whiteness, homophobia, and the rest have an ambiguous relationship to disciplinary power. On the one hand, they rely on Foucault’s own criticisms to dismiss the authority of established academic and professional disciplines, which they paint as institutions devoted to domination. On the other hand, they derive their own authority from a para-academic network of “programs,” “studies,” and “theories” such as critical race theory, queer theory, gender studies, disability studies, and many more. Having been credentialed by such entities is at least part of what makes them “experts.”

From these platforms they go on to occupy departments of human resources, equity committees, Title IX offices, and compliance posts at corporations and universities, lead anti-racist and white fragility workshops for teachers, advise high schools on history and literature curricula, measure workplace atmosphere, man rapid-response teams to combat “micro-aggressions,” and provide many other services related to regulating personal behavior, attitudes, and thought. Some become public personalities who blog, vlog, tweet, and editorialize, setting the constantly changing terms of acceptable speech and action. All of them are engaged in various forms of identitarian moral policing (IMP).

In Discipline and Punish (1975), Foucault described the close relationship of the social sciences to the creation and function of institutions such as prisons, schools, factories, hospitals, and more. He also characterized the exercise of disciplinary power in general terms. What he called “micro-power” or “bio-power” was decentralized and diffuse, which of course is very different from the way we normally think of political power. Whereas political power, in the form of law, tends to limit agency, micro-power presented itself as enhancing agency by providing health, education, financial assistance, and related benefits. Whereas law focuses on individual acts, micro-power focused on individual types and behavioral tendencies, e.g. sociopathy, oppositional defiance disorder, the borderline personality, and so on. Once micro-power had spread throughout society, Foucault said, it became “panoptical”: citizens learned to assume that they were continuously observed by a “normalizing gaze” and conducted themselves accordingly.

Contemporary IMP is quite different from Foucault’s picture of disciplinary power, but there are also striking similarities. Unlike Foucault’s criminologists and economists, the experts in racism and sexism reject scientific method. They justify their knowledge claims by appealing in part to their “theories,” which they apply in a dogmatic and uncritical manner, but also to their personal experience. Unlike disciplinary experts, they combine their pseudo-theoretical claims with explicit moral condemnation, commonly expressed with intense emotion. Their gatherings often feature the catechistic chanting in unison of agreed-upon “truths,” including admonitions not to question them. In these respects, IMP resembles old-fashioned religious authority more than it does the disciplinary systems that Foucault argued had taken its place.

On the other hand, like disciplinary power, IMP thrives on reducing individuals to types or categories: “racist,” “sexist,” “cis-gendered,” “homophobe,” and so forth. But, again, these categories are as much moral and ideological as they are (purportedly) empirical. Whereas Foucault distinguished micro-power from law in that the former focused on behavioral tendencies and the latter focused on specific acts, IMP targets both: “racism” and “sexism” are condemned as such, but individual “racist” and “sexist” acts are identified and denounced as well. Whereas disciplinary power relied on what Foucault called the “dossier” – a detailed permanent record of each individual’s path through the disciplinary “archipelago” – IMP makes use of the always-expanding information gyre of the internet, which forgets nothing, and is searchable. So there is also a “panoptical” dimension to IMP: the presence of social media and the ubiquity of smart phone cameras ensure a constant supply of bad behavior to expose. No one is safe from this, and all must assume that anything communicated online might at any moment be retrieved and mischaracterized.

Is old-fashioned disciplinary power still relevant to understanding the modern world? Was it ever? One problem is that Foucault failed to distinguish between disciplinary power itself and the various uses that can be made of it, some of which are perhaps oppressive but others of which work to enhance agency. Indeed, that there is no such distinction, that micro-power and bio-power as techniques are inherently oppressive, was Foucault’s central (if tacit) thesis. This is wrong. There’s nothing inherently oppressive about providing medical care, mental health services, education, job training, or day care to people who can exercise agency more effectively as a result. If such things are organized in ways that reduce citizens to mere clients of what Tocqueville called the “tutelary state,” that’s a problem. But it’s one that a robust liberal democracy ought to be able to address.

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