Progressive Illiberalism 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, classicism, ableism, and so on.

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” or “typical.” 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. Continue reading

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?

Continue reading