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