Saturday, 12 January 2008

Foucault for Chance Against a Transparent Civil Society

Foucault famously suggested a historical movement from spectacular punishment to disciplinary punishment. he was referring to the transition from public humiliation, torture and execution to the hidden routine of prison For Foucault that transition from one mode of punishment to another was the indicator of a general historical movement to institutions based on the visibility of everyone in the institution, the apparent depersonalisation of power and the movement of discipline in society as a whole from moments of excessive cruelty to long periods of routinised petty cruelty.

The vision of a society dominated by the disciplinary was modified soon afterwards in a move which becomes on of the dominant issues of Foucault's work up to his death in 1984. He became interested in the security pursued by sovereign power which is not the detailed planning of society from above. In the disciplinary, we can see power trying to dominate chance and eradicate it through planning. In security, also associated with 'governmentality', and with antique notions of selfhood, Foucault finds that power may bow to chance A key example is the emergence of the Physiocrats in Eighteenth Century France. They moved away from the idea of the king's servant trying to control the economy through protectionism, state monopoly and state control of high prices. The Physiocrats displaced the Mercantilists as the leading advisers to the Crown. The mercantilists aimed to prevent tangible wealth leaving the country in exchange for goods. The effect of their policies was to hold down living standards of the majority in order to guarantee the strength of the state measured by its holdings of gold. They tried to prevent rural famine trough state intervention. Physiocrats thought fear of famine was exaggerated and that the best way of guaranteeing enough food for everyone was to keep prices down.

The Physiocrats appear in Foucault as the opposite of the schemes of the French early modern monarchs, and other European monarchs, to plan new cities and organise the lives of the inhabitants in every detail Physiocrats thought allowing people to be free and to develop their own responses. was the best prevention for famine. Allowing the price of grain to go up would prevent famine as it would create an incentive for farmers to grow more of the crop concerned.

It's in the market as something driven by chance that Foucault saw an antidote to rationalistic planning. Quite how far Foucualt was going in the direction of the capitalism of spontaneous human action is a matter of debate. What definitely comes through is not only opposition to state dominated economics but to the idea of unified transparent civil society or public sphere. With the decline of Marxism, a lot of leftist thought has resorted to notions of public sphere and civil society in opposition to capitalism Civil society is understood as defined by state administrators and actors in favour of state intervention against the looming chaos of market economics. Jürgen Habermas is the most obvious representative of such a view, and Habermas has gone beyond his Marxist background in influencing the discourse of social democracy and liberalism. His view of rational consensual civil society expresses itself in admiration for the constitutional state, which includes the European Union. Sometimes Habermas seems like the official philosopher of the EU and of Atlanticist democracy. To the disappointment of many Marxist fans, Habermas supports some US and European military operations. That shows how far he was from revolutionary Marxism, but also how a kind of low level Marxism, appealing to a rational unified ordered public sphere and civil society, guided by a constitutional state beyond passions, comes to the fore as the necessary means to resist the supposed chaos and cruelty of unrestrained capitalism. It's a convenient doctrine for academics, NGO activists and state employees across Europe and across the Atlantic world.

Foucault certainly said that society should be defended, he meant that the state should be limited, and that even the state guided by intellectuals and acting for benign motives constrains freedom and administers every detail of society in a disciplinary way. Habermas recognises a tension between the liberal goal of a state resting on general law and the welfarist pracitce of administrative action outside general law. His solution is more and more rational discourse, which in practice will be structured by the state and by intellectuals in the broad sense. Foucault's interest in what has been kept out of official and intellectual discourse leaves him with a much better sense that the willfulness of individual behaviour and the spontaneity of uneducated human behaviour in the economy is waht gurantees freedom. His account of he role ofGerman free market economists in the Odo group in opposition to the Nazis and playing a large role in the early post-Nazi German political and economic thinking, certainly suggests so.

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