Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Left and Liberal Government (After Foucault)

Foucault's lectures on "The Birth of Biopolitics" have been rattling around in my head. I think they present a real challenge for the Left, in the sense that they articulate the lack of what Foucault refers to as a socialist governmentality. In fact, on might even say that, in the West, there is currently no governmental alternative to liberalism. What does this mean?

Well, first we should set aside the sense in which "liberalism" names a partisan position in North American electoral and cultural politics. Liberals in this sense tend to embrace liberal government for some issues (drugs, abortion, etc.) while rejecting it for others (minimum wage, environmental regulations, etc.). There is no neat fit between the mode of government and partisan identification, even if there are discernible patterns.

Likewise, I think it is necessary to set aside the sense in which "liberalism" names a theory of state legitimation. In this sense, liberalism asks the question: When is it obligatory that I obey a coercive power? To which liberalism answers: When that coercive power is necessary (and sufficient?) to secure a sphere of equal liberty for myself and my fellows, who are equally obligated thereby to obey. This morality of power and obedience -- basically, the social contract tradition -- has some relationship with liberal government, but is not identical to it. Hobbes offers a liberal legitimation of the state, but not a liberal theory of government. Smith proposes liberal government, but not a liberal legitimation of the state. (Foucault talks about this as the "strategic" difference between "revolutionary" (natural rights, social contract) and "radical" (utilitarian) strands within liberalism. The difference is strategic because the two strands can support one another in various ways, but are not reducible to moments in a dialectical unity.)

Liberalism as a mode of government names the technology of power that governs a natural-social phenomenon by establishing a normal range of incidence and keeping the phenomenon within this range by means of state action on the environmental variables that tend to affect incidence. In other words, liberal government accepts the thing to be governed as an ineliminable (natural) fact of the social world, and, rather than trying to forbid or otherwise abolish it, manages it indirectly by affecting those variables that encourage or discourage it by appealing to individuals' interests. In short, liberal government is economic government, government that understands and respects the economic incentives that produce harmful or unpleasant phenomena, and tries to manage problems by restructuring the incentives.

Now, when things are put in these terms, it seems, in fact, that liberalism is the only governmental game in town. The Right has a moral discourse and an effective political rhetoric, but no independent art of government. The Left has a critical discourse, but neither an effective political rhetoric nor an art of government. Mainstream liberalism has government all locked up -- but has neither a critical nor a moral discourse, and is largely lacking in the political rhetoric department, too! (Hence, the sorry state of the Democrats in the US and the Liberals in Canada, both of which must pin there hopes of electoral success almost entirely on the incompetence of their Rightist competition.)

This is a problem for the Left in that, aside from the momentous problem of, y'know, actually taking power, we have no independent practice of government by which we might wield the power of the state should it somehow fall into our hands. There are, of course, distinctive ends we would like to achieve, but when you ask: How would we go about, e.g., redistributing land, establishing a basic income, etc? the only answers that seem forthcoming are: a) a magical faith in the will of the people (a simple decree, anyone?) and b) ask the economists.

10 comments:

anotherpanacea said...

I liked the descriptive part of this analysis, though I don't find the evaluative language you use persuasive. For instance, your closing line suggest that we ought to be troubled that the only liberal methods are popular legitimacy or the advice of relevant experts. I don't understand your despair, here.

Shouldn't we *want* to be ruled by either (and preferably both) the best approximation of our fellow citizens' will and our best estimation of the facts of the matter?

Perhaps your complaint is that economists are not the relevant experts, or that their discipline prevents them from realizing the best estimation of the facts of the matter. But then it simply seems that one ought to beat them at their own game, as Marx sometimes succeeds in doing, and change the tenor and substance of the governing relevant expertise!

Will Roberts said...

What do you mean "we," paleface? Seriously, who is the "we" in your comment? Left-liberals?

I think the only liberal "method" of government is via the market, via alterations in the factors of market calculations. "Popular legitimacy" is not a method or an art.

My concern is that the non-liberal left does not have an art of government to rival the liberal art, and so must either fall back on "party governance," or terror, or wishful thinking, or eschewing government altogether ... or must avail itself of liberal government, which presupposes an extensive market (perhaps including a labor-market, and hence capitalism).

anotherpanacea said...

Well, fellow paleface, my 'we' was only meant to echo your 'we.' Let's say you and me: us.

For the liberal left, you ignore the liberal left's general comfort with the police power and biopolitical governance in "public health" and "public safety."

As for the position you ascribe to the non-liberal left, I can't see why you'd want policies that don't meet the following standard: the relevant experts say they're a bad idea and your fellow citizens don't want them.

It seems like it ought to be revealing that a policy is only possible under oligopoly, fear, or deception, i.e. "party governance, or terror, or wishful thinking." But perhaps you'll explain further.

Jacob T. Levy said...

Interesting disjuncture between the options in the post ("a magical faith in the will of the people (a simple decree, anyone?) and b) ask the economists") and those in the comment above ('"party governance," or terror, or wishful thinking, or eschewing government altogether').

And of course it worries me that you're painting yourself into a corner in which the only viable alternative to "wishful thinking" is party governance or (I would say "and") terror!

Will Roberts said...

I've clearly been less than clear...

Joshua --

Who "we" are has not been established. The fact that you and I are friends, or went to grad school together, or are philosophers, or men, or Americans -- these things are irrelevant to the question at hand. What I wanted to know was what political position you are writing from -- who are you for the purposes of this discussion? I am writing as a non-liberal leftist -- a communist, if you will. I was wondering whether you were writing as a left liberal, but it seems that is not the case.

I don't know why you keep bringing up "the experts." The question is: what counts as expertise, and what sort of expertise is relevant to government? There is no division in my post between a "descriptive" part and and "evaluative" part -- I'm just trying to diagnose and think about the situatioon in which the "how" of government -- governmental rationality as such -- seems to be dominated by my political opponents.

This is what Foucault points out, I think, and it seems worth meditating on. Liberalism presents itself not as one political option among others, but as politics as such. I want to take this self-presentation seriously, for it is not without reason. Radical politics can't just ignore this.

Jacob --

The disjuncture you note is my attempt to flesh out the various possible forms a magical faith in the will of the people tends to take. There is no will of the people -- it's a normative fiction. Without a method of government, with its mechanisms of integration and administration, and its practices of "will" formation, appeals to the will of the people are just covers for a) inaction or b) some sort of warfare.

I'm not completely averse to your conjunction of terror and party government (nor is Foucault, who comes close to identifying them), but I would say that not every party government descends into terror, and even those that do are not always or uniformly in a state of governing by terror.

Anyway, I hope this clarifies my concerns a bit.

anotherpanacea said...

I don't know who I am, I guess. You know my commitments and interests as well as anyone, so if that's not enough, I'm not sure what kind of self-description would be sufficient. It's seems like it ought to be enough for you that I'm a guy who's interested in the same set of questions that you are currently discussing, sympathetic to the same goals that you articulate.

When I speak of expertise, I mean what I say: if economists have a panoply of justified views of, say, a basic minimum income, it seems like it could be useful to consult them. If they're wrong, it seems like it would be useful to call them to account for their mistakes. But it doesn't seem like it's particularly useful to ignore them, especially because some economists that would like 'in' on this 'we' because they, too, share your concerns and goals, and they've got the charts and equations to prove it!

But what if, on reflection, some of these economists come to the conclusion that they were wrong in their earlier advocacy of a basic minimum? What if they articulate a continued interest in equality but doubt, anymore, that the specific policy under discussion will accomplish such goals? Will you kick them out of the 'we'? Wouldn't you rather determine whether their reasons are good, and perhaps allow yourself to be persuaded by them?

Will Roberts said...

Joshua, I don't know where you're getting the notion that I want to ignore the economists, or purge them from the party, or whatever. I want very much to know the political-economic assessment of the effects of a policy like a basic income guarantee. But I don't want to take that assessment at face-value, either. I want to know whether the means offered by economics -- of predicting and controlling teh outcomes of political decisions -- are compatible with radical political aims. I take seriously the notion that politics was a very, very different activity in, say, ancient Greece, and that, e.g., "cost-benefit analyses of Periclean policies" is a sort of ahistorical nonsense, akin to "ancient Etruscan capitalism," or "Amazon-basin tribal investments in human capital," or the like. If contemporary economics just doesn't make sense in the context of ancient political life, if there really was a different politcal rationality at work, then it is not inconceivable that radical politics now requires a different political rationality as well, and that what the economists would have to say about that is simply beside the point.

anotherpanacea said...

I'm worried that you're conflating political rationalities with facts-of-the-matter. There's certainly something in the Amazon basin that resembles human capital development and that can be meaningfully translated into our ways of speaking about education etc. (I'm assuming we're ignoring presence of the modern nation-states of Brazil, Peru, Bolivia, etc. for these purposes, but I'm not sure why).

I went looking through your archives, and I was really excited to find the anti-Delong essays, but disappointed that you only took him on in Marx criticism. Personally, I'd love to see your argument against him rendered a little less academically: what, specifically, does he get wrong in his contemporary policy discussions or accounts of the political economy? Etc. One place to start might be Delong's account of the Deng Xaioping market reforms: http://delong.typepad.com/sdj/2007/07/delong-smackdow.html

A lot of my own thinking on these issues has been in trying to evaluate his analysis there, so perhaps I'm prejudiced, but the argument seems to be that China brought half a billion people out of abject poverty (less than $1/day PPP) using market reforms and that this is the best evidence available for regulated markets in both commodities and labor available.

As I say, this is the case that really troubles me the most, so if you can undermine his claims there I'd appreciate it. Otherwise, left liberalism starts to sound more appealing than the absence of alternatives you've diagnosed here.

Will Roberts said...

You seem to have a higher opinion of my expertise than I do. I have no idea whether DeLong is right or wrong about what has happened in China since '78. I have noted before, however, that Chinese life-expectancy doubled under Mao, and the population ballooned as well. Is that an argument for pre-Deng policies? Yes and no. It's certainly not an argument for replicating Mao's policies eevrywhere else.

anotherpanacea said...

Is this neither/nor strategy akin to a 'tarrying with the negative' move? Roberts the Zizekian?

Sure, sure: some of Mao's policies laid the groundwork for later growth, but at what price? Barefoot doctors, basic literacy, and 28 million Great Leap famine deaths.... I guess we're on the same page here: effective but unrepeatable.

One argument I like against the Delong position is that market reforms supplied growth and poverty alleviation at the expense of precarity. But then it seems like we must evaluate risks and occasionally find them tolerable when the benefits will shield more people against precarity than are subjected to precarity....