Book Review: Foucault’s last Decade and Foucault and the Politics of Rights

Stuart Elden
Foucault’s Last Decade (Polity, 2016)

Ben Golder Foucault and the Politics of Rights (Stanford University Press, 2015)

Reviewed by Mitchell Dean (MPP, CBS, Denmark)


(This is a prepublication version of this review. The published version is available in Thesis Eleven Journal, on the T11 Sage website)


The transit of Michel Foucault across the intellectual firmament in the last thirty or so years has been surprising. In the 1980s, the mere mention of his name by the PhD student was enough to ensure strong criticism if not banishment. Yet today, his star shines among, if not as, the brightest. He is someone right-thinking social and political theorists would do well to respect and toward whom criticism is the province of the unreconstructed or the polemicist. Yet there are fundamental questions about the meaning and consequences of his thought for us, which are particularly acute given his eminence today and his insistence on the historical contingency of concepts and ‘universals’. The ‘present’ of this historian of the present is not our present, but it is often treated as when it comes to him.

The one advantage of the former institutional occlusion of Foucault was that it led to inventive uses of him. Think of ‘governmentality studies’, which was often produced outside the academy or by sociologists and others who were forced to look for jobs in strange places, like accountancy departments. It was created on the basis of scant literature and transcriptions of lectures, more often published in English or Italian than French. And it was applied, used, and put to work. This was a clear case of a form of profane thought available, as Giorgio Agamben might say, for common use, to be persisted with despite the risk of sanction.

Today, we suffer from a kind of exhaustion at the sheer volume of work published, contrary to his will, since his death.  Its proliferation creates ever-new industries of commentary. A process of sacralisation is at work and he has been re-appropriated by the France academy itself. Unlike, say his contemporary and friend, Roland Barthes, he appears as very much a thinker of today. This leads to what I believe are fundamental questions for us. What did Foucault mean? What was he trying to do? To whom was he speaking? What were his engagements and affiliations, political and otherwise? And, as a consequence, what are the effects of all of this on our own thought, our analyses and diagnoses in our own present?

A condition of answering these questions is that we should know what he said. Stuart Elden’s book presents itself as a detailed intellectual history of his project of a history of sexuality, that occupied much, but not all, of his last decade. It is an exhaustive and dense account of everything Foucault said and wrote during this time, including material still unpublished, and is based on prodigious research. As a kind of advanced intellectual primer, it works very well, particularly for the, now large, Foucauldian audience. One can follow, for instance, the different plans for the multi-volume History of Sexuality from 1976, when the first volume was published, to 1984, when the second and third finally appeared. There are long and central trajectories followed here that are reformulated and recast, particularly the genealogy of confession. There are others that are less central but emerge and are transformed in different places and form part of Foucault’s vocabulary. We learn for instance that Paul Veyne attests to the existence of a long draft focusing on the ordeal, bringing into focus the notion of l’épreuve. This term, barely registered in Anglophone commentary with the exception of unfairly declaimed James Miller biography, reappears across this decade in many English guises: tests, experiments and so on. More broadly, one could also follow the emergence of the new vocabulary of veridiction and alethurgy, concerning the manifestations of truth. But despite, or perhaps because of the wealth of new material, there are no new ‘alethurgical’ studies similar to those of governmentality. Why? Perhaps Foucault had been handed from those whose first priority was not their academic status to professional philosophers.

Elden’s book is thus a model of erudition, addressed to the converted, and stylistically makes little concession to undecided and less informed readers.  It reports on Foucault, rather than makes use of him in any sense, and thus might have the unintended effect of contributing to his sacralisation. It is only an intellectual history in the narrowest sense of an almost purely textual one that barely considers Foucault’s work in its context, its relation to its immediate interlocutors, how it responds to events, political movements, and so forth. It brings into focus what the work says but not what Foucault is doing in that saying, if I can put it that way.  Elden undertakes an important task, but it is only a beginning in understanding what Foucault meant and what its meaning might be for us today, at our very different moment.

Ben Golder’s book is, in this respect, quite different. It makes use of Foucault. It observes him through the window of his apparently late turn to the language of rights. This occurs through a small number of interviews, minor pieces and interventions. How did the trenchant anti-humanist of The Order of Things turn toward the language of rights that would appear to presuppose a foundational and universal human subject? Did Foucault turn to liberalism, or was this accommodation a tactical one? Was he carried away in the anti-statist and anti-totalitarian currents of the 1970s that found more rough formulations in the ‘new philosophers’ whom he praised (André Glucksmann) and collaborated with (Bernard-Henri Lévy)? Was he an early advocate of the ‘end of revolution’, inspired by François Furet’s revisionist history of the French Revolution?

Golder answers these questions by placing the pieces in which Foucault mentions rights in relation to the broader framework of ‘critical counter-conduct’, which resists or subverts the operation of governmentality, or the conscious attempts to govern conduct. In this regard, Golder argues, he uses the term strategically, to go beyond simply tactically invoking rights against the state in order to deploy them to problematize existing notions of the human, to rethink subjectivity, and to reimagine ways of life. In placing the discussion of rights in relation to Foucault’s notions of governmentality and self-governing, Golder demonstrates their consistency with the wider currents of his thought through this time, and his intellectual voyage to ancient Greece and Rome.

Golder’s book thus works hard to repair the possible charges of incoherence – ‘normative confusion’, ‘cryptonormativity’ – that Jürgen Habermas and Nancy Fraser levelled at Foucault long ago. It also rejects the idea that these gestures to rights amount to a celebratory return to liberalism. However, there is another sacralisation at work, one that assumes perhaps too much coherence in Foucault. No doubt there are the strong links that Golder ably constructs between his theoretical works and the political interventions. However, those occasional writings that don’t fit the pattern are too easily dismissed. Thus, in the case of Foucault’s pieces on Iran (which run to the length of a small book), Golder dismisses his enthusiasm for the Islamist movement and its uprising as ‘a lyrical language of revolution and political spirituality’. The two brief texts he concentrates on invoke rights as part of a partial retraction and self-justification for his earlier stance. Similarly, while there is a general discussion of his stance on the ‘right to choose one’s sexuality’ as a condition for inventing new ways of life and friendship, there is no discussion of Foucault’s more controversial pronouncements questioning even affixing an age of sexual consent or pondering the decoupling of the criminal definition of rape from sexuality.

In respect to the question of liberalism, Golder does not, except in his footnotes, address the differences between political and economic liberalism. The view that Foucault found an affinity between the Chicago School and its ideas of human capital and his own anti-foundationalist views of the subject, proposed by Michael Behrent and others, suggests a very different possible rapprochement with liberalism. Interestingly, in an interview on social security with the leader of a centrist union federation, the CFDT, Foucault welcomes the right to suicide but unconditionally rejects the right to health. Golder gives makes great play of the former, but neglects the latter.  Yet it is the very contrast between Foucault’s rather macabre and carnivalesque ruminations on the right to suicide and his rejection of the right to health that might indicate an affinity with a libertarian ethic. It would have been helpful to have an extended discussion on the relations of Foucault’s politics of rights and neoliberalism. That politics of rights has much to say about new lifestyle counter-conducts against the post-war welfare state, professional expertise, and socialist politics in and outside of France, but speaks very little about how the dreary everyday violence of social inequality and poverty erodes rights and prevents rights claims.

Despite the wealth of new research into Foucault’s work, of which these two books are exemplary, we still await a study in English that places that work in relation to his engagement with politics in his last decade. This would include his relationship to the Second Left, led by future prime minister, Michel Rocard. This was an early attempt to incorporate neoliberal economic thought in ‘centre-left’ policy. It would centrally influence not only Foucault’s policy views but also his theoretical formulations, such as that liberalism is an ‘art of government’. He would acknowledge that this basic insight was gained through the work of Pierre Rosanvallon, the leading intellectual of the movement at that time. It would also include his misgivings about the Mitterrand government and his antipathy toward the Union of the Left of the Socialists with the Communist Party (PCF) – the latter being particularly detested. This was the context in which his history of sexuality would be reformulated as a genealogy of the desiring subject. It also be one the one in which his political experimentation and personal épreuves in California, Japan, Germany, Iran and elsewhere, would occur.

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