wendy brown interview at criticallegalthinking.com

I thought this was a particularly interesting exchange on democracy and Foucault.

C&J: In your con­tri­bu­tion to Demo­cracy in What State, you also point to ‘the panoply of social powers and dis­courses con­struct­ing and con­duct­ing us’ that seem to pose a limit to demo­cratic con­trol; to the fact that ‘we and the social world are relent­lessly con­struc­ted by powers bey­ond our ken and con­trol’, which seems to under­mine notions of sov­er­eignty, accord­ing to which the address­ees of social norms should be their authors, and self-​legislation at the heart of the mod­ern idea of demo­cracy, and to make it neces­sary to rethink demo­cracy more in terms of its being embed­ded in forms of gov­ernance and sub­jectiv­a­tion (or cit­izen­iz­a­tion). What would a Fou­caul­dian notion of demo­cracy look like that takes such power rela­tions into account? What are the the­or­et­ical resources and the prac­tical pos­sib­il­it­ies of such a notion of democracy?

Brown: I don’t think it is pos­sible to think demo­cracy from a Fou­caul­dian per­spect­ive for sev­eral reas­ons, and I think it’s telling that Fou­cault him­self seemed utterly unin­ter­ested in the ques­tion of demo­cracy. I don’t mean he was an anti-​democrat. He became inter­ested in the ques­tion of counter-​conducts, indi­vidual efforts at craft­ing the self, to sub­vert, inter­rupt or vivi­sect forces gov­ern­ing or con­struct­ing us, but that’s very dif­fer­ent from attend­ing to the ques­tion of demo­cracy. I want to say one other thing here before I then dir­ectly answer your ques­tion. I’ve lately been reread­ing his lec­tures on neo­lib­er­al­ism and one thing I’m very struck by is that there is an absent fig­ure in Foucault’s own for­mu­la­tion of mod­ern­ity, when he offers us the pic­ture of homo eco­nomicus and homo jur­i­di­cus as the two sides of gov­ernance and the human being in mod­ern­ity. Fou­cault just says you’ve got on the one hand the sub­ject of interest, homo eco­nomicus and on the other hand homo jur­i­di­cus, the deriv­at­ive from sov­er­eignty, the creature who’s lim­it­ing sov­er­eignty. But for Fou­cault there’s no homo polit­i­cus, there’s no sub­ject of the demos, there’s no demo­crat, there’s only a creature of rights and a creature of interest. It’s an extremely indi­vidu­ally ori­ented for­mu­la­tion of what the mod­ern order is. There’s the state, there’s the eco­nomy and then there’s the sub­ject ori­ented to the eco­nomy by interests and toward the state by rights. But isn’t it strik­ing for a French thinker that there’s no demo­cratic sub­ject, no sub­ject ori­ented, as part of the demos, toward the ques­tion of sov­er­eignty by or for the people? Here Fou­cault may have for­got­ten to cut off the king’s head in polit­ical the­ory! There are just no demo­cratic ener­gies in Foucault.

So one of the reas­ons one can’t think demo­cracy with Fou­cault has to do with his own inab­il­ity to think it. The other reason has to do with the extent to which he has given us such a thick the­or­et­ical and empir­ical account of the powers con­struct­ing and con­duct­ing us — there’s no way we can demo­crat­ize all of those powers. So I think there one has to accept that if demo­cracy has a mean­ing for the left today, it’s going to have to do with mod­est con­trol of the powers that gov­ern us overtly, rather than that of power tout court. So it’s going to be a com­bin­a­tion of the lib­eral prom­ise and the old Marx­ist claim about the neces­sary con­di­tions of demo­cracy. It’s going to be at some level a real­iz­a­tion of the Marx­ist cri­tique of the lib­eral prom­ise. We have to have some con­trol over what and how things are pro­duced, we have to have some con­trol over the ques­tion of who we are as a people, what we stand for, what we think should be done, what should not be done, what levels of equal­ity should we have, what liber­ties mat­ter, and so forth. It will not be able to reach to those Fou­caul­dian depths of the con­duct of con­duct at every level. The dream of demo­cracy prob­ably has to come to terms with that lim­it­a­tion. If we can, we will be able to stop gen­er­at­ing for­mu­la­tions of res­ist­ance that have to do with indi­vidual con­duct and eth­ics. In other words, I think that the way Fou­caul­dian, Der­ridean, Lev­inas­ian and Deleuzian think­ing has derailed demo­cratic think­ing is that it has pushed it off onto a path of think­ing about how I con­duct myself, what is my rela­tion to the other, what is my ethos or ori­ent­a­tion toward those who are dif­fer­ent from me — and all that’s fine, but it’s not demo­cracy in the sense of power shar­ing. It’s an eth­ics, and maybe even a demo­cratic eth­ics. But an eth­ics is not going to get us to polit­ical and eco­nomic orders that are more demo­cratic than those we have now. The danger of the­ory that has too much emphas­ized the ques­tion of the self’s rela­tion­ship to itself, or to micro­powers, as use­ful as it has been for much of our work, is that it has derailed left demo­cratic think­ing into a pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with ethics.

And then this, on Occupy:

The Occupy move­ment was excit­ing when it erup­ted in the US. I’m going to speak from the per­spect­ive of the US, because it is every­where, but the one I know best is there. It was excit­ing for the reas­ons you just described, the re-​emergence of the demos. What was telling was that it emerged not as a set of labour uni­ons, stu­dents, con­sumers, etc. but as a kind of mass that I want to sug­gest is the effect, in part, of the neo­lib­eral destruc­tion of solid­ar­it­ies, the destruc­tion of uni­ons, the destruc­tion of sep­ar­ate groups or forces within the demos. (Those destruc­tions have been very lit­eral at the level of law in the US over the past ten years) So one thing that was inter­est­ing about the emer­gence of the 99% was that it was an emer­gence as a mass of indi­vidu­als com­ing together, not as vari­ous kinds of groups mak­ing an alli­ance. This is partly the effect of the neo­lib­eral break­down of the demos into indi­vidu­als rather than group solid­ar­it­ies, and Occupy is the first major left expres­sion of this recon­fig­ur­a­tion.

And finally, on horizontalism:

The beauty of Occupy and the dif­fi­culty for Occupy was its attach­ment to hori­zont­al­ism. As we were say­ing in the begin­ning of this inter­view, it is one thing to have the com­mit­ment to dir­ect demo­cracy, and abso­lute par­ti­cip­a­tion in every decision, in a group of twelve, or even fifty. It’s another thing to do that across thou­sands and still another to do that across mil­lions, and in an ongo­ing way. It’s not pos­sible. So what do we do with that? I think many people in Occupy are ask­ing this ques­tion. It raises a whole other set of issues, about the dif­fer­ence between lead­ers and rulers, the dif­fer­ence between par­ti­cip­a­tion and voice on the one hand and abso­lute shared decision-​making on the other. It raises ques­tions that rad­ical demo­cratic the­ory has asked for a long time, but hasn’t had to answer imme­di­ately. So it’s time to do that work and I think many people involved with Occupy want to do that work. I think even the die-​hards got worn out by the ten-​hour gen­eral assembly that pro­duced one decision about tomorrow’s action. And you will not get ordin­ary people to do that work. So that’s one big issue facing Occupy.


This is a site for an online collaboration between a graduate critical theory seminar at Ohio State University and a graduate reading group at the University of Washington. It is an experiment in autogestion (democratic self-management) and transversal communication. Enjoy.