Author Archives: joshua j. kurz
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.