Liberal Government: On the Verge of Crisis

In order to make our argument that liberal government cannot realize its redemptive promise, we must briefly recall Foucault’s account of the origins of liberalism as the political reason concomitant to the episteme of the human sciences. That is, we wish to underscore that liberalism is a form of knowledge-power in the strong epistemic sense: it is not merely a technique of government but a truth regime and discursive formation providing the conditions of possibility for a total form of human life. Foucault’s critical analysis of liberalism in his work of the late 1970s is implicit or preprogrammed in his seminal Order of Things of 1966, in which he explores, from the Renaissance to the early nineteenth century, Western European civilization’s three epistemes—of the Renaissance which was the age of resemblance and similitude, of the classical age which was that of representation, and of modernity with the gradual emergence of the science of wealth and human sciences—stressing the ruptures between them (see Onuf in this volume). Although the book’s success propelled Foucault toward his chair at the College de France in “the history of systems of thought,” his intentions were also clearly political. Thus, he begins the work with an analysis of Diego Velazquez’s Las meninas (1642), whose subject, despite the centrality in the painting of the princess Infanta, is the monarchic sovereign: the Spanish king and queen, reflected in a distant mirror, occupy the spot of the painting’s viewer, while the portraitist, Velazquez himself, occupies the painting’s left hand foreground. Foucault’s purpose is to illustrate the classical age’s episteme of representation in contradistinction with the preceding epoch of resemblance. Viewers’ ideational representation of the sovereign and their ability to project themselves rationally into the place of the sovereign matter more than the suzerain’s resemblance with divinity or descent from tradition. Authority derives from the purity of abstract reason, of which the painting’s viewers partake, and not from the concrete person of the monarch. We witness here the desubstantialization of power. With this illustration of the ideational infrastructure of legitimate authority, Foucault announces that his interest in epistemic truth regimes is first and foremost political. Moreover, Foucault may very well have had this mental image in mind when, in his lecture course of 1976 Society Must be Defended he invoked the need to “decapitate the king in our heads.”5

Foucault’s regicidal injunction arrives in the context of his genealogy of liberalism, which he presents, not unlike Montesquieu, Tocqueville and others before him, as the paradoxical fruit of the feudal reaction to absolutist reason of state’s rise in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Britain and France. With greater originality, however, in Society Must be Defended, Foucault exposes the common agonistic, historicist conception of politics under liberalism, racist fascism and the Marxist theory of class struggle. Common to these discourses are of course their critique of pure reason and their recourse to empirical truth criteria. Much more successfully than communism and fascism, which clung to reason of state’s absolutist pretensions of rationalist omniscience, liberalism offers its own, entirely autonomous form of political reason in line with the modern episteme from which human sciences came to emerge, according to Foucault,6 with the Kantian revolution of the late eighteenth century. As the late nineteenth century neo- and post-Kantians in particular emphasized, Kant’s critique of pure reason opened the door to epistemological pluralism, if not relativism, as truth depended not only on the historicity of the knowing subject but also on the unfathomable diversity of knowable phenomena each subject to its own criteria of intelligibility. Such potential relativism also introduced epistemological pragmatism: the validity of each form of knowledge depended on its efficacy. In keeping with this epistemic rupture, liberalism’s critique of the absolutely rational sovereign was in the first instance pragmatic: Reason of state was doomed to failure since the ambition of deductive legal reason dogmatism to regulate everyone and everything could hardly stand up to the contingencies of real life. Thus, when the veridiction—or capacity to speak relativistic, empirical, pragmatic truth— of the human sciences replaced the jurisdiction—or capacity to articulate absolute, ideal, dogmatic truth—of the episteme of representation, liberalism dealt a not-quite fatal blow to reason of state.7

Theoretically, liberalism with its deferral of authority to empirical veridiction, notably but not exclusively that of the market, did make possible the beheading of the king in our minds, that ideal fountainhead of law and justice, but empirically it did not. In practice, liberalism never did away with the sovereign authority of the state whose arbitrary legal authority it required to establish the veridiction of the market based on the sacrosanct legal right to property. More abstractly, however, liberalism transposed the pure reason of the sovereign upon the liberal subject, whence its democratic potential. This projection of transcendence onto the liberal subject, as Foucault among many others showed, was the Hobbesian legacy of absolutist natural law to liberal theory. Whereas Hobbes derived absolute monarchical authority from natural law’s dictate that each subject cede his right to everything in the overriding interest of survival, liberalism made each rational subject’s interest in obtaining everything from the mechanism not only for assuring survival and endless self-aggrandizement but for guaranteeing social peace, prosperity and order as well, all with a minimum of authoritative external intervention. Because the liberal “conduct of conduct” relied on the rational autonomous subject’s pursuit of (material) (self-)interest to govern cost-effectively, liberalism, in Foucault’s memorable formulation, had to “produce and consume freedoms.” In doing so, liberalism paradoxically expanded almost infinitely the field of government in the name of restricting the powers of the state. Through the manipulation of incentives for autonomous self-interested action, liberal governmentality not only got “more bang for its buck” than did absolutist reason of state but expanded governmental imagination. As Foucault’s celebrated formulation opposing absolutism’s “let-live-and- make-die” to liberalism’s “make-live-and-let-die” suggests, cajoling has endless potential whereas threatening stops with death; that is, there are more ways to live than to die.

The genius and measure of success of liberalism thus reside in its ability to walk the fine line between anarchy and control or, in Foucault’s formulation, to strike a balance between freedom and security. Liberalism promises to deliver a safe and orderly society that maximizes individual freedom, but to do so it must recommend, or rather require, that we

“live dangerously.”8 To accomplish such squaring the circle, it may also require that we develop our “faculty of self-deception,” as the Prince of Salina might say. Inasmuch as liberalism depends on a political culture of danger, it domesticates uncertainty and insecurity, making them part of the repertoire of government itself. And it is precisely this paradoxical internalization of uncertainty and insecurity, previously understood as external to politics and to knowledge, that lies at the crux of liberalism’s too-late quality and raises a whole series of questions: for example, when does a culture of danger tip into a culture of fear? Or: if reason of state ultimately depended on the rational subject’s mortal fear of the sovereign, on what does liberal government depend if not on liberal subjects’ fear of themselves?

To strike its precarious balance between freedom and fear, liberalism must ideally always be on the verge of governmental crisis. It must provide security by biopolitically normalizing populations so that rational, autonomous liberal subjects can pursue their self-interest with calculable predictability but without losing the pragmatic cost efficiency of relatively uncoordinated self-directed, self-sustaining social action. To be sure, in practice liberal governmentality succumbs to recurrent crises as either market mechanisms fail or run amok, social security schemes overinflate, or illiberal subjects refuse to respect the anthropological assumptions of the knowledge-power-truth regime. Yet such challenges are not insurmountable under the intrinsic logics of liberalism: dogmatic rationalist discourse can always re-assert the immutability of market laws; empiricist trial-and-error techniques can tweak or jolt markets and mechanisms of social protection back into equilibrium; and normalizing practices and pressures can always discipline and dress recalcitrant liberal subjects. Still, as Foucault foresaw in 1979, liberal biopolitics faced natural as well as geopolitical limits. The juggernaut of global market capitalism may not yet have hit the walls of peak oil and climate meltdown but it has reached its geopolitical frontiers.

In The Birth of Biopolitics, Foucault identifies three defining traits of liberalism: (1) the market as a locus of empirical veridiction; (2) the limitation of government through the calculation of its utility; and (3) “the positioning of Europe as a region of unlimited economic development in relation to a global market.”9 Whereas the first two traits are abstract and logical, the third is concrete and historical, for liberalism offered a plausible solution to the impasse of the eighteenth-century European state system’s mercantilist zero-sum logic of competition (a single market and polity, that is, the victory of one imperial power, might already then have been another solution). Only external expansion toward a global market, that is, imperialism, made it possible for one European power’s territorial or economic gain in market(-like) competition not to come at the expense of another’s. What would happen to liberalism and the European state system when market/imperial expansion had reached the natural, geopolitical limits of a global economy and state system remained an open question to which the crises of the first half of the twentieth century offered chilling responses. Following the Cold War imperial stand-off, the widening and deepening of economic integration sought to reposition Europe on the globalized market, but as the current crises of the European Union in particular make abundantly clear, liberal expansion has proven itself unable to outrun the crisis of knowledge, power and economic growth always already a potentiality within liberalism.

 
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