Late last year, British trade minister Liz Truss caused a stir with a speech that pinned the failures of the British education system on “postmodernist philosophy,” which, she said, “puts societal power structures and labels ahead of individuals and their endeavours.” Due to the influence of such views, she went on, students learn about racism and sexism rather than being taught to read and write, and are instilled with a relativistic denial of objective truth. The progenitor of this baleful worldview, Truss told her audience, was the French philosopher Michel Foucault.
Truss’s rant seemed to embarrass the UK’s Conservative government, which removed the transcript from its website. But it’s unclear why it was seen as so scandalous: it was merely a variant of a story told time and again in recent decades by conservatives and centrist liberals alike across the anglophone world. According to this narrative, a cluster of ideas originating in continental Europe, especially France, has invaded educational institutions and undermined the values of Western culture and the pursuit of objective scientific truth. Under the sway of this “postmodern” worldview, we are told, students learn to fault the West for the sins of racism, sexism, and colonialism, and to embrace both moral and epistemological relativism.
Foucault, who died in 1984, has often played the part of archvillain in such accounts. In the early phase of the culture wars in the 1980s and 1990s, he was well-suited for the role of corrupter of youth. Not only was he openly gay before gay rights gained mainstream acceptance, he seemed to endorse sadomasochism and other “limit experiences” as modes of personal liberation. During the period he spent teaching at UC Berkeley, Foucault frequented the bathhouses of San Francisco and did LSD in Death Valley. His death from AIDS at the height of the crisis offered a ready-made cautionary tale about his philosophical commitment to transgression. To his detractors, all this made him emblematic of the takeover of American universities by corrosive countercultural values and subversive foreign influences. (The recent allegation of pedophilia made by fellow intellectual Guy Sorman has revived this mode of polemic.)
But it is not only Foucault’s enthusiasm for sexual experimentation that has made him a bête noire for defenders of the traditional academy. His radically revisionist account of the nature of knowledge has been arguably more controversial. In his breakthrough 1966 book The Order of Things, Foucault proposed that historical periods operate under distinct “epistemes” that set the conditions of possibility for what can be thought and known; thus, what each period takes to be real or true is an effect of the “regime of truth” it is operating under. This relativism was seen to undermine the possibility of objective truth and any notion of the progress of knowledge.
Perhaps Foucault’s most influential coinage is his related notion of “power-knowledge.” This must be distinguished from the better-known and less controversial dictum that “knowledge is power,” often attributed to Francis Bacon, which asserts that knowledge enables control of the world. For Foucault, in contrast, knowledge does not enable the exercise of power, but proceeds from it. This inversion comes about because power establishes the truth regimes that enable the production of knowledge. The resulting knowledge perpetuates and expands power—which produces more knowledge. In Foucault’s words, “‘Truth’ is linked in a circular relation with systems of power which produce and sustain it, and to effects of power which it induces and which extends it.”
From his 1963 book The Birth of the Clinic up to the final series of lectures he delivered in the early 1980s, Foucault’s work on the inseparability of power and knowledge laid particular emphasis on the political implications of biomedical science. “Biopower,” another influential coinage, was his term for the diffuse array of institutions that monitor, manage, and optimize the health of the population in advanced industrial societies. “Biopolitics” was his related term for the general involvement of the modern state in the biological life of its subjects, evident in its attention to matters like “the problems of birth rate, longevity, public health, housing, and migration” and the “explosion of numerous and diverse techniques for achieving the subjugation of bodies and the control of populations.” The evolution of modern medicine, Foucault suggests, cannot be understood separately from the political uses it has been put to.
For Foucault’s critics, the implication that there can exist no disinterested, apolitical pursuit of knowledge is scandalous. Conservatives, liberal defenders of science, and traditional humanists have all claimed that his work contributed to the politicization of universities in recent decades. Many on the right have regarded his arguments as offering a pretext for declining standards and the imposition of ideology in the classroom. Recently, critics of campus leftism including Jordan Peterson, James Lindsay, and Helen Pluckrose have revived these attacks. The idea that Foucault and other “postmodernists” viewed scientific objectivity as a myth that disguises structures of domination has even led some to trace right-wing science denial to their impact.
Follow the Science?
Foucault’s detractors are not wrong about the extent of his influence—even if they tend to mischaracterize it. Over the past fifty years, he has exercised a broader impact on the academic humanities and social sciences than almost any other thinker. By some measures, he is the most cited author across those fields. In late 2020, however, some began to observe that Foucault’s citations, as reported by Google Scholar, had dropped precipitously over the course of that year, even as the global pandemic and the unprecedented political responses it generated would seem to make his account of biopolitics more relevant than ever.
Given long academic publication timelines and the likely role of random fluctuation, we probably shouldn’t read too much into Foucault’s 2020 citation slump. Nevertheless, it is emblematic of a curious absence. Even though the elite university graduates who shape media narratives and policy discussions are highly likely to have encountered his ideas, his critical account of the politics of public health has had essentially no impact on debates around Covid-19 policy. The simplest explanation of this omission is that while he is largely embraced on the political left, his account of biopolitics is at odds with many views now prevalent on that side of the spectrum.
Even a perfunctory reading of Foucault should raise questions about the current veneration of scientific expertise and related demands to subordinate politics to science. Indeed, there could hardly be an outlook more opposed to Foucault’s mode of analysis than a politics premised on “believing in science.” From a Foucauldian perspective, such a fetishization of scientific knowledge entails a blindness to its inextricability from power. In his famous 1971 debate with Noam Chomsky, Foucault asserted that “[t]he real political task in a society such as ours is to criticize the working of institutions which appear to be both neutral and independent.” In other words, the same qualities that the average professional-class liberal today views as the virtues of scientific institutions are what Foucault claimed should lead us to be skeptical.
From the standpoint offered by his work, deferring to “science” for political decisions does not merely imply putting the best-informed individuals in charge. On the contrary, it means drastically reconfiguring the exercise of power. During the pandemic, the delegation of decisions to public health experts has entailed a dramatic expansion of state authority and abrogation of basic rights, most notably freedom of speech and assembly. A range of needs and values that might contravene the prevention of infection were sidelined at the behest of unelected health officials. None of this is to say there is no reasonable argument for such an approach. The problem is that this mode of politics is an attempt to circumvent reasoned argument altogether.
It was for this reason that Foucault saw a fundamental tension between the principles of democratic deliberation and the modern public health bureaucracy. This conflict becomes visible when the determinations of medical and scientific experts are presented as transcending politics, as has occurred in the past year. For the average citizen, the opaqueness of the relevant calculations, along with the identification of extraordinary risks, essentially forestalls the possibility of debate. Questioning the determinations of health experts is treated not as participation in a democratic decision-making process, but as tantamount to “literal murder.” This logic, as we have seen, can also provide a rationale for restrictions in other realms. Thus, vesting authority in ostensibly neutral institutions can enable a massive covert expansion of unaccountable power.
The irony of Foucault’s current status, therefore, is that the implications of his work are at odds with many of the views of the degree-holding professional class among whom his influence is putatively the strongest. Conversely, despite the widespread derision of Foucault that has long prevailed on the right, his skeptical perspective on the politics of expertise resonates with the attacks on liberal-dominated expert institutions and the propagandistic weaponization of “science” lately heard in conservative precincts. This unacknowledged realignment is newly evident in the Covid era. But even before last year, the peculiarities of Foucault’s U.S. reception obscured certain valences of his work that might have troubled many of his erstwhile admirers.
The guardians of respectable opinion indirectly revealed their discomfort with applying Foucault’s account of biopower to Covid politics early on in 2020, when the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben became embroiled in controversy for his criticisms of the harsh lockdowns imposed in his country. Agamben, who frames much of his work as an engagement with Foucault’s, described the Italian government’s lockdown and social distancing policies as the leading edge of a “techno-medical despotism” that overrides democracy and rights in the name of security.
Two decades ago, Agamben raised similar concerns about the post‑9/11 security state and the War on Terror. The demand for security at all costs, he argued then, can become the pretext for the imposition of a “state of exception” in which laws and rights are indefinitely suspended. At the time, these arguments made him an intellectual hero for much of the Left. But when he argued last year that prioritizing the risk of the virus above all other concerns has similar effects, his former allies in the global progressive intelligentsia denounced his Covid interventions as dangerous and irresponsible. Instead, it fell to observers on the lockdown-skeptical political right, including R. R. Reno and Christopher Caldwell in the United States, to cite him favorably.
During the same period that conservatives were expressing appreciation for Agamben’s Foucault-inspired Covid critiques, the historian Blake Smith made the case for an “unwoke Foucault” in a series of essays. Foucault, Smith suggests, has much to offer to critics of the current regime on both the right and the dissenting left. Smith notes that conservatives “are adding to their long-held distrust of the state a new suspicion about the power of managerial and therapeutic experts over everyday life.” In light of these concerns, he writes, “Foucault’s work [offers] theoretical support to conservative critiques of the ‘new class’ of experts”—ironically, again, the class among which Foucault has been most widely celebrated.
The Hegemony of Biopolitics
Foucault developed his critique of expertise at a moment when power was undergoing a profound shift across the West—a shift noted by commentators on both the left and the right. The mid-twentieth century witnessed the consolidation of what the Trotskyite-turned-conservative James Burnham called the “managerial elite”: an unelected caste of experts who effectively govern advanced industrial societies from both the public and private sectors. While the grand ideals of democracy live on superficially in the mediatized theater of electoral politics, power becomes concentrated in undemocratic bureaucracies. On the left, the sociologist C. Wright Mills offered similar analyses shortly after Burnham. Foucault, when he charted the transformation of power from sovereign authority and formal hierarchy into diffuse localized operations overseen by credentialed technocrats, was also responding to these developments.
In his earliest books, History of Madness and The Birth of the Clinic, he traced these alternative sites of power back to their uneasy origins alongside the rise of the modern secular state. On one hand, the latter accorded universal rights to its subjects; on the other, new regimes of expertise carved out exceptions to these rights. Coercive intrusions into privacy and prolonged confinement, he showed, were legitimated by expert professionals in burgeoning fields like criminology and psychiatry. In societies that, in formal terms, were supposed to grant basic freedoms to all, madmen and delinquents could be deprived of their autonomy at the behest of these specialists. Moreover, this constrictive regime of enclosed spaces revealed a logic that operated subtly across the society as a whole. This was the logic of what Foucault called “discipline.”
Disciplinary societies, which he saw as reaching their initial apogee in the nineteenth century, established formal rights through the legal system, but simultaneously disciplined their subjects by way of the “spaces of enclosure” they occupied at every stage of life: family, school, factory, army, and so on. The systematic surveillance and regulation of behavior imposed within these spaces constituted the “the other, dark side” of modern freedom. In Foucault’s words, “[t]he real, corporeal disciplines constituted the foundation of the formal, juridical liberties.” The expansion of de jure freedom, that is, was accompanied by a variety of new de facto institutional constraints.
Implicit in this analysis is a critique of any Whiggish narrative of historical progress that also eschews conservative nostalgia for the ancien régime. For example, Foucault’s histories of humanitarian reform efforts in criminal justice and psychiatric treatment reveal their consistency with expansive new apparatuses of surveillance and control. In the famous opening chapter of Discipline and Punish, published in 1975, he contrasts the brutal public torture and dismemberment of a regicide in 1757 with a timetable minutely regulating the daily lives of prisoners a century later. Each, he says, reveals a distinct “penal style.” In the first case, the exercise of power is rendered visible at the symbolic center of power; its locus is the body. In the second, it is hidden in marginal spaces, and its locus is the inner self. His point is not to offer a judgment about which system is preferable, but to reveal the evolving operations of power.
Foucault’s analysis of biopolitics, as outlined in The History of Sexuality and his late lectures, extends and modifies this approach. His definition of biopolitics proceeds from a contrast between the early modern and modern relations between the state and what Agamben would later term “bare” biological life. Foucault contrasts “the characteristic privileges of sovereign power” that were predominant in an earlier period—“the right to decide life and death”—with modern power, which reoriented itself around “the right of the social body to ensure, maintain, or develop its life.” The characteristic manifestation of the older form of power was execution: the sovereign’s power was revealed in its prerogative of taking life. Modern biopower, in contrast, “exerts a positive influence on life, that endeavors to administer, optimize, and multiply it, subjecting to precise controls and comprehensive regulations.”
Biopower, Foucault argues, works simultaneously at the level of the population and the individual. It closely tracks individual development and well-being through institutions including education and medicine; at the same time, sprawling new bureaucracies increasingly quantify, categorize, and manage populations on a large scale. On one hand, professions like psychiatry classify and treat individuals according to their conformity with or deviation from the norm. On the other hand, government officials increasingly view the health of the whole population as a set of variables to be observed, measured, and regulated. In the earlier era of “sovereign power,” in Foucault’s periodization, a state’s involvement with the biological life of its subjects was a forceful exception. With the rise of biopolitics, it becomes the rule.
This modern form of power, whose modus operandi is to “qualify, measure, appraise, and hierarchize, rather than display itself in its murderous splendor,” is essentially the domain of experts rather than brutal executioners. Not that executions or other murderous modes of state power vanish; the point, rather, is that these too are remade in the image of the new penal style. Here one might think of how the death penalty itself, where it persists, becomes another procedure technically administered by experts with the introduction of the electric chair and lethal injection; execution becomes one component in a series of intricate judicial processes, psychiatric evaluations, and periods of imprisonment. In Foucault’s words, under the sign of biopolitics, “the judicial institution is increasingly incorporated into a continuum of apparatuses (medical, administrative, and so on) whose functions are for the most part regulatory.”
The justification of the state’s power to put to death also shifts. Once the latter “gave itself the function of administering life,” the death penalty became “a limit, a scandal, and a contradiction.” This does not, again, mean that it vanished, but that it “could not be maintained except by invoking less the enormity of the crime itself than the monstrosity of the criminal, his incorrigibility, and the safeguard of society. One had the right to kill those who represented a kind of biological danger to others.” Increasingly, the deliberate imposition of death was justified not as “eye for an eye” recompense, but in terms of power’s broader mandate to protect life.
This logic has surfaced in strange ways during the Covid pandemic, such as when a prominent reporter, previously employed by the New York Times, announced on Twitter that he “wanted to find an antimasker and beat them to death.” A more measured version of this sentiment appeared in op-eds declaring to those who refused to cover their faces that “you don’t have a right to kill me.” If, throughout 2020, the unmasked were construed as threats to biological existence, the same discourse is now emerging around vaccination. The notion of “vaccine passports” explicitly defines the unvaccinated as a danger to society, who can be excluded from a variety of spaces on this basis—a prospect many liberal observers appear to relish.
Such biopolitical imperatives were intuitive to many on both the left and right ends of the spectrum well before Covid appeared on the scene. Consider, in the former instance, the frequency with which the term “lives” appears in political slogans. In the past year, we have seen the simultaneous prominence of “Masks Save Lives” and “Black Lives Matter,” though the latter first gained prominence some years ago. But similar phrasing also emerged several years ago in relation to another issue when the “March for Our Lives” became a site of gun control advocacy.
The persistence of such language reveals that the most intense moral passions of today’s Democratic coalition are animated by the protection of what Agamben calls “bare life”—sheer biological existence. Whatever commitment to some vision of the good life exceeds that, it has been far less central to political messaging. When it does appear, it also heavily involves the agencies charged with biopolitical management. Consider the frequent proposals, over the past year, to replace police with social workers. Such proposals follow the logic Foucault identifies in the emergence of biopower, in which the criminologist and the psychiatrist came to enjoy greater prominence than the executioner. The implication here is neutral as to the advisability of the proposal: it is simply to note that it does not abolish power, but alters its operations.
The Right, for its part, has long embraced biopolitical imperatives. Most obviously, consider the framing of the “pro-life” cause, whose messaging is framed similarly to that of the “lives”-based causes enumerated above. What the pro-life movement shares with the latter is that the emotional impetus of the cause is the protection of sheer biological life per se. The apparent contradictions this has generated, such as “pro-life” activists who have murdered abortion doctors, are resolved when we consider that the logic of protecting life is a primary mode of legitimating violence on the part of the state as well. As Foucault notes, it has become the basis for war as well as the death penalty. “Life”/“lives” movements replicate this broader rationale of power.
It was also, of course, the political Right that propelled a set of developments around the War on Terror which, as Agamben has noted, anticipated much of the Covid era’s expansion of power. As with the pandemic, the concern for a particular risk to life became the basis for an expansion of unaccountable power, an introduction of new restrictions on daily life, and a new sensibility in which the perception of others as a constant sense of danger shapes behavior. In both instances, in Foucault’s words, “it was life more than the law that became the issue of political struggles, even if the latter were formulated through affirmations concerning rights.” Efforts to resist this power, he notes, have generally underlined the pervasiveness of biopolitical logic: “the forces that resisted relied for support on the very thing it invested, that is, on life and man as a living being.” To step outside of this framing, a political resistance must be willing to surrender life—yet amid the currently prevailing values, such a politics would be seen as sheer madness.
The Conservative Foucault
The idea that Foucault’s work is not comfortably aligned with the political Left would not have been quite as surprising to his contemporaries. The anthropologist Paul Rabinow, who produced an English-language anthology of Foucault’s work in 1984, noted that “one encounters great difficulty in trying to situate Foucault as an intellectual spokesman with a particular message to propound.” In this way, he stood out against the Parisian left intelligentsia, which remained predominantly Marxist well into the 1970s, and particularly from his older rival (and sometime collaborator) Jean-Paul Sartre, the role model of activist intellectuals worldwide. Indeed, Rabinow notes, “Foucault has been cast as a conservative by some, in the sense that he has consistently opposed much of modern French Marxism, ‘existing socialism,’ and those utopias and nightmares associated with this tradition”—in contrast to Sartre, who praised Stalin and Mao.
In an interview completed not long before Foucault’s death, Rabinow notes the ambiguity of his politics: “[y]ou have been read as an idealist, as a nihilist, as a ‘new philosopher,’ an anti-Marxist, a new conservative, and so on.” He asks: “Where do you stand?” Foucault responds: “I think I have in fact been situated in most of the squares on the political checkerboard . . . : as anarchist, leftist, ostentatious or disguised Marxist, nihilist, explicit or secret anti-Marxist, technocrat in the service of Gaullism, new liberal, etc.” He goes on to comment that “[n]one of these descriptions is important by itself; taken together, on the other hand, they mean something. And I must admit that I rather like what they mean.” In other words, he was happy to project a political ambiguity that admirers and detractors alike seem to have forgotten.
His controversial support for the Iranian Revolution has often been treated by his critics as an instance of left-wing naïveté about Third World tyrannies, but the nature of his sympathy was less straightforward than this. As Blake Smith puts it, Foucault “hoped that by offering a substantive ethic rooted in a collective experience of the sacred, an Islamic political movement might be able to restrain the systems of domination and manipulation that comprise biopolitics.” Specifically, he admired the Islamic revolutionaries’ willingness to sacrifice themselves: he took their declaration that “we are prepared to die by the thousands” as a call to arms against biopower. What attracted him, then, was a discontinuity with prior modern revolutions, which he believed had merely pursued the trajectory of biopolitical domination under a new guise. That is, the specifically religious dimensions of the revolution represented a different sort of possibility than what early generations of intellectuals had hoped for in Marxist liberation struggles.
Foucault participated actively in social movements in France focused on the institutions he wrote about in his work on discipline and biopower: asylums and prisons. What connected his intellectual and practical activities in these areas was his interest in the concrete functioning of power, which he argued Marxists had too often ignored. In the essay “What Is Enlightenment?” he highlighted “the very specific transformations that have proved to be possible” in areas such as “the way in which we perceive insanity or illness,” in overt contrast to “the programs for a new man that the worst political systems have repeated throughout the twentieth century.” He also indicted leftist intellectuals for their “refusal to pose the problem of internment,” which he attributed to their loyalty to the Soviet bloc and need to excuse the gulag.
Far from initiating the politicization of scholarship, in many ways Foucault’s work marked a break with the traditions and habits of the engagé left-wing French intellectual establishment, as embodied notably in Sartre. Instead of positioning himself within a universal revolutionary struggle, in both his writing and his activism Foucault emphasized localized institutional realms and an attunement to the “micro-physics of power” implemented at that level. As he puts it in his famous discussion of power resistance in the first volume of the History of Sexuality, “there is no single locus of great Refusal, no soul of revolt, source of all rebellions, or pure law of the revolutionary. Instead there is a plurality of resistances, each of them a special case.”
Foucault was not a practitioner of “identity politics” of the current American variety—indeed, he forcefully rejected any notion of a homosexual identity—but he became a godfather to new identity-focused fields like queer theory that emerged in the 1980s and 1990s. Likewise, although the marginalized groups that most interested Foucault were prisoners and asylum inmates rather than more familiar categories, his ideas and approach would be widely adapted by scholars focused on race, gender, sexuality, and other modes of identity. On these grounds, erstwhile Marxist allies criticized Foucault for turning away from class politics and universalism and toward identity politics. In contrast to current detractors who accuse him of recasting all knowledge as a political ruse, they faulted him for depoliticizing scholarship.
To be sure, Foucault’s conception of power as a pervasive force distributed across society played a role in reshaping the dominant conception of politics in academia and beyond. In History of Sexuality, he writes that “[p]ower is everywhere; not because it embraces everything, but because it comes from everywhere.” Moreover, “[r]elations of power are not in a position of exteriority with respect to other types of relationships (economic processes, knowledge relationships, sexual relations), but are immanent in the latter.” Such claims played some role in the rise of a mode of analysis that vastly expands the range of what can be treated as political.
This emphasis has given rise to a style of academic research focused on exposing the hidden machinations of power in unexpected places. A version of this approach also thrives in popular cultural criticism, as when the Marvel Comics Universe is presented as a site for the contestation of power, or experimenting with sexual positions becomes a mode of political resistance. Academics and journalists alike present these seemingly minor interventions in discourse as strategies of radical subversion. After all, if “points of resistance are present everywhere in the power network,” even the most minor gestures can be valorized as politically significant.
Foucault’s approach might also seem to dovetail with the “intersectional” worldview, where convergent identity struggles take precedence over any universal political movement. Again, this sensibility has weathered as much criticism from Marxists as it now tends to attract from centrist liberals and conservatives. From an older Marxist perspective, the implications of Foucault’s work were conservative, because rather than aiming to constitute a broad revolutionary class, he emphasized marginal groups whose social force they regarded as insufficient to bring about any broader political transformation. This critique is quite distinct from the more common ones heard today, which lament the erosion of Enlightenment faith in objectivity and neutrality.
A Mythology for the Professional Class
Foucault’s critics have long viewed his account of power as a threat to the legitimacy of institutions, not least the universities in which his ideas circulate most widely. If knowledge is viewed as an instrument of political domination, the reasoning goes, the credibility of those who pursue it will become unsustainable. But a more plausible view is that the delegitimation of expertise is a response to factors far broader than the influence of a particular philosopher. Indeed, the reverse is probably true. An epistemology that links knowledge instrumentally to power is likely to be appealing amid the decline of what Foucault’s contemporary Jean-François Lyotard called “grand narratives”: the legitimating stories that ennoble the pursuit of knowledge as a means of civilizational progress towards truth or the preservation of a common culture.
In the same period in which the lofty ideals of liberal education gave way to the nebulous raison d’être of the corporate university, the Foucauldian analysis of power has made many careers. It has also furnished a means of mythologizing professional activity as a mode of radical politics. Academic advancement strategies can be understood as modes of political contestation: peer-reviewed articles and conference papers as nodes of resistance, tenure committees as sites of nascent radical struggle, and so on. In this sense, Foucault’s influence did not undermine institutions so much as offer a new rationale for savvy operators within them. As sociologist Daniel Zamora remarks, Foucault “offers a comfortable position that allows a certain degree of subversion to be introduced without detracting from the codes of the academy.”
Zamora has written extensively about an underexamined aspect of Foucault’s later work: his surprising affinities with Anglo-American neoliberalism, evident in particular in his lectures on the Birth of Biopolitics. According to Zamora, Foucault “saw in neoliberalism a ‘much less bureaucratic’ and ‘much less disciplinarian’ form of politics than that offered by the postwar welfare state.” Scholars other than Zamora have likewise acknowledged an “affinity between aspects of Foucault’s late account of subjectivity and the neoliberal account of subjectivity” derived from Chicago-school economics. This observation offers a new way of understanding Foucault’s emergence as “official philosopher” in humanities and social science departments alongside the general restructuring of the university system around market incentives.
In a sense, Foucault’s discussion of power and resistance in the History of Sexuality anticipated the professionalized and commoditized political radicalism of many of his followers. He wrote there that “resistance is never in a position of exteriority in relation to power.” In other words, resistance can “play the role of adversary, target, support, or handle in power relations.” It can, that is, serve just as much to broaden the range of operations of power as it can to oppose that expansion. An example central to the History of Sexuality is the way that the apparent liberation of sex from Victorian constraints in the twentieth century was closely linked to an ever-greater monitoring and medicalization of sexuality by medical and psychiatric authorities.
This outlook is consistent with a certain mood of resignation that shades into cynicism. And this cynicism is appropriate to an academic sphere that is at once rhetorically subversive and institutionally conservative. If all subversive energies ultimately feed into domination, it is unsurprising that the humanities and social sciences have become a space where overt ideological fervor coexists comfortably with covert careerist hypercompetitiveness, bourgeois professionalism, and the reproduction of elites. But for this reason, the Foucauldian account of transgression as a stratagem of power, like his critique of institutions, can only be taken so far. Such radicalism, rather than challenging the university, merely offers a new pretext for its power.
The implication here is that Foucault became the intellectual patron saint of the contemporary academy because his work captured fundamental truths about how the latter institution functions. It offered a form of immanent self-critique as well as a kind of modus operandi for functioning within the neoliberal university. But those whose livelihoods depend entirely on the power of such institutions will be unlikely to apply his work in a way that calls that power into question. Acceptance of the localized domain of struggle leaves the totality unquestioned. But critics of this mode of power may find a different sort of value in some aspects of his work.
In 1977, the philosopher Jean Baudrillard exhorted the public to Forget Foucault in a polemic published under that title. Judging by his far larger impact in academia in subsequent decades, Foucault seemed to get the better of his rival. Nevertheless, his almost total absence from public debates around the Covid pandemic, and the political responses to it, suggests that, in spite of his massive influence, we did forget Foucault—or at least the parts of his work most challenging to our guiding political assumptions. The Left, which has spent decades poring over his oeuvre in its academic redoubts, has in the past year largely acquiesced to a dictatorship of expertise that might as well be using the Foucauldian account of biopower as an instruction manual. Its abandonment of the tools of critique offered by his work has been sudden and almost total.
Foucault’s politically orphaned status also proceeds in part from a cluster of misapprehensions regarding so-called postmodernism, an umbrella term for many of the themes under discussion: the disappearance of the historical grand narratives of progress offered by liberalism and Marxism, the fragmentation of politics and knowledge alongside the delegitimation of institutions. Postmodernism’s critics often blame the ideas that fall under that heading for the evolution of values away from universal values and the disinterested pursuit of knowledge. At its most interesting, however, the body of thought classified as “postmodernism” helps characterize transformations that were underway by the time its epigones were writing.
Foucault’s detractors, whether conservative, centrist, or Marxist, converge in their repudiation of what they see as the consequences of his ideas: a rejection of objectivity and neutrality, a valuing of subversion and transgression, and a fetishization of social marginality. But in reality, he was a late arrival to this project of counter-modern transvaluation. The philosophical lineage he is part of extends all the way back to the beginning of the modern era, and passes through figures including the Marquis de Sade in the eighteenth century, Friedrich Nietzsche in the nineteenth, and Martin Heidegger in the twentieth. To attribute any of these tendencies to a single thinker’s influence is to ignore the fact that they are built into the operating system of modernity.
Foucault’s more original contributions lie in his anchoring of a philosophical account of the relationship between truth and power in a historical analysis of specific modern institutions. His wide-ranging impact, I have argued here, owes something to his insights into the ascendancy of the same professional class of credentialed experts amongst whom his theories have achieved the most traction. But the dimensions of his ideas that might offer a means of criticizing the guiding assumptions of that class have generally remained unexplored, lest they prove too potent. Right-wing critique of liberal institutions, suspicious as it is of a figure who appears to be a guiding light for the enemy side, remains unlikely to find value in his critiques. They may, however, have a renewed utility for the politically heterodox across the spectrum, especially insofar as his critiques of institutions expose the limits of our dominant modes of politics.