Written by Todd Villeneuve
Intellectual honesty requires us to periodically re-examine our basic premises. If we cannot defend a foundation of our knowledge, we must abandon the conclusions that are derived from that foundation and begin anew. In this attempt at re-examination of anarchist philosophy I will merely re-state some of the arguments of a trenchant critic, adding some flesh to his skeletal outline, but without drawing any firm conclusions and allowing the reader an opportunity to think further about the ideas presented.
In Michel Foucault’s lectures at the College de France in the years 1978-1979, he discussed the historical arc of liberalism over the past two centuries. Keep in mind that while he does discuss the New Deal (and American anarcho-capitalism in passing), his definition of liberalism is not based only on the evolution of that political label in the United States. While he does pay great attention to Hayek and Mises as the transmitters of a German economic liberalism (in the classical sense) to the United States, it is his arguments about “anti-statism” and “state phobia” which are very interesting and appear to be an excellent test of an anarchist philosophy. His critique should be given more weight than normal as his greatest intellectual contributions have been in tracing the evolution of institutions as they have both intertwined with and gone beyond the state (such as prisons and mental institutions) becoming central to power relations that act directly on the bodies of their subjects. Foucault does not hesitate to critique hierarchy, abuse of powered , the way in which power surreptitiously enters into our lives, etc. His most important ideas are anarcho-friendly, if not anarchist, in many ways. Yet in these passages about “state phobia” he places the possible limitations of an anarchist mindset under the microscope for evaluation.
To begin with Foucault openly admits that in his own work he is “doing without a theory of the state.” He clarifies this saying that the state does not have an “essence” or “heart” in and of itself. There is no definition of the state that translates into a “political universal.” Even more shocking from a typical anarchist’s view, Foucault claims that the state is not in itself “an autonomous source of power.” Anarchists have it backwards in Foucault’s eyes. The state is not the cause of a set of specific power relations, but the “effect, the profile, the shape of a perpetual statification,” that is “the sense of incessant transactions which modify, or move, or drastically change…sources of finance, modes of investment, decision-making centers, forms and types of control, relationships between local powers, the central authority, and so on.”
In addition, he characterizes a specific critique of the state which he sees within his larger look at liberalism. The critique he sees as attacking “the unlimited growth of the state, its omnipotence, its bureaucratic development, the state with the seeds of fascism it contains, [and] the state’s inherent violence beneath its social welfare paternalism.” Regarding this critique of the state he makes two further clarifications: 1) the perceived target of the state is “civil society,” and the state has an incredible, natural expansionary power that makes it certain that the state will eventually infiltrate all areas of civil society; and 2) whether the critique is discussing the “administrative state, the welfare state, the bureaucratic state, the fascist state, [or] the totalitarian state” their differences are conflated as being all of one “genetic continuity.” I would imagine most anarchists regard these two points as nearly incontrovertible. They are very much the core of what many anarchists hold to be a factual analysis of how the state works, and I have heard these statements in so many different ways by so many authors that indeed they would seem to be foundational to anarchism as a philosophy.
Foucault finds four potential weaknesses in these anarchist critiques of the state. He characterizes these weaknesses on the whole as distributing an “inflationary critical value” meaning that the analyses are too broad to be of specific use and to be historically accurate. First, he sees the “genetic continuity” of all forms of the state as leading to an “interchangeability of analyses” which “dilutes” their strength. To use his example, an analysis of Social Security and an analysis of concentration camps that crossover, simply because they are both the work of a “state,” fails to differentiate between two distinct phenomena, conflating institutions which have far different origins and evolutions. This leads to a “loss of specificity” in analyses.
Secondly, because the state has this incredible expansionary power which always leads toward fascistic/totalitarian ends, any action can always be discredited by what it might lead to or how it may mutate in the future. Can all states, no matter their form, be pure evil? If we cannot distinguish between better and worse actions because of a slippery slope always leading to fascism, how are we to properly analyze state actions in this a historical context?
Third, (and I would see this as more of a continuation of his second point) a shadow of darkness always underlies the reality that exists. Because of the state’s perceived immoral and expanding nature, its benign actions will still have the smell of danger about them or as Foucault puts it, “the great fantasy of the paranoiac and devouring state can always be found.” If that “suspicion” exists, our critical faculties become paralyzed and we cease to analyze the world as it exists.
At last, Foucault concludes by trying to hold up the mirror, saying that the purveyors of anti-statism do not “carry out a criticism or analysis” of themselves. They do not search out the origins of the “state phobia” which prevails in many intellectual corners, not only their own, and know from whence their fear came. They do not attempt to place their own ideas in any broader context.
Foucault presents just a bare outline sketch for a real critique of anarchism. One that is surely not close to a finished product, but that shows signs of being concerned with methodological precision, historical specificity, and a more accurate critique of the “causes” of the state. It asks: If “the State” is always the answer, or, if the state is always evil, are we being dogmatic? Is that not what Karl Popper would call ahistoricism, where we need not look at the historical context to discern an answer because it is ideologically already given? Are we victims of our own confirmation bias? These are serious questions that deserve at least some reflection. On whatever side the answers fall, they will hopefully lead us closer to a more ethical world, which is after all the goal of a vibrant, intellectually strong anarchism.
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