Archive | September 11, 2006


Foucault is often characterised, by critics and proponents alike, as having maintained that power relations are so all-pervasive in society that any attempt at liberation can only be illusory, since such attempts are always and necessarily imbued with, and complicit in, the prevailing power relations themselves: in effect, that every possible apparent antidote is already infected with poison. Since the self that “resists” such power relations is a mere construct of the very power relations it supposedly resists, the would-be rebel can never be more than a hand puppet going through the motions of attacking its puppeteer. Whatever looks like Fighting the Power – Foucault is said to have taught – is just one more trick whereby the Power survives and extends its reach.

Michel Foucault This pessimistic interpretation might seem to run up rather quickly against some obvious contrary evidence. Foucault often insists that what is harmful is not power per se, but the particular form of power that he calls domination – in effect, a form of power that oppressively constrains the options of those upon whom it operates. Mere power, by contrast, can be relatively harmless, since it allows those upon whom it operates many options for resisting, subverting, or reversing it. Mere power is, to be sure, always dangerous – since it poses the risk of being transformed into domination – but, as Foucault liked to say, “everything is dangerous,” so the proper response to ordinary power is simply vigilance, not hostility. Thus, an optimistic moral: while power relations are necessarily all-pervasive, they need not be bad; and while domination is indeed bad, it need not be all-pervasive.

Moreover, Foucault also explains that domination can never be complete. One cannot exercise power over the dead or the comatose; power necessarily operates upon subjects who retain their capacity for agency. And from this it follows that domination can never become so oppressive as to foreclose all possibilities of resistance; for the exercise of power depends for its success (as La Boétie, Gandhi, and Rand likewise taught in their different ways) on the cooperation of victims who, still being agents, can never be guaranteed to cooperate. It would seem to follow that while, as Foucault tries to show, putative liberatory projects can be, and often have been, mere stratagems to maintain and extend the existing power structure, they need not be so.

Foucault’s pessimistic interpreters are of course well aware that he said these more optimistic-sounding things. But they maintain that he was inconsistent to do so. As the pessimists see it, the central thrust of Foucault’s overall theorising is that our very identities are so constituted by power relations as to render the distinction between domination and mere power illusory, and likewise to undermine the possibility of any meaningful resistance. On this reading, Foucault’s “real” position, the position that most of what he says supports, is that all apparent resistance to domination is simply another strategy of domination itself – and Foucault’s more optimistic pronouncements to the contrary are simply rosy-eyed afterthoughts that cannot be sustained on the basis of Foucault’s own analysis. Power co-opts, and absolute power co-opts absolutely.

I recently came across (while searching for something else, as is the Way of the Internet) an interesting article by James Johnson, “Communication, Criticism, and the Postmodern Consensus: An Unfashionable Interpretation of Michel Foucault” (Political Theory 25, no. 4 (August 1997), pp. 559-583), which lends some support to those of us who prefer the optimistic reading. Johnson makes a plausible case for the claim that, far from being an unconvincing addendum to a theory constructed on fundamentally pessimistic principles, Foucault’s optimistic moment is woven throughout his canonical presentations of this theory – and in particular that Foucault persistently recognises reciprocal, non-hierarchical, communicative, “contractual” relationships as distinct from (albeit deeply entangled with) power relations and a potential mode of resistance to domination.

If you’re accessing the internet from a university or other institution that subscribes to JSTOR, you can read the article here. Otherwise, you’re … powerless.

Five Years After

Five years ago today, four planes were hijacked as part of a terrorist operation that handed the u.s. government one of the juiciest Higgs crises it has ever enjoyed. In the years since, the government has exploited this bonanza enthusiastically, launching wars abroad (wars that have long since claimed far more innocent lives than were lost on 9/11) and chopping away at civil liberties at home – all in response to an incident that u.s. government policies led to in the first place.

The ever-increasing hassling of airline passengers in the wake of 9/11 is far from being the worst of what the government has been doing. Hell, it’s probably not even 20th worst. But it’s an apt illustration of the dynamic of statism.

World Trade Center The 9/11 hijackers used sharp objects, so government security starts confiscating nail clippers. A later would-be airline bomber tries to ignite a bomb in his shoe, so passengers have to start taking off their shoes. Some bozoes in Britain may have talked about using airline bombs involving gels, so passengers are relieved of their hairspray and water bottles.

The pattern is clear: each time the terrorists use a new tactic, the government imposes a new restriction on the rest of us, a restriction designed to combat that specific tactic; so the terrorists switch to a different tactic, followed by new restrictions. If the terrorists switch to targeting trains and buses, more restrictions will be imposed on people riding trains and buses – until the terrorists switch to standing on overpasses and dropping bombs on cars as they pass.

By the logic of the situation, government restrictions will always increase. When restriction A makes one tactic more difficult, the terrorists switch to a different tactic, so the government imposes restriction B – but, of course, doesn’t remove restriction A. Given the massive variety of tactics for terrorists to switch among, this process has no natural endpoint short of total government control over every aspect of life. What Mises showed with regard to price controls applies equally here.

Part of what makes this process possible is the externalisation, the socialisation, of the costs of governmental decisions – the separation of the decision-makers from the burdens their decisions impose. When the cost of a new restriction is not borne by those who make it, the demand for such restrictions will be artificially high. If there were a competitive market in airline security, passengers could decide for themselves whether to choose a low-security or a high-security airline: the gels-or-no-gels decision would then get made by the people who bear the costs either way.

Besides this institutional perversity, another factor that helps to make the government-ratcheting-to-infinity dynamic possible is ideological: the tendency to imagine that passing a law magically brings about its desired result. This comes across clearly in the interviews that were broadcast with long lines of delayed passengers in the wake of the Gel Terror. “I’m willing to put up with the inconvenience in order to be safe,” they kept saying (or at least, that’s what the passengers the networks chose to broadcast kept saying). The problem is that this describes the trade-off inaccurately. Confiscating everybody’s liquids doesn’t move passengers from a dangerous condition to a safe one; at best it shifts their chances of being killed in a terrorist attack from already-very-low to very-slightly-lower. But when a government policy is advertised as Preventing the Gel Terror, it is seen as Preventing the Gel Terror; the ideological mystification that sets up the state as external to the social relations it attempts to govern enhances its perceived effectiveness far beyond its actual effectiveness.

The real lesson of 9/11 is, or should be, the ineffectiveness of state action. On 9/11, the danger came not from a well-armed, well-funded state military but from a small group of passengers armed with box-cutters; and the most effective defense (on flight 93) was likewise not a well-armed, well-funded state military but another small group of passengers armed with fists and hand luggage.

The state is incompetent to protect us. What it’s good at is, first, dragging us into crises, and second, using those crises as an excuse to expand its control over our lives, and over the lives of people around the globe – wading through blood in the process. But even this ability depends not on its inherent powers but on our own acquiescence.

Withdraw your consent!

Four years ago today, I started both this blog and the Molinari Institute. This month sees a major retool of the blog; and this coming winter will see both the launch of the Institute’s periodical The Industrial Radical (are you writing for it? have you subscribed? if not, how can you bear the bleak desert that is your existence?) and the third symposium of our daughter organisation, the Molinari Society. Our quest for world domination continues apace!



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