Saving Foucault

Like a lot of serious thinkers - Sigmund Freud and Leo Strauss spring to mind - Michel Foucault has not been well-served by his acolytes in the American academy. I find him an alternately repellent and compelling writer, on those few occasions when I think I have properly understood him. But he is not, pace Stanley Kurtz, a simple pomo lefty. In the last years of his life, he began to appreciate the achievement of classical liberalism. In an email exchange yesterday, I asked a Foucault scholar if my impression was correct. He responded:

Absolutely. He was interested in a Classical Greek aesthetics of the self and a positive view of civil society and the market economy. "History of Sexuality" emphasizes the Hellenistic ethics in an account of sexuality which is both liberatory and questioning of Michelfoucault_1 myths of repression and liberation. "Society Must be Defended" establishes a distinction between an absolutist modern state and a state which is limited by laws and civil society. Foucault was always critical of power, early on there was a Marxist element to that, but in the texts I mention above and others, he came to see Classical Liberal themes as the antidote to power. For example he emphasised the role French Physiocrats had as an antidote to mercantilist absolutism, and similarly the role of Odo group free market economists in Germany as a centre of intellectual resistance to Nazism.

His politics kept evolving even as his theory came closer to Classical Liberalism. A turning point seems to have been the Iranian revolution when he initially supported the revolution because Shia clerics he met convinced him their goals were spiritual rather than concerned with state power. He couldn't avoid noticing the extreme abuse of human rights though and from that point on did not seek an alternative to what we could call Classical Liberalism, though his understanding was a very specific mix of participation in and observation of resistance to power and discrimination (including gay rights), the study of Hellenistic individualism, and a detailed study of the different ways power has operated in the modern world.

And he spelled his first name Michel.