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Foucault on Liberal Democracy, Historicism and Philosophy

Summary:
Modern democracy began with such appeals to history. An oppressed demos, it is said, has been held down for too long by an enemy, which has constituted the state, law, ideology, etc. to make it forget its oppression. For this demos, remembering itself and renewing its struggle are one; the first step to seizing power is to assert its identity and to contest the forms of knowledge that suppress it. Such a story, Foucault argues, underwrites every populist and national revolution, every political appeal to a collective ‘we.’ It underwrites, too, the kind of stories that seem to be tearing modern Western democracies apart, and that seemed in the 70s to have transformed their social fabric. What is referred to today as identity politics, by which supposedly oppressed groups mobilize on the

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Modern democracy began with such appeals to history. An oppressed demos, it is said, has been held down for too long by an enemy, which has constituted the state, law, ideology, etc. to make it forget its oppression. For this demos, remembering itself and renewing its struggle are one; the first step to seizing power is to assert its identity and to contest the forms of knowledge that suppress it. Such a story, Foucault argues, underwrites every populist and national revolution, every political appeal to a collective ‘we.’ It underwrites, too, the kind of stories that seem to be tearing modern Western democracies apart, and that seemed in the 70s to have transformed their social fabric. What is referred to today as identity politics, by which supposedly oppressed groups mobilize on the basis of identitarian self-assertion and epistemic relativism to contest dominant forms of knowledge, is not a recent aberration but the basis of our democracy.

Modern democracy began with identity politics and historicism, with partisan claims to reveal the partisanship of knowledge, and with violent distinctions between enemy and friend. How can it ever have been mistaken for a regime of neutralizations—particularly by jurists and philosophers of the right, such as Carl Schmitt and his contemporary American epigones? And how can it be that ‘woke’ scholars and activists of the contemporary left, such as those behind the Pulitzer-winning 1619 Project, can insist in grandiloquent, histrionic terms that we have forgotten our democracy’s original sin of racism? By Foucault’s lights, democracy began with a declaration of what he calls “race war,” by which a group lays claim to a history of oppression in order to wrest power from others. Supposed radicals who purport to expose the false neutrality of the law and of historiography, or who chide our regime for adhering to naively color-blind and non-partisan values—like their opponents who wish ‘identity politics’ might disappear—have misunderstood the history, and therefore the nature, of democracy.

Historicism and Philosophy

Misunderstandings of these kinds have been possible because democracy, this continuous discourse of identitary and epistemic struggle, is intertwined with liberalism, its partner, rival and supplement. Each of these political forms—democracy and liberalism—depends on a different discourse about knowledge. Democracy, Foucault argues, depends on a “historico-political discourse,” in which knowledge appears as inherently partisan, contingent and context-bound; while liberalism, in its “philosophic-juridical discourse,” appeals to the possibility of neutral, objective and universal knowledge of unchanging norms.

Democracys historicist discourse exposes dominant forms of knowledge as expressions of the ruling groups will to power, and it posits new forms of knowledge to replace them. Liberalisms philosophical discourse articulates timeless rights inscribed in the very nature of human beings and susceptible of being discovered by a thinker free of prejudice “who belongs to neither side, a figure of peace and armistices.” Democratic history tells us that ‘we’ are at war with enemies and must understand knowledge to be nothing but a “truth-weapon” that serves our cause or theirs. Liberal philosophy tells us that the truth about our shared human nature will found a “general law” and “reconciliatory order.” It would seem democracy and liberalism, historicism and philosophy, ought to annihilate each other.

That they do not—and that the liberal character of our regime so often allows its defenders and critics alike to forget the partisan, historicist, identitarian nature of democracy—can be explained by what we might call the self-undermining or hypocritical character of historicism. The historico-political discourse exposes that the mode of historiography celebrating power is a set of “lies,” and more radically “that power creates illusions.” Against the self-serving histories of kings, it claims, tactically, to be pursuing an objective search for the historical truth. It posits the possibility of access to an objective historical truth, however, only as a means of challenging the legitimacy of opponents partisan truth and making one way for one’s own. For example, by revealing that the monarchy is descended from Norman or Frankish invaders, one does not seek to begin a new dispassionate historical inquiry (much less a dialogue about the proper normative basis of politics) but to establish ones own “singular right” to rule as the descendant of the displaced Saxons or Gallo-Romans. The appeal to objectivity, to a shared historical past open to the possibility of investigation, is only a tactic of parties “fighting a war” through, over and within history.

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