Thursday, December 14, 2006

Conservatives in academe; plus, the Use and Abuse of Foucault

Here's an interesting article that's been linked to both on A&L Daily and PTDR: "How Academe Shortchanges Conservative Thinking," by Mark Bauerlein. It's ostensibly a review of books by Andrew Sullivan, Michael Berube, and Dinesh D'Souza, but the author takes time to lament the general lack of respect for conservative thought in academe. In particular, Bauerlein criticizes the line of thought that views contemporary conservative thinkers as mere "tentacles," to use Lewis Lapham's phrase, of billion-dollar reactionary state apparatuses (the government proper, think tanks, magazines, etc).

This is a very good article with strong arguments. Personally, I think we all received a healthy dose of "classical" conservative thought (Burke, de Tocqueville, Strauss, i.e. the very people Bauerlein mentions at one point). I would have enjoyed more engagement with contemporary conservatives like Oakeshott, however, and I agree that modern philosophy and social thought courses are very focused on radical Continental intellectuals, mostly French.

However, I would take the conversation in a different direction than Bauerlein does. First, I don't see how he can deny that people like the Kristols are in a very important (some might say "damning") way "complicit" with government power and influence. With the death of Augusto Pinochet, we are also reminded of the involvement of Chicago-trained economists (students of Friedman and perhaps Hayek) in a dictatorial state. Rather than wish these examples away, or try to find a "pure" conservative philosopher, untainted by shady associations, why not examine the ways in which liberal academics are involved in public policy? Rather than accept the criticism that conservatives have "undermined" themselves by working with the American Enterprise Institute and the Hoover Institute, why not examine how members of the Brookings Institute mirror these practices? (Of course, right now the Hoover and AEI have the Iraq disaster hanging directly over their heads, so they might be at a "disadvantage," although totally deserved.) Furthermore, why assume that the marketplace and the government are corrupted, but that academe is not? Many people might be uncomfortable with the idea that the University has effects other than those of "pure knowledge," but it's worth pursuing the thought.

I'd also like to point out a glaring mistake on Bauerlein's part. Read this portion:

Consider a curricular example. Decades ago a thinker who'd witnessed oppression firsthand embarked upon a multibook investigation into the operations of society and power. Mingling philosophical analysis and historical observation, he produced an interpretation of modern life that traced its origins to the Enlightenment and came down to a fundamental opposition: the diverse energies of individuals versus the regulatory acts of the state and its rationalizing experts. Those latter were social scientists, a caste of 18th- and 19th-century theorists whose extension of scientific method to social relations, the thinker concluded, produced some of the great catastrophes of modern times.

Here's the rub: I don't mean Michel Foucault. The description fits him, but it also fits someone less hallowed in academe today: Friedrich A. von Hayek, the economist and social philosopher. Before and after World War II, Hayek battled the cardinal policy sin of the time, central planning and the socialist regimes that embraced it. He remains a key figure in conservative thought, an authority on free enterprise, individual liberty, and centralized power.

This is just plain wrong. The whole point of Foucault's analysis is that "state and its rationalizing experts" are not the only source of authority in society. Indeed, what's shocking about Foucault's thought is that former strongholds of independent thought and critical resistance (revolutionaries, the sexual liberation movement, et al) contain their own normativizing power and oppression. And not even oppression, but merely subject formation--that's the other crucial point: whereas Hayek was concerned with the enforcement of power by the state, Foucault showed how power flowed freely, unquestioningly, often secretly between people. That's why Foucault and other post-whatever-you-want-to-call-it thinkers are unappealing to traditional radicals: they leave no vantage point from whence one can make an enlightened critique of society. Bad news for marxists, not conservatives like Hayek.

I've seen Foucault played fast and loose like this before. What must always be kept in mind about him is that the novelty of his thought is NOT found in some vague analysis about power and the state: this I take to be a totally mundane point and well covered by a variety of commentators (conservatives opposed to the rise of the bourgeois state, Marx, Mill, Weber, C. Wright Mills, Galbraith, the Frankfurt School, Hayek and Friedman, Nozick, et al--a wide swath of conservatives, liberals, and radicals). If you want to read denunciations of the bureaucratic state, Rosa Luxemburg is as good as Friedrich Hayek. And both are different from Foucault.

The irony of Bauerlein's deployment is in having us believe that Hayek's "reputation" is in the balance. (Hat tip to the Sheriff for reminding me of this wonderful sentence.)

2 Comments:

Blogger Robot said...

Not much to add here. I agree entirely, and am sure that when the throngs of Foucault obsessed readers read this piece, there's going to be hell to pay.

Also, now that Milton Friedman's dead, don't you think it's high time some Libertarian dork at some college finally did a thesis in the form of a comic book that depicts Hayek, Friedman, and Ludwig von Mises as superheroes fighting against the tyrannical Mr. Brocklehurst?

11:13 AM  
Blogger Scantron said...

Ha, like a Misean would cavort with a Friedmanian! Any principled Misean would criticize Friedman for "his monetarism, his championing of school vouchers, the negative income tax, flexible exchange rates, anti-trust laws, his opposition to the gold standard and to privatizing roads and oceans" (Mises Institute website). He was practically a statist!

7:45 PM  

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