Friday, April 10, 2020

The Left and Subjective Value

In the first post on this topic, I examined what connection there might be in the thought of Michel Foucault and Austrian Economics.  In this post, I will look at some reviews of Foucault’s work in this area that demonstrate the left’s understanding of the value of subjective value in ethics toward their project.

The issue at hand is a series of lectures given by Foucault, which were subsequently translated and offered in a book: The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1978--1979. 

I will repeat my caution: unless clearly indicated otherwise, anything I write of Mises or Hayek and their views on economics or liberalism, is taken from the noted sources – I do not mean to suggest that these views are accurately portrayed. 

The author of this paper (for which, I regret to say, the author’s name is not included that I can find), appears to be offering a critique of Foucault’s work during these lectures.  I am not so interested in the critique as I am in what this critique reveals in terms of explanatory context.  The author seems to be after extending Foucault’s argument, developing it further along the lines first offered in the lectures. 

Mises’s work on the effect of the impersonal market on colonial populations is touched on, as is his work on state-owned enterprises in places like Mexico. 

One could go on, for the dossier is quite extensive, but the basic point should be clear: …the very same neoliberal thinkers about whom Foucault writes (Mises, Rüstow, Röpke, etc.) spent considerable time focusing on the question of how the apparatus of the market might be brought to bear on populations who were then emancipating themselves, or who in some cases already had emancipated themselves, from colonial rule.

What is meant by the term “neoliberalism”?  The author offers:

According to its own self-understanding, the neoliberalism of the early and mid-twentieth century was an attempt to protect the rights of the person and property from the “totalitarianism” that, in the view of the neoliberals, was the inevitable result of “collectivism” and “big government.”

These neoliberals “proposed a revival of nineteenth-century liberalism, particularly its principles of “the market” and “the rule of law,” as the best way to establish limits on raison d’état from within.”  Yet, it was not a repudiation of the state, only to limit state actions to the health, welfare, and safety of the subject population.

This is consistent with my understanding – more so with Hayek and Friedman, less so, I believe, with Mises.  If some consider it less than perfect in the details, it is certainly close enough for discussion purposes.

Put simply, neoliberalism is a genealogical descendent of pastoral power.

Well…what is “pastoral power”? 

… pastoral power understood its aims with reference to the figure of the shepherd whose specific skill was to care for his flock as it moves from place to place. … pastoral power sought “to constantly ensure, sustain, and improve the lives of each and every one.”

Whereas the state manages the people for the sake of the state – for example, to wage and win war, the neoliberal sees the people as an end unto themselves – with the state limited to the role of establishing higher living standards for all (pastoral), within a framework of property rights and the rule of law to protect each individual from both the state and his fellows.

I see this a little differently in the case of the Austrians: I don’t know that it is appropriate to say that the state’s objective is to establish higher living standards; instead, it is expected that the state establishes a framework where each individual is free to pursue his desired living standards within the disciplines and constraints of the market.

Most of all, neoliberalism systematically failed to think through the despotic, administrative apparatuses that were central to the very nineteenth-century liberal thinkers – such as J. S. Mill and A. V. Dicey – whose revival in the twentieth century was, in their view, supposed to liberate the West from the racist bureaucracies of the totalitarian regimes.

…neoliberalism was not, then, the antidote to repression it imagined itself to be…

Libertarian anarchists certainly understand this; history certainly supports this view.  A minimal state is still a monopoly; with nothing to check its power, its growth is inevitable.  The state has expanded beyond anything imaginable pre-Enlightenment. 

Murray Rothbard would note this point, in For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto:

Absent an underlying cultural foundation that recognizes and respects natural law in the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition, there is nothing to check monopoly state power.

Returning to the subject paper, the author describes what, in his view, is a shortcoming of the neoliberal view: the limited administrative state would inherently turn into a police state.  What is meant by “police state”?

It’s a state in which government infinitely obeys and infinitely gives expression to life’s infinite demand for security and health, its infinite demand for the secular equivalents of salvation. It’s a state in which the ad hoc administration of the processes internal to the lives of populations undoes the rule of law from within, converting the forms of liberal legality—publicity (through promulgation), consistency (through reference to precedent), impartiality (through principles of equality and liberty), predictability (where law’s coercion may be anticipated in advance)—into a formless, unpredictable, chaotic apparatus.

If this isn’t a perfect description of our condition today, right here and right now with the state reaction to coronavirus (let alone many prior episodes), I don’t know a better one.

Neoliberalism in Mises’s sense breaks with the mode of argumentation that characterized old liberalism: whereas the latter conceived liberty and equality to be basic rights granted to man by God or Nature, Mises denounced such conceptions as “illusory doctrines.”  Unlike older liberalisms, Mises would argue, “we avoid, on principle, drawing God and Nature into a dispute over mundane questions.”

Rothbard would have something to say about this, also, in his essay On Mises's Ethical Relativism:

What I have been trying to say is that Mises's utilitarian, relativist approach to ethics is not nearly enough to establish a full case for liberty. It must be supplemented by an absolutist ethic — an ethic of liberty, as well as of other values needed for the health and development of the individual — grounded on natural law, i.e., discovery of the laws of man's nature.

Returning to the subject paper, the state is a secularized pastoral power; as such, Foucault does not loosely use the term “state” to describe all historical forms of government:

What we sometimes are in the sloppy habit of calling “the state” (and we should remember that, in Foucault’s thought, there is no simple or ahistorical concept of “the state”) came into being under conditions where, under the influence of new nonteleological natural sciences, pastoral power was obliged to translate its old objectives now into the language of calculative, mechanistic instrumental reason.

I read this as specifically pointing to the time when the Church lost formal authority, birthing the state.  One can trace this from the time of the Reformation – albeit Christianity still held sway throughout Europe – but gaining full flower in the Enlightenment.  And if I read this right, it could be here where Foucault’s name is entered in the class know as post-modern decontructionists. 

Moving to another paper,  Bernard E. Harcourt writes of Foucault’s path through these lectures:

…a four-part analysis that covers (1) eighteenth century English liberalism; (2) twentieth century German ordo-liberalism; (3) 1970s French Giscardian neoliberalism; and (4) American Chicago School neoliberalism—before concluding with a capstone lecture on the notion of “civil society.”

It is this fourth group in which we will find Mises and Hayek (yes, I know, they are not of the same cloth as Friedman and the Chicago School). 

What drives the inquiry—exactly like the year before—is Foucault’s conviction that this new art of governing has set in motion a regime of truth that operates “today” … It is the link between these new forms of liberal economic rationality and the production of truth today that motivates the 1979 lectures.

But Harcourt doesn’t view that this means Foucault is in agreement with the thoughts of these neoliberals:

An intense debate has recently erupted over Foucault’s personal sympathies and political views on neoliberalism…As François Ewald suggests, Foucault was no more Machiavellian for studying raison d’État or Physiocrat for studying François Quesnay, than he was neoliberal for studying Gary Becker.

So, at least one person doesn’t find a sympathetic connection. 

Harcourt closes with commentary similar to that found in the first paper: this neoliberalism, instead of checking government power, greatly expands it – and expands it precisely because of what it is.

In fact, [laissez-faire capitalism] supposes a legal regime that advances the interests of the entrepreneurial class, which at length is what evolved in America.

Now, I argue that such a law regime “that advances the interests of the entrepreneurial class” is most specifically not laissez-faire capitalism.  But this is separate to the point.  This neoliberalism leads, like day following night, to just such a law regime.  We may disagree in theory, but cannot disagree in fact – the evidence of the last two centuries is overwhelmingly one-sided.  Further, compared to a medieval law regime, the difference is almost incomprehensible.


I can understand the connection of Foucault to the Austrian thinkers: as subjective value liberates markets, applied to ethics it liberates from all constraints of ethics.  Subjective ethics provides no check on the growth of state power.

Rothbard would note this problem, and wrote of this decades ago.  Those who value liberty should take note.


  1. "pastoral power understood its aims with reference to the figure of the shepherd..."

    Replace Jesus with the State and we're going to have problems. This pretty much sums up the Left. Kuehnelt-Leddihn was the first that I read who made this observation. He said the Left is basically an outgrowth of secular or faithless monasticism.

    Claes Ryn wrote a great article in American Conservative a few days ago about another aspect of this general mistake in Western society.

    Speaking to a foundational shift in morality divorced from God:

    "Our goal should be not so much to love neighbor—the people just around us—with all of what it entails of personal, sometimes inconvenient up-close engagement. We should love mankind, whose advancement requires the mobilization of government. This shift from self-reform to socio-political reform proved very appealing in that it greatly relieved the moral burden placed on the person."

    Christian love was replaced by a more detached sentimentality for all mankind.

    "Christian love, which had been seen as inseparable from overcoming the sin of self-indulgence, was gradually replaced by the kind of “idealism” that Irving Babbitt called “sentimental humanitarianism.” Moral virtue, previously understood as involving the self-restraint of character and personal responsibility, was redefined to mean feelings of empathy or pity, not for anybody in particular but for large suffering collectives somewhere in the distance, like the hungry or the downtrodden. Love of neighbor, which demands sometimes difficult action or sacrifice here and now, gave way to the sentiment of “brotherhood of man,” which presupposes no difficult self-reform."

    By letting the State usurp the traditional Christian works of mercy, we lost both our faith and our personal character.

    "The most nefarious element of the new spirituality may be that it takes little account of personal sinfulness as the central problem of the moral-spiritual life. It denies or downplays the importance of the moral struggle within the individual and the indispensability of character. Moral rationalism does not really understand how to arm the will against the lower desires. It employs such smarts as it has to formulate intricate rules and principles, but without character no amount of intellectual brilliance or teary-eyed sentiment can control the lower desires. Given the spread of sentimental humanitarianism, some such debauchery and evil as has come to light in the Catholic Church was well-nigh inevitable."

    Claes points to this loss of character and reliance upon moral rationalism as among the major contributions of the sexual corruption of the Catholic Church in the 20th century.

    The rest is here.

    1. "Replace Jesus with the State and we're going to have problems. This pretty much sums up the Left."

      Yes. Even today, Easter Sunday of all days, it is the state that will give us eternal life by battling the corona.

      If only the state would first sacrifice itself (as did our Savior), then I might get excited.

  2. Well…what is “pastoral power”?

    … pastoral power understood its aims with reference to the figure of the shepherd whose specific skill was to care for his flock as it moves from place to place. … pastoral power sought “to constantly ensure, sustain, and improve the lives of each and every one.”

    This is a good description and as far as church pastors go, it probably fits quite well. I am sure that the vast majority of them have the interests of their parish close to their hearts. The problem is that most people, including pastors today, have substituted worship of the State for worship of the King, in essence, created an idol.

    It is all very well and good to believe and preach that Jesus is the Christ and that God will take care of us, but actually living that out when the 'brass tacks' appear is a different story. Everyone "knows" that it is the State which provides for us in every way possible, protects us (or attempts to) from every evil imaginable, and promises that our future will be incomparably better as we submit ourselves to it--body, soul, and spirit. For the most part, pastors today are trying to straddle the divide between worship of God and worship of State, with the failure becoming evident to anyone who has their eyes open.

    Elijah raised this on Mount Carmel, "How long will you falter between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow Him: but if Baal, follow him." But the people answered him not a word. (1 Kings 18:21)

    In other words, a power struggle between two opposing forces and the people did not know which one to believe in. There was no question, though, when Elijah's altar, sopping wet, was completely burned up by the fire which fell from the sky and exposed Baalism as a false religion. Immediately, the people changed their tune.

    So it will be when today's State has no more answers for the questions of life. How long it will take before we reach that point is beyond my understanding.

    1. This is a great reference to 1 Kings, very appropriate.

      "...a power struggle between two opposing forces and the people did not know which one to believe in."

      Is it this today (not knowing which one to believe in), or is it something else? Staying silent is a good option when the alternative of speaking according to one's actions is damning.

      Actions speak louder than words....

    2. Bionic, are you saying that people don't speak out BECAUSE they are aware that their words don't square up with their lives? Perhaps it's not so much that they don't know what they believe, but that they are aware of their own hypocrisy and prefer that it be kept under wraps?

      You may very well be right. I hadn't considered that.

    3. "For the most part, pastors today are trying to straddle the divide between worship of God and worship of State, with the failure becoming evident to anyone who has their eyes open."

      Whether to serve God or the State should be the easiest and most obvious question for our church leaders.

      Matthew 4:8-10

      8 Again, the devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them;

      9 And saith unto him, All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me.

      10 Then saith Jesus unto him, Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve.

      Happy Easter everyone! He is Risen!

    4. Roger, I guess I am thinking of this week as it gives the most perfect example: it is easier to say "well, the governor recommended (or required) no church on Sunday, so let's trust our elected officials" than to act in what is known to be true - especially during Easter Week.

      So I believe such priests and pastors know the truth, yet don't want to say it because then they would be asked about why they are not acting it.

      Or they come up with week excuses, like "Jesus said, where two or three are gathered you don't have to come to church."

      Basically, admitting that pastors such as these are useless for leading the flock. Because I can't believe a trained church leader would ever truly believe such a thing.

    5. "Whether to serve God or the State should be the easiest and most obvious question for our church leaders."--ATL

      I am in complete agreement with that. It should be, but the benefits promised by God aren't always as pleasant and accessible as those promised by the State. Within a 'legal' church structure, worship of the State begins with the application for a 501(c)(3) status, which makes the church a specific creation of the State. In essence, the State owns the church and the ones who are in charge generally will do nothing to endanger that relationship.

      I am also including in this the widespread belief that programs enacted and administered by the State are actually God's provision for His people. Many pastors and priests actively promote and encourage participation in these programs and there is always unceasing adulation of the military--which keeps us "safe and free".

      If you asked them whether they worshipped the State instead of God, the vast majority of pastors (and Christians in general) would probably recoil in horror at the mere mention of such a possibility, but, as Bionic has stated above: "Actions speak louder than words."

      Now, it may be that 'worship' is not the most appropriate word to use in this context, but I can't think of a better one, so I use it.

    6. Roger, your comment triggered a couple of thoughts:

      "...the widespread belief that programs enacted and administered by the State are actually God's provision for His people."

      How many Christians use this state-provisioned charity to excuse their engagement (whether monetary or physical) with their community?

      Second, I also don't know if "worship" is the right word. Paul VanderKlay would define a Christian as one who trusts God more than he trusts himself (I know he has a more detailed description, but this is his primary hurdle).

      But what if one trusts the state more than he trusts himself or trusts God? Whether we call that worship, I don't know. I have heard Charles Burris (maybe it what someone else at LRC) call this "state-olatry." So maybe it is worship.

    7. Bionic,

      What if one SAYS he trusts God, goes to church three times a week, prays over every meal and at bedtime, reads his Bible daily, and assists at the local food bank twice weekly, yet walks to the mailbox once a month to pick up his Social Security check without which he would starve to death in short order? Does he trust God or the State? Or both? How can one even determine this? I do not know and probably should not even speculate.

      Elijah heard God's Word that He would send ravens with bread to keep him alive. Between this, the prophesied drought which happened, the widow's miraculous situation at Zarephath, and the successful confrontation with the prophets of Baal, he should have had enough trust in God to sustain him forever, but he ran like a terrified rabbit when Jezebel threatened his life. You might say that he also trusted in Jezebel's word and trusted in his own strength to save his miserable life.

      Where was Elijah's trust? Ultimately, it was anchored in God, because when the time came for him to leave this world, he (in the words of Styx) "climbed aboard that starship and headed for the skies." Elijah gives me hope, in spite of his failings.

      " looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart." --1 Samuel 16:7

      It's probably best if I leave it at that.

      Why do you ask such hard questions?

    8. "How can one even determine this?"

      Now THAT's a hard question. My thought is shaped by the same "logic" that I would answer from a libertarian perspective:

      Almost all of us have had more taken from us by the state financially than we ever get back (whether in money, services, whatever).

      I would say this is not true for the biggest bankers, defense contractors, etc., those whose net worth is almost fully dependent on the state - and those who are the most poverty stricken.

      I figure until I get my money back with interest (which won't happen in my lifetime), there is no conflict here - neither as a libertarian nor as one whose faith is in God.

    9. Holding onto what you believe in the face of anything which might cause immense harm, pain, and even death, is a pretty good indicator of where your trust lies. The Bible is filled with examples of people who held to this, the preeminent one being Jesus, but also Abraham, Jeremiah, Paul, Peter, Daniel and his three friends, etc.

      I do not consider the cashing of a SS check the same as putting one's "trust" in the State. After all, most of my life I have paid into that system and expect to get back at least some of what can rightfully be considered my property--without accrued interest, of course. Such is the cost of living in the system.

      I have never "trusted" in the State, except to the extent that it would take a bad situation and make it worse. Most of my life, I "trusted" (and still do, to some degree) in my own strength, intelligence, and ability. That might be called idol worship, since very little, if any, recognition was given to God. Anymore, I have come to view these more as "tools" which I can use to accomplish my duties in life.

      Ultimately, I understand that someday I will leave this life with nothing at all--except my faith that God waits for me on the other side. Everything that I am, that I have accumulated here will disappear, and the only thing left will be the trust which I have in the One Who created me.

      This is my statement of faith and the rest of my life is dedicated to fine-tuning it. The mechanics of that tuning remain to be seen.

    10. Roger, this is beautiful. Seriously.

      But I want the accrued interest!