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Foucault’s freedom

Johanna Oksala interviewed by Richard Marshall.

Johanna Oksala is a political philosopher who broods on Foucault, thinks that its time people stopped thinking in terms of continental vs analytic, thinks about Foucault and freedom, on Foucault, politics and violence, on Chantal Mouffe’s compelling ideas,on state violence, on why neoliberal rationality must be resisted, and on political spirituality. She’s out there making windows where there were once walls…

3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?

Johanna Oksala: I initially started to study philosophy because it seemed like an easy subject that wouldn’t consume too much of my precious time – I was young so my primary interest at the time was to study life! I was involved in various forms of anarchist politics such as squatting and organizing illegal parties and events in different European cities. While that was exciting and eye opening in many ways, it also taught me that genuine political change requires that people fundamentally alter the way they think. I believe that good philosophy can sometimes do that: it can make possible completely new ways of seeing the world around us. (I have also discovered since that philosophy is not easy at all and nowadays it consumes practically all my time!)

3:AM: Foucault is a key thinker for you isn’t he? He tends to be categorized as a continental philosopher. How do you think the distinction between continental and analytic philosophy works? Does it track a genuine philosophical difference?

JO: I don’t believe that there is a distinction between analytic and continental philosophy that would be philosophically interesting or significant. I acknowledge that the distinction might have some practical value sometimes: it is can function as shorthand for two general styles or historical traditions of philosophy. At closer scrutiny any attempt to define the two traditions in mutually exclusive terms is bound to fail, however. Foucault is a good example. He is usually read as a continental philosopher, but the philosophical questions that he investigates, such as the relationship between scientific knowledge and political interests, are also central questions for analytic philosophy of science. His thought has also many interesting connection to analytic philosophy of language, for example to the work of Searle and Wittgenstein. The sooner we stop categorizing contemporary philosophy in terms of this distinction, the better for philosophy!

3:AM: You’ve written about Foucault on freedom. Many people argue that Foucault’s position on subjectivity leads to a metaphysical determinism and that is often construed as eliminating human freedom. You disagree with this reading don’t you?

JO: My first book, Foucault on Freedom, engages with the question of how we should understand freedom today. You are right that the charges against Foucault’s philosophy in contemporary debates often focus on the question of the freedom of the subject. According to many of Foucault’s critics, the denial of an autonomous subject leads to the denial of any meaningful concept of freedom, which again leads to the impossibility of emancipatory politics. I argue that, rather than dismissing Foucault’s thought as politically dangerous and holding on to an autonomous and authentic subject for political reasons, it is more fruitful to take seriously the major impact Foucault’s thought has had on our ways of thinking about the subject, and also try to rethink freedom. I trace the different meanings of freedom in the different phases of Foucault’s thought and show how freedom emerges as a key theme in his thought. I emphasize Foucault’s idea that freedom lies in the ontological contingency of the present, in the unpredictability of our ways of thinking, acting and relating to other people.

3:AM: Your new book looks at Foucault and political violence. You disagree with Zizek and Mouffe who say that violence is intrinsic to politics forever. Why is Mouffe’s position contradictory? How does your agonistic conception of politics help you dispute their claims?

JO: Yes, my book, Foucault, Politics, and Violence, questions the idea that violence is an ineliminable part of politics. I draw on Foucault to argue that theoretically we should approach violence as historically contingent practices and not as an expression of some primordial hostility. It is important for me to show this because such a philosophical approach opens up a way to political critiques of violence. For a critique of violence to make robust sense rather than merely to amount to wishful thinking, it must establish as a preliminary move that political violence is not necessary. Conversely, the acceptance of an ineliminable link between violence and politics would mark the end of all radical critiques of violence. The only valid questions left for us to ask about violence would concern the possible ways in which to channel it, the conditions for its legitimacy, and its acceptable forms and extent. In other words, I try to show that we do not have to accept that violence will always be part of politics and that any attempt to eradicate it can only be based on irrational naiveté about the real nature of politics. Philosophy should enable radical politics of non-violence and not show, with some supposedly privileged metaphysical insights, that it is going to be hopeless.

I discuss Chantal Mouffe’s work in some detail because I find it very compelling. She too follows Foucault in arguing that politics is an agonistic realm of contingent power relations without any metaphysical certainties or foundations. My question to her is: If everything in politics is profoundly contestable and contingent, then why would violence be an exception? In such a philosophical framework it seems contradictory to assume that violence is an ahistorical constant that can never be eliminated from politics, only channeled in different ways. We should not simply assume and accept that. Instead we should treat such an assumption as another contestable “fact” that has problematic political consequences.

3:AM: You examine state violence and use torture as an example to illustrate your ideas. So how do you approach state violence?

JO: State violence is an interesting case study. It has always presented a challenge for critiques of violence because it is by definition legitimate violence: unlike criminal violence, it is generally understood as the necessary instrument for preserving the law. In my book I am concerned with what I call “the governmentalization of state violence”. Practices of state violence are not just instruments for upholding sovereignty and for enforcing the law. They have increasingly got their own internal ends that legitimize them and law is used simply as a particular tactic for the achievement of these ends. The deployment of law thus becomes strategic: it functions as means to predetermined policy ends and not as the ground of their legitimacy. In the book I attempt to illustrate this problem with a discussion of the new interrogation techniques – including waterboarding – that were introduced at Guantanamo Bay detainee camp in 2002. Philip Sand shows in his book ‘Torture Team‘ that what made these new, considerably more aggressive interrogation techniques possible was not the suspension of international law, but an interpretation of it that made it consistent with pregiven policy aims: the effective gathering of intelligence for national security. The law was respected by the state, but it was used strategically: the policy should have been drawn up around the law, but instead the legal advice was fitted around the policy. Legality was subsumed under efficiency and professionalism.

3:AM: Why do you think neoliberal rationality must be resisted? Some might argue that the advent of modernity has led to a reduction of violence – as Pinker does in his ‘Better Angels’ book? Hasn’t a shift from codes of honour and shame to economic values meant that violence is reduced just because it’s bad for business?

JO: Here again I think we need to make distinctions between different practices of violence. While some practices of violence are, for sure, bad for business, others are absolutely necessary for it.

I wanted examine the link between neoliberalism and political violence in order to challenge some of the common ways of understanding it. The relationship between neoliberalism and political violence has been commonly understood in two diametrically opposite ways by its supporters on the one hand and its critics on the other. Some of the most famous supporters of free markets forged an intrinsic link between the planned economy and political violence. For Friedrich Hayek, for example, neoliberalism represented the way out of political violence in a post-war Europe debilitated and scared by Nazism. Some of the most important critics of neoliberalism have attempted to turn this argument around: they have sought to demonstrate the violence accompanying the spread of neoliberalism. Perhaps its most famous recent critic, Naomi Klein, argued in The Shock Doctrine (2007) that it is in fact the implementation of neoliberal policies around the globe that has been accompanied by the consistent use of terror – brutal coercion intended to shock the population into accepting the new unpopular economic and political order. The problem that both of these approaches have in common is, in my view, that they understand the connection between a certain type of governmental rationality and political violence as purely external. In both cases violence is seen as an instrumental means by which to consolidate political power. In other words, the violence accompanying neoliberalism would be merely instrumental and contingent.

My claim is that if we are to fully understand the specific connections between neoliberalism and political violence we have to expose their structural link on the level of governmental rationality. I show that, contrary to what neoliberals such as Hayek claim, neoliberal governmentality does not result in the redundancy of state-coercion. This is not simply due to the unpopularity of neoliberal economic reforms, however, but more fundamentally because effective and widespread state violence is inherent to the rationality of neoliberal governing. While Hayek is right in insisting that in liberal societies state violence is not required for imposing economic choices and preferences the way totalitarian systems do, it is nevertheless necessary on a more fundamental level for creating society as an economic game and for policing the transgression of its rules.

Free market is not a natural given, but has to be produced by means of effective government. Confidence in the spontaneous intelligence of market mechanisms does thus not mean that state-interference and state violence becomes unnecessary. On the contrary, state violence remains an effective means of ensuring that the spontaneous logic of the market can operate and that entrepreneurial conduct can reach maximal range. While planned economies need to retort to coercion to balance economic supply and demand, neoliberalism has no need for this. However, that is only because it uses coercion to produce and maintain a social order in which this task is allocated completely to market mechanisms. State violence it eliminated from the level that dictates people’s consumer choices and preferences only to appear on the level that precludes them from interfering with or opting out of the economic game.

3:AM: How do Foucault’s writings on the Iranian Revolution and terrorism help see how we might transform our political ontology away from state terror? And isn’t the pushback to his idea that that revolution was an experiment in imagining a different political ontology one that says that the cure seems worse than the illness? Isn’t Foucault being reckless?

JO: I think it is important to distinguish the aspects of the Iranian revolution that Foucault was endorsing and admiring. When I was reading Foucault’s reports from Iran, I was struck by his bafflement in witnessing the courage of the Iranian unarmed protesters to face down terror and to face up to death. I imagine that for any Western observer the violence of the events in Iran in 1978 would have been shocking. Every time government troops shot and killed protestors in the street, processions were organized on the fortieth day after the killings, in keeping with the Shia tradition, commemorating the dead and resulting in larger demonstrations and more killing of protesters. Foucault had good reasons to expect to find a terrorized city. Instead, he encountered a strongly united and empowered people.

In a definitive text published in May 1979, at a point when the failure of the Iranian Revolution already seemed undeniable, he described the revolt itself as “irreducible”. Standing up against power perceived to be unjust at the risk of one’s life was no doubt rare and exceptional, but it was nevertheless irreducible to politics because it was an ever-present possibility. He suggested that revolt is the moment when the unforeseen becomes a distinct possibility and as such it is the ultimate guarantee of the historical contingency of all political orders. It is the enacted refutation of historical determinism and the reason why human time takes the form of history.

I also highlight the notion of ‘political spirituality’ that Foucault uses to describe the events in Iran. With political spirituality – the belief that a completely different world is possible – I wanted to account for the ever-present possibility of revolt. In contrast to religious spirituality, political spirituality is not founded on a transcendent being, or a world beyond this one. It is founded on the human action of revolt capable of defying all despotic and deterministic orders, even death. God is not the only possible guarantor of a different future in the next world, nor is he the only possibility for breaking with our present. This is not all there is because we, human beings, can create another world. This is what political spirituality essentially means to me and this is what I believe Foucault found significant in the Iranian Revolution.

3:AM: And for the curious readers here at 3:AM, are there five books other than your own that you’d recommend to us to go further into your philosophical world?

JO: I have being doing some work this summer on Foucault’s last lectures at the College de France, which have been translated into English recently under the titles The Government of Self and Others and The Courage of Truth. Foucault finds many interesting ideas from ancient philosophy in these lectures. He puts forward a provocative reading of Plato, for example, and I also really enjoyed his take on the Cynics.

I have also been doing some work recently on contemporary critiques of capitalism and have read some really interesting books in connection with that. I would recommend, for example, Kathi Week’s The Problem of Work and John Bellamy Foster’s Ecology Against Capitalism.

On my desk at the moment is waiting Lisa Guenther’s Solitary Confinement: Social Death and Its Afterlives, a philosophical study of solitary confinement.

Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

Buy the book here to keep him biding!

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, August 1st, 2014.