Foucault, democracy and the ambivalence of rights
journal contributionposted on 27.07.2021, 10:24 by Guy AitchisonGuy Aitchison
© 2017, © 2017 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group. In this review essay, I examine two recent books in critical theory as part of a reflection on the utility, as well as the possible risks and limitations, of liberal rights and citizenship in resisting contemporary forms of power. While Ben Golder’s book ‘Foucault and the Politics of Rights’ offers a compelling reconstruction of Foucault’s thought that calls attention to the ambivalent character of rights discourse, Wendy Brown’s book ‘Undoing the Demos’ applies a Foucaudlian mode of analysis to paint a dark vision of how neoliberalism is reconfiguring liberal-democratic institutions and norms according to economic imperatives. In this essay, I unpack the arguments of these two books, situating them within a broader context of critical thought and evaluating some of their central ideas and assumptions. I suggest that Golder is insufficiently critical of the central notion he presents of an anti-foundational ‘tactical’ conception of rights and propose that we instead see rights as political in the sense of being open, provisional and subject to on-going contestation. I examine the evolution of Brown’s thinking on rights in her work and call attention to some of the shortcomings in her analysis of power. Ultimately, I propose, both Foucault (in Golder’s reading) and Brown demonstrate that it is possible to maintain a productive scepticism towards rights and other humanistic social categories, while acknowledging their indispensable value in certain contexts.
- Social Sciences and Humanities
- Politics and International Studies