Foucault’s cryptonormative approach — a critique

2 May, 2022 at 18:38 | Posted in Theory of Science & Methodology | 1 Comment

I always found Foucault’s work frustrating to read. His empirical accounts are interesting and some of his concepts fruitful – disciplinary power, capillary power, surveillance, technologies of the self, the entrepreneur of the self, for example – and he was prescient about neoliberalism, but his theoretical reasoning is often confused. His attempts to define power, and his unacknowledged slippage between different concepts of truth in The History of Sexuality Part I are examples …

Andrew Sayer - SASEFoucault’s accounts of the social world have a generally ominous tone, but they fail to identify what is bad and why, so one is left wanting to write ‘so what?’ in the margin. Thus, sociologists of health sciences inspired by him would often describe certain practices as involving the ‘medicalization’ of certain conditions without saying whether this was appropriate or inappropriate, or good or bad, and why. If we don’t know whether people are harmed or benefitted by a practice, then we don’t know much about it; cryptonormative accounts of social life are also deficient as descriptions.

Actually, the problem goes beyond Foucault: self-styled critical social science has often failed to explore in any depth the normative issues concerning what is bad about the objects of its critiques, as if it could rely on readers reading between the lines in the desired way. This was an effect of the unhappy divorce of positive and normative thought in social science. Tellingly, Foucault invoked the is-ought framework to defend his refusal of normativity, saying that it was not his job to tell people what to do, as if normativity were primarily about instructions rather than evaluations. While post-structuralism did provide novel insights, the combination of its resistance to normativity (as reducible to the limitation of possibilities through ‘normalizing’) and its anti-humanism (‘humanist’ became another sneer term) also made social science less critical.

Andrew Sayer (interviewed by Jamie Morgan)

1 Comment

  1. A work you might find interesting:

    New constitutionalism, market civilization and disciplinary neo-liberalism

    In Stephen Gill’s analysis of the ‘new constitutionalism’, globalization has involved the establishment of a globalized ‘market civilization’; the latest phase of an expanding capitalist system rooted in the nascent liberal state that emerged in Britain in the seventeenth century and the subsequent internationalization of liberalism in the nineteenth century (1998b: 27–9, 2003: 118; see also his Chapter 2 in this volume). Drawing on Foucault, Gill sees the increasing marketization of social relations as driven by a set of ‘disciplinary practices’ (2003: 130) centred on the use of legal institutions to structure and shape political forms of regulation and governance. This leads Gill to define ‘new constitutionalism’ as: (Gill, Stephen. New Constitutionalism and World Order (p. 67). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.)

    A macro-political dimension of the process whereby the nature and purpose of the public sphere in the OECD has been redefined in a more globalized and abstract frame of reference … [It is] the political project of attempting to make transnational liberalism, and if possible liberal democracy, the sole model for future development. (2003: 131–2) It mandates a particular set of state policies geared to maintaining business confidence through the delivery of a consistent and credible climate for investment and thus for the accumulation of capital … It stresses the rule of law … [and expands] state activity to provide greater legal and other protections for business. (1998b: 38)

    [It] involves pre-commitment mechanisms to lock in not only present governments and citizens into the reforms, but more fundamentally to prevent future governments from undoing the reforms. In this way its central purpose is to reconstruct the political and legal terms through which governance and accountability operate not only in the near term, but also in the longer run. (Bakker and Gill 2003: 30, emphasis in original) (Gill, Stephen. New Constitutionalism and World Order (p. 67). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.)

    Emphasizing ‘market efficiency; discipline and confidence; economic policy credibility and consistency; and limitation[s] on democratic decision-making processes’ this new discipline establishes ‘binding constraints’ on fiscal, monetary and wider economic policy (Gill 2003: 132). Crucially, this ‘new constitutionalism’ seeks to confer privileged rights of citizenship on global corporate capital, and establish mechanisms by which the commitment to these values is embedded in current and future political practice. (Gill, Stephen. New Constitutionalism and World Order (pp. 67-68). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.)

    As Gill notes, ‘traditional notions of constitutionalism are associated with political rights, obligations and freedoms, and procedures that give an institutional form to the state’ (2003: 132). Although this ‘new constitutionalism’ proceeds at the global level, rather than focusing on the rights and obligations of the global citizenry relating to a globalized governing body (or bodies), it is concerned with a much smaller group: global capital and its operating agents, corporations (both national and multinational). It holds separate the political and economic to ensure that the economic remains uncontaminated by the political, and the rule of law stands between them: markets are facilitated by the legal structures of property, contract and other laws. Politics can add to these laws but their basic components represent the rule of law not of politics; the latter of which is limited to dealing with the effects of these rules (e.g. problems of market failure). In this sense, the pre-commitment to the rule of law limits and shapes any subsequent reformist dynamic. (Gill, Stephen. New Constitutionalism and World Order (p. 68). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.) (Gill, Stephen. New Constitutionalism and World Order. Kindle ed. New York: Cambridge University Press; 2014; pp. 67-68.)

    (….) The arguments presented in this chapter are laid out in three sections. The first section argues that the rise of indebtedness in the United States is part of the broader process of the (re-)privatization of social reproduction and the individualization of forms of social provisioning. The second section focuses on the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act (BAPCPA) of 2005, arguing that this legislation shares some of the features of other mechanisms of the new constitutionalism as it has strengthened the power of creditors vis-à-vis debtors and intensified the disciplinary power of capital. The third section argues that there has been an intensification of the criminalization and incarceration of debtors and a rise of coercive debt collection practices over the past decade and particularly in the years following the global financial crisis. (Gill, Stephen. New Constitutionalism and World Order (p. 235). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.) (Gill, Stephen. New Constitutionalism and World Order. Kindle ed. New York: Cambridge University Press; 2014; p. 235.)


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