Academic journal article Alternatives: Global, Local, Political

Insecure Times, Tough Decisions: The Nomos of Neoliberalism

Academic journal article Alternatives: Global, Local, Political

Insecure Times, Tough Decisions: The Nomos of Neoliberalism

Article excerpt

A comparative reading of Michel Foucault's seminars of the late 1970s and the political philosophy of Carl Schmitt reveal some provocative points of intersection and discord. In retrospect it might appear as if, hovering around the same questions, but to remarkably different effect, Foucault and Schmitt were engaged in violent argument with each other.

Schmitt's work is remarkable for its unrelenting assertion of the primacy of sovereign power in the modern nation-state. Aligning himself with the theoretical legacy of Thomas Hobbes, Schmitt locates the crux of power in the act of sovereign decision, with its right to determine when and if the protection of the law should be maintained or suspended. Both Schmitt and Foucault seem to be in agreement that the true scope of sovereign power can be defined only in negative terms, as a power to suspend itself and thus to expose the life of its subjects to the absolute violence of the "state of nature." According to a famous formulation of Foucault's, the sovereign exercises a power to let live and to make die. (1) For Schmitt, the sovereign reveals its power when it declares a "state of exception"--a state of lawful lawlessness in which the act of taking another's life is divested of any sense of juridical fault or responsibility. (2) What Schmitt proposes is not only a historical account of the sovereign nation-state but also a deeply polemical plea in favor of a constitutional model that he considered to be the crowning achievement of the Western political tradition. His later work is haunted by a profound sense of regret for a model of power that, by his own admission, was already in decline. (3)

Foucault's seminars of the late 1970s are concerned with the period following the 1649 Treaty of Westphalia, in which the sovereign nation-state began to consolidate its political power in Europe. (4) Unlike Schmitt, however, Foucault addresses the discourse of sovereign power in the mode of violent countercritique: Not only does this discourse offer an impoverished conceptual model of power, he argues, it also effaces the various oppositional forces that accompanied the rise of the secular nation-state.

In the 1976 seminar Il faut defendre la societe, Foucault elaborates a sustained and trenchant critique of Hobbes--the thinker, he claims, who most ruthlessly expelled the possibility of war against the state from his theoretical edifice. (5) In the seminars that follow, Foucault complicates this critique by turning his attention to the countertradition of liberal political economy, which, from the eighteenth century onward, developed its own polemics against sovereigntist conceptions of power, opposing the freedom of economic exchange to the jurisdiction of the sovereign state and asserting the primacy of security as a form of control over and above the "right of the sword." The originality of Foucault's genealogical work of this period lies in its assertion that liberal political economy reinvents security as a distinct mode of power, in opposition to the sovereign decision.

In their approaches to power, violence, freedom, and political constitution in the modern era, Schmitt and Foucault align themselves with diametrically opposed philosophical traditions. In this article, I want to read Schmitt and Foucault with and against each other, not in the hope of attaining some middle ground, but with the aim of teasing out some of the unexplored dimensions of their respective philosophies of power. It is hoped that this approach will make it possible to revive some of the productive tensions of their work in relation to our contemporary context--one in which the global pretensions of neoliberalism have come to be associated with a state of seemingly unending war.

In his attempt to think through the simultaneous development of modern notions of sovereignty, imperialism, and world order, Schmitt articulated a nexus of concepts to which political philosophers of very different persuasions have returned with a renewed sense of urgency over the past few years. …

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