Monday, October 19, 2009

Beheading the Prince

As I read Lefort, I found it striking that his descriptions of democratic society often agreed with Foucault's formulations; however, Lefort's political theory often seems diametrically opposed to Foucault's genealogies of power. The very opposition of these two theories is intelligible precisely because they converge on similar descriptions of democracies and draw on similar historical progressions (namely, the Prince of the Ancien Régime). How do two thinkers, draw on similar historical periods and arrive at similar descriptions based on two distinctly different methods? More importantly, what are the stakes of these methods?

I'll start by elucidating similarities. Both Lefort and Foucault posit a new form of power in modern society that differs drastically from the monarchy of the Ancien Régime. Both writers also note the centrality of the body of the monarch to the form(s) that power takes in the epoch prior to democratic revolutions. Furthermore, Lefort and Foucault cite the evolution of law to reflect the norm, the power of public opinion, and the influence of statistical thinking in modern societies. Yet these similarities appear on a level of generality that is challenged by the particularities of each author's discourse. For instance, Foucault examines fascism, Stalinism, and liberal democracies alike as partaking in the same strategies and tactics of power, albeit to different extents; Lefort, on the other hand, draws clear distinctions between democratic and despotic governments--they are, for him, different "forms of society." 

To analyze different forms of society is the privileged operation for Lefort, the very litmus test of political philosophy, which concentrates on divisions in the social body and on the distinctions between legitimacy & illegitimacy, between truth & falsehood. Political philosophy is thus opposed to crude Marxism, which attempts to describe politics as an epiphenomenon of the economy, and to political science, which reifies politics as a particular sphere of society. According to Lefort, neither Marxism nor political science asks the fundamental question: what are the differences between forms of society?  

Lefort argues that the crucial differences between forms of society are to be found on the level of the "symbolic order." While Lefort leaves this order somewhat unelaborated, his description suggests an affinity with the Lacanian Symbolic, implying that the Symbolic Order is a structure that individuals must enter into in order to be a part of society. When Lefort argues that the subject of political philosophy cannot be neutral, he claims that such neutrality does not allow the subject to confront his "implicit conception of relations between human beings and of their relation to the world" that "generat[e] and structur[e]" his experience (12).

According to Lefort, the symbolic order of the Ancien Régime centered on the body of the prince, which constituted a place of power that mediated between the divine and the earthly kingdom. Yet with democratic revolutions, the prince's place is abandoned in the symbolic order, leaving an "empty space." Consequently the spheres of knowledge, law, and power become dissociated, and no group can claim ultimate authority.

Foucault's approach similarly takes up the issue of the body of the prince in the Ancien Régime (in Foucault's parlance, the King's body or the body of the sovereign). In Foucault's analysis the King's body is similarly mystical, at once a physical body and an embodiment of divine authority. Yet for Foucault, democratic revolutions do not simply leave the King's structural position open-ended; instead, new forms of power and knowledge, which are very importantly for Foucault not dissociated, observe, classify, regulate, and discipline individual bodies. Moreover, for Foucault the law comes to function as a norm, not because it is merely separated from absolute authority, but because the complex of power-knowledge comes to usurp the traditional authority of the law.

In short, for Foucault sovereignty is not merely left open-ended by democracy. Instead, the structure of power changes fundamentally, investing both individual bodies and populations with a complex of power, knowledge, and law. Sovereignty is not an appropriate category for Foucault's analysis, for it belongs to juridico-discursive models of power that are too narrowly focused on law and legitimacy, while power itself has moved past the juridico-discursive stage.

Lefort notes that the prince has been surpassed, his position evacuated; yet the "empty place" of the prince in Lefort's theory colors his analysis, inflecting it towards a sort of governing principle or law of forms of society (the symbolic order). While Foucault notes the shift in forms of power from prince to people, his analysis is focused more on tactics and practices of power, rather than on an overarching structure of society. For Lefort, because power and knowledge become disentangled in democracies, the stakes of political philosophy are indeed high: one has the opportunity to speak truth to power. Yet in my opinion, Foucault's theory is more useful because one does not merely protest power with truth, but exercises power by producing discourses. Put metaphorically, Lefort urges us to struggle for the Prince's throne; Foucault insists that we cut off his head.

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