Tag Archives: Foucault

The Reverse Panopticon

By Giulio Amerigo Caperchi

Is the advent of easily available recording technology coupled with mass-distribution of content through social media platforms allowing for the democratization of the state’s surveillance apparatus?

Most of us fear the totalitarian dystopia imagined in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which citizens are controlled and stripped of private rights through the use of technologies enforcing total surveillance. It is easy to draw parallels with our world today, where the proliferation of CCTV devices and the use of surveillance drones by law enforcement eerily appear to emulate Big Brother’s tactics.

In fact, police forces worldwide are increasingly relying on overt and covert surveillance technologies. In the UK, police plan on deploying unmanned aerial vehicles to aid them in day to day surveillance operations in the light of the 2012 Olympics[1]. Similarly, on the ground, police are increasingly using Forward Intelligence Teams – officers armed with camcorders and other recording equipment used to document anti-social behavior[2]. Still, local governments continue to spend large sums of money on CCTV surveillance, despite evidence questioning its effectiveness as a deterrent[3].

However, in the past years we have witnessed the mass-consumption of relatively cheap products such as cell-phones equipped with camcorders. By now, any footage recorded by these devices is easily disseminated on the web thanks to social media platforms such as twitter and facebook. For example, the worldwide protests of 2011 have captured hours of footage in which civilians documented and “surveilled” law enforcement operations from Tahrir Square to Wall Street. We are all familiar with the grotesque images of a police officer pepper-spraying a row of seated and peaceful students at UC Davis.

Today we live in a world in which technology allows virtually anyone to easily document the actions of the same individuals whom operate the state’s surveillance apparatus. What occurs to the logics underlining mass surveillance when the “watched” are finally able to “watch the watchers”? And what implications does this have on the dynamics informing popular protest?

The French philosopher Michel Foucault studied the effects that mass surveillance has on society very carefully. For him, modern law enforcement could not possibly sustain the economic cost of maintaining social order through the threat of physical coercion alone. Modern mass democracies would enforce compliance to law through less intrusive and more subtle techniques: techniques which would push individuals to “self-police” themselves. Foucault refers to one of these techniques as “panopticism”. In his studies regarding carceral institutions he analyses the architectural plans of a new type of prison built during the 19th century. The Panopticon was the first prison constructed in such a way so that inmates were always visible to the wardens, but where the inmates could not see the wardens. Its effect was that of forcing inmates to behave as if actually being observed, even though no-one was observing them. Modern surveillance devices such as CCTVs function along the same logic, as “eyes that must see without being seen”[4].

For Foucault, this type of constant and total surveillance produced disciplined subjects; individuals whom would spontaneously conform to socially acceptable behavior thereby conspiring in their own self-regulation. Its effects were those of discouraging abnormal behavior –such as political protest- while fostering acquiescence and the internalization of the status quo. Panopticism, said Foucault, “was the most direct way…of making it possible to substitute for force or other violent constraints the gentle efficiency of total surveillance”[5].

Yet, alas, Foucault died just before the mass availability of today’s recording devices and before facebook and twitter accompanied the Arab Spring and the Occupy movements. However his ideas might still prove useful in determining the effects that these new technological innovations have on society.

On one hand, the fact that we are increasingly watched not just by law enforcement but also by the public at large might reinforce and possibly magnify the discipline-inducing effects that Foucault highlighted. Individuals might feel observed to an even greater extent and behave in an ever more docile manner -with serious implications on their willingness to publicly vent political contention. Moreover, it might render individuals fearful of their neighbors, thereby tearing at the social fabric of our communities. Finally, it would negatively impinge on one’s sacrosanct privacy.

On the other hand, the ability of any individual to surveil public officers might induce law enforcement institutions to “self-police” themselves. The footage of Iraq veteran Scott Olsen, an ex Marine, being shot in the head with a tear-gas canister at an Occupy Oakland protest created public outrage in the US and caused a serious investigation of the Oakland Police Department’s tactics[6]. Last December at an Occupy Wall Street protest the Guardian reported the use of the “occucopter”: a remote controlled helicopter equipped with a camcorder, broadcasting live on the web and documenting police repression[7]. Such devices are often the only instruments that a non-violent protest movement such as Occupy may employ against violent crackdowns.

These technological innovations have the potential to enforce accountability and to increase transparency, particularly within the murky dynamics of street protests. Being able to record and effortlessly disseminate evidence now allows any citizen to report “abnormal” behavior (as Foucault would put it) exhibited by law enforcement officials such as with the pepper-spray incident. However, this new-found ability possesses actual potential only if used to enforce compliance to law, to civil/human rights and to the norms of dignity. Moreover, it is effective solely when those caught breaking the law are held responsible for their actions or when the footage captured manages to influence public opinion.

Perhaps the apparent “democratization” of the surveillance apparatus is not a game-changer for social movements and will not tilt the game of political contention in favor of protesters. But it does serve to remind us that in any healthy democracy everyone should be held accountable for their actions, and if the evidence garnered by and spread through new technologies serves this purpose then this new phenomenon should be welcomed.

This article was originally published by The Heptagon Post on February 9th 2012


  • Foucault, M. 1991. The Foucault Reader. Ed. Rabinow, P. Penguin: London


Filed under Human Rights, Indignados, Michel Foucault, Occupy Wall Street, security, social movements, surveillance

The Liberal Ontos

Subjectivity and Raison D’état in Liberal Democracies

“You either accept the Enlightenment and remain within the tradition of its rationalism …or else you criticise the Enlightenment and then try to escape from its principles of rationality.”

Foucault “What is the Enlightenment?” 1984, p43


In What is the Enlightenment (1984) Michel Foucault refuses what he calls “the blackmail of the Enlightenment”: he refuses to be “for” or “against” it. One of Foucault’s main objects of study was to understand the techniques and disciplines utilized by modern governments and their role in the creation of the modern individual. His aim was to expose the relation between the subject and subjectivity and between power and knowledge. As he saw modernity as the product of the Enlightenment, and as he deeply disagreed with modern governmental disciplinary techniques, Foucault set out to understand how the Enlightenment produced such coercive modern institutions. He sought to do this without condoning the disciplinary techniques of modernity as inevitable products of the Enlightenment, but at the same time without refuting the Enlightenment’s tradition as a whole. Refusing the blackmail of the Enlightenment would require embarking on a “historical ontology of the self”, a genealogy of subjectivity which would reveal the relation between the individual, understood as an autonomous agent, and the state, the governor of subjects through liberal-democratic rationalities.

Nowhere else does Foucault address this problem more concisely than in his lectures on Governmentality. It is here that he discusses the raison d’état of the early liberalism of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and that of modern liberal mass democracies. Foucault’s studies expose the pivotal power relationship between governmental rationalities and individual subjectivity, and traces how this relationship changes from its birth during the Enlightenment to contemporary expressions of neo-liberalism.

What Foucault’s work allows us to address are the political rationalities on which early and modern liberalism rest. This, in turn, enables us to challenge the symbolic framework within which we exercise our rights, liberties and democratic agency as free and autonomous citizens. What does it mean to be in liberal democracies? This is the central question of the “historical ontology of ourselves”. Answering it requires exposing one of liberalism’s most explosive tensions: namely, that between its alleged neutrality in regards to conceptions of the “common good” and its imposition of an abstract and universal understanding of the self. Studies in governmentality allow us to clearly see that liberalism is not in fact value-neutral but rests on strong and well founded epistemological and ontological assumptions. Exposing the violence embedded in these assumptions is the main object of this enquiry.

The first part of the essay will analyse Foucault’s understanding of early and modern liberal political rationalities, delving into the differences between the principle of sovereignty as opposed to scientific knowledge. The second part will demonstrate how liberalism has presented itself through history as the ideology based on the tenets of negative liberty and limited government. This will be then contrasted with the particular ontological assumptions liberal government attributes to its democratic citizens. In turn, this will enable us to challenge the symbolic framework with which we come to understand ourselves as free and autonomous agents, thereby exposing the tension between liberalism’s alleged value-neutrality and its imposition of a particular form of subjectivity. I will conclude with a brief discussion of contemporary liberal subjectivity occurring in neo-liberalism.

Liberal Raison D’état

In his lecture Governmentality (1991), Foucault traces a distinctive change regarding social policy in the transition from early to modern liberalism. Early liberalism – that based on theorists such as Grotius, Hobbes, Pufendorf or Locke – grounded the legitimacy of government on the principle of sovereignty. Eighteenth century liberal political rationality is based on the concepts of popular sovereignty, limited government, the social contract, natural rights and the rule of law. Moreover, the subject over which the government rules has a distinct identity. Early liberal subjectivity conceives of the individual as a rational being who is constituted prior to society: a transcendental self, equal to all others in the eyes of God, with inalienable natural rights and liberties. As such, governing citizens required minimum state intervention and the codification of clear demarcations between the state and civil society as well as between the public and the private. In short, law and its juridical apparatus are the sole legitimate instruments through which the state could govern its subjects (Foucault 1991, p95)

However, Foucault points out that beginning in the eighteenth century the exponential growth of population and the expansion of commerce begin to morph the way government firstly relates to its citizens and secondly comes to conceive of them. As governing over large populations becomes increasingly difficult, scientific knowledge comes to the aid of the state, providing it with averages, statistics, surveys and studies which generalize and calculate virtually every conceivable characteristic of society with the aim of efficientizing and simplifying the art of government. Foucault suggests that this type of knowledge, garnered through the developing fields of the social sciences such as anthropology, sociology, psychology and economics, eventually came to supplant the rule of law as a more efficient technique of governing. It was not enough to threaten citizens with harsh penalties for breaking the law. Subjects could be made to conform to laws not through deterrent, but by following the suggestions of the social sciences which produced “truths” and “norms”. This expert knowledge pontificated, to citizens and governments alike, how populations should behave “normally”. Therefore norms garnered through authoritative and scientific sources provided statistics, averages and means to which the population would synchronize itself in order firstly to ensure domestic tranquillity and secondly to actually improve itself (Foucault 1980, p105).

Thus, a defining feature of modern liberalism is that it increasingly grounds its legitimacy in socio-scientific knowledge rather than in the juridical apparatus (Ashenden 2010, p62). It does not govern through the limited architecture of “rights and duties of citizens” but rather guides its population towards efficiency and self-improvement, so that citizens may exercise their inalienable freedoms in a disciplined fashion (Dean 1999, p175). The modern liberal subject is now conceived not only as a static bearer of rights and liberties but as someone who conforms to normal and reasonable codes of conduct. The patterns of behaviour he or she is supposed to follow are not derived from transcendental notions such as “the state of nature” or “natural rights”, but from what scientific knowledge has calculated to be normal, healthy, balanced and productive (Foucault 1984, 74).

Foucault asserts that advanced liberal democracies govern their subjects through a “demonic” mix of the early and modern political rationalities of liberalism. Today’s Western governments exercise their power firstly on the legitimacy of the concept of popular sovereignty and secondly through the techniques of disciplines offered by the sciences (Foucault 1980, p106). This is the theoretical context, as presented by Foucault, in which I wanted to place liberalism. Now I would like to analyse how liberalism presents itself as a coherent and unified ideology through time, and how is it that it has come to be the dominant political rationality.

Limited Government

From its earliest inceptions, liberalism presents itself as the theory of limited government. But why limited government? This is because it perceives as dangerous and potentially destructive any notion of the common good which could jeopardize the natural liberties of individuals. Government is limited in the sense that its primary purpose is restricted to the protection of the self-regulating sphere of civil society (Hindess 1996, p67). For example, early liberal theorists saw the wars of religion that had ravished Europe as factions of fanatics engaging in mass slaughter to impose an alleged divine order. The social unrest generated by religious strife destroyed and taxed property, inhibited progress and, more importantly, was bad for business. It is the imposition of a unitary notion of what is “right”, “divine” or “good” which liberalism sees as potentially dangerous and conducive to civil strife. Its emphasis on religious toleration embodies one of its earliest rejections of totalizing world-views and a move towards a neutral position in regards of what is “good”.

This is evident in Hobbes’s criticism of Christianity (directed primarily at the Pope and Scottish Presbyterians alike) in books III and IV of Leviathan, in which he states that religious strife was responsible for civil war and social unrest in the commonwealth. For the sake of stability and the preservation of life, Hobbes concludes that the sovereign should control the sphere of public worship in order to avert sectarian violence waged in the name of spiritual convictions. Privately, anyone could believe what they wished, as Hobbes fully embraced Parliament’s principle of Independency, that is, religious toleration (Tuck 1996, p.xliii). Similarly, Locke in A Letter Concerning Toleration describes toleration firstly as a basic Christian value and secondly as an inalienable right (Tully 1993, p.57). But these early liberal theorists were not solely opposed to the imposition of totalizing religious orders but also of political ones. In Hobbes and Republican Liberty (2008) Quentin Skinner gives a detailed description of Hobbes’s rejection of civic-republican as well as classical notions of freedom. Hobbes believed that republican intentions of instituting popular sovereignty on Aristotelian assumptions were just as responsible for civil strife as religious factions were (Skinner 2008, p.75). In the same way, Locke’s Two Treatises are an attack on the illegitimacy of the divine right of kings, as his specific aim was that of delegitimizing authoritarian and absolutist claims to sovereignty (Dunn 1969, p67). Hence the stress on a limited form of government, with the main purpose of averting totalizing claims (be them religious, absolutist or civic republican) which can potentially deprive the inalienable and natural rights of freedom and self-government pertaining to individuals in civil society.

We can therefore see that liberal hallmarks such as representative forms of democracy, checks and balances, bicameralism and the separation of powers are all instituted with the aim of protecting the otherwise self-regulating sphere of civil society from a potentially coercive government. A brief look at James Madison’s Federalist X will reveal a plan for an architecture of government with the specific aim of diffusing the fiery passions of the “tyranny of the majority” and of violent factions (Madison 1987, p125). From Mill, to Berlin, to Rawls, liberalism offers a negative understanding of liberty whose main purpose is that of assuring neutrality and averting the encroachment of any dangerous conception of the common good (positive liberty) which could spiral out of control and into totalitarianism (Berlin 1969, p152). As such, liberalism has emerged victorious in modern history: it has achieved religious toleration, abolished the divine right of kings, survived the nationalisms and totalitarianisms of the First and Second World War and defeated the Soviet Union in the last great ideological duel of the twentieth century. Moreover it has done so by not imposing any apparent form of subjectivity on its citizens: liberalism perceives of individuals as self-determined subjects with inalienable rights and liberties. It rejects any particularised ontological grounding of the individual, limiting itself to the protection of a self-regulating and interest-motivated civil society within which individuals can perceive themselves as they see fit (Burchell 1999, p133).

The “Doubling” of Liberal Ontology

So we must ask now how the previous exposition of liberalism as proposed by Foucault can serve as a basis for a profound critique of the symbolic framework within which liberalism conceives of its subjects and within which citizens perceive of themselves. As I have shown, Foucault asserts that there are two distinct political rationalities working within liberalism: one based on the seventeenth century concept of sovereignty and the other, more modern, on socio-scientific knowledge which provides the government with the necessary expertise (and legitimacy) with which to govern. This in turn engenders a doubling of liberal subjectivity: the individual is simultaneously a bearer of rights and liberties as well as a subject to be studied, disciplined and made to improve him/herself. It is towards a critique of this doubling of liberal subjectivity to which we must turn now.

Liberal subjectivity engendered by the concept of sovereignty conceives of the individual as a rights bearing entity which is constituted prior to society. Most of the social contract theorists perceive the individual as possessing certain a priori characteristics which are not the product of political arrangements or social articulations but which are transcendental values granted by God. James Tully points out that the state of nature is an abstract condition: a “quasi transcendental speech situation” from which we derive an understanding of the self as being free and equal (Tully 1995 p64). Michael Sandel asserts that the Kantian notion of the universal self claims transcendence because it is constituted and imagined prior to the social, economic and political conditions in which an individual is born. “The antecedent unity of the self means that the subject, however heavily conditioned by his surroundings, is always, irreducibly, prior to his values and ends, and never fully constituted by them” (Sandel 1982, p22). This specific ontological articulation allows liberalism to claim a neutral stance. Contrarily, say, to an Aristotelian understanding of the self as the zoon politicon which can fulfil its telos solely through political participation, liberalism refracts the constitution of subjectivity to a higher and universal level of abstraction. In such a way, natural rights are prior to any other value, conception of the good, culture or religion. This allows thinkers such as Rawls (1993, p10) to articulate a theory of political liberalism as based on the priority of the right over the good: a theory which is perfectly compatible with liberalism’s fundamental mandate – limited government.

On the other hand, Foucault shows how liberal subjectivity changes once modern governments begin to act on individuals on the basis of evidence garnered through the social sciences. The conception of the transcendental self which defined early liberalism is now complemented by an understanding of the self as expounded by anthropology, psychology and sociology. These new typologies of knowledge produce what Foucault calls norms. On the basis of empirical evidence, presented in the form of statistics, calculations and percentages, governments formulate policies which enforce correct codes of conduct and particular patterns of behaviour which are deemed to be “normal” (Rose 1989, p6). For example, scientific studies suggesting a healthy diet or daily exercise are examples of norms which point to specific forms of behaviour meant to efficientize, help and improve individuals. As suggested by Rose (1989, p4), this knowledge shapes subjectivity: individuals see the “ideal self” as someone with a healthy diet and which exercises regularly and aspire to achieve that status.

In this sense, scientific knowledge is not an imposition of the government, but is rather a suggestion of a way to improve oneself. We must always bear in mind that liberalism views society as a self-regulating sphere on which it has no right to intrude, let alone dictate what to eat or when to exercise. Norms, therefore play the pivotal role of guiding and channelling the behaviour and interests of individuals in a productive and disciplined fashion. At the same time these codes of behaviour entail the need for the individual to synchronize his or her person to them: hence the link between subjectivity and norms. But how are norms created? Norms are averages. For example, the idea of the “average man” is a norm. It is derived through statistical information which tells us what the average man’s height is, how much he should weigh, how old he is and what kind of income he has. Mitchell Dean (1999, p171) refers to norms as “counter-factual and self referential”: they refer to us, but are pure abstractions. The “average man” does not exist: he is an arithmetic construct and blind calculation of what a man should look and behave like. This is the profound critique to modern liberal ontology which Foucault allows us to make. Therefore, we can see a doubling in the abstraction of the self as present by liberalism: the individual is at once a transcendental being deriving his or her rights from the abstract condition of the state of nature, as well as the product of blind statistics pointing to non-existent stereotypes.

Challenging the Symbolic Framework

Foucault’s work allows us to point out where liberalism is at its most hypocritical. While claiming to be the only ideology capable of ensuring individual autonomy without imposing conceptions of the common good on its society, it also makes very specific assumptions on the nature of the individual, of how civil society behaves, and on the relation between government and population. By exposing the assumptions that liberalism rests on, in its early and modern articulations, we finally see that both natural law and empirically determined norms are firmly grounded in the realm of abstraction and not in alleged objectivity. Far from receding from the realm of the metaphysical, liberalism ascends to a new level of abstraction, manufacturing universals which inform and construct the modern self. It is behind the “neutral” conceptualizations of the self that we find liberalism’s hidden violence: in a globalized world, the vast majority of the population finds it very difficult to conceptualize of the self as being constituted by transcendental rights and having to behave in rational (read Western) ways. The post-modern point worth making here is that individuals all over the world can equally identify themselves in ethnic, nationalistic, gender, religious, class or cultural terms, and not universal liberal ones. The imposition of liberal forms of subjectivity which the west has unleashed on the world (often with the most sincere and benevolent intentions) nonetheless have had devastating consequences: from socio-political marginalization of minorities to “Operation Enduring Freedom.”

Not only must we be weary of the imposition of early forms of liberal subjectivity, but we must also be critical of the modern manufacturing of norms. Although it claims neutrality in regards to any conceptions of the good, the production of norms is not a mere exercise of blind scientific calculations, but the creation of statements which suggest the “right” way to behave and think. Ashenden points out that norms work on the normal-abnormal polarity, where “normal” inevitably points to what is “good” and abnormal to what is “bad”. Behind the veil of socio-scientific objectivity norms make profound normative statements (Ashenden 2010, p72). These, in turn, are based on very specific Eurocentric assertions which state that the individual behaves according to his or her interest-motivated choice. Norms are built upon a thoroughly capitalist conception of civil society in which individuals interact and are motivated by rational choice: a sphere which spontaneously regulates itself thanks to Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” (Burchell 1991, p134). Hence the normative and value-laden charge of norms suggests “right”, “correct” and ultimately “good” patterns of behaviour which are however inextricably enmeshed within western capitalist conceptions of the individual, of society and of government.


Two conclusions follow from our discussion. Firstly, an analysis of Foucault’s understanding of liberal political rationalities and subjectivities enable us to challenge the symbolic framework within which we exercise our freedoms. This is one of the key challenges of our times: instead of hiding behind a “veil of ignorance” and procedures ensuring neutrality, liberalism should bear full responsibility for the exclusions and violence it commits in the name of its very enlightened principles. The West’s problematic approaches to multiculturalism, the troubled relations with the Middle East and a grave democratic deficit are problems which can be traced back to the adoption of a symbolic framework which rests heavily on abstract and universal notions which are faltering in today’s globalized world. It is high time that liberalism recognizes that it too, as much as civic republicans, Marxists or Islamic fundamentalists, is promoting, imposing and exporting a conception of the “common good”. Perhaps the very ideology championing negative liberty should heed the warnings of Isaiah Berlin.

The second conclusion we derive from our argument is that Foucault’s work points towards a new terrain of contestation. This novel battlefield is located within the institutions where norms and socio-scientific knowledge are produced. If, according to Foucault, socio-scientific knowledge informs and sustains our very subjectivity, then such knowledge must be criticised and contested for the sake of the very definition of the self. Moreover, as neo-liberalism increasingly devolves, decentralizes and privatizes norm-creating institutions (think lower and higher education, hospitals, insane asylums, the armed forces, jails) citizens lose the scant democratic control they have on the production of normalising knowledge, thereby forfeiting any participation in the production of ontological discourse and abandoning it to the vagrancies of the fee-market.


Ashenden, S. 2010, “Legality, Legitimacy and the Circumstances of Sociology” in Tarnhill and Ashenden, S. Eds., Legality, Legitimacy: Normative and Sociological Approaches, Nomos, Baden Baden

Berlin, I. 1969 Four Essays on Liberty, Oxford University Press

Burchell, M. 199, “Peculiar Interests: Civil Society and Governing the System of “Natural Liberty” in Burchell, M., Gordon, C., Miller, P. Eds., The Foucault Effect, University of Chicago Press, Chicago

Dean, M. 1999, “Normalizing Democracy: Foucault and Habermas on Democracy, Liberalism and Law” in Ashenden, S., Owen, eds. Foucault Contra Habermas, Sage, London

Dunn, J. 1969, The Political Thought of John Locke, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

Foucault, M. 1980 “Two Lectures” in Gordon, C. ed., Power/Knowledge, Harvester Press, Essex

Foucault, M. 1984, “Truth and Power” in Rabinow, P. Ed. The Foucault Reader, Penguin, London

Foucault, M. 1984,What is the Enlightenment” in Rabinow, P. Ed. The Foucault Reader, Penguin, London

Foucault, M. 1991, “Governmentality” in Burchell, M., Gordon, C., Miller, P., The Foucault Effect, University of Chicago Press, Chicago

Hindess, B., 1996, “Liberalism Socialism and Democracy: Variations on a Governmental Theme” in Barry, Osborne, Rose, eds. Foucault and Political Reason, UCL Press, London

Madison, Hamilton, Jay. 1987 The Federalist Papers, Penguin, London

Rawls, J 1993. Political Liberalism. Columbia University press, New York

Rose, N. 1989 Governing the Soul: The Shaping of the Private Self. Free Association Press, London

Sandel, M.  J. 1982, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

Skinner, Q. 2008 Hobbes and Republican Liberty, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

Tuck, R. “Introduction” in Hobbes, T. 1996 Leviathan, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

Tully, J. 1993, An approach to political philosophy: Locke in contexts, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

Tully, J. 1995 Strange Multiplicity: Constitutionalism in an Age of Diversity, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

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Filed under democracy, Democratic Theory, John Locke, Liberty, Michel Foucault, Negative Liberty, Neo-liberalism, political philosophy, political theory, Thomas Hobbes

The Tea Party and Libertarianism: Is Negative Liberty Free?

The Tea

Defining the Tea Party Movement is no easy task. It is a heterogeneous movement formed by a variety of different people with very different backgrounds. It is, however, increasingly consolidating,narrowing down its scope and creating a stable identity for itself. It is undeniably a grassroots movement, born as a reaction to the financial crisis and an unaccountable caste of political representatives, and thriving today thanks to a well coordinated web of blogs, on-line petitions and town hall meetings. It is, above all, a conservative movement. Its main tenets are “Fiscal Responsibility, Limited Government and Free Markets” (teapartypatriots.com). It is a movement disgusted with the way politics is conducted on both sides of the aisle in Washington, angry at government bailouts and bank bonuses, and horrified at the gargantuan size of government. It resents crippling unemployment, it fears immigration and, most importantly, it loathes taxes (Brooks, Von Drehle, 2010).

The Crisis of Liberalism

The Tea Party is not merely a “knee-jerk” reaction to specific problems such as unemployment or an unsustainable federal debt; it is, rather, part of a greater global reaction to the crisis of neo-liberalism. This crisis, I believe, can be divided into three main components: the crisis of financial capitalism, the crisis of representative democracy and a crisis of national identity. These are structural problems unleashed by the forces of liberalization and globalization which traditional centre-left and centre-right governments are simply unable to cope with. The grand liberal narrative of a globalized world nourished by a rational, dynamic and efficient free market cannot come to terms with today’s problems of financial meltdowns, mass immigration, international terrorism and political apathy.

In terms of the crisis of capitalism, there has been no strong response on behalf of 1st world governments. Apart from populist cries for more regulation and a tax increase for the ultra-wealthy, Western governments actually saved the very form of capitalism which created the crisis, giving no sign of change from the Wall Street “business as usual” paradigm. Regarding the crisis of representative democracy, here too no one has come to terms with the alienation of the citizenry from the democratic process. Citizen’s are treated as citizens solely before election dates; and elected representatives, after garnering initial consensus through multi-billion dollar electoral campaigns, become increasingly unaccountable and far removed from the people. Finally, considering the crisis of identity, it is clear that an increasingly globalized world has seriously tested an understanding of the nation based on the homogeneity of cultural, ethnic and religious shared values. Immigration on the one hand and cultural relativism on the other have thus created a feeling of rupture with traditional forms of identitification.

Tea as a Response to Crisis

This (Marxist) analysis of the crisis of liberalism is broadly shared by the Tea Party as well. The Tea Party Movement resents government bailouts, it demands more transparency and accountability on behalf of Capitol Hill (Von Drehle, 2010) and accuses the establishment of having abandoned the sacred principles and values (and thus the very identity) set out by the Founding Fathers and the Founding Documents (Liptak, 2010).

What is the Tea Party Movement’s response to this unprecedented crisis? “Fiscal Responsibility, Limited Government and Free Markets”. In addition to these precepts the Tea Party demands that the political and economic spheres act with honesty, dignity and above all abide by the rules of the Constitution and of the free market.

For the Tea Party, capitalism is in crisis because it has not respected the sacred tenets of the free market. It has also failed because it has behaved immorally by breaking the principle of competition and by seeking government subsidies (Barstow, 2010). The response is thus not more regulation but more economic freedom: free markets failed because they were not free enough.

To the crisis of political representation the Tea Party again invokes a strict adherence to the Constitution and to the Bill of Rights. They demand transparency, a smaller, less intrusive bureaucratic apparatus, accountability, and above all they demand fiscal responsibility on behalf of their representatives (Liptak, 2010). The Tea Party Patriot initiative “Contract From America” (contractfromamerica.com), for example, aims to force representatives closer to their constituents rather than the other way around.

Finally, the Tea Party seeks to identify itself (and this is obvious in the name they chose for themselves) with the tradition of the Founding Fathers. They equate Obama’s government with Great Britain’s Tyranny and attempt to embody the golden days of “Spirit of ’76”. Glen Becks “9-12 Project” urges Americans to read the Federalist Papers, the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence as the only means to restore honour and transparency in politics (the912project.com).

“The answer, therefore, is a smaller government on a very short constitutional leash, with less spending and balanced budgets.” (Von Drehle, 2010)

Behind Common Sense

Presented in this way, the Tea Party seems to merely propose common sense (exactly in Thomas Pain’s sense). Yet there is more than meets the eye in this issue. The tenets of “Fiscal Responsibility, Limited Government and Free Markets” as a response to crisis are exactly the issues which caused the crisis in the first place. Is the present crisis not the consequence of the neo-liberal policies enacted by Reagan and fulfilled by Clinton? Is it not limited government which led to the crisis because of its insistence on de-regulation? Is it not a blind faith in the rationality of the free market that allowed our “irrational exuberance” to grow un-checked?

The drive towards the financialisation of the economy was started by the president who in 1981 stated that “government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem”. The financial meltdown was caused by de-regulation, the repeal of the Glass-Steagle act and similar policies which derive from Reagonomics and which flourished under Clinton. If there is one lesson we have learnt from the recent crisis is that the freer the markets are the more the incentives towards monopoly and fiscal irresponsibility grow. Moreover, Obama’s (and Bush’s) big government, is the consequent response to the failures of capitalism: when the private sector is in crisis the only other possible actor that can restore economic balance is the State -hence the bailouts. The largest instance of government expansion occurred under F.D.R. with the New Deal which was a response to the 1930s Great Depression.

As for the crisis of political representation, I am convinced that a renewed adherence to the precepts of the Constitution is not enough to solve the present democratic deficit. This is not a issue of how to articulate representation, nor is it a question of the measure of accountability or honesty of representatives. Western democracy is in crisis because the representative model is outdated and needs to be reinvigorated through increased citizen participation. A conservative or “originalist” interpretation of the Constitution (Liptak, 2010) cannot account for 21st century issues such as mass immigration or a boom and bust economy, and, above all, it is unfit to mediate amongst a growing plurality of conflicting interests.

This brings us to the question of identity. The crisis of identity is not an issue, as the Tea Party would have it, of abandoning the principles set for us by the Founders. The crisis of identity arises exactly because the Founding principles are being challenged today by new historical contingencies. The “pursuit of happiness” and the binomial “democracy-capitalism” which had historically led to liberty and prosperity are being put to the test today by the rise of new models of governance which defy the American Dream (see the rise of the BRICs). Moreover, what is becoming increasingly clear (especially in the Bush II administrations) is that the U.S. manages to find a sense of identity and community solely in times of war. It seems as if America (and increasingly Europe) can articulate its identity solely through a continuous contrast with the “other”. It is not a coincidence that Glenn Beck’s 9-12 project seeks to recreate the feeling of American unity which emerged the day after 9-11: a confused emotional amalgam of sorrow and yearnings for revenge.

Negative Liberty

However, there is something lurking deeper within the subtext of Tea Party rhetoric. Underlying the Tea Party discourse is one of the U.S. strongest political undercurrents: libertarianism. The belief of the supremacy of the individual over the collective is so strong within the American political unconscious that it must be reckoned with whenever analyzing its social, political and economic spheres. For libertarians government should not decide what is best for the individual, nor should it attempt to coercively redistribute the fruit of the individual’s labour. Libertarian thought is based on the principles of self-ownership and non aggression, and interprets the notion of liberty negatively.

According to Isiah Berlin, in the essay “Two Concepts of Liberty”, negative liberty entails the individual’s right of being “free from” any external form of coercion; as opposed to positive liberty which entails the right of being “free to” participate in the collective sphere. Historically, Berlin argues, positive liberty has embodied the principles of equality and redistribution, and as a consequence has generally led to totalitarian regimes. Negative liberty, on the other hand, makes no claim to social justice; rather, it recognizes that the dangers of redistribution and coercive imposition of equality are far too great, and thus a functioning political order must be strictly limited to the protection of the individual’s inalienable rights of life, liberty, property and the pursuit of happiness.

Therefore, for libertarians, liberty is conceived ex negativo: understood as the absence of interference in an individual’s action. The only legitimate sphere in which consensual relationships between individuals can occur is the free market. There is no need for government (except to maintain order, although authors such as Rothbard contest this as well) nor is there any particular need for democracy, for the mediation of interests occurs entirely within the realm of the free market. In this way, the barrier between the free market and social relations is blurred, as the market embodies not merely the domain of the economic but the very field of the social. Friedrich von Hayek goes as far as asserting that the free market and economic liberty are indispensable preconditions for any kind of civil or political liberty. Economic liberty reduces the risk of tyranny because it does not allow the government to take over crucial dimensions of private life such as health, education or employment (Vernaglione, 2003).


Murray N. Rothbard, the intellectual who created the notion of Anarcho-Capitalism, grounds the principle of self-ownership in a specific understanding of man’s state of nature. This is constituted by single individuals, isolated, non-associated, whom act following instinct, passion and above all personal interest. The human is not a “social animal”; rather, it is a being which makes choices based on the competition for scarce resources. Society and communities arise spontaneously following the association of different interests within the free market. Therefore, for Rothbard no service should be public, attempts at redistribution equate to theft and any form of government is illegitimate and therefore criminal. In this way, self-ownership implies a conception of society completely based on the individual, where the private pursuit of happiness will spontaneously lead to social harmony (Vernaglione, 2003).

There are many benefits accruing from individualism. For libertarians, individual autonomy is the necessary precondition for the possibility of creativity, as it is solely liberty which permits the unconstrained manifestation of individuality and originality. This, in turn, is what allows the individual to bring innovative products to the market and thus increase his/her competitive advantage. Self-ownership ultimately secures the right over private property, and the right to decide what to do with the fruit of one’s labor. The power deriving from private property is absolute, as property creates a sphere of sovereignty which protects the individual from external interferences (Vernaglione, 2003).

Therefore, the individual is free in the most absolute sense, it is effectively liberated from any externality. He/she is more flexible, dynamic, efficient and competitive as the duties of social responsibility and taxation are inexistent. The “free self” becomes the very tool with which to conquer the highest peaks of the economy, ultimately becoming the entrepreneur of him/herself. All hail the advent of the Homo Oeconomicus, risen to restore the invisible hand of the free market from the ailing iron fist of the interventionist welfare state.


In his last lectures at the College De France, Foucault elaborated the notion of governmentality. This marked a shift from his past understanding of the effects power on the subject, in which the subject is conceived merely as a “docile body” on which power inscribes itself. Contrarily, governmentality recognizes the power that the “self” exerts on the subject. In the last years of his life, Foucault attempts to come to terms with the autonomization of the individual proposed by neo-liberalism and libertarianism. He effectively problematizes the notion of a liberated homo oeconomicus, inquiring if the free self is actually free from any form of government (Lemke, 2004).

Foucault states that the advent of neo-liberalism, with its stress on de-regulation, privatization and individual freedom, does not in fact represent the “retreat of the state”, but is simply a re-articulation of a mode of governance. In Neo-Liberalism power is not exerted directly over the individual; rather power is exerted over the rules of behaviour of the individual. In fact, Governmentality refers to the “conduct of conduct”: governing the forms of self-government (Lemke, 2001).

“Governmentality is not a way to force people to do what the governor wants; it is always a versatile equilibrium, with complementarity and conflicts between techniques which ensure coercion and processes through which the self is construed or modified by himself” (Foucault, in Lemke, 2004)

The self is thus rendered autonomous and responsible for himself. Security, health, education, employment and social risks which were previously under public domain are now the responsibility of the individual. For Foucault, the shift of responsibility is actually an instance of control: the individual is not free, but is subordinate to the conditions of capital (Lemke, 2001, 2004). Rose and Miller suggest that “personal autonomy is not the antithesis of political power, but a key term in its exercise, the more so because most individuals are not merely the subjects of power but play a part in its operations” (Miller & Rose, 1991).

How Free is Negative Liberty?
Foucault forces us to ask the questions: are we effectively liberated by neo-liberalism? Is negative liberty actually free? Governmentality attacks the libertarian notion of self-ownership and self-government by demonstrating that what the liberated individual believes to be freedom of choice is in fact constraining him to the logics of the free market. For Foucault, the intervention of the State into the individual sphere is replaced by the intervention of the Free Market into the very construction of the subjectivity. Free market logic has a set of norms, behaviours and presuppositions that are effectively imposed on the individual (Rose, 1999). These are presented to us as objective and empiric truths by the likes of Ayn Rand and the philosophy of Objectivism, and include the understanding of man as an homo oeconomicus, the supremacy of the individual over the collective and the criminalization of wealth redistribution (Vernaglione, 2003).

As individuals are rendered responsible for themselves Foucault suggests that a number of “technologies of the self” intervene to regulate personal behaviour. These include self-esteem, normalization and healthism (Rose, 1999). Barbara Cruikshank points out that the self-esteem movement in the U.S. attempted to shift problems such as crime, urban degradation, alcoholism and prostitution from the sphere of the social to that of the individual: crime is not a problem caused by socio-economic or racial issues; rather, it is a problem of self-government. If individuals conduct themselves correctly there is no need to resort to crime, as crime is ultimately the individual’s fault. Therefore he should exert control over himself: self-control or self-government (Lemke, 2001).

In addition, when the individual becomes “the entrepreneur of him/herself” the Marxian dynamics of worker-employer (and thus of class struggle itself) are rendered obsolete. The worker is no longer dependent on the employer for a wage, for now he/she is a free and autonomous entrepreneur with complete freedom in the economic domain, acquiring the capability to actively engage in the free market with a sense of agency. This entails that all social, economic and political structural preconditions, such as health, inequality, and access to any kind of benefit, are now the complete responsibility of the worker. In this way “Self-determination becomes a key economic resource and a factor of production” (Lemke, 2004).

What is crucial to understand is that for Foucault the worker is not in so much constrained by the inherent contradictions of capital; his is not a full-fledged Marxist critique. For Foucault the “negatively liberated” individual is not free because his world-view is in fact not objective: it is merely another form of power exerted over subjectivity. Nikolas Rose (1999) suggests that in order to create “free individual” and institute the “free market” there is the need to implement a series of intrusive devices (or what Foucault calls technologies of government and of the self) such as censuses, opinion polls, and analysis by a range of experts in law, marketing, finance or education. These are imposed on the individual in any kind of society be it State centred or individualist.

Freedom is not Free

I wish to make it clear that I am not deconstructing libertarianism in order to re-propose the social democratic project or the viability of the welfare state. The point here is to identify and tackle the deepest roots of American Individualism in order to better analyze social movements such as the Tea Party. Widespread discontent for health care reform cannot be explained through realist perspective, for the Tea Party does not have much to lose in the adoption of socialized health care. The Tea Party Movement is against redistribution because of its fierce attachment to libertarian tenets: thus the struggle here is sublimely ideological.

Adopting negative liberty as a world-view is dangerous because it precludes the possibility of difference. If the only legitimate rights are those of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness then the field of possibilities is restricted and thus is not free. Self-determination, self-ownership and the expression of individual creativity are not unrestrained; rather, they are chained to the logics and contradictions of capital. Libertarianism and negative liberty attempt to fence liberty into a confined discursive field which eventually allows the structural conditions of inequality and wealth polarization to be justified. Moreover, the crucial point is that libertarianism forces inequality to be the necessary precondition for freedom. By means of re-structuring society based on the individual, negative liberty is able to equate the condition of subordination to the exercise of freedom.


This is the paramount aspect and contradiction at the heart of the myth of individualism. However, it does not equate to what Marx called the “false consciousness” of the masses: it is not a mere brainwash. The great lesson Foucault teaches us is that power is blind and is not necessarily led by a group of elite. Individualism and autonomy are not devices created by libertarians and conservatives aimed at tricking society into a false sense of freedom. Quite the contrary: individualism and autonomy are values which have also been championed by progressives and lefties throughout history from the American Revolution to the Civil Rights Movement; and this is exactly why the term liberty is so ambiguous and not “objectivist” as Rand, Nozick or Rothbard presuppose.

For this reason it is necessary to reclaim the term “liberty” ridding it of its essentialist and false-objectiveness. A worthy example is proposed by Etienne Balibar, with his notion of “equaliberty”, in which true “autonomy” can be achieved firstly by recognizing the inviolability of natural rights (as libertarianism proposes) and secondly by recognizing the “Reciprocity Clause”: the universal right to politics (and thus to some form of government). For Balibar, autonomy can be achieved solely when subjects are the source and ultimate reference of emancipation for each other, and where emancipation is not confined solely to natural rights (Balibar, 2002).

Conceptualizing liberty, as Isiah Berlin does, as constituted by the dichotomy of the positive and negative obfuscates the fact that liberty is infinitely more ambiguous. Berlin’s brilliant essay nonetheless allows for a restructuring of society completely based on the individual, which accepts poverty, famine and disease as the necessary price for freedom. Moreover, it does not allow us (for fear of totalitarianism) to wean ourselves away from the individualist paradigm, inhibiting the possibility of alternatives. The meaning of liberty, along with the meanings of equality and democracy must never be set in stone. Rather, our responsibility is to ceaselessly dissect and analyse them, forever condemning the legitimization of injustice and exclusion. As Derrida teaches us, deconstruction is justice.


Balibar, E., “Politics and the Other Scene”, Verso, London, 2002

Barstow, D., “The Tea Party Lights Fuse for Rebellion on Right”, 16/02/2010, The New York Times

Berlin, I. (1958) “Two Concepts of Liberty.” In Isaiah Berlin (1969) Four Essays on Liberty, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Brooks, D., “The Wal-Mart Hippies”, 05/03/2010, The New York Times

Goldberg, J., “Reading the Tea Party Leaves” 18/03/2010, The Chicago Tribune

Liptak, A., “Tea-ing Up the Constitution”, 12/03/2010, The New York Times

Lemke, T., “Foucault, Governmentality and Critique”, in: Rethinking Marxism, 14. Jg., No. 3, 2002, S. 49-64.

Lemke, T., “The Birth of Bio-Politics: Michel Foucault’s Lecture at the Collège de France on Neo-Liberal Governmentality”, in: Economy & Society, Vol. 30, No. 2, 2001, pp. 190- 207.

Miller, P. & Rose, N., “Political Power Beyond the State: problematics of government”, in: British Journal of Sociology, 1992, 43, 2, 172-205

Rose, N., “Powers of Freedom: refraiming political thought”, 1999, Cambridge University Press

Vernaglione,P., “Il Libertarismo: la teoria, gli autori, le politiche”, Rubbettino Editore Srl, Soveria Mannelli, Italy, 2003

Von Drehle, D., “Why the Tea Party Movement Matters”, 18/02/2010, Time Magazine

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Filed under Libertarianism, Liberty, Neo-liberalism, Tea Party