Tuesday, September 22, 2009
Foucault, Kristol, and the Arts of Government
He believed that government programs that were not paternalistic, but merely provided social insurance, would “engender larger loyalties,” which is “precisely what the art of government, properly understood, is all about.” David Brooks, Three Cheers for Irving.
I know relatively little about the late Irving Kristol's political thought, other than the intriguing fact that like the founder of the JSP program, Philip Selznick, he began political life as a participant in the Trotskyist (anti-Stalin but Marxist) wing of the labor movement and then moved to the right (Selznick remains well to the left of Kristol's last known political coordinates). But this phrase from David Brooks' celebration in this morning's NYTimes, of the longstanding intellectual dean of the modern neo-conservative movement caught my eye . Two quick thoughts.
First, it echoes almost exactly Michel Foucault's little known late turn to what he thought of as "liberalism" but which we might think of as "neo-liberalism" or even just conservativism. Having self identified as a Maoist for at least a few weeks in '68, and strongly supported Francois Mitterand's Socialist Party in the 1970s, Foucault in the last year's of his life criticized Mitterand's socialist government for lacking "an art of government" (quoted in Mike Gane and Terry Johnson, Foucault's New Domains (Sage 1993). In his writings and interviews of these years, Foucault suggested that liberalism was the political philosophy most faithful to the problem of governing as an art.
Second, it made me wonder what the Kristol of the 1960s (before he had himself abandoned liberalism) might have said about our current health care debate. Is Obamacare a version of "social insurance" that encourages "larger loyalties" in the wonderful phrase from Kristol quoted by Brooks? Or, is it the kind of "paternalism" that cannot take root in America's highly conservative (read individualist) culture? One thing is for sure. The modern Republican Party that Kristol did so much to stock with intellectual protein has largely abandoned serious reflection on the arts of government and Obama has at least expressly embraced precisely this kind of reflection (whether his product is worthy of that promise is open to question).
TrackBack URL for this entry:
Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Foucault, Kristol, and the Arts of Government:
Well, Obama has said that he embraces serious reflection on the arts of government. But reflection divorced from action isn't particularly praiseworthy, and in delegating the task of designing the legislation to Congress, it's hard to make a case that he has put this expressed commitment into practice. After a while a failure to translate reflection into action raises questions about how sincere the embrace of 'seriousness reflection' is.
Posted by: John Henry | Sep 23, 2009 10:11:37 AM
I question your comment that the modern GOP has abandoned serious reflection on the arts of government, and in fact, the fierceness of the healthcare debate shows that they, like Obama, both understand the implications of the Kristol quote about encouraging loyalties.
The healthcare debate is not, for either side, truly about providing health benefits. It is about permanently changing the relationship between the federal government and its citizens. It is about making the Democrats permanently the party of helping every citizen, and making the GOP not only the party that wants to take away benefits, but the party that fought giving them to you. For example, Clinton's "Mediscare" ads didn't just say the mean GOP would cut benefits; they reminded voters that Bob Dole had voted against Medicare back in 1965. Similarly, in the rest of the world, the "right" parties are more left than ours, and are intermittent caretakers and managers of the left's creations.
Obama wants health care because he wants that. Some in the GOP oppose it for the same reason. Regardless of what side you're on, and whether you see that change as a good thing or a bad thing, it's what's at play.
The GOP may be playing defense against the "art" that Kristol described, rather than using it in an affirmative way, but that does not mean that they don't understand it.
Posted by: anonner | Sep 23, 2009 2:52:46 PM
The comments to this entry are closed.