Foucault and the Unravelling of Liberalism

by Kevin Le Merle

Michel Foucault’s work has served to undermine the liberal Canon by calling into question the way we understand the Enlightenment legacy that props it up. By seeing the Enlightenment as a continuation of previous historical trends, rather than a break in favour of the increased power of hegemonic Reason, Foucault effectively cast a new and unfavourable light on liberalism. He invited his readership to understand history in terms of a plurality of rationalities (or discourses) rather than accept the liberal myth of individual Reason. Since Foucault believed that “[l]iberation can come only from attacking […] political rationality’s very roots,”[1] his work on rationalities of power attempted to undo liberal conceptions at every turn, threatening liberalism’s theoretical integrity. Despite this, however, I argue that Foucault’s lack of framework for normative judgements, as well as the narrative stretches that he inflicts upon historical material, lessen the threat that his work poses to liberalism. 

Across the board, liberalism has become defined by its understanding of the individual as a rational creature. Despite recognising the limits of that rationality (especially when considering the work of Friedrich Hayek), liberalism’s quest to increase individual freedom consistently passes through an understanding of the individual as driven by their capacity for reason.[ii] In the liberal tradition, the nature of Reason does not vary from one individual to the next, or from one institution to the next; it is monolithic and hegemonic.[iii] It unites liberal thinkers under the shared banner of the Enlightenment’s legacy. The Enlightenment becomes perceived as the seminal moment when Reason was finally enshrined as the driving principle in institutional design, policy design, and government. 

Foucault’s work sought to destabilise this. He refused to perceive the Enlightenment as a break and instead underlined the continuity in pre- and post-Enlightenment governance, which was often driven by the same rationalities of power. First, Foucault considered the prevalence of the “pastoral” model in ancient civilizations. As Foucault argued, the relationship between shepherd and flock that existed in such pastoral models strongly resembled the contemporary relationship between ruler and ruled.[iv] This model was later reinforced and imbued with new meaning by Christian civilization, thus revealing its contemporary relevance.[v] While this model was taken up by Greek and Roman civilizations in the domain of education, they relied on the city-citizen paradigm when it came to governing. The concept of city-citizen rationality remains significant today when thinking about the rights and duties that we all share.[vi] Second, Foucault corrected some historical inaccuracies in interpretations of Machiavelli, pointing out that the technology of power of “reasons of state” (that seeks to strengthen the power of the state itself), began after Machiavelli’s time.[vii] Finally, Foucault’s explanation of the concept of “police” rationality emphasized that “the state is both individualizing and totalitarian”.[viii] The effect of these last two modalities of power that Foucault looked at pointed to an inherent flaw in the liberal model; namely, that it paradoxically enslaves through individualisation. By drawing out the implications of these various rationalities, Foucault showed his readership how obsolete the liberal paradigm had become; the lasting relevance of previous rationalities trumping the idea that hegemonic Reason is the guiding and unifying principle for understanding government and the individual. 

This attack on Reason by Foucault constituted an attack of the bedrock of liberalism. Through his fragmentation of singular Reason (‘singulatim’) into plural rationalities (‘omnes’), Foucault violated the theoretical integrity of liberalism. Moreover, he charged liberalism with having created demonic societies, writing that “[o]ur societies proved to be really demonic since they happened to combine those two games – the city-citizen game and the shepherd-flock game – in what we call the modern states.”[ix] Such normative claims made by Foucault served to further unhinge liberalism, effectively eroding its perceived moral superiority. 

However, it appears unclear what criteria Foucault employed in forming his normative claims regarding the alleged demonism of liberalism (and thus, whether they can be considered warranted).[x] When he states that liberal societies are “demonic”, he clearly makes a value judgement without having first established the criteria he uses to differentiate good from bad.[xi] In Nancy Fraser’s words: “Foucault’s work ends up, in effect, inviting questions it is structurally unequipped to answer”, thereby rendering it a philosophy of “normative confusions”.[xii] Indeed, Foucault sought to explain power regimes as natural phenomena, which directly contradicted his use of the term “demonic”.[xiii] His bias becomes apparent in limited but telling instances, such as when he appears to stray from his decision to disregard the legitimacy and illegitimacy of different power-structures.[xiv] As such, “Foucault’s account of power in modern societies is anything but neutral and unengaged”.[xv] This in itself would not be a problem if he had made the criteria for his value-judgements readily available. Instead, Foucault sought to enshrine his ‘genealogy’ (an a-historical method of investigation), as a neutral method, thereby creating a sense of incoherence within the corpus of his works.[xvi] It appears that he compromised his “normatively neutral stance” on power (although this stance was seminal in justifying the Foucauldian method of genealogical investigation).[xvii] His discourse undermined itself, weakening the threat it would have otherwise posed to liberal institutions. 

Foucault’s historical method has also been called into question by prominent academics like Mark Poster, Jürgen Habermas, and James Henretta,[xviii] who argue that Foucault stretched the historical medium to incredible lengths to come to his conclusions about rationalities of government. Grouping the historical material the way that he did has been criticised as having blatantly disregarded the specificities of historical contexts. This has notably been referred to by James Henretta as a “dismissal of the intrinsic value of the discipline of history”.[xix] In this way, Foucault can be considered a threat to the historical discipline, given his quest to find transhistorical patterns rather than understand periods within a given context. For instance, reading the ancient dynamics of the city-citizen game and the shepherd-flock game in our modern context arguably goes against the ‘truth-finding’ mission of historians. This is because it both develops an anti-historical relativism which focuses on the use of historical narratives, and partly dissociates tangible material data from the practice of historical investigation.[xx] In a sense, Foucault created discursively powerful texts, however, because he failed to anchor his historical methodology in disciplinarily-appropriate empirical data, his influence over the reality of liberal institutions remains limited. It is therefore unsurprising that the Foucault-Habermas debate revealed that there were gaps in Foucault’s empirical method, and that his normative claims were unfounded.[xxi] I argue that this two-pronged criticism of Foucault’s work attenuates his overall criticism of liberalism. 

Granted, one could contend that hegemonic Reason is not as central to liberalism as I have claimed; that liberalism is instead primarily concerned with the individual’s freedom. It might be argued here that Foucault’s work only explores concepts that are dear to the liberal tradition: power, state, and reason, and that, in a sense, Foucault’s work enhances the individual’s freedom within liberal society by increasing their critical capacity. Indeed, itt would be interesting to explore to what extent Foucault’s work could be understood as liberating the individual by giving them knowledge of the operative rationalities of liberalism, and how this ties back to liberalism’s mission to increase individual freedom.However, this line of argument adopts a very loose definition of liberalism’s core mission—as one concerned with the liberation of the individual in a very vague sense—and it is not one that I therefore consider to be overall convincing. 

In conclusion, Foucault’s break away from previous historical understandings of the Enlightenment effectively called into question liberalism’s core unifying principle: the individual’s capacity for reason. He fragmented political rationality into different streams: the pastoral model, the city-citizen model, the reasons of state model, and the police model.[xxii] In doing so, Foucault split hegemonic Reason apart and threatened the theoretical integrity of liberalism. Foucault also made normative claims about liberal societies being “demonic” in order to excoriate liberalism’s standpoint of moral superiority. It is for these reasons that Foucault’s work can be considered toxic for liberalism. However, as I have argued, Foucault’s normative claims were not grounded in a clear normative framework that would have provided discernible criteria for their formation; they stand on quicksand. It is in this sense that his normative claims regarding the demonism of liberal societies failed to threaten liberalism in any meaningful way. Moreover, the way Foucault disregarded the specificity of the historical contexts he used to build his narrative of plural rationalities attenuates their blow to liberalism’s core principle. 

It is undeniable that Foucault’s discourse had a profound impact in academic and cultural circles; however, because of his relation to the concepts of hegemonic Reason and truth, it appears that this impact did not extend to institutional design. Despite his analysis of carceral systems, for instance, French prisons still operate in largely the same repressive manner that they did before Foucault’s lifetime. Similarly, Jürgen Habermas has asserted that the democratic decision-making processes central to maintaining the institution of liberal societies have in general not radically evolved in recent decades.[xxiii] Perhaps Foucault’s impact will take on a more material importance in institutional design as his canonical work is instrumentalised by other scholars—Shelley Tremain, for instance—but this has yet to be seen.[xxiv]

Kevin Le Merle is a final year philosophy and politics student and has published undergraduate research on topics ranging from popular philosophy to climate ethics. He is seeking to pursue a career in European Diplomacy and to promote ethical decision-making practices.


[i]   Michel Foucault, “‘Omnes et Singulatim’: Toward a Critique of Political Reason,” in Power: The Essential Works of Michel Foucault 1954–1984 [1952], ed. James D. Faubion, vol. 3 (Reprint, New York: New Press, 2000), 325.

[ii]   Friedrich Hayek, The Collected Works of F.A. Hayek, ed. W.W. Bartley, III (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988).

[iii]   Gilles Deleuze, Foucault (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1988), 67.

[iv]   Deleuze, Foucault, 300-313.

[v]    Deleuze, Foucault, 301-312.

[vi]   Deleuze, Foucault, 307.

[vii] Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince [1998]2nd ed., trans. Harvey C. Mansfield. (Chicago, IL: Chicago University Press, 2010), 6.

[viii] Machiavelli, The Prince, 325.

[ix]   Machiavelli, The Prince, 311.

[x]    Didier Eribon, Michel Foucault (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991), 112.

[xi]   Nancy Fraser, “Foucault on Modern Power: Empirical Insights and Normative Confusions,” in Unruly Practices: Power, Discourse, and Gender in Contemporary Social Theory by Nancy Fraser (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989), 17.

[xii] Fraser, “Foucault on Modern Power,” 27.

[xiii] Fraser, “Foucault on Modern Power,” 25.

[xiv] Fraser, “Foucault on Modern Power,” 19. 

[xv]   Fraser, “Foucault on Modern Power,” 28. 

[xvi] Fraser, “Foucault on Modern Power,” 19. 

[xvii] Fraser, “Foucault on Modern Power,” 29.

[xviii] Allan Megill, “Foucault, Structuralism, and the Ends of History,” Journal of Modern History 51, no. 3 (1979), 451-503.

[xix] James Henretta, “Social History as Lived and Written,” American Historical Review 84, no. 5 (1979), 1299. 

[xx]   Mark Poster, “Foucault and History,” Social Research 49, no. 1 (1982), 119.

[xxi] Michael Kelly, Critique and Power: Recasting the Foucault/Habermas Debate (Cambridge, Massachusetts, MIT Press, 1994). 

[xxii] Barry Smart, Michel Foucault (London: Routledge, 2002), 23.

[xxiii] Jürgen Habermas, “Taking Aim at the Heart of the Present,” in Foucault: A critical reader, ed. David C. Hoy (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986), 112.

[xxiv] Kurt Borg, “Foucault and feminist philosophy of disability,” Disability & Society 35, no. 7 (2020): 1197-1199.


Borg, Kurt. “Foucault and feminist philosophy of disability.” Disability & Society 35, no. 7 (2020): 1197-1199. 

Deleuze, GillesFoucault. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1988.

Eribon, DidierMichel Foucault. [1989]. Translated by Betsy Wing. Reprint, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991.

Foucault, Michel. “”Omnes et Singulatim: Toward a Critique of Political Reason.” In Power. The Essential Works of Michel Foucault 1954–1984, [1952], edited by James D. Faubion, 298-325. Volume 3. New York, NY: New Press, 2000.

Habermas, Jürgen. “Taking Aim at the Heart of the Present.” In Foucault: A critical reader, edited by David C. Hoy. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986.

Hayek, Friedrich. The Collected Works of F.A. Hayek, edited by W.W. Bartley, III. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Henretta, James. “Social History as Lived and Written.” American Historical Review 84, no. 5 (1979): 1293-1322. 

Kelly, Michael. Critique and Power: Recasting the Foucault/Habermas Debate. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994.

Machiavelli, Niccolò. The Prince. (1998). 2nd ed. Translated by Harvey C. Mansfield. Reprint, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2010.

Megill, Allan. “Foucault, Structuralism, and the Ends of History.” Journal of Modern History 51, no. 3 (1979): 451-503.

Nancy Fraser, “Foucault on Modern Power: Empirical Insights and Normative Confusions.” In Unruly Practices: Power, Discourse, and Gender in Contemporary Social Theory, by Nancy Fraser. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989.

Poster, Mark. “Foucault and History.” Social Research 49, no. 1 (1982): 116-142. 

Smart, Barry. Michel Foucault. London: Routledge, 2002. 

Featured image ‘herd and shepherd’ by Hanna Vaknin via Flickr.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s