Sunday, June 25, 2017

Was the CIA Correct that French Philosophy Sold Out to Capitalism?

I am above all else a student of Michel Foucault, a prominent French intellectual of the late twentieth century. Recently, a CIA Directorate of Intelligence report on French philosophy in the 1980s was de-classified:
CIA Directorate of Intelligence (1985). France: Defection of the Leftist Intellectuals Sanitized Copy Approved for Release 2011/05/13 : CIA-RDP86S00588R000300380001-5. Available
This report is being discussed widely across the electronic public sphere with one of the best reviews of the report here:
Gabriel Rockhill. (February 28, 2017) The CIA Reads French Theory: On the Intellectual Labor of Dismantling the Cultural Left. The Philosophical Salon (Los Angeles Review of Books),
I think Rockhill’s review is particularly nuanced. He points out the critically important point that CIA believes intellectuals do have social influence and that their ideas matter, having the capacity to shape public opinion and policy. Even more to the point, Rockhill observes:
“The intelligence agency understands culture and theory to be crucial weapons in the overall arsenal it deploys to perpetuate US interests around the world.”
Rockhills explains that this belief in the power of the intellectual made the CIA very hostile to leftist academics, particularly Marxists, who promoted radical social change, while being very supportive of right-lining academics, who declared that liberalism had delivered the END OF HISTORY.

In my opinion, the CIA clearly had difficulty understanding the implications of the French philosophy of the 1980s. The CIA interpreted disillusionment with the Soviet experiment as a victory for the philosophy and policies of liberal democratic capitalism.
There is no doubt that disenchantment with a particular kind of Marxism drove new ways of thinking about power and social transformation. Soviet totalitarianism made it clear that there are no guarantees that revolution – even revolution guided by aspirational purposes – will deliver promised progress.

Michel Foucault’s work was particularly important in re-thinking power in ways that grappled with this recognition that “cutting off the King’s head” does not deliver utopia.

I always think of Foucault’s work as a blend of ideas from Karl Marx, Max Weber, and Existential Phenomenology (e.g., Jean Paul Sartre, Martin Heidegger, etc.).

Marxist ideas about economic exploitation inform Foucault’s theorizing. In my readings of Discipline and Punish and the History of Sexuality, Foucault provides very detailed analyses of the disciplining, for the purposes of economic exploitation, of human bodies in various settings, including prisons, schools, and factories.

Marxist political economy informs Foucault’s analyses of institutional power’s disciplining of human bodies with the intent to exploit their vitalities. This idea is illustrated in the film the Matrix has human bodies are ultimately batteries for machines:

However, Foucault goes beyond Marxist political economy in a couple of important ways. First, he incorporates and extends ideas about bureaucratization drawn, I must conclude, from Max Weber’s work and the latter J. P. Sartre (The Critique of Dialectical Reasons).

Weber and Sartre both showed how anonymized institutions rigidify and become totalitarian, as illustrated in movies such as the Brazil and the first couple of installments of The Cube. Here is an excerpt from Brazil on the recursive logic of bureacuracy:

Foucault adopts this disenchantment with modernity in his analyses of how institutions objectify and subjectify body and mind, warning us that any project- left or right – has the capacity to become totalitarian as its operations ossify and centralize. Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World echo these warnings in their divergent dystopias, as well.

Foucault’s second major contribution concerns the circulation of power and its operations on bodies through inculcated habits, such as the confessional. Foucault looks at how heterogeneous apparatuses of power – economic and cultural - operate on individual bodies, often in ways that are experienced as oppressive and/or marginalizing because of their hierarchical and normalizing tendencies.

Foucault’s work on the confessional is particularly instructive for those who are interested in studying how the fear of constant surveillance leads to self-surveillance and self-censorship:

Foucault’s third major contribution was his analysis of the social constitution of expert knowledge, protocols, and interventions – such as science and medicine- that took individual bodies and entire populations as their research targets.

Joseph Moreno’s work on secret experimentation by the state upon individuals and larger communities illustrates what I refer to as “sovereign” biopolitics, a kind of biopolitics that knowingly allows hazards to populations designated as disposable.

There are some who say that Foucault’s focus on the dispersed and yet individualized operations of power in western society constitutes a betrayal of the idea of positive social change through collective action.

I would disagree. Foucault’s analyses of power were a warning and a tool. They represent a warning that power is everywhere but also organized into apparatuses composed of ideas, protocols, and habits that have the capacity to exploit, as well as the capacity to enable.

It is up to us to use deploy his tool kit to study how power operates upon us as individuals and as populations so that we can make more nuanced decisions about which apparatuses we want to promote, enact or resist.

Foucault’s philosophy is more radical than the CIA can image because it deconstructs the assumptions of western liberal democratic capitalism and offers no utopian panacea.

Yet, that doesn't mean that Foucault, or those who follow his governmentality approach from more radical perspectives, believe that all apparatuses are equal. Some apparatuses are foster life better than others.

It is into this space that I inject my academic research and blog: critically interrogating the biopolitical implications of society’s apparatuses....


  1. I looked into Sartre, Heidegger, Hegel, and later on Foucault and other French postmodernists . . . but I did not find much in their writings that inspired me. And in some cases the writings verged on un-intelligibility. I started several of Foucault's anticipating something very interesting but did not find it. Instead of Hegel the German students of the 19th century ought to have attended Schopenhauer's lectures. Schopenhauer was a truly brilliant thinker. Hegel really does not say much; and I am always surprised by people who think he has a lot to say. I think he had a rather inflated vision of himself--the end of philosophy.
    Well, to each his or her taste. Postmodernism is itself very vulnerable to postmodernism.

  2. Foucault was an atheist. I find these sorts of person carry a perhaps hidden arrogance as they have faith in what they shall never be able to prove, or if they are right never know. Sometimes they are in a perpetual war with life. Though he no doubt had a penetrating intellect he seems rather illogical and foggy . . . to me at least. Anyway these highly intellectual creations seem to have no practical use in life and are like elaborate games (Magister Ludi). Compared with Plato or Spinoza he seems foolish. I believe these French philosophers have had a very negative effect on academia; and look at France now. I suspect at some point the European nations will snap and start executing Muslims. Initially an underground will emerge and receive clandestine help from the police and military. What we have now is a kind of psychodrama recreating the Nazi occupation. Still I will believe Foucault had some thing valuable for people--just no time to look for it myself.

    1. What negative effect in particular William?

      I would disagree with you on that point but do agree that we are in a period of genocidal politics.

    2. Pushing relativism but in a way that demands it be accepted absolutely. I can not imagine being a student at this time. I have to feel some admiration for a philosopher, writer, artist in order to go very far into their works. Foucault does not strike me as an admirable man. I guess most of the postmodernists are urbanites. Compare Joseph Conrad or even Camus with Sartre. I very much like the classics. I do not feel like a victim or oppressed. I admire Solzhenitsyn for example and Victor Frankl. I might sympathize with those that are caught in the trap of whining and complaining; but I would not encourage them to make a career of that behavior. However, the constant flood of antisexism, antiracism, Islamophobia, antiSemitism becomes very boring and meaningless. My impression of the modern American university is of a place filled with weak people. People hiding behind slogans and Political Correctness. People obsessed with violence. Envious people and spiteful people wanting to tear things down because they could not do such things. Somehow the last fifty years has managed to infantalize young people and even their teachers . . . what a mess. To me it all comes down to some kind of nasty politics similar to some of the bizarre 19th century movements. Dostoevsky's the Devils for example. I find Marx of little interest or value. And are not the postmodernists mostly neo-Marxists? I must admit the whole subject is so depressing as to repel attention.

  3. Here is an excellent critique of Postmodernism: Jordan Peterson | Post-Modernism vs. Modernism at the Toronto Action Forum

    1. The forum is on "Free speech and fiscal responsibility"?

      I think academics would love to have as much influence as this guy thinks we have.

    2. "I am above all else a student of Michel Foucault". . . I think you would find Professor Jordan Petersen more interesting. He is presumably the "this guy" of your comment. Then there is Roger Scruton, an English philosopher. Personally I am a traditionalist, I suppose, and a classical liberal. I could never have voted for Hillary as she is primarily a criminal or gangster, hence, an authoritarian. Yet most academics seem to have preferred her which I assume has something to do with the postmodernist influence? Philosophically the East is ahead of the West having thoroughly explored the subjective aspect of human nature millennia ago. The intellect is useful but limited. Reason is a good servant but a bad master. One either accepts some kind of transcendence or wanders aimlessly and despairingly in the intellectual and instinctive areas. Better a traditional Catholic for example than an atheist intellectual teaching at an American university. But that is my conclusion, and of course there are many opinions ranged against it. Oh, actually academics have more influence than they realize, but I suppose it is mostly hidden. Someone has put the absurd ideas I come across in people and their almost complete lack of thinking ability.

  4. I feel we live in a world where many illusions, and delusions have been ripped apart by Fukushima.
    It seems there is no going back to the old. People who are serious about their survival and sanity should think twice or more. It seems, to look toward the future, very new and paradigms might be in order.