Michel Foucault (via Getty Images)

The enduring legacy of Michel Foucault

How the French philosopher founded today’s social justice movement

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Occasionally, throughout history, there has existed a single individual who has a profound impact on the way society thinks, speaks and understands itself. In the West, the most influential thinker of all time is probably St Augustine of Hippo, bringing together, as he did, Christianity with Ancient Greek philosophy. More than that, his thought was sufficiently flexible to adapt with the times and changing social mores to remain ever relevant. If I were now to ask any stranger on a Western street a few select questions, I would almost certainly detect the influence of Augustine. And yet, if I asked them if they’d ever read Augustine, they would probably tell me they had not.

Other individuals who have significantly influenced the way society thinks and speaks range from William Shakespeare to Karl Marx and their influence is widely acknowledged. The influence of the postmodernists, probably largely due to their incomprehensibility, is not so widely recognized. But for those of us who are concerned about this, that Michel Foucault is in fact by far the most cited scholar to date comes as no surprise.

Conventional wisdom has it that postmodernism is dead. It is true that the first burst of highly prolific postmodern writing burnt itself out by the end of the 1980s: but the idea that postmodernism died is simply false. A second wave of postmodernism emerged at the end of the 1980s – one that made it more intelligible and actionable. Postcolonial theory, queer theory, critical race theory, intersectional feminism all gained prominence at this time. They drew explicitly from postmodernist ideas and the go-to philosopher of choice was Michel Foucault.

Attacks on science hail from strands of feminism, anti-racism, postcolonialism and trans activism

The three most abiding Foucauldian concepts are Power/Knowledge, Discourses and Biopower. For Foucault, knowledge was not an accurate understanding of an objective reality, but something humans constructed in the service of power. Therefore, what is understood by society as knowledge is really just an exercise of power. It is power/knowledge. This power-knowledge is both constructed and perpetuated by ways of talking about things – that is by discourses. Something becomes legitimised as knowledge from the way it is spoken about and this is applicable across all levels of society. Chief among these legitimising discourses is science. Western societies largely accept the findings of science as the most authoritative source of knowledge and this, to Foucault, was evidence that it was power-knowledge. He called this particular type of power-knowledge “bio-power.”

It should be clear to anyone who has ever encountered “Social Justice” scholarship or activism that the idea that knowledge is a social construct, that it is perpetuated in language to facilitate power, has persisted. It is unlikely that many people not living in a cave would have failed to notice the attacks on science in the names of feminism, anti-racism, postcolonialism and trans activism.

These ideas have not gone away because they have been refined and strengthened and made user-friendly for activists within certain disciplines in the academy. From postcolonial theory, we get the claim that everything needs to be decolonised. This is not limited to tearing down of statues or decolonising the curriculum; it also includes the highly racist claim that science and reason themselves are both white and Western and “other ways of knowing” (including witchcraft and religion) belong to everybody else. This vast field of study is widely held to have originated with Edward Said, a Foucauldian.

From queer theory, we get the claim that “male” and “female,” “masculine” and “feminine” and “heterosexual” and “homosexual” are cultural constructs built to protect the power of the male, the masculine and the heterosexual. The idea that we are actually a binary sexually reproductive species with many outliers cannot be considered. This field is largely accepted to have been founded by three Foucauldian lieutenants: Gayle Rubin, Judith Butler and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick.

Foucault’s influence on the woke attitudes pervading our society is profound

Critical race theory and the intersectional feminism which stemmed from it has been heavily (and ironically) influenced by the white, male postmodern movement. The very concept of intersectionality according to its originator, Kimberlé Crenshaw, is “contemporary politics linked to postmodern theory.” Although critical race theory emerged within humanist and Marxist contexts, it has become increasingly Foucauldian with its intense focus on invisible systems of power which reinforce white supremacy through language. “Integral to the understanding of how discourse works,” Social justice educator Barbara Applebaum informs us, “is the Foucauldian notion of power.”

Perhaps the most directly dangerous manifestation of Foucauldian ideas is that found within the lesser-known fields of disability studies and fat studies. Here, even more so than in queer theory, is the concept of biopower made clear, as well as a corresponding rejection of science as an oppressive discourse rooted in ableism and fatphobia. In these fields, disability and obesity themselves are understood to be social constructs. We only see it as preferable if all of a person’s body work sand they maintain a healthy weight because we have been socialised to do so. It becomes a moral imperative and a sincere form of political activism to reject the advice of medical science and embrace disability and obesity.

Although many people may not have read or even come across Michel Foucault, his influence on the woke attitudes pervading our society is profound. If we don’t want Foucault to become another Augustine and direct Western civilization for many years to come, we need to be able to recognise his ideas when we see them and counter them effectively.

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