The Foucault IllusionJun/23/2016
The Foucault Illusion
In Italy, we often use the Latin expression errare humanum est, perseverare diabolicum, “to err is human; to persist is diabolical.” The diabolicalness I am going to discuss belongs to the West, that is, to those nations of Christian and Jewish origin that declare themselves to be democratic and liberal. And by this I mean all of the West: right and left, atheist and religious, educated and uneducated.
The West’s diabolical persistence lies in its belief not only that its own liberal-social-democratic system represents the best path for everyone, but that all nations, once liberated from secular or confessional dictatorships, would tend, naturally and spontaneously, towards secular liberalism and democracy.
The error (maybe not yet diabolical) manifested itself with the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Already famous and having publicly declared his support of the Islamic Revolution, Michel Foucault bore the main brunt of this. However, Foucault’s infatuation for Khomeini was at the time shared by most European intellectuals and politicians, including myself. For us, the Shah of Persia, Reza Pahlavi, was a despot and a torturer, and party to American imperialism. We interpreted the insurrection in Iran according to the model to which we had thus far been accustomed, that of the 1789 French Revolution, October 1917, etc., and other such epic events. Khomeini’s promise to govern Iran in strict adherence with the commands of the Koran was taken seriously neither by Foucault nor by us leftists. Khomeini was perceived as an eccentric who would quickly be supplanted by a shift in direction towards democracy or socialism. It didn’t take much, however, to recognise that the Ayatollah meant business, and that Iran was situating itself within a new political space, incommensurable with the one to which had thus far been familiar, ‘Right versus Left’. A space in which “fundamentalist religious” forces stood in opposition with “secular nationalist” ones. On the one hand there are the Islamists, radical or moderate to varying degrees and, on the other, Mubarak or Gaddafi. In addition to this alternative, moreover, there is a planetary Islamic civil war, particularly between Sunnis and Shiites. Besides some exceptions, such as the secular Tunisia of Nidaa Tounes, these seem, to me, to be the current main political alternatives in the Muslim world as it presently stands.
This Western blindness was, for that matter, not restricted to us left-leaning know-it-alls. When, during the 1979 Revolution, the American President Carter asked the CIA everything it knew about Islamic fundamentalism in Iran, the CIA responded: “we don’t know anything”. Instead, it had devoted itself to monitoring Iranian communists (Tudé).
The replacement of a nationalist despot backed by the army with an essentially inflexible Islamic regime is a process that continues to this day. And throughout this course of events, the West has continued to get it wrong, persisting in what I would call the Foucault Illusion.
President Bush Jr too fell prey to the illusion when, without any plausible motive, he declared war against Saddam Hussein in 2003. As far as Bush was concerned: once Saddam had been ousted, and the conditions for a democratic elective system put in place in Iraq, and with the help of the paternal vigilance of the American snipers, Iraq would enjoy the same transition undergone in post-1945 Germany, Italy and Japan: the Iraqis would happily go off to the ballot boxes, some voting for the left, some for the right. The result, in any case, would be a pro-American government, because all pluralist democracies are philo-American. In fact, elections did take place in Iraq not long after, but the parties belonged neither to the right nor the left: there was the Sunni party, the Shiite party, and the Kurdish party. In Iraq, as in most of the countries in the region, what matter are ethnic-religious affinities, not doctrines on the developments of capitalism.
Nowadays, Iraq no longer exists, and the dream of reinstating it harboured by many politicians seems to me to be anachronistic. The spontaneous progression towards democracy and liberalism on which Blair and Bush had been counting failed to come about. What did come about, instead, was DAESH (Islamic State), which is now as vast as Great Britain.
The French, who had wisely criticised the 2003 intervention in Iraq, themselves proceeded to fall prey to the Grande Illusion in 2011, when certain Libyan ethnic groups rebelled against Colonel Gaddafi. They stuck to the same model: once the Libyans had been assisted in getting rid of that grotesque tyrant, they would, so it was believed, establish a democratic system, also out of gratitude to their “liberators”. We know what happened next: a conflict between a myriad of tribes and heterogeneous sects led Libya towards a so-called “Somalisation".
Hardly any Western military interventions in Asia and Africa have resulted in the establishment of a liberal democracy: in neither Vietnam, Libya, Somalia, Afghanistan, nor Iraq.
A not altogether dissimilar course of events took place in Egypt, where the Arab Spring had brought the Muslim Brotherhood to power. General Fattah el-Sisi proceeded to reinstate the previous military despotism, with the implicit approval of the West: better a dictator who collaborates with Western democracies than a democracy that fights against them.
At the beginning of the Syrian Civil War in 2011, Western governments were incited on many fronts to arm the rebels against the despot Bashar al-Assad. Proponents of this course of action insisted that the rebels were democratic and secular individuals. However, the Syrian Civil War does not follow a Western logic: it is a war between Shiites and Alawites (pro-Assad) on the one hand, and Sunnis on the other. The latter, opposing the preponderance of the Shiites, founded DAESH. Why, after over 35 years, does the West continue to fall for the Foucault Illusion?
And why does it persist in mistakenly believing that economic sanctions against a country will bring down its despot? Generally speaking, sanctions starve out the people being tyrannised, certainly not the tyrant himself, who continues to live in luxury. The USA’s longstanding embargo against Cuba merely perpetuated and reinforced Castro’s regime; there can be no doubt about this. (Indeed, one might wonder whether the American administrations were not really targeted at keeping a bogeyman Fidelist close to home). And who truly believes that the economic sanctions against Russia will ever convince Putin to hand Crimea back to Ukraine? The sanctions provide the despot with a robust alibi: “Things are going badly for us because of the unjust sanctions.” This repetition of the sanction ritual is based on a philosophy that permeates Western politics: “in the end, in politics, the deciding factor, the real atomic bomb, is inflicting poverty.” Economy is extremely important, without a doubt, but there are other things that matter too: national pride, religious membership, love of the Leader, sexual customs, etc.
Nowadays, an anti-Islamic movement, considered as far-right, is prospering in Europe, from Marine Le Pen in France to Pegida in Germany. This anti-Islamism even numbers among its advocates certain refined intellectuals, whose thinking could be summed up thus: “It is naïve to condemn Islamic fundamentalism alone, counting on the democratic loyalty of more moderate Muslims. Islam is dangerous in itself, not because of the Koranic doctrine as such [of which, incidentally, we are ignorant] but because, historically, Islam is still at the stage the Christian world in the Middle Ages. The jihad is tantamount to the Crusades. The former burns a Jordanian pilot alive just as Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in fifteenth century, and the first decapitates orange-dressed prisoners just as King Charles I of England was decapitated in 1649, etc. It will take a few centuries before they reach our level of civilisation. Islam, as a whole, is a dangerous breeding ground of strife for us ‘modern’ Westerners”.
This idea is based on a theory, which was taken up again by Auguste Comte and Herbert Spencer. Termed historic evolutionism, it suggests that human history follows set evolutionary stages, which “civilisation” must go through. For Comte, humanity began at the theological stage, passed through a metaphysical stage, before then progressing, finally, to the scientific, or positivist, stage. Islam, accordingly, is still at the primitive religious phase. Yet this schematism selects a particular trend followed by Christian societies over the last millennia as a “universal historic law”. There is nothing to say that other cultures must go through similar stages.
Indeed, this model of linear progress does not even work for Western history, which is made up of many “steps backward”. Despite the commonly-held belief, based on a misinterpretation of Max Weber’s famous essay on Protestant ethics, the Lutheran Reformation in fact had a “Khomeinist” meaning: it involved a return to the original inspiration of Saint Augustine, a leap back in time by a thousand years to what might be described as a pessimistic idea of Salvation. And this was driven by a profoundly anti-capitalist spirit. The fact that this reactionary reformation proved perfectly in tune with the great capitalist, industrial development of certain countries is just one of history’s little tricks that make “evolutionists” fly into a rage. And who now call themselves, for confusion’s sake, “heterogonies of ends”.
And to what evolutionary stage of our societies do such modern events as slavery of black people in America up to 1865, the Holocaust, and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki belong?
It seems to me that, rather than a re-emergence of an archaic Islam, a return to a religious stage, the zealotry of Islamic integrists in fact constitutes a new, original creation of today’s Islam, a bit like Luther and Calvin were in the sixteenth century. (This is the thesis that even Slavoj iek develops in his recent pamphlet on “Islam and Modernity”.) I wonder, in fact, if this taste for returning to one’s origins might not be described as an imitation of a Western recurrent deed, and whether fundamentalists might not after all be inspired, essentially, by us Westerners.
For example, there is no tradition of suicide-attempts among Muslims: it was modern Islam that introduced this practice.
Despite waving the flag of “relativism”, the West continues to believe that the categories with which the Christian world has, over past centuries, considered and interpreted itself apply to everyone. Besides historic evolutionism, as discussed above, this persistence of the Foucault Illusion might be attributed to an even deeper philosophy, rooted in our intelligentsia, which Rousseau spelled out brilliantly: that raw human nature, when not suffocated by the armour of culture, is fundamentally good. That all forms of society and politics are limiting or despotic, while human beings’ true “nature” directs them, instinctively, towards liberty, equality, democracy. Or rather, Evil always comes from the outside, even if this “outside” is other human beings. The point is that Rousseauism, and its offshoots, are nonetheless always the products of culture, and that they too, by their very “nature”, are therefore a form of alienation. It is thus that the Rousseauian Robespierre wallowed in Terror.
This Rousseauian axiom led Foucault to believe that, with the Shah out of the way, Iran would, on its own, have found its way towards a pluralist democracy, or better still, socialism. These dreams are the result of a metaphysical concept engrained in us: that History is a journey towards the liberty, which already stands at the origins of human society. The mantra is: “Human beings are born free and equal; society enslaves them and renders them unequal”. This is a dogma, like the Catholic dogma of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, or of Mohammed as Prophet of Allah. People deemed that: since Iraqis, Syrians or Libyans are human beings, as soon as they were freed from the superstructures of despotism, they would gladly recover the liberty and equality enjoyed by our innocent ancestors in the stilt houses, and which is the natural right of all human beings as soon from their very first breath. The illusion is therefore based on an even deeper axiom: that liberty and equality are truths. And that democracy (for some, also free economic exchange) is the most effective form in which fundamental human liberty might be expressed.
In actual fact, we are all born far from free: first of all, we are dependent on our parents. And from the very beginning, we are unequal. Freedom and equality are not truths; they are, I would say, unnatural – they are constructions, art. They are slow and laborious to construct, like the pyramids in Egypt or the interminable Sacrada Familia in Barcelona. At the base of art, we will always find utopias. And we have to fight for more freedom and equality, in the knowledge that these are utopias. After all, what surprises and disappoints us about utopias, is precisely that they nearly always come to pass.