Cracks in the dIsCoUrSe: the reflective collective in 2021

In an interview conducted nearly forty years ago [1], and a couple of weeks after the Mitterand victory in the epochal French presidential election Michel Foucault offers a robust defence of the (male) public intellectual role:

His role, since he works precisely in the sphere of thought, is to see how far the liberation of thought can go towards making these transformations urgent enough for people to want to carry them out, and sufficiently difficult to carry out for them to be deeply inscribed in reality

In other words, the job of those who think deeply about how we can change society for the better is to inspire a sense of agency and ambition among those who come to think along similar lines.

I was reminded of this when I read Anthony Painter’s largely optimistic rumination on what 2020 tells us about ourselves and how we are governed; there’s a set of broadly shared values around diversity, sustainability but most of all around a desire for self-determination, set against the current reality of large scale governance failure.

The challenge for 2021, says Anthony, is to deploy the commonalities of value that we have discovered during 2020 to create new forms of governance institution that reflect back those values.

I share Anthony’s optimism on the potential for a collective sense of agency; indeed, when it comes to the clapped-for carers, I’ve written long and hard about how the pandemic-long moment of recognition might be seized, and a synergy with carers’s own latent professionalism be developed in a way that develops better institutions.

Where I differ a bit from Anthony is around his take on current governance:

If governance systems can be developed to see longer term possibilities, better share power across regions and with citizens and civil society directly, and eradicate corruption and patrimonialism then there is common ground and an innovative public spirit ready to be amplified.

For Anthony, “corruption and patrimonialism” just need to be eradicated via the force of our spirited innovation, with a tacit assumption that this will be welcomed by both governors and governed.

For myself, I see that corruption and patrimonialism as the key feature of the new elite project, in which a Brexit plays a key facilitating role, but at the heart of which is a conscious shift to corrupt elite rule (what I’ve called the New Kleptocracy) in the name of 21st century empire building [2].

In this scheme of things, elite corruption is something to be administered for our own good, and there is little room [3] for virtuous institution builders of the type Anthony would see riding to our rescue.

In this darker (Foucauldian) reading, the challenge for the virtuous — thinkers and doers —is twofold. The latent agency we have identified in pandemic year must be fostered, but we must also foster,with the support of a new generation of public intellectuals, a critique of the discursive facade behind which the New Kleptocracy is fast being established.

This is the discourse (or the dIsCoUrSe, as it has been mockingly tagged by those who see it for what it is) of division, where all those amenable to ideas of collective agency are at best the “woke” and at worst “enemies of the people” — a hate-filled people that is itself discursively constructed by the elite for the purposes of its own project, in which that same people stands to benefit in the long term when the battle for new empire in won.

In practice then, the challenge for those who believe in collective agency is to go about building it into institutional form, but to do so in reflective league with those who, as Foucault says of himself in that 1980 interview, have:

identified cracks, silent tremors, and dysfunctions in things I saw, institutions I was dealing with, or my relations with others.

This is a reflective collective agency that is able, by working across the boundaries of theory and practice, is able to widen the discursive cracks into fissures in the facade, such that what lies behind the facade becomes “inscribed in realty”.

This is the reflective, collective agency that begins to see freedom defined not by the elite’s hand downs of hate-filled mass orthodoxy, sometimes in Latin for additional obfuscation, but in a social liberalism of our own vernacular.

This is a reflective collective agency that sees corruption for what it is, not as the government doing its best for us in the hard times that it is actually creating for us.

This is a reflective collective that understands professionalism as a public vow to serve [4], not as a caste system, at the top of which system sits the professional grifter.

This is a reflective collective which brings harmony where there was discord, truth where there error, faith in ourselves where there was doubt manufactured by a corrupt elite, hope in our agency where there was despair at how might manage if we didn’t submit to their rule for our own good.

Yep, bring on 2021.


[1] The interview transcription does not appear to be anywhere online in full, though sections are quoted in various places. It is in Power: Essential Works of Foucault 1954–1884 (Volume 3)

[2] This is my best attempt at a diagrammatic representation of the dynamics of the New Kleptocracy

[3] There is little room, but there is some room. As per the bottom right of diagram in note 2, and as I set out in my recent essay, the new elite project does take into account the need for feudal loyalty, as a way of buying off rebellion from the parts of civil society who want the best for the materially-battered population, and will go along with the wider elite project to make the best of conditions in the long term.

The challenge for ‘woke’ civil society is to work out how to bite the hand that feeds it.

[4] The fact that ‘to profess’ is, etymologically ‘to make a public vow’ is bit of a hobby horse for me.