Foucault and Modern politics

This paper was written as a final for a class studying rhetorical theory throughout history. This paper focuses on the nature of Foucault’s style of linguistic analysis, in order to observe the way politicians react to the presentation of new ideas in the political sphere. It was intended for an academic setting, and was shifted into a Chicago style citation after the fact for submission.

The power of language and rhetoric is something which has been apparent to scholars and philosophers for centuries; from the banishment of the sophist through their apparent search for power as seen in The Gorgias, all the way to postmodernists with Nietzsche and his ideas around the power of language. These discourses around power have shaped our ideas of rhetoric, but Foucault is one who frequently looked at discourses directly in relation to power and who controls it. This applies in a modern-day sense to many political movements, including ideas around the Defund the police movements being reduced by less progressive members of society, who are more established in their positions. The Defund the police movement is one which is reduced to a crazy idea, or a bad slogan because it must explain its intent, even though it does. The ideology was defined by sociologist David M. Rubenstein as “‘Defund the police’ means reallocating or redirecting funding away from the police department to other government agencies funded by the local municipality,” which is a simple definition that stretches to reach mental health experts and other nonviolent responses. Part of this dismissal comes in the refusal to have nuance in the discussions around the movement, where it is instead reduced to three words. Another part comes from a refusal to acknowledge a different way of operation, but both fold into ideas around discourse presented by Foucault in The History of Sexuality, regarding discourse and the ways it is reduced to either the asylum or the brothel. This reduction is seen in the public response to congresspeople who are actively in support of the movement, along with other progressive movements, being dismissed or outright attacked by even members of their own parties for their views. This extends to many different sections of Foucault surrounding the nature of who chooses discourse, how they go about choosing it, as well as where they embrace only pieces of the conversation. 

            Older democrats, like that of senator Manchin have been campaigning to dismiss the ideas of the Defund the police movement and other progressive items presented by his party. The claims are frequently dismissed through statements about how Defund the police is a bad slogan because it needs explaining, or claiming his other party members need to be “better at articulating [their defense],” when attacked for these things. However, by attacking the slogan Defund the police and claiming it is a bad slogan because it needs explaining, he dismisses not the claim itself, but the validity of the discourse. This shifts the discourse not to the actual subject matter of Defund the police, but the whether it even deserves to exist as an idea, and should someone attempt to explain it to bring that discourse into the fold, it can be removed by claiming the slogan needed explaining again. In this removal or repression of ideas based on their least nuanced form, it shows where the power in our politics lies, which is a large part of what Foucault analyzed in The History of Sexuality, that being questions around whether power “belong[s] primarily to the category of repression,” which was the second of his major questions in the novel’s introduction (Foucault, 10). In fact the very nature of Defund the police being presented as a brand new radical idea sits contrary to the truth, but lends itself to his ideas around the beginnings of discourse on a larger scale from “the order of discourse” as well. The techniques of analysis presented in these questions from Foucault asks who is in control of the discourses, and where they received the power for this control. A traditional power center in this sense would be that of an elected official, however the slogan has retained popularity in spite of its refusal by most politicians. In “The order of discourse,” he outlines two options for the speeches of the mad. Either the speech “fell into the void, being rejected as soon as it was proffered, or else people deciphered it in a rationality,” which is an important note when your claims are being dismissed as those of a madman, as has been the treatment towards progressives in government (Foucault, II).   

            The nature of innovation in discourse generally requires some stretch outside the norm of whatever system the discourse may exist to criticize. Foucault uses the example of Mendel’s research to describe this idea of existing outside norms of accepted truth while still being truthful, and the movement and people around Defund the police are working in similar fashion. Mendel’s research, according to Foucault, was dismissed by general scholars as it was out of line with common perceptions of biology at the time, meaning the research which is now fundamental to understanding genetics and biology was once considered meaningless or useless. Foucault uses this in regards to two of the three systems to remove discourse laid out in “the order of discourse,” the one which applies most strongly to politics of qualifications. These qualifications are used to dismiss those affected groups who would benefit from a movement centered to demilitarize the police, for example attacks on the character of those affected by police brutality. The reason this is of interest in considering Foucault is because of a power structure deciding the people have a right to speak on the abuse of power are those who benefit from it, rather than those affected. Innovation in this example does not come from those who require the change, but from those who sit above it, which is where the issue of discourse along with how and when it is inventive comes into play. The response of important officials in the US can be attributed to moderate democrats, along with ex president Obama, who claimed in a recent interview that you “lose a big audience” with slogans like defund the police. The weight of an opinion such as this from an individual with the most ethos in the democratic party carries with it the opinions of most moderate democrats who blame these policy centered slogans on their losses. The attention is taken away from the policy in denouncing the slogan, and instead the conversation is moved away to be the validity of the three words. This all comes into the writing of Foucault who of course focused on who was running a given discourse or discipline, rather than the thing itself. When attention is shifted to see where those apexes of power reside versus where they do not, seeing linguistic innovation changes as well because of the nature of those in power to retain a status quo. This is again what we see in calls to invalidate these movements because of who it seeks to protect.

            The closest application of the ideas in A History of Sexuality in response to Defunding the police is the widespread response through government. In New York City, the budget after the summer protests increased police funding rather than defunding it. The response to the protests reflects that of one which speaks of sexual repression but does nothing to undo the repression. The murals put up by New York and other cities exist without political action and were referred to as “empty mimicry,” by Caroline Spivack in an article for a local New York paper (Spivack). We are seeing a “Discursive explosion,” centered around the ideas expressed by black lives matter, but ignoring the solutions they provide, no different than the same explosion around sexuality expressed by Foucault (Foucault, 17). These bursts of conversation are essential of course, but when combined with the reductions of the claims, or admission of ideas which are comfortable to a pre established system create the widespread refusal to acknowledge the opinions of the affected peoples. This once again rolls back to attitudes from conservative politicians but shifts to not be an outright refusal as it was in the case of defunding the police, but instead creates a false sense of action. When mayor Deblasio requests the police use “as light a touch as possible,” he does not advocate for changing the violence of the system, but softening it, reaching once again the twisting of slogans and movements to fit into uninterrupted discourse from those who establish discourse (Spivack). This softening of the system affected the slogans around Defund the police as well, as is seen in the claims that it does not explain itself well enough, so it must go or change itself to fit within the acceptable truth as with Mendel’s criticizers. A History of Sexuality, Foucault expresses the center point of power around the conversation as the Victorian aristocracy. This in comparison to modern day discourses around things which have plagued the world since around the same era or even before would still have the same livelihood and change in similar ways to be less about the effects of policing at all to whether or not these effects even still exist, and in arguing that validity, it adds another roadblock to solving problems which express themselves to be true. 

            A counterargument to the claims around Foucault in modern politics would be centered around the idea that claims from conservatives are also subject to scrutiny or rejection by their more progressive counterparts. This argument does not hold as well with Foucault however, because of several things. Firstly, conservatism by nature will have little need for inventive rhetoric; it looks to return to an older form or system or to retain what already existed, or still exists, which dismisses the idea that it would not be accepted. The only way for that to occur is for a massive political shift which leaves outdated rhetoric in the past, rather than it being new rhetoric, which establishes itself individually. Secondly, the ways in which conservatives reject claims by arguing what they are in language, not application. The recent wave of attacks around congresswoman AOC being a socialist for example, leads to claims that she has a “[list] for the gulags,” from the president’s family. By using semi related examples of historically socialist countries to claim that every progressive is a socialist, and every socialist wants to recreate soviet Russia is not a claim based on actual logic, but instead around whichever popular perception of the language surrounding a word like socialism is in America at any given time. 

            Overall, the effects of Foucault’s style of analysis on modern day political systems is still applicable when considering the taboo or controversial claims. Currently, those controversial claims come from progressives, which is regular in American politics, as where conservatism seeks to return to an older, preexisting rhetoric or discourse, progressivism in its nature would present some new idea, whether it be defunding the police, health care, or otherwise. What is interesting about this next to Foucault however, is that these progressive ideals are not progressive to many countries, which means that his ideologies almost have to be applied on a case by case basis from Nation to nation. An important note inside of that however, is that it does not mean all claims need to have the same value, as plenty are still based outside of observations, but claims which are structured similar to Foucault’s style of inductive claims and start with an observation to make a hypothesis are going to remain applicable. The removal of claims in recent years and throughout history by government powers is one which has historically been overcome through either a shift in the Overton window, the range of politically acceptable policies in a given state, or through consistent pushing by large groups of people. The presence of reductionist claims are not always as visible as the ones centered around defunding the police, however they are present as discourse reinvents itself. This is shown by the simple note that defund the police is the slogan being talked about currently, rather than its predecessor ‘abolish the police,’ which was the popular version of this slogan at the beginning of the wave of Black Lives Matter protests. The ideas which remain rejected will disappear, and the ones which thrive, much like Mendel’s ideas of genetics, or slavery abolition groups, will filter their way into the acceptable range of political discourse. The ideas presented are never new when they reach politics however, as they begin with either academia or individuals. It is important to remember that idea when viewing any presented political conversation, whether it is being actually had or presented with flair, as they often appear to be more than what politics give them as movements. His analysis of these movements with the focal point around power, similar to Nietzsche in that regard, is what allows for such a clear view on the goals of not only the movements themselves or what they claim, but what they accomplish as well. 

Works Cited

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. City of Westminster: Penguin Books, 1992. 

Foucault, Michel. The Order of Discourse. 1971

Zito, Salena. “Joe Manchin Digs in: ‘Under No Circumstances’ Would Break Tie to Nuke Filibuster and Pack Court.” Washington Examiner, 11 Nov. 2020, 

Spivack, Caroline. “New Yorkers Want to Defund the Police. They’re Getting 5 ‘Black Lives Matter’ Murals Instead.” Curbed NY, Curbed NY, 15 June 2020, 

Duster, Chandelis. “Obama Cautions Activists against Using ‘Defund the Police’ Slogan.” CNN, Cable News Network, 2 Dec. 2020,