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  • The Liberal Roots of Populism:A Critique of Laclau
  • José Luis Villacañas Berlanga (bio)
    Translated by Jorge Ledo (bio)

"What is Liberalism?," wondered Foucault at the beginning of The Birth of Biopolitics. The question was urgent. Beginning with Society Must Be Defended and Security, Territory, Population, his references to this issue in his seminars were constant. My argument will take the same point of departure, with the aim of revealing the liberal conditions of populism and, more concretely, what Laclau calls "populist reason."

Although we are not in a position to extract a precise reply from Foucault's texts, we can at least find a good point of departure for the definition of liberalism, and this will be my first step. Foucault was destined to continue his investigation into the current neoliberalism. And that was precisely what he did in The Birth of Biopolitics. I will talk about this in the second part of my lecture, along with the link between Foucault and Lacan. Thirdly, I will develop Laclau's progression from the notion of hegemony to populist reason. Fourthly, I will identify Laclau's liberal position in the very core of his [End Page 151] populist reason. Finally, I will identify the weak points in Laclau's arguments, his faith in rhetoric, and his obsession with the concept of hegemony.

1. Foucault on Liberalism

In Foucault, "liberalism" introduces the framework of political rationality to the state mechanisms based on discipline—right and biopolitics—where biopolitics is understood as a technology of populations (2008a). This function is very complex since it determines the crucial tasks of the system, challenging the aforementioned apparatuses and defining their own limits. This question, when brought to an adequate level of theoretical radicalness, can identify the existing mediation between liberty and governmental apparatuses. Between a "system concerned about respect for legal subjects and individual free enterprise" (2008, 317), on the one hand, and the disciplinary and biopolitical apparatuses that consider population en masse, on the other, adequate mediations should be established. We can see that Foucault addresses the classic problem of the tensions between the massive and individualistic dimensions of democratic society. In liberalism, the former constitute the framework of political rationality and the latter concentrate on the action of government as biopower.

In Foucault's analysis, as in the rest of conventional analyses, such tensions cannot be completely resolved. For that reason, critique appears as the only appropriate practice for liberalism, that is to say, the continuous reflection, the aspiration to rationalize the government. Liberalism requires the government—with all its apparatuses—not to be an end in and of itself. Government cannot become absolute. This rationalization humiliates the old raison d'état and reduces the central role of police.1 For liberalism, Foucault recalls, governments always govern too much. The liberal attitude imposes even the need to legitimize anything that could be an aim of the government. For liberalism, government will no longer have its own aims because it is no longer considered a natural institution. Now Foucault must respond to the question, Why must one govern? (2008a, 319).

In the summary of his 1978-79 seminar, Foucault spoke about a "liberal technology of government," employing Franklin's phrase, "a technology of [End Page 152] frugal government" (2008a, 322), as a general expedient to establish the mediation we are talking about. In his opinion—forged in the perception of the differences between the physiocrats and the liberals—the said technology required social regulation.2 He described it in classic fashion, as "participation of the governed in drawing up the law in a parliamentary system" (2008a, 321). This was the technique that seemed most rational and compatible with the governmental economy, or with a rationalization of the government. Here, a historical synthesis that was neither necessary nor typical took place. Liberalism has not always been linked to democratic parliamentarianism, just as democracy, always endowed with technical and disciplinary biopolitics, has not always been linked to liberalism. In fact, liberalism can drastically limit its criticism, reducing it to its economic aspects. The state can even eliminate criticism, as occurs in authoritarian states.

The most interesting part of Foucault's description—for it cannot be...


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