The dream of liberal progress
One of the things I want us to discuss tonight and in this blog is the notion that the new liberal formations of government and civil society contain within them the possibility of universal application. So many of the emerging political philosphies in the 17th century and foundational documents of new "nations" (like the U.S.) dress themselves in a rhetoric of universality. After all, what's more universal than a "state of nature" or more objective and fair than natural economic law? Some critics of liberal philosophy, however, argue that inequality is written into these documents and inescapable as long as people continue to be committed to to the social systems and governmental institutions spawned in the 18th century. They point to Locke's Second Treatise and his comments on marriage, the family, slavery and political rights, Smith's preference for small gentry over the irresponsible masses in Wealth of Nations, Jefferson's own ideas of the importance of property ownership for a voice in government (as well as his ownership of slaves, several of whom were his own children) as evidence that liberal societies are rotten at their roots and therefore no good for the present.
Others argue we shouldn't throw the baby out with the bathwater, that the transformations of the 17th and 18th century opened up a public sphere and that, over time, marginalized people have been able to elbow their way into civil society. The egalitarian documents that formed the nations of Great Britain (the Bill of Rights), the U.S. (the Declaration and Constitution), and France (Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen) may have been written by racist, sexist, classist men, but they provide everyone access to rights through the slow, painful, democratic processes of civil society.
What do you think? Should we call civil society out as a lie and a handy tool for the privileged to rationalize and legitimize their rule - a lie we give credence to every time we go through the pointless ritual of voting? Or, is liberal civil society, despite its early faults in aiding and abetting empire, racism, sexism, the exploitation of the poor, etc., a work in progress that will eventually show itself as the most perfect organization of peoples?
Finally, what kind of monkey wrench does Foucault throw into this debate with his focus, not on the power of law in civil society, but on disciplinary forces that come before civil society?