Know fouc-all about Foucault? Read on.

imagesI’ve just watched  one of those flash crowd videos, where an event builds up in a public place – this one beginning with a single cellist on the street in Sabadell in the Spanish province of Catalonia, culminating in a performance of Ode to Joy. And once again, by the end of it, I’m tearing up. Why?

Well, firstly because of the magnificent and rousing music. But there’s  more to it than that. The music brings people together, unites them. And the orchestra is a wonderful symbol of co-operation, of people working together to create. The crowd is overjoyed at the sound and spectacle.

I saw this on the same day that a church in Pakistan was bombed, killing eighty one people. It was a double suicide bombing, and another example of people working closely together.

In one of those events there was human co-operation, devoid of ideology. In the other, ideology was the destructive force. As an agnostic, I find it utterly incomprehensible that people could be killed because of the way they choose to worship.

This brings me to my recent reading of a little book called Foucault: A Very Short Introduction by Gary Gutting. Now,

I hasten to add I have not read M Foucault, and am relying on Mr Gutting’s interpretation. But Mr Gutting  knows his Foucault, and what he writes about him has so intrigued me that next stop is to go to the source. I have come very late to academia and have, in my ignorant past, smugly announced that I know fouc-all about Foucault. Tackling a thesis changes all that.

Which brings me back to ideology. Ideology, according to Gutting, is what drove Foucault away from the Communist Party. Are both fundamentalist Islam and Communism ideologies? Well, yes, according to my Macquarie dictionary, which defines it firstly thus: a body of doctrine, myth, and symbols of social movement, institution, class or large group. The shoe fits.

Foucault joined and then quit the French Communist Party within a year. Immediately after this, he completely rejected Marxism, at one stage claiming that Marx’s economic thought  was not at root original or revolutionary. He backtracked somewhat and made the most direct statement of his attitude towards Marxism about a month before his death, in an interview with Paul Rabinow, an anthropologist and expert on Foucault’s life and ideas.


‘I am neither an adversary or a partisan of Marxism’ Foucault told Rabinow, ‘I question it about what it has to say about experiences that ask questions of it.’ What he was saying was that such frameworks as Marxism should never be assumed as an adequate basis to be used for making political decisions, but only as resources that can offer ‘viable approaches to the problems we face.’

Foucault makes a political distinction between polemics and what he called ‘problematisations’ by which he means the problems that polemics attempt to solve. Polemics comes to a political issue with a framework which is insisted on by those who adhere to them as the only way to see and solve a problem. For those Muslims whose polemic is the restoration of a pure form of Islam, the only solution to a church full of Christians is to eliminate them.

To those Liberals whose polemic is framed by an adherence to the free market, the only response to a tax on the super profits of mining companies is to reject it.

Foucault points out that when you operate within such a system anyone who does not accept the polemical framework around a position is treated as an enemy. There is no chance of using co-operation or collaboration to find a solution to a problem. The church must be bombed. The tax rejected.

The polemic stifles any attempt to solve a problem outside the rigid framework. Gunning recalls Sartre’s pledge of allegiance to the Communist cause: ‘’an anti-communist is a rat…I swore to the bourgeoisie a hatred which would only die with me…’

What we must do to solve the problems of humanity, Foucault believed, is to cast aside polemics or doctrinal baggage and search for answers to the problems we face  unencumbered by such restrictions. Which, as a member of the Greens, makes sense to me.

Gunning goes on to ask ‘if political debate is not grounded in theoretical frameworks, is it fair to ask to what authority does it appeal?’ This is where, rather than the constant criticism and revolution advocated by Foucault, I will offer the Greens way.

Tasmanian Liberal MP Eric Hutchinson was interviewed by Waleed Aly  on Radio National on September 23 last year about a review of the Consumer and  Competition Act. The Abbott Government was considering reviewing how the Act relates to environmental groups (maybe they still are?). Hutchinson was attempting to explain to Aly how environment groups were interfering with, for example, the business of logging of forests. He said “environmental groups have an ideological opposition to these businesses.”

Now, it seems to me the ideological boot is on the other foot. If the Greens object to the logging, let’s say, of the Tarkine wilderness area, that’s not an ideological objection nor an ideological stance. It’s a position arrived at after examining the proposition of  logging a pristine wilderness area through the prism of one of the Greens four principles: is this proposed action ecologically sustainable? And the answer is, quite clearly no. Not from a Marxist perspective, or a free market perspective, an Islamist perspective, but from an ideology-free environmental perspective.

Once again, I reckon the Greens four principles help them dodge the bullet. None of them are ideological. Not ecological sustainability, grassroots democracy, social justice or peace and non-violence. They provide a clear and non-ideological way of looking at most – if not all – of the problems we face in Australia.

What is to be the Green response in this current political climate when we are ruled by a party which is diametrically – dare I say ideologically – opposed to everything they stand for?

In their first couple of weeks in office they set about dismantling all the mechanisms put in place to deal with climate change, threatening to remove the rights of environmental groups to protest by boycotting, rejected any furthering of public transport in favour of a monstrous road project in Sydney and, more recently, have set about ensuring that universities are, once again, the bastion of the privileged. And then there’s Manus Island.

They certainly should not follow the advice of the Sydney Morning Herald editorial (‘Greens need to win middle Australia and follow Don Chipp’s diktat 24.9.13’) that advised them to curb ‘intransigence’  and get rid of ‘extreme policies.’

In that editorial, the party that I voted for is advised to curb ‘intransigence’  and get rid of ‘extreme policies.’ I am a little mystified by this. Leaving intransigence aside, what extreme policies are meant? Humane treatment of asylum seekers? Action to  curb CO2 emissions? Marriage equality? Properly funding education?

It seems to me that the extreme  policies   are more likely to come from the major parties. Sending asylum seekers to Papua New  Guinea: approving mining which endangers the Great Barrier Reef: and logging in the Tarkine wilderness.

But they certainly should not follow my new friend Foucault’s advise and create a ‘turbulent atmosphere of …continuous [revolutionary] criticism. Well, he wasn’t perfect.

My feeling is they should be loud, persistent  and intransigent about their core beliefs. And certainly not as The Sydney Morning  Herald advises, head to the middle: it’s way too crowded there.

The Greens occupy an ideology free zone of ideas-driven policies, policies formulated by testing them against the four principles. I reckon that once the Australian people realise that they’ve elected, as Ross Gittins wrote in a Sydney Morning Herald piece,  ‘a bunch with a very limited idea of what is needed to be changed to get us back on the right path’ they might begin to look again at the loony Greens.  As long as they stick to their guns. In a peaceful and non-violent way of course.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s