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Opinion | Michel Foucault’s Ideas and the Right, Left Debate

The impulse to establish legitimacy and order informs a lot of action on the left these days. The idea that the left is relativistic belongs to an era when progressives were primarily defining themselves against white heteronormative Christian patriarchy, with Foucauldian acid as a solvent for the old regime. Nobody watching today’s progressivism at work would call it relativistic: Instead, the goal is increasingly to find new rules, new hierarchies, new moral categories to govern the post-Christian, post-patriarchal, post-cis-het world.

To this end, the categories of identity politics, originally embraced as liberative contrasts to older strictures, are increasingly used to structure a moral order of their own: to define who defers to whom, who can make sexual advances to whom and when, who speaks for which group, who gets special respect and who gets special scrutiny, what vocabulary is enlightened and which words are newly suspect, and what kind of guild rules and bureaucratic norms preside.

Meanwhile, conservatives, the emergent regime’s designated enemies, find themselves drawn to ideas that offer what Shullenberger calls a “systematic critique of the institutional structures by which modern power operates” — even when those ideas belong to their old relativist and postmodernist enemies.

This is a temptation I wish the right were better able to resist. Having conservatives turn Foucauldian to own the libs doesn’t seem worth the ironies — however rich and telling they may be.

Yes, the French philosopher was undoubtedly a certain kind of genius; yes, as Shullenberger writes, “his critiques of institutions expose the limits of our dominant modes of politics,” including the mode that’s ascendant on the left. But the older conservative critique of relativism’s corrosive spirit is still largely correct. Which is why, even when it lands telling blows against progressive power, much of what seems postmodern about the Trump-era right also seems wicked, deceitful, even devilish.

In the end, one can reject the new progressivism, oppose the church of intersectionality — and still have a healthy fear of what might happen if you use the devil’s tools to pull it down.

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