Does modern capitalism beget bureaucracy?

Grégoire Canlorbe is a French intellectual entrepreneur. He currently resides in Paris. He interviewed me for The Foundation for Economic Education. Excerpt below:

Grégoire Canlorbe: A second criticism, initially formulated by Michel Foucault in his 1979 lectures at the College de France, is that modern capitalist society and “disciplinary techniques” are completely bound with each other.

According to Foucault, the rise of economic freedom after the 18th century is the product of a new practice of power, present at all levels of society, whose aim is to “rationalize the problems posed to [society] by phenomena characteristic of a set of living beings forming a population: health, hygiene, birthrate, life expectancy, race.” The growth and prosperity of the population henceforth legitimate the frugality of the state and its non-interference in the working of the market system. But this conduct of the government is simply one aspect of power relations in modern society. The self-restriction of economic policy coincides with the deployment of new techniques of control operating at local level through prisons, factories, schools, and hospitals.

Foucault particularly emphasizes three distinctive features of modern “disciplinary” power: hierarchical observation, normalizing judgment, and the examination. He suggests they have come to pervade every aspect of our contemporary society. They are integral part of our everyday life.

What would be, according to you, the main strengths and weaknesses of the Foucauldian analysis?

Stephen Hicks: There’s a libertarian streak in Foucault that sometimes appeals to me, and of course he’s right that the rise of centralized and controlling bureaucracy is one feature of the modern world. I think Foucault can often be good psychologically and insightful philosophically, but ultimately he’s weak as a historian.

As a start on this huge topic, I’ll just say two things here. One is that the modern era is characterized by at least three types of social philosophy. The great debate between free-market liberalism and socialism highlights two of the three types. The third type is bureaucratic centralization, and that social philosophy cuts across the free-market/socialist debate.

The idea that society can be organized centrally with concentrated power used in all of the ways that Foucault diagnoses—that paradigm of technocratic efficiency is often committed to neutrally and can then be applied in either market or governmental contexts. One can envision and find examples of private factories, corporations, and government bureaucracies applying those techniques.

So the question of both history and philosophy is whether the hegemonic-controlling-power model best fits with the theory and practice of modern free-market capitalism or with the theory and practice of modern collectivism-socialism.

The other point I’ll make quickly is that Foucault consistently embraces a Nietzschean understanding of power as fixed and zero-sum. In that model, power may be constantly evolving, but it is also constantly agonistic and antagonistic. Hence the consistent undercurrent of cynicism in any Foucauldian discussion of power.

That contrasts to those understandings of power that recognize some forms of it—cognitive, economic, personal-relational, for example—as potentially generative and increasing, resulting in a net growth.


Here is a the full interview.

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