Foucault and the Politics of Rights
Ben Golder


Contents and Abstracts
chapter abstract

The Introduction lays out the central issues discussed in the book and summarizes its general thesis: that Foucault's late political thinking on rights represents neither a return, nor a capitulation, to liberalism, but a critical (yet ambivalent) engagement with it. It contextualizes the book's argument within previous interpretations of Foucault's late work and argues for the wider importance of the way in which these texts should be understood. It concludes with some methodological observations and by mapping the chapter structure of the book.

1 Critical Counter-Conducts
chapter abstract

This chapter details three things: first, it addresses Foucault's understanding of critique via a discussion of his methods of genealogy and archaeology; secondly, it provides a discussion of his critical analyses of subjectivity and sovereignty made in work of the 1970s; and, finally, it addresses his particular notion of the 'counter-conduct' introduced into his work in the late 1970s via his lectures at the Collège de France. This largely expository material is vital for an understanding of the arguments made in the following chapters, each of which develops a reading of a different dimension of Foucault's rights politics.

2 Who Is the Subject of (Foucault's) Human Rights?
chapter abstract

This chapter develops an account of the first dimension of Foucault's politics of rights; namely, their contingent and ungrounded character. By this is meant that when Foucault makes rights claims in his late work he consciously disavows the conventional normative grounds of rights (reason, will, intention, and so forth) in favor of an undetermined conception of subjectivity. On this view, rights become a promising site where competing and contingent claims about the subject of rights are made but can never ultimately be resolved or determined. The chapter starts with an examination of the status of the subject in Foucault's late work on ethics, which is then related to his anti-essentialist advocacy of human rights (such as in Cold-War-era Poland and postrevolutionary Iran), as well as his advocacy of the 'rights of the governed' in the context of global politics and humanitarianism.

3 The Ambivalence of Rights
chapter abstract

This chapter develops an account of the second dimension of Foucault's politics of rights; namely, his appreciation (and negotiation) of their ambivalence. Rights are ambivalent for Foucault in the sense that they are vehicles both of empowerment and regulation. Rights allow for claimants to expand and protect their sphere of action but they also subjectify and regulate those claimants even as they assert rights on their own behalf. The present chapter pursues this theme through a reading of the work of the political theorist Wendy Brown on rights to 'identity' as well as of Foucault's own advocacy of rights to sexual choice in his late work (and his related conceptions of friendship and of relational rights). It concludes with a reflection on the possible meaning of freedom in the context of Foucault's ambivalent account of rights.

4 Rights Between Tactics and Strategy
chapter abstract

This chapter develops an account of the third and final dimension of Foucault's politics of rights; namely, their tactical and strategic deployment. By 'tactical' is meant an instrumental appropriation of rights for political purposes beyond, or subversive of, the demands of a liberal democratic system. By 'strategic' is meant the use of rights to challenge wider structures and relations of power. The chapter assesses whether Foucault's rights claims can be called strategic in the sense just given (ultimately concluding that they can) by examining his deployment of rights in two different yet related contexts. These contexts are linked by the broader theme of the biopolitical management of life. The first context is Foucault's assertion of a right to die and the second is his opposition to the death penalty.

chapter abstract

This concluding chapter performs two tasks. The first task is to situate the preceding interpretation of Foucault within an evolving historical debate about the origin of contemporary human rights discourse—a debate catalyzed by the work of Samuel Moyn. According to Moyn's revisionist understanding, the turn to human rights in the late 1970s reflects a general turning away from revolution in the Western political imaginary (and the embrace of liberal utopias instead). The chapter argues that Foucault's ambivalent deployment of rights cannot be reduced to this shift but is more critical of liberalism. The second task is to relate Foucault's engagement with rights in the late 1970s and early 1980s to the contemporary fascination with human rights and to pose (yet not ultimately resolve) the question of whether his approach counsels a continued engagement with human rights or a strategic withdrawal from them.