The Promise of Liberalism and the Practice of Freedom: On Foucault and Arendt

Bell, Vikki. 1996. The Promise of Liberalism and the Practice of Freedom: On Foucault and Arendt. In: Andrew Barry; Thomas Osborne and Nicolas Rose, eds. Foucault and Political Reason. London: UCL Press/Taylor and Francis, pp. 81-97. ISBN 1857284321 [Book Section]

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An undelivered promise is not failed but unkept: a lie. The flame of liberal politics - heat both necessary and dangerous for such an order - is kindled at this point. More than its rivals, liberalism is grounded upon man’s capacity to promise, for liberal democracy advocates a world in which social order rests crucially upon the citizenry’s faith in the good consciences of those who govern. That liberalism rests upon this capacity to promise, and on the related notion of a conscience, is the locus between liberalism’s present and its future - its vision - creating its sense of causality and temporality. More broadly, this vision entails a general promise, a promise of happiness to the citizen who partakes in his own freedom. According to Adorno and Horkheimer , liberalism’s promise of happiness to those without power cheated and mocked the masses; the repeated suppression of their longing encrypts a destructive lust for a civilisation as yet unachieved, a lust in danger of becoming fascistic. Liberalism is fueled, then, both by its general promise and by the specific promises of those entrusted with power. It requires a sense of calculability about the world and its inhabitants that enables such promises to be made and believed. Any moment of disbelief, any lack of faith in another’s promise, is a moment that liberalism can contain - indeed, that it invites - but it is also the most fearful moment for the liberal machinery, the moment at which the general vision is doubted and alternative paths left and right are dreamt and drawn. Thus liberalism contains a necessary but potentially destabilising point at which the ability to make promises joins the ability to hesitate and, by the tracing of lines of causality, to imagine the future differently. The possibility of beginning anew, the possible moment at which promises are exchanged and plans laid down, is a profoundly political moment, one that Hannah Arendt valued as having the potential to enable political communication and community - the move from the ‘I will’ to the ‘we can’. But truly beginning anew - the true performance of freedom - is arguably incompatible with the notion of calculable man upon which the ability to promise rests, and clashes with the supposition of a clarity of thought and will that is represented by the ‘many-headed one’ of liberalism constituted by, or standing in for, individual wills. The freedom offered and defended by liberal rhetoric is a freedom that is entwined with these images of a subject whose integrity is an impossible perfection, a subject who can be calculated and predicted into the future at the same time as s/he has a clarity of thought and will that directs these very promises and predictions.

Foucault’s distance from liberalism takes a cue from Nietzsche, in the sense that the two share the suspicion of the liberal citizen as a package for freedom. ... (Extract, 1st 500 words).

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Book Section

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This title is currently available in print [June 2007]. Permission has been granted for use of small abstracts/extracts totalling Max 500 words per chapter for non-commercial use on Goldsmiths Research Online only.
Publisher: Taylor and Francis Books (UK)


Promise; liberalism; freedom; Arendt; Foucault

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Date Deposited:

19 Sep 2007

Last Modified:

04 Jul 2017 14:14


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