Debate on Debate: Foucault v. Chomsky (1971) and the EU Referendum (2016)

By Rosie Smith

In 1971 a Dutch Television company ran a series of discussion panels with noted intellectuals on a wide range of issues both contemporary and philosophical. One of the most famous debates was between French philosopher Michel Foucault and American linguist Noam Chomsky who debated on the condition of human nature, power, and justice. I listened to this debate for the first time in the run up to the UK EU referendum, and have revisited it many times since UK citizens voted to leave the European Union. Watching the debate at a time of significant political uncertainty and widespread public engagement was fascinating. This is because the arguments made by both theorists on human nature, power, and knowledge, acted as lenses through which I observed and analysed the unfolding events. At its heart, the debate contests whether social structures, or free will and creativity, are the determinants of human action. A topic which also helps clarify the tempestuous Brexit vs. Remain campaign.

Let us begin with Foucault. Michel Foucault contends that there is no singular, fixed human nature that exists, and that the social world is made up of multiple schematisms (structures for understanding the world). These schematisms inform individuals on how to behave in different situations. According to Foucault these hidden structures, which dictate social action, are socially constructed. From this approach it is suggested that every aspect of an individuals’ life, and all surrounding social phenomena are products of their social, political, and cultural surroundings.

If we use this theory of human nature to unpack the voting behaviours in the EU referendum, it suggests that individuals interpret the arguments and evidence put to them, according to their position within wider social structures such as social class, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and age. Accordingly, the politicians who put forward these arguments, evidence, and lobbied for either the ‘in’ or ‘out’ campaign, are also bound up by structural biases; neither individuals nor the knowledge they construct can escape the pull of social structures. Foucault’s structuralist theory, paints a picture of a political climate that is akin to a complex network of interwoven individuals, all trying to understand the ideas and arguments put forward by others, who too occupy a unique place in the social structure. Using this theoretical lens, it is perhaps clear why the debate surrounding the EU referendum was often cryptic and perplexing.

To further explain how knowledge can never be complete or transparent because of structural influences, Foucault draws on a grid metaphor. If one places a square grid on the floor and continues to place grids one on top of the other, then whilst a tower begins to grow (the accumulation of knowledge), each individual grid contains gaps, which instead of being filled, are covered up by those after it. Thus the tower of knowledge is never fully stable. In this case, Foucault’s theory suggests voters must always make a decision based on incomplete knowledge.

Are the foundations of the tower of knowledge under more strain when the stakes are heightened within a turbulent and enigmatic political climate?

However, this is arguably a negative and deterministic view of social action, as it denies individuals the capacity and intellect to act according to free will and make informed decisions. In comparison, Chomsky’s arguments, as put forward in the debate stand defiantly against behavioural determinism, and argues that variations in human nature and conduct (such as voting patterns) are products of creativity and free will, not the product of oppressive social structures:

Human nature “has many of the characteristics of what I think might very well be called creativity” (Chomsky, 1971)

These polarised arguments raise the question: when UK citizens went to the polls on 23 June 2016 did their decision reflect the social structures they are immersed in, (as Foucault purported), or an expression of linguistic and intellectual free-will and creativity, (the Chomskyan ideal), or both?

This is a difficult question to answer, but what is clear is that whether voters acted according to their position in social structures, or because of creativity and free-will, or maybe another factor all together, their decisions were influenced by those who are in power. Those who own the grids of knowledge; those who offer tools for creativity; and those who have the power to define concepts such as ‘Britishness’, immigration, control, risk, refuge, and austerity.

Chomsky explores this issue and suggests that power in its basic form is not conducive to justice or equality, and that power can be mechanised to enforce subjective rules. Chomsky uses the following, and arguably wonderful, analogy when commenting on the Pentagon Papers:

“If I had stopped my car in front of a traffic light which was red, and then I drove through the red traffic light to prevent somebody from, let’s say, machine-gunning a group of people, of course that’s not an illegal act, it’s an appropriate and proper action; no sane judge would convict you for such an action” (Chomsky. 1971)

Chomsky’s traffic light metaphor can be applied to help unpack the EU referendum. If one accepts that the traffic lights represent the current system, in which the UK is a member of the EU. The red light implies that currently the UK cannot move past this status. Then the lights turn green and there is the option to cross the road, without the control of the traffic lights. There is now the option to progress without the supposed safety the traffic light structures offer.

The 51.9% of voters who voted to leave the EU are representative of those individuals who, according to Foucault, want to overturn existing structures of domination to achieve socio-political change. For Chomsky, the decision to cross the road unaided by traffic lights, is a product of an individual’s interpretation of information. In both cases the result is symptomatic of discontent with the structural status quo, and the need for a re-evaluation of those in power, and thus, those institutions which have the power to influence the lives of UK citizens.

Perhaps striving for full transparency of knowledge, and completeness of information is neither possible nor desirable. And so whether the decision to leave the EU is representative of a structural shift or of political free-will, or both, it was a decision for change, a decision for creativity, and a decision for choice.    

Rosie Smith is a PhD student in Sociology at the University of York. Her research looks at ‘spectacular justice’ and challenges the Foucauldian panoptic privatisation theory of justice. She is interested primarily in crime, justice, media, and Foucauldian theory.

Categories: Mediated Matters

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