Finally, after many years of waiting, the full Chomsky – Foucault debate on human nature is here! This is an interesting discussion between the two thinkers, which took place in the Netherlands in 1971. Several points from different angles were discussed and even though there were some fundamental differences, in most cases, it can be deduced that the two great thinkers were trying to find a common ground.
My favorite part, read and you will understand why:
ELDERS (moderator): Well, let’s move over now to the second part of the discussion, to politics. First of all I would like to ask Mr. Foucault why he is so interested in politics, because he told me that in fact he likes politics much more than philosophy.
FOUCAULT: I’ve never concerned myself, in any case, with philosophy. But that is not a problem. (He laughs.) Your question is: why am I so interested in politics? But if I were to answer you very simply, I would say this: why shouldn’t I be interested? That is to say, what blindness, what deafness, what density of ideology would have to weigh me down to prevent me from being interested in what is probably the most crucial subject to our existence, that is to say the society in which we live, the economic relations within which it functions, and the system of power which defines the regular forms and the regular permissions and prohibitions of our conduct. The essence of our life consists, after all, of the political functioning of the society in which we find ourselves. So I can’t answer the question of why I should be interested; I could only answer it by asking why shouldn’t I be interested? Not to be interested in politics, that’s what constitutes a problem. So instead of asking me, you should ask someone who is not interested in politics and then your question would be well-founded, and you would have the right to say, “Why, damn it, are you not interested?” (They laugh and the audience laughs.)
ELDERS: Well, yes, perhaps. Mr. Chomsky, we are all very interested to know your political objectives, especially in relation to your well-known anarcho-syndicalism or, as you formulated it, libertarian socialism. What are the most important goals of your libertarian socialism?
CHOMSKY: I’ll overcome to urge to answer the earlier very interesting question that you asked me and turn to this one. Let me begin by referring to something that we have already discussed, that is, if it is correct, as I believe it is, that a fundamental element of human nature is the need for creative work, for creative inquiry, for free creation without the arbitrary limiting effect of coercive institutions, then, of course, it will follow that a decent society should maximize the possibilities for this fundamental human characteristic to be realized. That means trying to overcome the elements of repression and oppression and destruction and coercion that exist in any existing society, ours for example, as a historical residue. Now any form of coercion or repression, any form of autocratic control of some domain of existence, let’s say, private ownership of capital or state control of some aspects of human life, any such autocratic restriction on some area of human endeavour, can be justified, if at all, only in terms of the need for subsistence, or the need for survival, or the need for defense against some horrible fate or something of that sort. It cannot be justified intrinsically. Rather it must be overcome and eliminated. And I think that, at least in the technologically advanced societies of the West, we are now certainly in a position where meaningless drudgery can very largely be eliminated, and to the marginal extent that it’s necessary, can be shared among the population; where centralized autocratic control of, in the first place, economic institutions, by which I mean either private capitalism or state totalitarianism or the various mixed forms of state capitalism that exist here and there, has become a destructive vestige of history. They are all vestiges that have to be overthrown, eliminated in favor of direct participation in the form of workers’ councils or other free associations that individuals will constitute themselves for the purpose of their social existence and their productive labor. Now a federated, decentralized system of free associations, incorporating economic as well as other social institutions, would be what I refer to as anarcho-syndicalism; and it seems to me that this is the appropriate form of social organization for an advanced technological society, in which human beings do not have to be forced into the position of tools, of cogs in the machine. There is no longer any social necessity for human beings to be treated as mechanical elements in the productive process; that can be overcome and we must overcome it by a society of freedom and free association, in which the creative urge that I consider intrinsic to human nature will in fact be able to realize itself in whatever way it will. And again, like Mr. Foucault, I don’t see how any human being can fail to be interested in this question. (Foucault laughs.)
ELDERS: Do you believe, Mr. Foucault, that we can call our societies in any way democratic, after listening to this statement from Mr. Chomsky?
FOUCAULT: No, I don’t have the least belief that one could consider our society democratic. (Laughs.) If one understands by democracy the effective exercise of power by a population which is neither divided nor hierarchically ordered in classes, it is quite clear that we are very far from democracy. It is only too clear that we are living under a regime of a dictatorship of class, of a power of class which imposes itself by violence, even when the instruments of this violence are institutional and constitutional; and to that degree, there isn’t any question of democracy for us. Well. When you asked me why I was interested in politics, I refused to answer because it seemed evident to me, but perhaps your question was, How am I interested in it? And had you asked me that question, and in a certain sense I could say you have, I would say to you that I am much less advanced in my way, I go much less far than Mr. Chomsky. That is to say that I admit to not being able to define, nor for even stronger reasons to propose, an ideal social model for the functioning of our scientific or technological society. On the other hand, one of the tasks that seems immediate and urgent to me, over and above anything else, is this: that we should indicate and show up, even where they are hidden, all the relationships of political power which actually control the social body and oppress or repress it. What I want to say is this: it is the custom, at least in European society, to consider that power is localized in the hands of the government and that it is exercised through a certain number of particular institutions, such as the administration, the police, the army, and the apparatus of the state. One knows that all these institutions are made to elaborate and to transmit a certain number of decisions, in the name of the nation or of the state, to have them applied and to punish those who don’t obey. But I believe that political power also exercises itself through the mediation of a certain number of institutions which look as if they have nothing in common with the political power, and as if they are independent of it, while they are not. One knows this in relation to the family; and one knows that the university, and in a general way, all teaching systems, which appear simply to disseminate knowledge, are made to maintain a certain social class in power; and to exclude the instruments of power of another social class. Institutions of knowledge, of foresight and care, such as medicine, also help to support the political power. It’s also obvious, even to the point of scandal, in certain cases related to psychiatry. It seems to me that the real political task in a society such as ours is to criticize the workings of institutions, which appear to be both neutral and independent; to criticize and attack them in such a manner that the political violence which has always exercised itself obscurely through them will be unmasked, so that one can fight against them. This critique and this fight seem essential to me for different reasons: first, because political power goes much deeper than one suspects; there are centers and invisible, little-known points of support; its true resistance, its true solidity is perhaps where one doesn’t expect it. Probably it’s insufficient to say that behind the governments, behind the apparatus of the state, there is the dominant class; one must locate the point of activity, the places and forms in which its domination is exercised. And because this domination is not simply the expression in political terms of economic exploitation, it is its instrument and, to a large extent, the condition which makes it possible; the suppression of the one is achieved through the exhaustive discernment of the other. Well, if one fails to recognize these points of support of class power, one risks allowing them to continue to exist; and to see this class power reconstitute itself even after an apparent revolutionary process.
CHOMSKY: Yes, I would certainly agree with that, not only in theory but also in action. That is, there are two intellectual tasks: one, and the one that I was discussing, is to try to create the vision of a future just society; that is to create, if you like, a humanistic social theory that is based, if possible, on some firm and humane concept of the human essence or human nature. That’s one task. Another task is to understand very clearly the nature of power and oppression and terror and destruction in our own society. And that certainly includes the institutions you mentioned, as well as the central institutions of any industrial society, namely the economic, commercial and financial institutions and in particular, in the coming period, the great multinational corporations, which are not very far from us physically tonight (i.e., Philips at Eindhoven). Those are the basic institutions of oppression and coercion and autocratic rule that appear to be neutral despite everything they say: well, we’re subject to the democracy of the marketplace, and that must be understood precisely in terms of their autocratic power, including the particular form of autocratic control that comes from the domination of market forces in an inegalitarian society. Surely we must understand these facts, and not only understand them but combat them. And in fact, as far as one’s own political involvements are concerned, in which one spends the majority of one’s energy and effort, it seems to me that they must certainly be in that area. I don’t want to get personal about it, but my own certainly are in that area, and I assume everyone’s are. Still, I think it would be a great shame to put aside entirely the somewhat more abstract and philosophical task of trying to draw the connections between a concept of human nature that gives full scope to freedom and dignity and creativity and other fundamental human characteristics, and to relate that to some notion of social structure in which those properties could be realized and in which meaningful human life could take place. And in fact, if we are thinking of social transformation or social revolution, though it would be absurd, of course, to try to sketch out in detail the goal that we are hoping to reach, still we should know something about where we think we are going, and such a theory may tell it to us.
FOUCAULT: Yes, but then isn’t there a danger here? If you say that a certain human nature exists, that this human nature has not been given in actual society the rights and the possibilities which allow it to realize itself . . . that’s really what you have said, I believe.
FOUCAULT: And if one admits that, doesn’t one risk defining this human nature—which is at the same time ideal and real, and has been hidden and repressed until now—in terms borrowed from our society, from our civilization, from our culture? I will take an example by greatly simplifying it. The socialism of a certain period, at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, admitted in effect that in capitalist societies man hadn’t realized the full potential for his development and self-realization; that human nature was effectively alienated in the capitalist system. And it dreamed of an ultimately liberated human nature. What model did it use to conceive, project, and eventually realize that human nature? It was in fact the bourgeois model. It considered that an alienated society was a society which, for example, gave pride of place to the benefit of all, to a sexuality of a bourgeois type, to a family of a bourgeois type, to an aesthetic of a bourgeois type. And it is moreover very true that this has happened in the Soviet Union and in the popular democracies: a kind of society has been reconstituted which has been transposed from the bourgeois society of the nineteenth century. The universalization of the model of the bourgeois has been the utopia which has animated the constitution of Soviet society. The result is that you, too, realized, I think, that it is difficult to say exactly what human nature is. Isn’t there a risk that we will be led into error? Mao Tse-Tung spoke of bourgeois human nature and proletarian human nature, and he considers that they are not the same thing.
CHOMSKY: Well, you see, I think that in the intellectual domain of political action, that is the domain of trying to construct a vision of a just and free society on the basis of some notion of human nature, we face the very same problem that we face in immediate political action, namely, that of being impelled to do something, because the problems are so great, and yet knowing that whatever we do is on the basis of a very partial understanding of the social realities, and the human realities in this case. For example, to be quite concrete, a lot of my own activity really has to do with the Vietnam War, and some of my own energy goes into civil disobedience. Well, civil disobedience in the U.S. is an action undertaken in the face of considerable uncertainties about its effects. For example, it threatens the social order in ways which might, one might argue, bring about fascism; and that would be a very bad thing for America, for Vietnam, for Holland, and for everyone else. You know, if a great Leviathan like the United States were really to become fascist, a lot of problems would result; so that is one danger in undertaking this concrete act. On the other hand there is a great danger in not undertaking it, namely, if you don’t undertake it, the society of Indochina will be torn to shreds by American power. In the face of these uncertainties one has to choose a course of action. Well, similarly in the intellectual domain, one is faced with the uncertainties that you correctly pose. Our concept of human nature is certainly limited; it’s partially socially conditioned, constrained by our own character defects and the limitations of the intellectual culture in which we exist. Yet at the same time it is of critical importance that we know what impossible goals we’re trying to achieve, if we hope to achieve some of the possible goals. And that means that we have to be bold enough to speculate and create social theories on the basis of partial knowledge, while remaining very open to the strong possibility, and in fact overwhelming probability, that at least in some respects we’re very far off the mark.
ELDERS: Well, perhaps it would be interesting to delve a little deeper into this problem of strategy. I suppose that what you call civil disobedience is probably the same as what we call extra-parliamentary action?
CHOMSKY: No, I think it goes beyond that. Extra-parliamentary action would include, let’s say, a mass legal demonstration, but civil disobedience is narrower than all extra-parliamentary action, in that it means direct defiance of what is alleged, incorrectly in my view, by the state to be law.
ELDERS: So, for example, in the case of Holland, we had something like a population census. One was obliged to answer questions on official forms. You would call it civil disobedience if one refused to fill in the forms?
CHOMSKY: Right. I would be a little bit careful about that, because, going back to a very important point that Mr. Foucault made, one does not necessarily allow the state to define what is legal. Now the state has the power to enforce a certain concept of what is legal, but power doesn’t imply justice or even correctness; so that the state may define something as civil disobedience and may be wrong in doing so. For example, in the United States the state defines it as civil disobedience to, let’s say, derail an ammunition train that’s going to Vietnam; and the state is wrong in defining that as civil disobedience, because it’s legal and proper and should be done. It’s proper to carry out actions that will prevent the criminal acts of the state, just as it is proper to violate a traffic ordinance in order to prevent a murder. 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. Similarly, a good deal of what the state authorities define as civil disobedience is not really civil disobedience: in fact, it’s legal, obligatory behavior in violation of the commands of the state, which may or may not be legal commands. So one has to be rather careful about calling things illegal, I think.
(I wonder what would whistleblowers say today)
FOUCAULT: Yes, but I would like to ask you a question. When, in the United States, you commit an illegal act, do you justify it in terms of justice or of a superior legality, or do you justify it by the necessity of the class struggle, which is at the present time essential for the proletariat in their struggle against the ruling class?
CHOMSKY: Well, here I would like to take the point of view which is taken by the American Supreme Court and probably other courts in such circumstances; that is, to try to settle the issue on the narrowest possible grounds. I would think that ultimately it would make very good sense, in many cases, to act against the legal institutions of a given society, if in so doing you’re striking at the sources of power and oppression in that society. However, to a very large extent existing law represents certain human values, which are decent human values: and existing law, correctly interpreted, permits much of what the state commands you not to do. And I think it’s important to exploit the areas of law which are properly formulated and then perhaps to act directly against those areas of law which simply ratify some system of power.
FOUCAULT: My question, my question was this: when you commit a clearly illegal act . . .
CHOMSKY: . . . which I regard as illegal, not just the state.
FOUCAULT: No, no, well, the state’s . . .
CHOMSKY: . . . that the state regards as illegal . . .
FOUCAULT: . . . that the state considers as illegal. Are you committing this act in virtue of an ideal justice, or because the class struggle makes it useful and necessary? Do you refer to ideal justice, that’s my problem.
CHOMSKY: Again, very often when I do something which the state regards as illegal, I regard it as legal: that is, I regard the state as criminal. But in some instances that’s not true. Let me be quite concrete about it and move from the area of class war to imperialist war, where the situation is somewhat clearer and easier. Take international law, a very weak instrument as we know, but nevertheless one that incorporates some very interesting principles. Well, international law is, in many respects, the instrument of the powerful: it is a creation of states and their representatives. In developing the presently existing body of international law, there was no participation by mass movements of peasants. The structure of international law reflects that fact; that is, international law permits much too wide a range of forceful intervention in support of existing power structures that define themselves as states against the interests of masses of people who happen to be organized in opposition to states. Now that’s a fundamental defect of international law and I think one is justified in opposing that aspect of international law as having no validity, as having no more validity than the divine right of kings. It’s simply an instrument of the powerful to retain their power. But, in fact, international law is not solely of that kind. And in fact there are interesting elements of international law, for example, embedded in the Nuremberg principles and the United Nations Charter, which permit, in fact, I believe, require the citizen to act against his own state in ways which the state will falsely regard as criminal. Nevertheless, he’s acting legally, because international law also happens to prohibit the threat or use of force in international affairs, except under some very narrow circumstances, of which, for example, the war in Vietnam is not one. This means that in the particular case of the Vietnam War, which interests me most, the American state is acting in a criminal capacity. And the people have the right to stop criminals from committing murder. Just because the criminal happens to call your action illegal when you try to stop him, it doesn’t mean it is illegal. A perfectly clear case of that is the present case of the Pentagon Papers in the United States, which, I suppose, you know about. Reduced to its essentials and forgetting legalisms, what is happening is that the state is trying to prosecute people for exposing its crimes. That’s what it amounts to. Now, obviously that’s absurd, and one must pay no attention whatsoever to that distortion of any reasonable judicial process. Furthermore, I think that the existing system of law even explains why it is absurd. But if it didn’t, we would then have to oppose that system of law.
FOUCAULT: So it is in the name of a purer justice that you criticize the functioning of justice? There is an important question for us here. It is true that in all social struggles, there is a question of “justice.” To put it more precisely, the fight against class justice, against its injustice, is always part of the social struggle: to dismiss the judges, to change the tribunals, to amnesty the condemned, to open the prisons, has always been part of social transformations as soon as they become slightly violent. At the present time in France the function of justice and the police is the target of many attacks from those whom we call the “gauchistes.” But if justice is at stake in a struggle, then it is as an instrument of power; it is not in the hope that finally one day, in this or another society, people will be rewarded according to their merits, or punished according to their faults. Rather than thinking of the social struggle in terms of “justice,” one has to emphasize justice in terms of the social struggle.
CHOMSKY: Yeah, but surely you believe that your role in the war is a just role, that you are fighting a just war, to bring in a concept from another domain. And that, I think, is important. If you thought that you were fighting an unjust war, you couldn’t follow that line of reasoning. I would like to slightly reformulate what you said. It seems to me that the difference isn’t between legality and ideal justice; it’s rather between legality and better justice. I would agree that we are certainly in no position to create a system of ideal justice, just as we are in no position to create an ideal society in our minds. We don’t know enough and we’re too limited and too biased and all sorts of other things. But we are in a position—and we must act as sensitive and responsible human beings in that position—to imagine and move towards the creation of a better society and also a better system of justice. Now this better system will certainly have its defects. But if one compares the better system with the existing system, without being confused into thinking that our better system is the ideal system, we can then argue, I think, as follows: The concept of legality and the concept of justice are not identical; they’re not entirely distinct either. Insofar as legality incorporates justice in this sense of better justice, referring to a better society, then we should follow and obey the law, and force the state to obey the law, and force the great corporations to obey the law, and force the police to obey the law, if we have the power to do so. Of course, in those areas where the legal system happens to represent not better justice, but rather the techniques of oppression that have been codified in a particular autocratic system, well, then a reasonable human being should disregard and oppose them, at least in principle; he may not, for some reason, do it in fact.
FOUCAULT: But I would merely like to reply to your first sentence, in which you said that if you didn’t consider the war you make against the police to be just, you wouldn’t make it. I would like to reply to you in terms of Spinoza and say that the proletariat doesn’t wage war against the ruling class because it considers such a war to be just. The proletariat makes war with the ruling class because, for the first time in history, it wants to take power. And because it will overthrow the power of the ruling class, it considers such a war to be just.
CHOMSKY: Yeah, I don’t agree.
FOUCAULT: One makes war to win, not because it is just.
CHOMSKY: I don’t, personally, agree with that. For example, if I could convince myself that attainment of power by the proletariat would lead to a terrorist police state, in which freedom and dignity and decent human relations would be destroyed, then I wouldn’t want the proletariat to take power. In fact the only reason for wanting any such thing, I believe, is because one thinks, rightly or wrongly, that some fundamental human values will be achieved by that transfer of power.
FOUCAULT: When the proletariat takes power, it may be quite possible that the proletariat will exert towards the classes over which it has just triumphed, a violent, dictatorial, and even bloody power. I can’t see what objection one could make to this. But if you ask me what would be the case if the proletariat exerted bloody, tyrannical, and unjust power towards itself, then I would say that this could only occur if the proletariat hadn’t really taken power, but that a class outside the proletariat, a group of people inside the proletariat, a bureaucracy, or petit bourgeois elements had taken power.
CHOMSKY: Well, I’m not at all satisfied with that theory of revolution for a lot of reasons, historical and others. But even if one were to accept it for the sake of argument, still that theory maintains that it is proper for the proletariat to take power and exercise it in a violent and bloody and unjust fashion, because it is claimed, and in my opinion falsely, that that will lead to a more just society, in which the state will wither away, in which the proletariat will be a universal class, and so on and so forth. If it weren’t for that future justification, the concept of a violent and bloody dictatorship of the proletariat would certainly be unjust. Now this is another issue, but I’m very sceptical about the idea of a violent and bloody dictatorship of the proletariat, especially when expressed by self-appointed representatives of a vanguard party, who, we have enough historical experience to know and might have predicted in advance, will simply be the new rulers over this society.
FOUCAULT: Yes, but I haven’t been talking about the power of the proletariat, which in itself would be an unjust power; you are right in saying that this would obviously be too easy. I would like to say that the power of the proletariat could, in a certain period, imply violence and a prolonged war against a social class over which its triumph or victory was not yet totally assured.
CHOMSKY: Well, look, I’m not saying there is an absolute. . . . For example, I am not a committed pacifist. I would not hold that it is under all imaginable circumstances wrong to use violence, even though use of violence is in some sense unjust. I believe that one has to estimate relative justices. But the use of violence and the creation of some degree of injustice can only be justified on the basis of the claim and the assessment—which always ought to be undertaken very, very seriously and with a good deal of skepticism—that this violence is being exercised because a more just result is going to be achieved. If it does not have such a grounding, it is really totally
immoral, in my opinion.
FOUCAULT: I don’t think that as far as the aim which the proletariat proposes for itself in leading a class struggle is concerned, it would be sufficient to say that it is in itself a greater justice. What the proletariat will achieve by expelling the class which is at present in power and by taking over power itself, is precisely the suppression of the power of class in general.
CHOMSKY: Okay, but that’s the further justification.
FOUCAULT: That is the justification, but one doesn’t speak in
terms of justice but in terms of power.
CHOMSKY: But it is in terms of justice; it’s because the end that will be achieved is claimed as a just one. No Leninist or whatever you like would dare to say, “We, the proletariat, have a right to take power, and then throw everyone else into crematoria.” If that were the consequence of the proletariat taking power, of course it would not be appropriate. The idea is—and for the reasons I mentioned I’m sceptical about it—that a period of violent dictatorship, or perhaps violent and bloody dictatorship, is justified because it will mean the submergence and termination of class oppression, a proper end to achieve in human life; it is because of that final qualification that the whole enterprise might be justified. Whether it is or not is another issue.
FOUCAULT: If you like, I will be a little bit Nietzschean about this; in other words, it seems to me that the idea of justice in itself is an idea which in effect has been invented and put to work in different types of societies as an instrument of a certain political and economic power or as a weapon against that power. But it seems to me that, in any case, the notion of justice itself functions within a society of classes as a claim made by the oppressed class and as justification for it.
CHOMSKY: I don’t agree with that.
FOUCAULT: And in a classless society, I am not sure that we would still use this notion of justice.
CHOMSKY: Well, here I really disagree. I think there is some sort of an absolute basis—if you press me too hard I’ll be in trouble, because I can’t sketch it out—ultimately residing in fundamental human qualities, in terms of which a “real” notion of justice is grounded. I think it’s too hasty to characterize our existing systems of justice as merely systems of class oppression; I don’t think that they are that. I think that they embody systems of class oppression and elements of other kinds of oppression, but they also embody a kind of groping towards the true humanly valuable concepts of justice and decency and love and kindness and sympathy, which I think are real. And I think that in any future society, which will, of course, never be the perfect society, we’ll have such concepts again, which we hope, will come closer to incorporating a defense of fundamental human needs, including such needs as those for solidarity and sympathy and whatever, but will probably still reflect in some manner the inequities and the elements of oppression of the existing society. However, I think what you’re describing only holds for a very different kind of situation. For example, let’s take a case of national conflict. Here are two societies, each trying to destroy the other. No question of justice arises. The only question that arises is, Which side are you on? Are you going to defend your own society and destroy the other? I mean, in a certain sense, abstracting away from a lot of historical problems, that’s what faced the soldiers who were massacring each other in the trenches in the First World War. They were fighting for nothing. They were fighting for the right to destroy each other. And in that kind of circumstance no questions of justice arise. And of course there were rational people, most of them in jail, like Karl Liebknecht, for example, who pointed that out and were in jail because they did so, or Bertrand Russell, to take another example on the other side. There were people who understood that there was no point to that mutual massacre in terms of any sort of justice and that they ought to just call it off. Now those people were regarded as madmen or lunatics and criminals or whatever, but of course they were the only sane people around. And in such a circumstance, the kind that you describe, where there is no question of justice, just the question of who’s going to win a struggle to the death, then I think the proper human reaction is: call it off, don’t win either way, try to stop it—and of course if you say that, you’ll immediately be thrown in jail or killed or something of that sort, the fate of a lot of rational people. But I don’t think that’s the typical situation in human affairs, and I don’t think that’s the situation in the case of class conflict or social revolution. There I think that one can and must give an argument, if you can’t give an argument you should extract yourself from the struggle. Give an argument that the social revolution that you’re trying to achieve is in the ends of justice, is in the ends of realizing fundamental human needs, not merely in the ends of putting some other group into power, because they want it.
FOUCAULT: Well, do I have time to answer?
FOUCAULT: How much? Because . . .
ELDERS: Two minutes. (Foucault laughs.)
FOUCAULT: But I would say that that is unjust. (Everybody laughs.)
CHOMSKY: Absolutely, yes.
FOUCAULT: No, but I don’t want to answer in so little time. I would simply say this, that finally this problem of human nature, when put simply in theoretical terms, hasn’t led to an argument between us; ultimately we understand each other very well on these theoretical problems. On the other hand, when we discussed the problem of human nature and political problems, then differences arose between us. And contrary to what you think, you can’t prevent me from believing that these notions of human nature, of justice, of the realization of the essence of human beings, are all notions and concepts which have been formed within our civilization, within our type of knowledge and our form of philosophy, and that as a result form part of our class system; and one can’t, however regrettable it may be, put forward these notions to describe or justify a fight which should—and shall in principle—overthrow the very fundaments of our society. This is an extrapolation for which I can’t find the historical justification. That’s the point . . .
CHOMSKY: It’s clear.
ELDERS: Mr. Foucault, if you were obliged to describe our actual society in pathological terms, which of its kinds of madness would most impress you?
FOUCAULT: In our contemporary society?
FOUCAULT: If I were to say with which malady contemporary society is most afflicted?
FOUCAULT: The definition of disease and of the insane, and the classification of the insane have been made in such a way as to exclude from our society a certain number of people. If our society characterized itself as insane, it would exclude itself. It pretends to do so for reasons of internal reform. Nobody is more conservative than those people who tell you that the modern world is afflicted by nervous anxiety or schizophrenia. It is in fact a cunning way of excluding certain people or certain patterns of behavior. So I don’t think that one can, except as a metaphor or a game, validly say that our society is schizophrenic or paranoid, unless one gives these words a non-psychiatric meaning. But if you were to push me to an extreme, I would say that our society has been afflicted by a disease, a very curious, a very paradoxical disease, for which we haven’t yet found a name; and this mental disease has a very curious symptom, which is that the symptom itself brought the mental disease into being. There you have it.