Cover of Foucault and the Politics of Rights by Ben Golder
Foucault and the Politics of Rights
Ben Golder


264 pages.
from $28.00

Hardcover ISBN: 9780804789349
Paperback ISBN: 9780804796491
Ebook ISBN: 9780804796514

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This book focuses on Michel Foucault's late work on rights in order to address broader questions about the politics of rights in the contemporary era. As several commentators have observed, something quite remarkable happens in this late work. In his early career, Foucault had been a great critic of the liberal discourse of rights. Suddenly, from about 1976 onward, he makes increasing appeals to rights in his philosophical writings, political statements, interviews, and journalism. He not only defends their importance; he argues for rights new and as-yet-unrecognized. Does Foucault simply revise his former positions and endorse a liberal politics of rights? Ben Golder proposes an answer to this puzzle, which is that Foucault approaches rights in a spirit of creative and critical appropriation. He uses rights strategically for a range of political purposes that cannot be reduced to a simple endorsement of political liberalism. Golder develops this interpretation of Foucault's work while analyzing its shortcomings and relating it to the approaches taken by a series of current thinkers also engaged in considering the place of rights in contemporary politics, including Wendy Brown, Judith Butler, and Jacques Rancière.

About the author

Ben Golder is Senior Lecturer at the Faculty of Law at the University of New South Wales, Australia.

"Even though I've now seen him do it, I'm still amazed that Golder has been able to pull off such a powerful and fresh rereading of Foucault, one so relevant for contemporary debates in theory and politics. I haven't been this excited about a new work on Foucault since I read David Halperin's tour de force, Saint Foucault, and that was almost twenty years ago. This is an absolute must-read for anyone interested in Foucault or in rights, and that is a huge swath of people."

—Samuel Chambers, The Johns Hopkins University

"This crucial project makes an impact at once scholarly and political with respect to the fraught status of contemporary rights discourse. By traversing political theory, critical legal theory, continental philosophy, and the voluminous literature on Michel Foucault, Ben Golder stakes out a novel account of how we should go about defending rights in a post-foundational era."

—Colin Koopman, University of Oregon

"This is a book which is not only beautifully conceived but gracefully written and through which Golder has made a remarkable intervention into the field of Foucault studies, human rights and political theory. I can see it being of immense value to researchers and students of Foucault on rights and on Foucauldian critique alike."

—Bal Sokhi-Bulley, Theory & Event

"Foucault and the Politics of Rights offers a methodical and close reading of Foucault's critical appropriation of rights thinking. It provides a persuasive exegesis, deftly showing how his specific critiques of political conditions evoked indeterminate rights to help resist particular forms of conduct. ... This book will appeal to students and scholars seeking an in-depth discussion of Foucault's broader framings of critique and power, as well as his later elicitations of ethics, subjects and rights. It also provides political activists with a reflexive, critical view of how human rights might be tactically or strategically envisaged within particular political struggles. For those tempted to yawn at the prospect of yet another tome on Foucault, I would recommend suppressing the urge: read the book and become submerged in a gathering of texts not often interpreted together. Its insightful probes will reward readers with absorbing ways to think differently about human rights that are now the lingua franca of dominant liberal political horizons."

—George Pavlich, Law and Society Review

"I really enjoyed this book. To the Foucault scholar, it presents a series of close readings of late texts that are generous, penetrating, and persuasive. To the critical lawyer, it offers a thoughtful Foucauldian appraisal of Verges' strategy of rupture in legal practice as theorized by Emilios Christodoulidis and others. To the scholar with an interest in human rights, it puts forward an important and thorough analysis of Foucault's practice and thinking on rights, and through discussion with Foucault and other thinkers it proposes some ideas and cautions for making use of rights in political practice. Written in clear, engaging English, with a rhythm and an excitement that draws you through to the end, it is an accessible and fascinating book on subjects of wide interest to us all."

—David Thomas, Law, Culture and the Humanities

"Ben Golder offers an invigorating new political defense of rights grounded in the works of Michel Foucault...this book offers a revitalized reading of Foucault's work in relation to rights and secondary Foucauldian scholars more generally. Foucault and the Politics of Rights is a meaningful contribution for both advocates and critics of Foucault alike due to its resistance to resort to a normative (liberal) definition of rights while still advocating that rights do something, and, accordingly, should not be overlooked by anyone in conversation with rights, politics and power. "

—Garrett Lecoq, Social & Legal Studies

"Golder clearly and convincingly responds to critics who would find in this late work a relinquishing of critique or collaboration with a quiescent liberalism. Very carefully drawing on Foucault's writings and lectures, Golder lucidly articulates Foucault's view of critique and shows how even when Foucault endorses a 'right to suicide' or argues against the death penalty, he considers rights discourse to be a tactic, deployed (or not) within a broader strategy of political aims... Golder's readings are scholarly, painstaking, and correct. His argument is an invaluable contribution to discussions that seek Foucault's legacy in theory (rather than looking, as some might, in the directions that Foucault's students have


—Marianne Constable, Canadian Journal of Law and Society

"Michel Foucault, a political actor and rights advocate? Making claims for the right to die, the rights of the governed, and rights to sexuality? This is a most unfamiliar Foucault for many, but it is the focus of Ben Golder's Foucault and the Politics of Rights. Breathing new life into somewhat stale debates about the political character of Foucault's work, Golder reveals a thinker and activist deeply committed to rights politics as well as to critiques of power and subjectivity. ... With this provocative account, Golder's work certainly deepens our understanding of Foucault's ideas in important ways. But so too does it shed light on the ongoing value of rights for contemporary politics, shaking up both the liberal faith in and the postmodern skepticism of rights in the process."

—Karen Zivi, Contemporary Political Theory

"Foucault and the Politics of Rights is an important book addressing important topics. Golder provides clear interpretations of central Foucauldian concerns and timely refutations of prominent misinterpretations of Foucault on rights. More importantly, Golder compellingly argues for the continuing relevance of Foucault's approach to rights, aside from any historical interest. For all of this, Foucault and the Politics of Rights is to be highly recommended."

—Jack Blaiklock Marx and Philosophy Review of Books


"Ben Golder's new book on Foucault and the Politics of Rights is a landmark text that engages with one of the most intriguing questions regarding Foucault's later work: did his turn to human rights represent a capitulation to the liberal project? Golder's answer is a resounding 'No' Golder's book is an innovative book and an exemplary contribution to Foucault studies, critical legal theory and human rights scholarship. It is a beautifully crafted and powerfully argued text that brings an important, original dimension to Foucault's work and his approach to human rights."

—Ratna Kapur, UNSW Law Journal

"Golder's argument unfolds over four chapters, framed by substantive introductory and concluding chapters[His] interpretative method offers us a strong model for Foucauldian analytics, beyond Foucault's own immediate concerns. This is Foucault studies at its best: using Foucault to go beyond Foucault."

—Andrew Dilts Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews

"In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Michel Foucault appealed to a truly astounding, if not dizzying, array of rights: the rights of prisoners, the right to asylum, human rights, the right to suicide, the rights of the governed, and relational rights. How are we to make sense of his appeals to these rights? What do they tell us about Foucault's commitments? How can they illuminate rights talk more generally? One of the many merits of Ben Golder's Foucault and the Politics of Rights is that it pursues these questions with an unparalleled depth, rigor, and eloquence... Golder not only masterfully distances Foucault's late rights talk from his putative embrace of liberalism, but also convincingly demonstrates that Foucault heralded a whole new praxis of rights."

—Marcelo Hoffman, New Political Science

"Foucault and the Politics of Rights is an excellent piece of scholarship that deserves the consideration of everyone interested in Foucault's work and in human rights."

—Ladelle McWhorter, Journal of Political Power

"Golder is one of the most original and innovative legal theorists working in Australia. His books and numerous essays demonstrate a consistent commitment to scholarly rigour and reflection on contemporary political problems. His work encapsulates Edward Said's idea of the intellectual as someone who accepts the responsibility to raise difficult questions, to confront orthodoxy and dogma (rather than to reproduce them) and who is prepared to challenge conventional wisdom...Golder's book is a major intervention in Foucauldian studies and research into the legalphilosophical dimensions of rights. It deserves to be read and to be taken seriously by legal scholars, including those unfamiliar with Foucault."

—Peter D. Burdon, Adelaide Law Review

"Did Foucault simply turn into a liberal humanist? Golder mounts a vigorous critique of this thesis. Not only is there more continuity with the earlier critiques of humanism and liberalism, but this continuity also tells us something about Foucault's very particular engagement with rights politicsBut, as Golder notes, we should be wary of drifting from an exposure of contingency into the assertion of the limitless malleability of rights. This is where the author takes the argument beyond much of the radical left literature on the subject"

—Christiaan Boonen, Political Studies Review

"Golder should be praised for producing a comprehensive and definitive treatment of Foucault on rights, and the book must become the touchstone for the reception of Foucault in legal studies."

—Mark G. E. Kelly, Law and Politics Book Review

"In this book Ben Golder provides perhaps the most comprehensive engagement with Foucault's thought in relation to human rights. Focusing on the late Foucault – the philosopher's increased attention to the concept of rights, his writings on ethics, and his political activism – Golder convincingly counters critics who have seen a certain about-face in Foucault's work: an apparent return to the humanist subject he so devastatingly dismantles in his earlier work...I think this is an immensely readable book that is a must for human rights scholars. For someone only superficially versed in Foucault, I found Golder's account accessible, informative, provocative, and compelling. It is an extremely useful resource for thinking through the tensions that many of us working in the field of human rights face regularly and deserves to be a key text for anyone studying this area."

—Kiran Grewal, Australian Journal Of Human Rights

"Golder's book is a remarkable achievement. In a clear, crisp, and enjoyable prose he is not only able to reject the mounting literature that attempts to interpret the late Foucault as a scholar who eventually naively followed the sirens of liberalism (or even neo-liberalism) but also to show his unsung centrality to the current critical legal field proper...One of the many qualities of Foucault and the Politics of Rights is to remind us that Foucault was not only interested in exploring the realm of the abstract but also in applying his ideas to more contingent and pressing issues making visible previously unperceived problems, and thus creating original theoretical tools to change our present. By focusing on a critical use of rights that, problematising the supposed harmony of the liberal legal narrative, could be deployed in our current legal environment, Golder's monograph is one of these tools, a brilliant book – nothing short of mandatory reading – for anybody interested in exploring how Foucauldian scholarship can prove immensely instrumental and innovative for legal thinking as a whole."

—Jacopo Martire, The Modern Law Review

"Foucault and the Politics of Rights by Ben Golder is a vital and insightful read because it speaks to many of the concerns voiced in contemporary critical disability scholarship and moves beyond these concerns to provide a theoretically informed approach to the instrumental use of human rights that is mindful of the risks and possibilities."

—Linda Steele, Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies

"Foucault and Rights is a masterly account and meticulous excavation of some of the deeper layers of Michel Foucault's thought, postulating and persuasively arguing for underlying coherences in the face of apparent surface inconsistencies. It is exemplary immanent critique: immanent because the aim is primarily to explore the internal theoretical resources of Foucault's thought to situate what he has to say about rights; and critique in a classical sense that does not immediately imply disagreement, still less hostility but is compatible with deeply sympathetic archaeological recovery and reconstruction; to use Golder's phrase from another context, 'critical affirmation'. The exegesis is assured, authoritative, intimately versed."

—Martin Krygier, Jotwell