Alain Beaulieu published recently a paper (1) in which he argues that Foucault’s short lived engagement with the Iranian revolution had an influence on the ‘ethical turn’ that characterizes the last stage of his work. He claims that ‘The discovery of spirituality (Iran), the valorization of an autonomous subject (Kant) and the call for a tolerant environment towards minority practices (liberalism) pave the way for the later Foucault’s ethics, which are grounded in spiritual exercises and means of liberating the subject’. (801)
Baulieu starts from the accepted division of Foucault’s intellectual development in three distinct stages: archaeology, genealogy and ethics, but criticizes the lack of an explanation for the shift from a genealogical paradigm (Surveiller et Punir  and the first volume of Histoire de la Sexualite ) to the ethical paradigm, represented by the second and third volumes of Histoire de la Sexualite (1984). He claims to have found this explanation in three apparently unconnected developments. One, that relates to Foucault’s activity as a journalist covering the the early stages of the Iranian Revolution and his subsequent estrangement from the development in Iran. The second, relates to Foucault interest on the liberal tradition, which he explored in the lectures in the College of France in school year 1978 and 1979. And the third is marked by Foucault’s return to Kant and the question of the Enlightenment, which are subject matter of three lectures, These three developments are interconnected. ‘Together they define the grounds from which Foucault’s ethics would emerge’.
Regarding the Iranian experience, about which he was subsequently silent, Beaulieu finds that Foucault while critique of the outcomes of the Iranian revolution, did not reject altogether the uprising against the Shah. He remained attached to a notion of spirituality which he first found in Iran during the Revolution. Beaulieu further claims that Foucault’s later meditation on ethics are in fact ‘a continuation of his search for a revolutionary form of spirituality’ (805). He even suggest that in fact Foucault could be trying to create a synthesis between the kind of spirituality that he discovered in Iran with the liberal traditions and with Kant (who is also a liberal thinker) borrowing the best from each, to better criticize the rationalities that govern us (807).
A possible objection to Beauleu’s argument is the difference between the kind of spirituality which Foucault found in his travel in revolutionary Iran (mostly of a collective and theocentric nature) and the spirituality Foucault was to describe latter in his studies of the late classical philosophy and early Christianity, which was centered in the individual or in the close relationship between master and disciple. Possibly to counter this counter-argument, Beaulieu claims that Foucault’s interest in Western spiritual practices can be seen as a correction to his precedent and uncritical enthusiasm for the Iranian revolutionaries. Now the argument runs: the synthesis is not between Iranian spirituality and Liberalism, but between western spirituality and Liberalism.
Beaulieu claims that in the course in 1978 and 1979 in the CdF Foucault attempted to develop an Utopian vision of society, one in which ‘tolerance of minority practices will increase’ (814). But Foucault’s analysis remained programmatic. Two crucial texts that remain unpublished, the transcription of the Foucault’s lectures in 1979 (Du Gouvernement des Vivants) and 1980 (Subjectivite et Verite) may contain additional developments that confirm Beaulieu’s interpretation.
Interestingly, Beaulieu quotes from a dialogue between Foucault and the Iranian writter Baqir Parham, where Foucault refers critically to the infatuation of Western intellectuals for the state and for Communism,
but does not mention Foucault’s comments regarding Vietnam and Cambodia (2). Foucault was active in support for refugees from Vietnam’s boat people, therefore it would be reasonable to assume that these tragedies affected Foucault’s view of politics, and of the role and duties of the intellectual when providing support to political and social causes. at least to the same extent as his disillusionment with the turn of events in Iran.
Beaulieu’s paper also calls attention to Foucault’s not well explored flirt with liberalism. This has been a matter of some controvery, particularly because of the criticism from Habermas and Nancy Fraser. It will be interesting to compare Foucault’s analysis with Habermas’ criticism of of the Wellfare State and of neo-conservativism in the early 80s.
(1) Alain Beaulieu, Towards a liberal Utopia: The connection between Foucault’s reporting on the Iran Revolution and the ethical turn, Philosophy and Social Criticism, 36 (7), pp. 801-819 (doi: 10.1177/0191453710372065).
(2) The interview is reproduced in Janet Afary, Kevin Anderson, Foucault and the Iranian Revolution: gender and the seductions of Islamism, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2005, p. 185 Beaulieu does not quote the subtitle of this book, which refers to what the authors see as Foucault’s highly problematic relationship to feminism (p. 5-6).