‘Listen to our thoughts’
: counter-conduct, genealogy and the politics of democratic dissent

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


Michel Foucault’s historical studies of sovereignty, subjectivity and government represent some of the most important contributions to contemporary critical theory. Through an analytic of war, Foucault’s genealogical method reveals the violence written into the constitution of the modern nation-state and uncovers the relations of power embedded in the recognition of citizenship. But whilst these Foucauldian genealogies offer an insightful critique of Enlightenment political reason and the autonomous subject, the question emerges: what is left for those individuals outside of the academy, on the streets – struggling for rights, demanding equality and justice, and asserting themselves as democratic citizens? By employing discourses integral to the operation of modern government, these acts of courage might be interpreted as inadvertently bolstering relations of domination and subjectification. Motivated by empirical insights gained during the 2014 Umbrella Movement protests in Hong Kong – where protesters claimed rights, demanded rule of law and asserted themselves as responsible citizens – this thesis seeks to rethink a Foucauldian analysis of democratic dissent via Foucault’s notion of ‘counter-conduct.’ This concept embodies resistance to governmentality and represents an emerging trend in governmentality studies and protest research. However, this thesis argues that counter-conduct research has thus far failed to acknowledge the significance of the concept as part of a historical genealogical method. This methodological drift has important political implications, leading to the structural reification of liberal government in ways that dampen political agency and foreclose the radical and creative potential immanent to discourses of rights, law and citizenship. Rehabilitating counter-conduct as part of a dynamic genealogical method, one that emphasises struggle and contingency, this thesis innovates a Foucauldian analysis of democratic dissent in dialogue with the struggle in Hong Kong. Exploring an ‘effective history’ of Hong Kong, this analysis unpacks the political and ethical content within discourses of rights, rule of law and citizenship, and excavates a history of struggle within the strategic field of government. This genealogy provides the lens through which to reconsider the contemporary struggle in Hong Kong in terms of creative counter-conduct, as a tactical and immanent critique. Throughout, this analysis argues that Foucault had a more ambivalent relationship to the politics of right, law and citizenship than is implied by his genealogies. This thesis also enters into a dialogue with the democratic politics of Jacques Rancière, suggesting an egalitarian ethos at work in Foucault’s approach to critique.
Date of Award12 Dec 2016
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorNeville Bolt (Supervisor) & David Betz (Supervisor)

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