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Two concepts from Michel Foucault’s philosophical work can help us understand and illuminate Baha’u’llah’s remarkable revelatory teachings on global governance.
The first is governmentality, to be understood as what Foucault called the “conduct of conduct.” That phrase refers to a system of ordered procedures, consisting of rationalities and mentalities, along with tactics and techniques, for properly governing human society.
Foucault’s proposed system of governmentality imagined a way for humanity to administer its affairs, attempting to render obsolete the traditional command-obedience models societies have been governed by in the past. Rather than rule by dictate, violence, or absolute necessity, Foucault proposed “the way[s] in which the conduct of individuals or groups might be directed” — without necessarily resorting to brute force.
Few governments in human history have managed that feat. Today, with our world contracted into a virtual neighborhood, humankind desperately needs a mode of non-violent governance – but how can we achieve it?
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Foucault conceived his system of governmentality during the middle of the 20th century, approximately a hundred years after Baha’u’llah revealed the Baha’i teachings on the oneness of humanity and global governance. Foucault, an advocate against racism and for universal human rights, often reflected those Baha’i themes in his philosophy, perhaps without knowing it. For example, Baha’u’llah wrote:
The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens. … In all circumstances one should seize upon every means which will promote security and tranquillity among the peoples of the world. … If the learned and wise men of goodwill were to impart guidance unto the people, the whole earth would be regarded as one country. Verily this is the undoubted truth.
Baha’u’llah also advised the kings and rulers of the world’s nations to lay down their arms and cease waging war against each other. He denounced and abrogated rule by force and counseled rule by the consent of the governed. These goals, which have now become the goals of many of the world’s philosophers including Foucault, raise a new challenge for humanity.
How Can We Govern/Conduct without Force?
Foucault’s approach to governance, or what he calls “conduct of conduct,” applies to the ways people govern, or as the case may be conduct themselves. Those various ways can assume different shapes and forms depending on their cultural context, or as Foucault would call it, “conditions of possibility.” In this way, Foucault’s thinking can illuminate the richness, relevance and implications of Baha’u’llah’s teachings where global governance is concerned.
We can discover a vantage point for forging the contours and implications of Baha’u’llah’s assertions grounded in Foucault’s thoughts by examining a concept that lies at the core of Baha’u’llah’s conceptual formation for a global governmentality, namely the concept of “upright conduct.” Baha’u’llah wrote “… man’s glory lieth in his knowledge, his upright conduct, his praiseworthy character, his wisdom, and not in his nationality or rank.”
Foucault embraces the conduct of conduct, or governmentality, as a mode of “schematization peculiar to a particular technology of government.” This concept of “upright conduct” presupposes a system of human governance without corruption and without resort to unnecessary brute force – indeed, upright governmentality. Baha’u’llah’s writings contain an entire constellation of techniques and tactics for governing whose full implementation will, he promises, bring about a global order marked by “the Most Great Peace,” one wherein “wars and disputes shall cease” and “the bonds of affection and unity” among humanity will be forged, thereby ushering in a new order of peaceful international relations.
We can view upright conduct or governmentality, then, as a combination of political and spiritual rationalities and technologies and tactics of governance, based on an ethical system of care for humanity predicated upon the principle of what Baha’u’llah calls the oneness of humankind. Abdu’l-Baha, the son and successor of Baha’u’llah, explained why this global upright governmentality might also be viewed as a mode of perfect conduct. “Every imperfect soul,” governmental or otherwise, he wrote:
… is self-centred and thinketh only of his own good. But as his thoughts expand a little he will begin to think of the welfare and comfort of his family. If his ideas still more widen, his concern will be the felicity of his fellow citizens; and if still they widen, he will be thinking of the glory of his land and of his race. But when ideas and views reach the utmost degree of expansion and attain the stage of perfection, then will he be interested in the exaltation of humankind. He will then be the well-wisher of all men and the seeker of the weal and prosperity of all lands. This is indicative of perfection.
This global system of governmentality based on upright conduct, in terms of its political and institutional functionality, represents a “sword … sharper than blades of steel” as Baha’u’llah described it. It is “the straight path” leading toward a “fixed and immovable foundation” for the advent of a new global order capable of establishing true and lasting universal peace. The Baha’i teachings view this constellational global governmentality as the one agency that can potentially bring about, and by implication achieve, the unification and peace of the world.
This discussion leads us to a critical question: how can human beings, with our history of less-than-upright conduct in the governance of our species, possibly learn to walk upright morally and, above all, governmentally? In the next essay in this series, we’ll examine the answers to that important question by analyzing and examining the writings of Baha’u’llah and Foucault.