Foucault and neoliberalism

If you’re intellectually and ideologically eclectic, then you will find important ideas all over the map. It will not surprise you to learn that a person generally associated with the left has benefited from F.O. von Hayek or Gary Becker: leading libertarians. An excellent example is James C. Scott, who likes to call himself (I suspect partly for the frisson of it) “a crude Marxist,” but who has been deeply influenced by Hayek. Scott’s analysis of the high-modernist state is indispensable, however you choose to classify it.

On the other hand, if you’re a committed leftist intellectual, it may well come as a surprise to you that Michel Foucault read Hayek and Becker and said positive things about neoliberalism. That is the theme of Daniel Zamora’s forthcoming volume Critiquer Foucault: Les années 1980 et la tentation néolibérale. In the left magazine The Jacobin, Zamora presents it as puzzling and even potentially scandalous fact that Foucault should have showed “indulgence … toward neoliberalism.”

I do not know the relevant texts and statements by the late Foucault. But I think the affinity between Foucault’s style of critique and libertarianism is important although not very surprising, and I would understand it in the following contexts:

1. The “revolution” of May 1968 was led by activists and intellectuals who considered themselves Marxists and often especially favored Maoism. Yet their successful concrete demands were for greater individual freedom, especially vis-a-vis the state. They won a lower age of consent for sex (1974), abortion rights (1975), freedom of information (1978), and many other reforms traditionally recommended by classical liberals. They also reformed the state by reducing the power of the president, making elections more important, and strengthening NGOs. In Marxist terms, ’68 was a bourgeois revolution, not a proletarian one. So it shouldn’t be shocking that perhaps the greatest political thinker of ’68 was a bourgeois liberal (of a kind).

2. The most evident social issue of 19th century Europe was the oppression of the industrial working class. But economic growth made countries like France pervasively affluent by 1968. Industrial jobs had shrunk while social welfare programs and unions had improved the everyday life of those who still had such jobs–to the point where they could reasonably look like a kind of elite. As Zamora perceptively argues in the Jacobin article, the contrast between organized blue-collar workers and various “excluded” populations (new immigrants and disadvantaged racial minorities, the disabled, the very poor) became a central concern. But the “excluded” were not in a position to seize the commanding heights of the economy, or even to win elections, as the proletariat might have been in 1910. They were especially likely to suffer at the hands of the welfare state in poor schools, prisons, clinics, and conscripted armies. The neoliberal solution–reducing barriers to their market participation–might look more attractive than the traditional social-democratic solution of enrolling them in welfare programs that were sites of surveillance and discipline.

2. Many of the great disasters of the 20th century were attributable to high-modernist states that sought to count and measure society in order to control it–sometimes in the interest of laudable goals, like equality. One of the worst such states was Mao’s China, but French intellectuals of 1968 romanticized that regime as some kind of participatory democracy. Their misconception about China gradually faded, and in any case, China became capitalist. More to the point, the left intellectuals of Foucault’s generation were already able to see that other high modernist states were disastrous. It was appropriate and natural for the left to turn away from statism. But once they opposed the state, why should they not become libertarians? As Zamora asks in a follow-up article, “How could we seriously think that discrediting state action in the social domain and abandoning the very idea of social ‘rights’ constitutes progress toward thinking ‘beyond the welfare state’? All it has done is allow the welfare state’s destruction, not a glimpse of something ‘beyond.'” (An alternative could be anarchism, but anarchism in practice often looks like neoliberalism.)

3. Foucault and his generation emphasized a whole range of oppressions and invidious uses of power that might not arise between a capitalist and a worker but rather between a man and a woman, a parent and a child, a teacher and a student, a doctor and a patient, a white person and an immigrant, and other such pairings. They were correct to recognize these problems. But once oppression is seen as multifarious and omnipresent, we no longer want the working class to rule through the state or unions. Individual expressive freedom and various kinds of diversity become high priorities.

Zamora writes:

Foucault was highly attracted to economic liberalism: he saw in it the possibility of a form of governmentality that was much less normative and authoritarian than the socialist and communist left, which he saw as totally obsolete. He especially saw in neoliberalism a ‘much less bureaucratic’ and ‘much less disciplinarian’ form of politics than that offered by the postwar welfare state. He seemed to imagine a neoliberalism that wouldn’t project its anthropological models on the individual, that would offer individuals greater autonomy vis-à-vis the state.

Foucault “seemed to imagine” this because, indeed, a lightly regulated market economy in an affluent society is less bureaucratic than a social welfare state and does generate autonomy and diversity. Perhaps a market system also reshapes the human psyche in problematic ways. And certainly it generates unequal wealth. But for the reasons stated above, unequal wealth no longer seemed to be the primary domestic economic problem in a country like France ca. 1968. And if markets subtly shape the soul, states do so more blatantly and more uniformly.

To be clear, I am not a libertarian; I want states and other strongly organized bodies to promote equity as well as freedom. Also, I recognize that many people with egalitarian instincts have absorbed libertarian ideas without abandoning the state. They have read Hayek as well as Marx and Foucault. But I think the left still is still wrestling with the realities that led Foucault to say nice things about neoliberalism in his last years.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
This entry was posted in philosophy, revitalizing the left, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.
  • James Odell

    Why is Hayek constantly branded as a neo-liberal? He was one of the few (along with Mises and other Austrians) trying to keep classical liberalism alive. Neo-liberalism stems out of market failure theory, which ultimately both Keynesian and Chicago schools subscribe to (Chicago school are monetarists nonetheless.) Foucault’s Birth of Biopolitics puts it well: Both US and Post War German Neo-liberalism see an active role for government to preserve the market process. The government sets up “une sorte de tribunal économique permanent” as Foucault puts it. I don’t think Foucault ever thought kindly of neo-liberalism. However, he most likely sees insight in Hayek and marginally less so in Friedman as they inherit methodological insights from Binswanger and others from the psychological tradition whom Foucault himself was influenced by (Austrian school was also called the psychological school). In the area of democide (in areas of imperialism not so much), it doesn’t take a rocket scientist however to see that neo-liberalism is much less vulgar and murderous as authoritarian socialist states. And it would make sense that Foucault would warm up to neo-liberals as often they provided the best critiques authoritarian socialism. Foucault can’t deny structuralism when he sees it.

    • PeterLevine

      Does anyone call himself or herself a “neoliberal”? It seems to be almost always an epithet for critics to use. (I take your points in your comment, by the way.)

      • James Odell

        Hahaha indeed. I guess we can say anyone who agrees with me is a libertarian and anyone who disagrees with me is a neo-liberal. The confusing nomenclature is understandable. Post modern problems.

      • BooBooBoo

        Much like a “neocon”

  • marklevine

    Just fyi, Foucault was very dismissive of May 68, during which time he was in Tunis, where a student revolt was already in full swing for months that saw his students–and ultimately him as well–severely beaten by security forces, arrested, tortured, etc. He later said that experience profoundly shaped his understanding of power. There would, indeed, be no Discipline and Punish without his Tunisian experiences in 66-8. In comparison, he thought the Paris 68 kids were a bunch of spoiled brats who thought throwing a couple of molotov cocktails and inhaling a bit of tear gas equaled Maoist revolution, when his students were risking 25 years in jail if not death to win more rights.

    • PeterLevine

      Excellent to know! What’s the best biography that covers that period?

      • marklevine

        this is a good question. very few people thought it worth thinking about foucault in tunis but in fact it was a very crucial period for him. he wrote the archaeology of knowledge there. i talk about it and do others in a special issue of CELAAN, Vol. #12, issues 1-2, 2015 spring.