Home » Article » Forgiving Foucault and Defining Neoliberalism

Forgiving Foucault and Defining Neoliberalism


“Economics is therefore not the analysis of processes; it is the analysis of an activity. So it is no longer the analysis of the historical logic of processes; it is the analysis of internal rationality, the strategic programming of individuals’ activity” (Foucault, M. The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1978-1979)

Late in 2014 an interview was conducted at Jacobin entitled “Can We Criticize Foucault?”, wherein sociologist Daniel Zamora posits that the late French philosopher – and subsequently rather a sacred cow in plenty of leftist circles – had in the last years of his life reconciled his own perspectives, to a previously unacknowledged degree, with the project of neoliberalism. The interview itself was related to the impending English translation of Critiquer Foucault: Les années 1980 et la tentation néolibérale, a collection of essays on the topic. Considering that the interview was necessarily a truncated series of propositions regarding Foucault’s relationship with neoliberalism, it was with mild surprise that a series of articles, some more irritated than others, sprung up in Foucault’s defence. The idea that Foucault might have taken seriously, even empathised, with the “new” liberalism is a provocative one, even when communicated in a largely speculative manner. Below I seek to extricate, from the debate that Zamora’s article prompted, a clearer understanding of why Foucault’s engagement with neoliberalism remains a traumatic issue for the left, and the enduring problem of defining neoliberalism.

An Uproar Over What?

“I wanted to clearly break with the far too consensual image of Foucault as being in total opposition to neoliberalism at the end of his life” is Zamora’s guiding challenge. Whether or not this “image” can accurately be described as “consensual” is however very much within the realm of contest. Many writers have explored Foucault’s relationship with neoliberalism before, and if the findings of such investigations have been varied and tentative, it is both unsurprising and surely a rebuttal to Zamora’s initial claim, that Foucault is consensually understood as an ardent anti-neoliberal. Unsurprising too because relatively speaking Foucault did not write extensively on the subject. Though the collection of lectures that make up The Birth of Biopoliticshave long been available in English, they remain just that, lectures which, by Foucault’s own admission, were less thorough and scripted as some listeners believed. Furthermore, Foucault claimed that his lectures functioned as only one of several steps in his writing process. Possible future publications from the archives aside, what we have – and what Zamora is using as his primary source – is less than exhaustive ruminations on a transformation of governance which was only recently starting to materially impose itself on Foucault’s world.

It is tempting to reflect on both the long-standing role of Foucault in the social sciences, and the particularities of Jacobin as a largely internet-based resource. The combination of notorious, omni-cited Foucault, and one of the more energetic examples of new media, appears to have encouraged a degree of hyperbole. The question of the title itself is an illustration; Foucault’s work has been dismissed nearly as often as it has been lauded, and in many cases from thinkers associated with the left. This tendency towards clickbait aside, the controversy of the article remains a mystery, at least until we swap its terms. If we can patently criticize Foucault, and have done so many times in the recent past, the reverse question must be: “Can we praise neoliberalism?” and it is here, I suggest, that the uproar such as there was found its momentum.

Foucault’s Lectures

As alluded to above, the lectures which make up “The Birth of Biopolitics” are far from exhaustive genealogies, nor do they assert a clear presentation of Foucault’s views on the subject. That an array of works have subsequently been published based on the lectures is however a testament to the intrigue that they still elicit. Foucault distinguishes between two schools of neoliberal thought, at first focusing his attention on the German, post-war reconstruction effort and the influence of “ordo-liberalism” in foregrounding the “irrational rationality of capitalist society” as the primary [Weberian] engagement with political economy at the time. He then turns to the American, “Chicago School” variant and crucially its ingenuity in attempting to recast the social sphere as an extension of the economic domain. This is arguably the observation that the rest of Foucault’s lecture (14th March, 1979) is anchored upon; an epistemological shift wherein the veridiction of economic analysis – the economic as a “site of truth” – is transferred across all elements of human existence.

It is thus unsurprising that Foucault gives particular time and attention to the work of Gary Becker, the late American economist renowned for writing “Human Capital”. In Becker, Foucault noted a lucid articulation of a collapse of the social and the economic that was then only beginning. When, in a fascinating, reflective conversation between Becker and François Ewald (Foucault’s one-time assistant, decidedly not affiliated with the left) at the University of Chicago, Becker summarises his perspective with “What I like to say is: Human capital puts people at the center of an economy” he closely adheres to Foucault’s diagnosis of the neo in [American] neo-liberalism. That is to say, the neoliberal critique of political economy concentrates on the three traditional factors (real estate, capital and labour) which purportedly determine the production of goods, with the argument that the latter factor (labour) has been previously considered passive and so underexplored. The proposed answer offered by the Chicago School, differentiating itself from the Marxist perspective with which it ironically to some extent shares this diagnosis, is that economy theory has previously limited itself by not extending to the social sphere. Becker goes on to agree with Foucault regarding the epistemic transformation marked by neoliberalism, and the concurrent reconfiguration of the economic and the social: the decline of the state as a tool for control, and the move towards “a new theory of government.” That a new form of control or governmentality would interest Foucault is obvious to anyone with a passing knowledge of his previous works, but Zamora correctly acknowledges that Foucault also foresaw a less obviously disciplinarian politics under neoliberal directive.

What does this, Foucault’s abbreviated engagement with neoliberal theory, teach us? Firstly, Zamora is both completely accurate and simultaneously telling us nothing new vis-à-vis Foucault’s interest in, and excitement by, neoliberal governmentality and the reshaping of political economy it related to. His personal political involvements suffice in discrediting the idea that Foucault was himself committed to neoliberalism, even in the purportedly ameliorated “Third Way” understanding of the term. More importantly, Foucault’s insights into an emerging rationality [neoliberalism] remain provocative and relevant today, still influencing debates within the academy, the blogosphere and beyond. His observations regarding the internalisation of neoliberal rationality are deployed by many of today’s prominent critics of late-capitalist society. His very prescience and contemporary relevance, however, also intimates a more troubling reveal discernible in the furore generated by Zamora’s article: understandings of neoliberal rationality remain unconvincing and inoperable as a weapon of critique. The radical potential of neoliberalism that Foucault addressed, and its subsequent elevation to the role of “common sense,” makes the failure to thoroughly define it all the more pressing.

The Question of Neoliberalism

At the beginning of his piecePutting neoliberalism in its time and place: a response to the debate” Bob Jessop highlights some of the most infuriating aspects of neoliberalism as a discursive tool. The term appears to denote everything and yet precisely nothing; those considered acolytes to its logic seldom refer to neoliberalism, or to themselves as neoliberals. This makes neoliberalism a “polymorphous… chaotic concept” more useful, according to Jessop, as a framing device for resistance rather than as a guide to thorough future research. While the clarity with which Jessop distinguishes between a “framing device for resistance” on the one hand, and a “guide to future research” on the other is itself worthy of interrogation, what Jessop does strike upon is the paradox of life in the West (and large chunks of the rest of the world) in the twenty-first century. For all the many thousands of pages written on the existing, future, past and concurrent forms of neoliberalism that might or might not exist, there remains the fact that neoliberalism occupies a position where its very existence is questioned by some, while others maintain it is hegemonic.

Part of this problem is explained by writers who have taken Foucault’s lectures, and in particular what he had to say about the new governmentalities of neoliberalism, and go on to speculate on the new roles performed by both the state and the individual: “Once truth is invested in the market, once the market emerges as a site of veridiction, the task of government becomes securing, circumscribing, and supervising this site” (Jodi Dean). Debunking the myth that neoliberal governance is characterised by strictly pro- free-market, anti- state agendas has thankfully now begun in earnest. The corresponding side of this perspective is evident too in the conversation between Becker and Ewald, when the latter posits:

“…although it has at its heart the intervention of “power without coercion,” it’s not a conspiratorial story… It’s a story about the way in which once we have all bought into—and here’s the question of subjectivity—once we all have bought into the notion of human capital, once it is part of our collective imagination, it then produces these policies of growth

Such a re-organisation of discipline, towards “power without coercion”, does not lend itself to traditional schematics of ideology. Clearly, when Becker claims that humans are now at the center of the economy, one can make a strong argument that, materially at least, this is far from accurate. This does not however disarm the proposition that “our collective imagination,” in all its heterogeneity, is engaged in directly by neoliberalism as a factor of production. Thus, it is not enough to simply demand “serious” economic study to better encapsulate what neoliberalism actively is, so long as our shared understandings of economy see the social sphere as off-limits. The fallacy of this approach was crystallised in much of the leftist response to the Global Financial Crisis, where writers emulated what Foucault referred to as the liberal obsession with government; was there enough regulation, or too little? Such a conversation does not respect what is novel and new about neoliberalism, the “common sense” to which it pertains, or the freedoms – however subject to imperatives of profit– that Foucault knew the Chicago School could co-opt. What Zamora’s article communicated then was not fatuous, nor uninteresting, but neither was it original. That it struck such a nerve is more than knee-jerk outrage; it is a sign that critics of neoliberalism still feel unconfident in naming their target.



  1. stuartelden says:

    Reblogged this on Progressive Geographies and commented:
    Another contribution to the discussion concerning Foucault and neoliberalism.


  2. marlanaesquire says:

    Reblogged this on Things Fall Apart.


  3. Clare O'Farrell says:

    Reblogged this on Foucault News and commented:
    Another contribution to the debate. With thanks to Stuart Elden at Progressive geographies for this news.


  4. […] Here’s a very interesting post however by Henry Sebastian who blogs at sanshistory. He writes: […]


  5. Very elucidating! This is great blog, do you write somewhere else now?


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