Jason Maxwell, Killing Yourself to Live: Foucault, Neoliberalism, and the Autoimmunity Paradigm, Cultural Critique, Number 88, Fall 2014, pp. 160-186 10.1353/cul.2014.0038

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In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Since the English translation first appeared in 2008, Michel Foucault’s The Birth of Biopolitics has become an object of intense fascination within academic circles. While any new translation of Foucault’s work reliably draws a substantial crowd, this lecture series from 1979 solicited more attention than usual because its contents resonated so strongly with the present historical moment. Indeed, The Birth of Bio-politics staged a long-awaited confrontation between two hugely influential discourses. In one corner stood Foucault, who even two decades after his death still received more citations than any other thinker in the ever left-leaning humanities. In the other corner stood neoliberalism, the economic doctrine that had underwritten American conservative political practice since Reagan. Released while a financial crisis was quickly dismantling the global economy, The Birth of Biopolitics shouldered a heavy burden of expectation. Could Foucault’s lectures land a clear and decisive blow to the conceptual foundations of neoliberalism, thereby signaling the end of one nightmarish era and the beginning of a more hopeful one?

The answer, in short, was no. For those anticipating an outright critique of neoliberalism, The Birth of Biopolitics proved to be an undeniable disappointment. Since the lectures actually preceded the election of Margaret Thatcher—lending the book an eerily prescient quality—Foucault could be forgiven for failing to detail the deleterious effects of neoliberalization that would begin in the 1980s. That the lectures refrained from adopting a clear stance toward the neoliberal principles underwriting this process, however, was less forgivable. Although he provides an excruciatingly detailed genealogy of neoliberalism, Foucault never distances himself from this material to offer a summary judgment or word of warning. In fact, Foucault’s engagement with neoliberalism frustrates the desire to place him in a camp that would either firmly reject or proudly affirm it. As he writes elsewhere, “there is not, on the one side, a discourse of power, and opposite it, another discourse that runs counter to it. … [Discourses] can, on the contrary, circulate without changing their form from one strategy to another, opposing strategy” (1980a, 101–2). Foucault shares more in common with neoliberal thinking than many critics would be comfortable admitting. More specifically, while most critiques of neoliberalism target its economism, which casts everything from personal health to familial relationships in the vocabulary of the market, Foucault’s own work also seems to subscribe to these premises. Put in slightly different terms, Foucault’s understanding of historical change, which privileges immanence over transcendence, could easily be characterized as economistic. If Foucault and neoliberalism both deploy an economistic mode of thinking that is rooted in a shared commitment to immanence, where does their work actually diverge? Examining Foucault’s treatment of neoliberalism will not only clarify our understanding of neoliberalism (and why it interested Foucault) but also our understanding of Foucault’s general project.

While acknowledging their many striking similarities, this essay argues that Foucault differs from neoliberal orthodoxy in at least one crucial respect. To echo Fredric Jameson in Postmodernism; or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, “we have much in common with the neoliberals, in fact virtually everything—save the essentials!” (265). Foucault’s essential difference from neoliberalism can be found in a crucial yet largely overlooked dimension of his engagement with Nietzsche and others concerning immunization as a broad conceptual category. Throughout his work, Foucault explores the dilemmas that emerge when phenomena that promise safety and growth simultaneously present the possibility of injury or even death. For instance, individuals and societies require defense mechanisms for their survival and development, yet the overgrowth of these mechanisms can actually produce harmful or deadly effects. Just as importantly, these defense mechanisms do not shield the individual or community from danger altogether but instead expose them to it in a manageable amount. The difference between poison and cure is one of degree rather than kind. Roberto Esposito has recently argued that this “autoimmunity paradigm” serves as a useful way of diagnosing a variety of phenomena far removed from the term’s medical and juridical origins. He writes that the “demand for exemption or protection” embodied in the auto-immunity paradigm has been gradually “extended to all those other sectors and languages…

Mitchell Dean, Michel Foucault’s ‘apology’ for neoliberalism. Lecture delivered at the British Library on the 30th anniversary of the death of Michel Foucault, June 25, 2014, Journal of Political Power, Volume 7, Issue 3, 2014, pages 433-442

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Link to full paper on academia.edu

This lecture evaluates the claim made by one of his closest followers, François Ewald, that Foucault offered an apology for neoliberalism, particularly of the American school represented by Gary Becker. It draws on exchanges between Ewald and Becker in 2012 and 2013 at the University of Chicago shortly before the latter’s death. It places Foucault in relation to the then emergent Second Left in France, the critique of the welfare state, and, more broadly, the late-twentieth-century social-democratic take-up of neoliberal thought. It indicates three limitations of his thought: the problem of state ‘veridiction’; the question of inequality; and the concept of the economy. It also indicates how these might be addressed within a general appreciation of his thought.

Clare O'Farrell:

Peter Gratton adds some further thoughts to the discussion.

Originally posted on PHILOSOPHY IN A TIME OF ERROR:

Here. I had been rounding up a post on this but never got around to it, and Stuart makes excellent and helpful points (with the modesty to suggest his views are revisable once the book referenced in the Zamora interview is published). Daniel Zamora’s original interview at Jacobin got picked up quickly by two “libertarian” sources at Reasonand at, of all places least likely to see a reference to Foucault, the Washington Post in the form of Daniel Drezner’s piece on “Why Michel Foucault is the libertarian’s best friend.” First, from Stuart Elden:

Foucault’s mode of reading texts often makes it look like he is agreeing with arguments, when he is really trying to reconstruct them, to understand their logic, and so on. To suggest there is some sympathy to neoliberalism is one thing, to claim he was a neoliberal/libertarian or other labels is quite another. Compare these…

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Clare O'Farrell:

A really useful and informative post by Stuart Elden on the history of the reception of Foucault’s lectures on neoliberalism, in the light of recent activity on this front. He comments ‘Foucault’s mode of reading texts often makes it look like he is agreeing with arguments, when he is really trying to reconstruct them, to understand their logic, and so on’.

Originally posted on Progressive Geographies:

FoucaultI’ve been away, but several people have been sending me links to a recent string of articles on Foucault’s supposed sympathies to neoliberalism. The start of the debate – in English at least – was the translation of an interview with Daniel Zamora at Jacobin. The interview relates to a book entitled Critiquer Foucault: Les années 1980 et la tentation néolibérale which has just been published. Clare O’Farrell rounds up the key pieces at Foucault News.

The book is a collective work, edited by Zamora. I’ve not read it yet, and suspect that very few of those commenting on it have either. Anything said now is necessarily provisional.

The first thing that struck me was the question – is this news? Foucault’s 1979 lectures on neoliberalism – the misnamed The Birth of Biopolitics – have been widely available for a decade. They were first published in French…

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Ahmad Mohammed Bani Salameh, Foucault’s Descending Individuation: The Unprivileged Under Panoptic Gaze in Shakespeare and Godwin, Dirasat: Human and Social Sciences, Vol 41, No 3 (2014)

Further info and link to full PDF


This paper presents new critical insights into two selected literary works from the English literature, Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure and William Godwin’s Caleb Williams, in light of Michel Foucault’s “descending individuation” in Discipline and Punish. Through the lens of this theory, this study illumines these writers’ scathing critique of “descending individuation” in their cultures in which surveillance of individuals goes in an inverse relationship with their socio-economic statuses-namely, the lower one’s social and economic station is, the more liable s/he becomes to panoptic gaze. This paper shows these authors’ dissatisfaction with the flawed justice system of their culture, because surveillance, usually a disciplinary law-enforcement strategy, could backfire if enforced in a descending, prejudiced fashion.


Foucault, Descending, Individuation, Disciplinary, Surveillance, Godwin, Shakespeare

The recent interview with Daniel Zamora on neoliberalism is causing quite a stir in the English language world at least.

Brian Doherty, Concerned Leftists Rediscover Michel Foucault Might Not Have Been As Anti-Market as They’d Like on the reason.com site

Daniel W. Drezner, Why Michel Foucault is the libertarian’s best friend, on the Washington Post online site.

Élisabeth Roudinesco: The Living Thought of Michel Foucault
, Verso Books site, 13 November 2014
Élisabeth Roudinesco, author of Lacan: In Spite of Everything, Jacques Lacan & Co. and Madness and Revolution, among many otherson the writing of Michel Foucault, written for Le Monde in May:

Thirty years after his death, Michel Foucault (1926–1984) is famed the world over. Author of a very rich body of teachings whose scope ranges from his critique of norms and institutions to the history of prisons, medicine, madness and sexuality, this philosopher-historian has enticed liberals, social-democrats, erudite scholars and rebels of all persuasions. Each of these different groups, respectively, sees him as an ardent defender of the invention of the self, an unstinting reformist, a sumptuous commentator on ancient Greek and Roman texts, and a brilliant militant for minorities’ causes. In sum, Foucault’s work is more than ever on the order of the day, as demonstrated by the publication of the lectures he gave at the Collège de France between January and April 1981 with regard to subjectivity and freedom.

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