Archive for the ‘Debates’ Category

Just in case you missed it: This post, Searching for Foucault in an Age of Inequality posted yesterday on Foucault News was the latest entry in the neoliberal debate.

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Searching for Foucault in an Age of Inequality

Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins and Alexander Arnold on Critiquer Foucault: Les Années 1980 et la tentation néolibérale, Los Angeles Review of Books, 18 March 2015

JACOBIN RECENTLY PUBLISHED an interview with a little-known sociologist that provoked a wave of reactions. A young Belgian scholar named Daniel Zamora claimed that the philosopher Michel Foucault — a major contributor to radical thought of the last 30 years — not only helped bring about the success of free-market ideology, but also is significantly responsible for the left’s inability to oppose it. Immediately after the interview’s publication, many scholars and intellectuals rushed to Foucault’s defense. Supporters claimed that although Foucault was never a rank-and-file socialist, he never abandoned his radical commitments or embraced the ideology, neoliberalism, often associated with the rise of the modern right. Zamora did not back down. Five days after the release of his interview he published another piece in Jacobin raising the stakes. Foucault, he said, “actively contributed” to the “destruction” of the welfare state and “in a way that was entirely in step with the neoliberal critiques of the moment.” Again, Foucault’s defenders refuted Zamora’s arguments as based on weak, ahistorical, and ideologically driven readings of the philosopher’s works.

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Mark G. E. Kelly, Foucault and Neoliberalism Today, Contriver’s Review, March 2015

Late last year, a PhD student in Belgium, Daniel Zamora, published a smallish edited collection of essays in French called “Criticising Foucault” (Critiquer Foucault). An interview he gave in relation to the book was translated into English for the Leftist journal Jacobin and then widely shared on social media. This interview contains some interesting and worthwhile discussion, but the strapline of the English translation (absent in the French original) focuses on an allegation that Michel Foucault had an “affinity” for neoliberalism, and indeed it is this claim of Zamora’s that leads the subsequent interview. The interviewer sets up the claim that Foucault was a neoliberal as something new and shocking, but it has been aired in Foucault scholarship for a decade at least (not least in articles now reprinted in Zamora’s collection). Despite this, search online for “Foucault” and “neoliberalism” and it’s now this interview that pops up first.

It is not so much that I have a specific gripe with Zamora—whose work I have not read, though I have read other work in his collection—but rather that I want to contradict both the likely impression that the allegation of neoliberalism against Foucault is some new scandal, and also that there is substance to that claim. And I won’t do the latter full-frontally, through point-by-point refutation. I will leave that to future scholarly work. I find these allegations almost entirely without merit and, here, I will explore the political motives and effects.

The first time I encountered the accusation that Foucault was a neoliberal was at a conference in London in 2004. The accuser was an American graduate student from Harvard’s history program, Eric Paras, who would go on to publish a reading of Foucault, entitled Foucault 2.0, which cherry-picked the most extreme moments in Foucault’s output and assembled them to make him into a figure of wild contradictions.

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Foucault and neoliberalism. A pop-up online reading group.

This is a tumblr blog run by Jason Wilson with invitations to read various texts on Foucault and neoliberalism in live sessions on google hangouts.

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A Foucault News exclusive.

Colin Gordon, Foucault, neoliberalism etc.

Full PDF of article

 First two pages

The recent online debate triggered by the Ballast interview (translated in Jacobin) with Daniel Zamora will no doubt have helped to publicise Zamora’s book and its forthcoming translation. As publicity for the French and English editions of the book, the interview seems to have been remarkably successful. I noticed the original report in Foucault News partly, I must confess, because it mentioned me and purported to report my views. I have been surprised by the amount of attention the piece has received, which seems to be disproportionate to its merits. The content of the interview, apparently summarising the content of the book, gives the impression that it consists of a mixture of old news and falsification. The old news is that Foucault was not a Marxist or a supporter of any existing model of revolutionary socialism, and was hostile to the USSR and the political influence of the French Communist Party. The falsification is the claim that Foucault ‘endorsed’ or ’embraced’ some or all forms of liberalism and neoliberalism. This combination of the already known and the false is in turn packaged in the attention-seeking claim that Foucault’s thought has become the unassailable, hegemonic discourse of our time, while its Marxist critics are now reduced to marginality within the neoliberal academy. The first part of this claim has already been met with deserved ridicule. As far as the second is concerned, the quality of this intervention does not tend to inspire regret at the decline in influence of the particular style of political culture it represents. Zamora, unborn at the time when Foucault was lecturing, appears, on the evidence of this interview and its successor interventions, to have put together an anthology of recycled old new left slurs on Foucault’s work and politics, spiced up with one or two new confabulations of his own, plus a supplement of misinformation issuing from a rather different ideological source. I limit myself in the following notes to comment on some salient points in the online discussion.

I: My comments on Foucault and Blair

Zamora says in his interview: “Even Colin Gordon, one of Foucault’s principal translators and commentators in the Anglo-Saxon world, has no trouble saying that he sees in Foucault a sort of precursor to the Blairite Third Way, incorporating neoliberal strategy within the social-democratic corpus”, adding subsequently, “Foucault, then, doesn’t advocate neoliberalism, but he adopts all of its critiques of the welfare state. He attacks the supposed “dependency” it produces, the very notion of “rights,” and its negative effect on the poor. His objective is thus not to move towards a totally neoliberal society, but to incorporate within the socialist corpus some of the decisive elements of the neoliberal critique of the state. It’s precisely in this sense that Colin Gordon sees him as a sort of precursor to Blairism”. Zamora does not provide a reference to my remarks, which occur in my discussion with Jacques Donzelot (Esprit and Foucault Studies).

What I actually wrote (in 2007) was a little more nuanced and qualified than Zamora suggests:

 I am not aware that Blair ever read Foucault. Anthony Giddens, for a time the Blair‐Clinton court philosopher, usually includes a caricatural account of Foucault only as a marginal item in his doctrinal digests. But I think parts of the formulae of Clinton and Blair for a ’third way’ may have effectively carried out a form of the operation which Foucault might have been taken as challenging the socialists to contemplate – the selective incorporation, in an updated and corrected social democracy, of certain elements of neoliberal analysis and strategy. In some ways, it is the continuation of a trend initiated in the 70s by Schmidt in Germany, Giscard in France and Healey in Britain, and in her different way by Thatcher – the truth‐telling role of government, in a world of global economic uncertainty and competition, as moral tutor of citizens in an ethic of enterprise and responsibility. The success of this formula in Britain seemed for a long time to be limited only by the irritability of citizens and the claims of the fourth estate, the media, to make and unmake governmental power (both of these reactions being severely aggravated, of course, by Blair’s extension of his governmental agenda to include the neoconservative enterprise of civilisational confrontation and global war on terror).

The comment on “irritability of citizens” was an allusion to the emerging public perception in these years of a “political class” separate from the rest of society, a perception itself no doubt generated in large part by the contradictory effects of neoliberalism itself – the new strident leadership style combined with the hollowing out of democratic political authority.

I stand by these comments, which clearly fell some way short of representing Blairism as a fulfilment of Foucault’s political dreams. The New Labour project was, however partially, incompletely and inadequately, an attempt to devise and apply a form of centre-left governmentality – drawing both on ideas from the triangulating New Democrats in the USA, and from policies of social inclusion developed under Socialist governments in France. One thoughtful paper by William Davies (an intelligent reader of Foucault’s work albeit not a card-carrying practitioner of governmentality studies) offered what seems to have been an isolated attempt, drawing on work by Rose and Miller among others, to analyse this project, and some of its difficulties, in these terms. [1] Some more work of this kind would, I suggest, still be useful.

[1]            William Davies, “The Governmentality of New Labour”, Public Policy Research 13, 4 (2006). http://potlatch.typepad.com/weblog/files/ppr_dec06.doc

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Michael C. Behrent, Liberalism without humanism: Michel Foucault and the free-market creed, 1976–1979, Modern Intellectual History / Volume 6 / Issue 03 / November 2009, pp 539 – 568


Editor’s note: This article appears in French translation in the recent volume edited by Daniel Zamora Critiquer Foucault, Les années 1980 et la tentation néo-libérale, Aden, Bruxelles, 2014. This volume will appear in English translation later this year. With thanks to Stuart Elden at Progressive Geographies for details on this article.


This article challenges conventional readings of Michel Foucault by examining his fascination with neoliberalism in the late 1970s. Foucault did not critique neoliberalism during this period; rather, he strategically endorsed it. The necessary cause for this approval lies in the broader rehabilitation of economic liberalism in France during the 1970s. The sufficient cause lies in Foucault’s own intellectual development: drawing on his long-standing critique of the state as a model for conceptualizing power, Foucault concluded, during the 1970s, that economic liberalism, rather than “discipline,” was modernity’s paradigmatic power form. Moreover, this article seeks to clarify the relationship between Foucault’s philosophical antihumanism and his assessment of liberalism. Rather than arguing (as others have) that Foucault’s antihumanism precluded a positive appraisal of liberalism, or that the apparent reorientation of his politics in a more liberal direction in the late 1970s entailed a partial retreat from antihumanism, this article contends that Foucault’s brief, strategic, and contingent endorsement of liberalism was possible precisely because he saw no incompatibility between antihumanism and liberalism—but only liberalism of the economic variety. Economic liberalism alone, and not its political iteration, was compatible with the philosophical antihumanism that is the hallmark of Foucault’s thought.

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Peter Levine, Foucault and neoliberalism on his blog.

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).

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