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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

10.1017/S1479244309990175

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.

Abstract

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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Foucault and Neoliberalism AUFS Event: Daniel Zamora – A Reply: Was Foucault Speaking in His Own Voice?, An und für sich blog, January 6, 2015

First I would like to thank the four contributors and AUFS for devoting this series to the theme of Foucault and neoliberalism. All the interventions are highly stimulating and take us to the heart of a debate of great current moment. Obviously I am not able to undertake a general discussion of all the interventions and all the central questions they pose. But I am sure that the debate will not end here, that it will continue when the book is published in English. However, I would like to revisit the reasoning behind my argument, and why I do not think that it is a problem of interpreting Foucault’s words.

It is indeed true, as Stuart Elden notes in his response, that “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.” Verena Erlenbusch, for her part, adds that I “[fail] to recognize that Foucault is not speaking in his own voice but paraphrasing important representatives of neoliberal thought.” The argument made by Stuart Elden clearly applies to Foucault’s lectures at the Collège de France. But while I am largely in agreement with his critique, I do not think it affects my argument. This is the case for two reasons.

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Foucault and Neoliberalism AUFS Event: Thomas Nail – Michel Foucault, Accelerationist, An und für sich blog, January 5, 2015

The Debate: So far the debate over Foucault’s relationship to neoliberalism is split between two positions. On one side there are those (Daniel Zamora, François Ewald, Michael Behrent, and others) who argue that Foucault’s “sympathy” for neoliberalism marks his later work as at least partially “compatible” with neoliberalism. On the other side many more (Stuart Elden, Peter Gratton, Steven Maynard, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, and others) argue that although “Foucault’s mode of reading texts often makes it look like he is agreeing with [neoliberal] arguments, he is really trying to reconstruct them, to understand their logic, and so on.” Furthermore, given Foucault’s commitment to Leftist groups like Le Groupe d’information sur les prisons, GIP and others, the argument goes, Foucault could not have been a neoliberal.

But perhaps this debate has been made unnecessarily polemic. The question of the debate is not, “was Foucault a neoliberal or not?”. As far as I can tell, no one is explicitly arguing that he was, only that he shared “some sympathies” with neoliberal theory: some anti-statism, some anti-authoritarian values, and so on. Is it not possible to share some points of interest or critique with a position that one does not fully accept? Thus, the more interesting question I think we should be asking is, “what commonalities or shared interests might exist between Foucault’s political thought and certain neoliberal ideas, and to what degree?”

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Foucault and Neoliberalism AUFS Event: Johanna Oksala – Never Mind Foucault: What Are the Right Questions for Us? An und für sich blog, January 4, 2015

Daniel Zamora’s recent interview in Jacobin titled “Can We Criticize Foucault?” has sparked another discussion on Foucault’s alleged endorsement of neoliberalism. For those of us who did not know Foucault personally, the evidence for such a claim can only be found in his writings. I, for myself, have not found any such evidence yet. Zamora’s revelations that Foucault met with Lionel Stoléru several times seem inconclusive at best.

More importantly, this debate itself seems misguided to me. Whether Foucault had some secret sympathies for neoliberalism might obviously be of some biographical or historical interest, but theoretically the answer to this question would only be relevant if it disqualified his thought as a useful toolbox for the academic left today. Zamora’s aim seems to be to show that this is in fact the case. In a follow-up article to the initial interview he claims that Foucault was not asking the “right questions” due to his neoliberal leanings, and that his thought has therefore contributed to the disorientation of the left and to the dismantling of the welfare state.

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