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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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…