Foucault and Neoliberalism – a few thoughts in response to the Zamora piece in Jacobin

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 in 2004, and translated into English in 2008. Some people – Thomas Lemke being the standout example – were discussing them before then on the basis of the archived tape recordings.

Others have made the suggestion that Foucault had some sympathy to neoliberalism as well – Paul Patton, for example. Plenty of others have discussed Foucault in relation to neoliberalism and what it has become – Jamie Peck and Nick Gane immediately come to mind. Clive Barnett offers some thoughts here, building on earlier pieces in 2011 and 2013. So, again, this is not really news. To assess the validity of the claims people should really read or re-read Foucault’s lectures – as far as I can tell, the ‘revelations’ are not based on any new material. Zamora mentions some other material, but says it is all available.

The real revelation would be a reading of a text Foucault drafted sometime around 1980-81, entitled “libéralisme comme art de gouverner” and mentioned by Michel Sennellart in his notes to The Birth of Biopolitics and On the Government of the Living. This text is not published. It’s notable that after the 1979 lectures all of Foucault’s courses are on antiquity or the early Church, though he ran his seminar in 1980 on liberalism in the 19th century, and sponsored seminars run by François Ewald on the sociology and philosophy of law in 1981 and 1982. Those seminars – some of which were apparently taped – would provide some interesting supplementary material. Incidentally, I am puzzled by how Foucault can be somehow tainted by what Ewald has gone on to do. Ewald has been described as a ‘right-Foucauldian’ – but his work and politics is hardly a revelation. (That this might be seen as news to anglophones is maybe a side-product of something I’ve remarked on before – that few people read the work of Foucault’s colleagues and collaborators, much of which isn’t available in English.)

Another immediate reaction to the initial piece was that there is a risk that we take Foucault’s lectures as they are now presented to us, as ‘books’. But they are obviously not of the same status as the books he published himself, over which he spent years of work, nor are they are of the same standing as the countless shorter works he published in his lifetime – some based on lectures, certainly, but also articles, interviews, petitions, etc. to which he put his name. It is fairly shocking that we lack a complete English translation of Dits et écrits (which collects nearly all of these)- twenty years after it appeared in French. The Anglophone ‘Essential Works‘ is badly misnamed – at best it is a poor substitute for the richness of the French.

One of the implications of this is that Foucault’s verbal proclamations should be taken as that – provisional, of the moment, only part scripted (compare Lectures on the Will to Know to get an indication of what Foucault’s notes look like, without the supplement of the tape-recordings). Valuable, fascinating and revealing certainly, but to be used with caution. There is a remark in one of the lectures (10th March 1982, second hour) where Foucault asks his audience if they have recordings of his lectures of the past few years they could share with him –

I understand that there are some people recording the lectures. Very well, you are obviously within your rights. The lectures here are public. It’s just that maybe you have the impression that all my lectures are written. But they are less so than they seem to be, and I do not have any transcripts or even recordings. Now it happens that I need them. So, if by chance there is anyone who has (or knows someone who has) either recordings – I believe there is someone called Monsieur [Jacques] Legrange – or obviously transcripts, would you be kind enough to tell me, it could help me. It is especially for the last four or five years (The Hermeneutic of the Subject pp. 378/395-6).

The four or five years refers to all or most of Foucault’s post-sabbatical lectures, but certainly including The Birth of Biopolitics.

Foucault, in these 1979 lectures, undoubtedly found neoliberalism interesting and worthy of his devoting substantial attention. But aside for historical and contextual reasons for why this might be the case (which I cannot address here) this was a very early ‘neoliberalism’ – the lectures were delivered before Reagan or Thatcher were elected. And this course is unusual in being the only one of the Paris courses that was directed toward the twentieth-century. 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 lectures’ tone to those on early Christianity and late antiquity in the next two courses – does this mean Foucault was also a Christian and a stoic?

Also, the title of the interview is ridiculous – of course we can criticise Foucault. There are critiques everywhere – far too many to list and link. Even people who find his work invaluable criticise him. In the book I’m currently writing on Foucault I’m largely taking a synthetic and exegetical tone, but see what I’ve said about Foucault and territory for a different approach

I hope Zamora’s edited book itself (despite its title) will be a good deal more nuanced and interesting than the publicity so far. It has certainly succeeded in getting mainstream media attention in a way few books on Foucault have. Perhaps I’ll say more when I’ve read it. I hesitated about giving this even more attention by writing up these few thoughts, but enough people contacted me by email, twitter or facebook that I thought it was worth saying something.

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50 Responses to Foucault and Neoliberalism – a few thoughts in response to the Zamora piece in Jacobin

  1. Stephen Shapiro says:

    As Stuart notes, many Anglophone scholars are poorly positioned to intervene, since the essays and interviews where Foucault addressed left politics either remain overwhelmingly untranslated or are not included with the so-called “essential” Foucault collection, which many take wrongly to be summative.
    There’s a larger problem in that comments on Foucault’s position said without any contextualization either in the history of the non-PCF left or official 5th Republic politics during the 1970s are bound to throw up misreadings. And that seems to be the case with the Jacobin interview.

  2. stuartelden says:

    Thanks Stephen – yes, that’s a crucial point too.

  3. Philip says:

    I’ve not read the book in question but I found this by Michael Behrent to be a useful historical take on the Foucault/neoliberalism question:

    According Behrent, because Foucault shared neoliberalism’s suspicion of the state, he was fascinated with the way in which economic liberalism “is a practice that arises when power realizes that it has an interest as power in limiting power”. So, it’s mostly to do with Foucault’s anti-humanism and his affiliation with the anti-state left in the context of heavily statist French politics (on the left and the right) in the ’70s. Seems like a reasonable explanation to me.

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  5. It’s funny, but my reading of the BoB lectures is almost the opposite of Philip’s. I find the discussion of “state phobia” to be an important anchor for the lectures, and read Foucault as offering a critique of both left and right anti-statism, not in defense of the state per se, but based on a shared misunderstanding of the state as the locus of political power.

  6. Clare O'Farrell says:

    Reblogged this on Foucault News and commented:
    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’.

  7. Ian Douglas says:

    Foucault’s entire political approach is grounded on revealing zones where power operates that would at first glance appear outside the realm of formal politics. Throughout the 1970s he developed this further into a kind of topology of a three-tier move within political technology: from sovereign (absolutist) power, through the theory of police, to the fulcrum point in Smith and Bentham where cameralism becomes fully defused, grounding what essentially would become liberal political economy. No doubt he found 20th century expressions of the same fascinating. Who wouldn’t? But to say he would endorse this orientation is a fundamental misreading of Foucault’s radicalism. He has nothing to do with a project of government, period. And while it was clear that for a number of years he was obliged to address the superficiality of Marxist political analysis, especially centred around the State, this does not peg him on the other side of Marxist political prescriptions, as though the only way to be critical is to be the mirror image reversed. He never stated it as such, but I understand Foucault as a deep philosophical anarchist. Neoliberalism, and even libertarianism, are political projects, and especially the former. To imagine Foucault was a friend of either is facile. Most especially relative to neoliberalism. He had already charted — as a political move — the relative reduction of the State, going hand in hand with the deeper inscription of power, power relations, and political technologies of space and time into the social body. This is what Discipline and Punish is all about. Has Zamora never read it?

  8. Steven Maynard says:

    There is also Zamora’s unhelpful suggestion that Foucault abandoned the traditional working class and analyses of exploitation in favor of studies of marginalization, exclusion, and other forms of so-called subjectivism among the surnuméraires or the “new plebians.” First of all, this flies in the face of the evidence. What about Foucault’s engagement with the C.F.D.T. (see *La C.F.D.T. en questions,* for example) or Solidarnosc — not exactly “new plebians” — precisely during the period we’re told Foucault turned into a neoliberal? Second, it’s wrong. And I quote: “It is certain that the mechanisms of subjection cannot be studied outside their relation to the mechanisms of exploitation and domination.” From “The Subject and Power” — 1982, again, at the height of Foucault’s supposed ‘farewell to the working class’ and his transformation into a neoliberal champion of inserting the ‘surplus population’ into the circuits of capital. Foucault wrote about the latter as early as *Discipline and Punish,* prior to the interest in neoliberalism, and he analyzed it, he didn’t endorse it. For me, the real question is this: what are the political investments of those so invested in making Foucault out to be a neoliberal? That Zamora’s critique has been so enthusiastically adopted by right-wing libertarians speaks volumes. Zamora may not share those beliefs, but we are responsible for what we write.

  9. Reblogged this on #OCCUPYIRTHEORY and commented:
    Elden in the hook at the end says what needs to be said, and hopefully puts this silly debate to bed!

  10. Stuart, you put your finger on it. Jason R.W., too. Philip, I find that Behrent piece incredibly frustrating to read – he seems to be making it up as he goes along. Especially weird to read that piece, I might note, in the same volume as Jason Read’s chapter, which presents a much different take, noting that one of the deficiencies of the lectures is that they are asymmetrical compared to F’s usual work. That is, they focus solely on discourse and don’t address the question of institutional practices which pass the subject ever back to the discourse. Stuart is right here that these are, in the end, only lectures. Combining the two points, it seems its up to us to do a little thinking of our own to imagine how F might have thought about actually existing neoliberalism, and the relevance of its practices for the study of power today. But F was clearly not a Neoliberal, or even politically sympathetic to neoliberalism – no more than Marx was politically sympathetic to capitalism (tho he may have admired it). BoB seems to me especially cutting in relation to Becker’s work, where it is clear that subjectivity is becoming once again a central preoccupation of political economy. Becker is exposed as describing the market as a technology of subjectification. The fact that Becker himself read BoB and couldn’t figure out if F was agreeing with him or not says, to me, that Becker didn’t know the rest of F’s work to realize the political indictment of neoliberalism that BoB represents!

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  12. Michael Behrent says:

    This blog has just come to my attention and since this thread mentions my work—notably the essay “Liberalism without Humanism,” first published in Modern Intellectual History and reprinted and translated in Daniel Zamora’s new volume—I thought I would weigh in on the discussion.

    First, I don’t see this debate as “silly.” Foucault has been a thinker of such enormous influence that assessing his view of neoliberalism—and, more broadly, understanding how he grasped and negotiated the economic, social, and political transformations that created the world we now live in—strike me as highly relevant. I fully accept Stuart Elden’s points that “neoliberalism” in the late 1970s did not exactly mean what it does today (how could it?) and that Foucault’s lectures have a provisional, tentative character (though it is a fair question, I think, whether Foucault did not see his books in a similar light). I also agree that Foucault was not “simply” a neoliberal: to the extent that he (in my view) endorsed neoliberal ideas, this endorsement was strategic—that is, he was making a move in a particular political and ideological battlefield, not a wholesale commitment.

    In my view, what ultimately made it possible for Foucault to find virtues—or, at the very least, strategically interesting insights—in (what he called) neoliberalism was the fact that it shared elective affinities with his own intellectual project: specifically, that of showing how some of the apparently humane institutions that shaped post-World War II European social democracy were actually crucial conduits for the social dissemination of power. He was, in many ways, the thinker of the dark side of what the French call the “trente glorieuses” (the thirty years of postwar growth): this, I think, is what inspired his interest in neoliberalism and led him to recognize some affinities between his concerns and theirs (for example, on punishment), even if the philosophical and political underpinnings of these positions were radically different.

    Second, I’m sorry that some think that in my essay (which was specifically mentioned above), I appear “to be making it up as [I go] along.” In that piece, my goal was to bring attention both to historical context (pleaded for above) and various untranslated (and, in some cases, unpublished) French texts. The essay is, moreover, amply footnoted and documented. I’m thus somewhat surprised that this assertion is supported by no attempt to challenge specific factual or interpretive claims, which it questions en masse.

    Third: the argument that Foucault’s “engagement with the C.F.D.T” and “Solidarnosc” somehow undermines the claim that he harbored some sympathy for neoliberalism (by way of an “abandonment of the working class”) does not withstand closer historical scrutiny. The main point here is that the CFDT was in precisely the same political and ideological position as Foucault in the mid-seventies, in that both sought to challenge the mainstream left from the left in ways that, even at the time, were seen as profoundly ambiguous. As Michael Scott Christofferson (another author in the Zamora volume) demonstrates in his brilliant book French Intellectuals against the Left, the CFDT was one of the crucial forces in launching the 1970s “anti-totalitarianism” debate, which was primarily aimed at purging the French left of its anti-statist and illiberal tendencies (mainly the PCF and the left of the recently reorganized PS). Along with the contingent of French socialism associated with Michel Rocard, the CFDT popularized in French political discourse the idea of “autogestion” or “self-management.” As I show in my article, building on the important work of Christofferson, Samuel Moyn, and Andrew Jainchill, “autogestion” was one of the main conduits through which the French left rediscovered not only liberal and democratic thought, but economic liberalism (in the European sense of the term). The person who arranged Foucault’s contact with the CFDT was Pierre Ronsavallon who, in addition to being the CFDT’s leading theorist, was a standard bearer in the attack on statist left and the concomitant reappraisal, within certain sectors of the left, of the liberal political tradition (Rosanvallon went onto do a doctorate under the supervision of François Furet, the leading anti-Marxist scholar of the French Revolution).

    Moreover, the ambiguous character of the CFDT’s ideological evolution was recognized at the time, on the right as well as the left. In 1978, Jean Baechler wrote in Commentaire (a journal that leans conservative and classically liberal): “I am unable to perceive the slightest difference between a pure liberal system and a pure self-managed [autogéré] system; they clearly share the same project, the presentation and coloration of which vary in relation to the historical references [offered].” That same year, the socialist politician Jean-Pierre Chevènement denounced the CFDT and its followers for privileging “social experimentation” (another CFDT buzzword, closely linked to “autogestion”) over the conquest of state power (taking a specific swipe at Foucault in the process), suggesting that the union’s position was petty-bourgeois, reactionary, and complicit with the neoliberal turn then underway.

    Finally—although this can’t be directly connected to assessing Foucault’s own politics—it is worth recalling that, in recent years, the CFDT’s political line confirms the nature of the turn it took in the seventies, to the point that it is now viewed as moderate at best, and even, by some, as an enabler of French capitalism and neoliberalism. The union has demonstrated a willingness to negotiate with conservative governments about policies that many on the left have denounced as reactionary (Social Security and health care reforms, etc.), in addition to being tied to the basically conservative (in the sense of neoliberal) course of the French Socialist Party. (Lest I be accused of “making this up”: consider Nicolas Defaud’s book La CFDT (1968-1995): De l’autogestion au syndicalisme de proposition, which acknowledges that one of the major lenses through which the CFDT’s evolution has been viewed is that of a “‘trahison historique’ face au néolibéralisme”—an “‘historic treason’ in the face of neoliberalism”; many blogs, union local websites, or political organizations also denounce the CFDT in similar terms, such as this one:, which accuses the CFDT and others of being “auxiliaries of management”). In short, many of points that Zamora and myself have made about Foucault’s evolution in the seventies can also be directed at the CFDT. I suspect Zamora was aware of this when he made his comments.

    As for Foucault’s support for Solidarnosc, this position is a rather poor predictor of leftist bona fides. After all, the Polish union was championed by Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Pope John Paul II.

    Fourth: why are we so surprised that Foucault could be accused of not being entirely a man of the left? Throughout his career, his leftist credentials were questioned by prominent contemporaries. Is it not possible that Jean-Paul Sartre, Henri Lefebvre, Jean Baudrillard, and Jürgen Habermas were onto something?

    The reason this debate is a useful one is that, in an age of rampant and seemingly invincible neoliberalism, it allows us to consider what Foucault is and is not useful for. My view is that Foucault was, at the end of the day, a critic of social democracy (understood in the broad sense of the kind of regime that emerged in Western Europe after 1945) and that much of his energy went into showing that the institutions and social arrangements of the postwar era—when Europe seemed at last to have learned the lessons of its tormented history—were in fact highly repressive. There is much in his critique that was important and necessary. But this project led him to sympathize with significant aspects of the neoliberals’ critique of the same society: their anti-statism, libertarian values, and social nominalism. The question becomes, therefore, whether Foucault is really suited to help us understand—and critique—advanced neoliberalism. If he is, I seriously doubt that his lectures on neoliberalism are the place to start. But the real danger consists in turning Foucault into our fantasy philosopher, the thinker we want him to be—an unrelenting critic of Marxism who somehow remained a kind of socialist; a Nietzschean who embraced solid progressive principles. This is just wishful thinking. Historicizing, in this instance, is the best form of critique.

    • anner08 says:

      Yes, I agree, and I also believe that Foucault would never have committed himself solely to any political denomination! The very notion of change is built in to his philosophy and as a result a recreation of subjectivity through the then neoliberalist notion of personal responsibility would to him have been a possible opening, or aporia, a means to facilitate a change in the constitution of the traditional subject with the emphasis on a problematising of subjectivity. Foucault did also say, at one point in his lectures, that those in attendance could use the content of the lectures to pursue their own ends, it was of no importance to him what they did with the work, but immediately following that, he admitted that it would be of importance, or concern to him. My point being that Foucault wanted to leave us with something to think about, he wanted to stimulate thought, critique and debate. He left us with a lot of tools for this purpose and so I believe that to dwell on Foucault the man is to miss the point. Neoliberalism is a failed system, it’s just taking a long time to die. What we should be doing with Foucault’s is to use his example to find an equitable, sustainable replacement before we find ourselves the subjects of some thing worse. Critique and problematization beyond Foucault the man.

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  14. Steven Maynard says:

    A quick clarification here. In his reply above, Michael Behrent is blurring two different commentaries together. Even though it is my comment on the C.F.D.T. that Behrent responds to most fully, I am not the one who said the debate on Foucault and neoliberalism is “silly,” nor am I the one who accuses Behrent of “making it up as he goes along.” That was someone else, and I don’t want my name associated those remarks. My comment on the C.F.D.T and Solidarnosc was directed at the Zamora interview and was a shorthand way of questioning the suggestion that by the 1980s Foucault was no longer interested in the working class and questions of exploitation. That there is much more to say about Foucault and the C.F.D.T. and Solidarnosc is amply illustrated by Behrent’s careful contextualization, which, as a historian, I fully appreciate.

  15. Stephen Shapiro says:

    With respect to Behrent, I read his claims in “Humanism without Liberalism” as making several fundamental errors and leaps of thought. Lest this hijack Stuart’s blog, let me simply bullet point a few, for concision’s sake.

    • Behrent uses a form of dominant presentism to suggest that any critique of Statist liberalism must equal neoliberalism. This silences what most would understand to be the actual sociohistorical lineage to which Foucault is referring: anarchism, and its form in the 1970s as autonomism.

    To define autogestion (“self-management”) as neoliberal, rather than its actual roots in anarchist thought, places such torque on the term as to risk being simply ideological, in the older sense of the word. The idea of a negative tax is more aptly understood as glossing Paul Lafargue’s “right to be lazy,” the right not to have to be a “productive worker” (for capital).

    • When Foucault talks about “Marxism” (as in hypermarxism), he inevitably is speaking about the crew of the PCF, Althusser and his circle, and to lesser degrees Sartre and Merleau-Ponty. However, he always distinguishes “Marxism” from “Marx” (for that matter, so did Marx).

    A comment said in a demo that wasn’t published except in a biography (and nearly all the biographies of Foucault are problematic and untrustworthy to various degrees, since marred by the author’s own agendas) has to be weighed against comments that Foucault made in his lectures outside of France, such as the one known as “The Mesh of Power.”:

    • As Philip Barnard and I argue in the introduction to the new translation of Guerry and Deleule’s The Productive Body (cited by Foucault in the paragraph on Marx in Discipline and Punish), there is a relatively straight forward definition of discipline and governmentality. Discipline refers to bourgeois tactics against laboring and lower-classes. Governmentality refers to infrabourgeois competition, which always has the self-fiction of being outside of the State.

    To say that Foucault revised and left the concept of discipline for governmentality would be tantamount to saying that Marx revised and left the concept of class-struggle in Capital Volume I for the concept of bourgeois competition in Volumes 2 and 3. He didn’t, he simply shifted perspective to gain a different vantage point on a larger totality. Similarly for Foucault, one (discipline) does not replace the other (governmentality), but supplements it. The two concepts are intertwined in Foucault.

  16. Michael Behrent says:

    Thank you for the replies, and I hope that Stuart Elden does not mind that his blog is hosting this discussion (I thank him, in any case). You will not be surprised that I disagree with what has been said here today, but I am grateful to those who have posted for their thoughtful points on what I believe to be an important issue. Furthermore, some of what I say below I am only able to spell out fully in the book I’m completing, so I realize that not all of my assertions can stand on their own in their present form.

    First, apologies to Steven Maynard. I was responding en bloc to a number of points, and I did not mean to suggest they were all directed towards him.

    Next, to answer Stephen Shapiro’s interesting remarks point by point:

    – It is a misreading of my argument to say that I maintain that “any” critique of the state “equals” neoliberalism. I make it very clear that there are a spectrum of critiques of the state being made in French politics in the 1970s, and that Foucault’s engagement with neoliberalism can only be understood in the context of this critique’s multiple political valences. Indeed, I think one of the remarkable facts that a contextualization of Foucault’s work in this period brings to light is that anti-statists on the left (the so-called Second Left) and anti-statists on the right (economists like Lepage and some of the people close to Raymond Barre) had to figure out exactly what their relationship was. As for the claim that Foucault is somehow referring to “anarchism,” I think this is simply wrong. No evidence supports it. There is no entry for “anarchism” in the index to Dits et Ecrits, nor in the 1978 lectures. In 1979, there are references to “anarcho-libéralisme [Ecole de Chicago]” and to “anarcho-capitalisme américain,” which vitiates Stephen’s point. There is a reference to “anarchisme” in 1976 (“Society Must Be Defended”), but it is part of Foucault’s point that socialism, like nationalism, was critical in the development of nineteenth-century racism: “Le socialisme a été, d’entrée de jeu, au XIXe siècle, un racisme. Et que ce soit Fourier, au début du siècle, ou que ce soient les anarchistes à la fin du siècle, en passant par toutes les formes du socialisme, vous y voyez toujours une composante de racisme” (My translation: “Socialism was, from the outset, in the nineteenth century, a racism. And whether it be Fourier, at the beginning of the century, or the anarchists, at the turn of the century, by way of all forms of socialism, you always find an element of racism”) (p. 232, French edition). Anarchism was not something Foucault dealt with much, and to the extent that he did, it was certainly not to highlight its anti-statism. In light of the contextual evidence I present in the essay (the Rosanvallon connection, Foucault’s involvement in the “social experimentation” conference, his dialogue with the CFDT), it is clear that the “actual historical lineage” (to use Stephen Shapiro’s phrase) of Foucault’s engagement with left anti-statism was the French Second Left.

    Furthermore, I never defined “autogestion” as inherently neoliberal. I simply pointed out, in the article and in the quotes and context provided above, that, in the 1970s, there were people on the left as well as on the right who identified politically relevant connections between the two (or, to be precise, between the agendas of those invoking these terms). To suggest that the term’s anarchist lineage somehow shielded it from political appropriations of the kind I’ve described is to disregard context—not only the specific contexts to which I refer, but the notion that historical context can illuminate texts at all. It is an assertion that is profoundly idealist in character.

    – Foucault does occasionally distinguishes Marx from Marxism. Agreed. But he does not always, and at times, he seems as willing to criticize Marx as he is Marxism. Remember that one of the reasons Marxists hated Foucault was because in The Order of Things (1966), he had argued that, epistemologically speaking, Marx’s economics were not significantly different from Ricardo’s. Though the differences between bourgeois economics and revolutionary economics may, Foucault wrote, “stir up a few waves and trace a few ripples along the surface,” they remained “tempests in a teapot” (tempêtes au bassin des enfants) (p. 274). And yes, “Les Mailles du Pouvoir” is a fascinating text. But what is the argument? It is primarily that Marx really gets good in Capital, volume 2, because it is there that he abandons the metaphysical claims about labor’s circulation through the capitalist economy in favor of something along the lines of a genealogy of power in capitalism. What is remarkable is that the only part of Marx that Foucault could stomach is the one in which Foucault believes that Marx abandons (or sets aside) the foundational principles of his critique of political economy. I think we need to see this move as something along the lines of what Zamora is talking about: Foucault is gutting Marx of his key ideas, and salvaging only the elements that are consistent with his own project. He may have intellectual respect for Marx as a thinker, but I don’t think this should distract us from how fundamentally Foucault broke with Marxism—which, I would suggest, is a term we shouldn’t shy away from if we’re interested in leftist politics.

    And, for the record: the comment about “hypermarxism” was not just published in a “biography.” That line is a quote from the memoirs of Claude Mauriac, one of the people who was regularly involved in Foucault’s political activism in the early 1970s.

    – The “relatively straight forward definition of discipline and governmentality” that Stephen Shapiro and Philip Bernard propose may indeed be a perfectly good definition. But it is not Foucault’s. Foucault makes it clear in Discipline and Punish that discipline was born well before the “rise of the bourgeoisie.” His point is that discipline is a technology of power that exists independently of particular class relations or particular forms of the state—and indeed, this is always Foucault’s point about power. This is, for instance, his argument about the Prussian drill sergeant in Part 3, chapter 1.

    As for the final point about revising discipline for governmentality, this is an interpretive issue about which, of course, reasonable people may disagree. In my piece on François Ewald, however, I show that there is significant contextual evidence that Foucault and some of his students came to believe that discipline had failed to deliver on the promise of the Nietzschean conception of power that Foucault had proposed in the early seventies—that discipline was still too top-down, massive, and too invested in a politics of total denunciation. True, Foucault did not entirely dispense with discipline once he turned to governmentality. But it ceased to be as central in his conception of political modernity as it had been in 1975.

  17. stuartelden says:

    Thanks for the replies so far. Most of them are actually discussing each other, or texts I’ve not (yet) read. So I have little to add.
    What I would point out though is that what we know as Capital, Volume II in English and what Foucault refers to as Volume (or Book) II are likely different. Capital I was published in two parts in French, and I think Foucault means the second part in ‘Les mailles du pouvoir’.
    I’m also intrigued by the potential for bringing Foucault and Henri Lefebvre together. Lefebvre’s huge, sprawling De l’Etat was published between 1975 and 1978 in four volumes. That book includes his history of the state, its impact on sociospatial relations, discussion of autogestion etc. Lefebvre is always critical of Foucault, referring to him as ‘the philosopher’ and suggesting that he lacks an explanation of why discipline and incarceration are used. The recently published 1973 lectures provide something of an answer to this – though it’s interesting those points were largely dropped when the material was reworked into Discipline and Punish. Foucault – to my knowledge – only mentions Lefebvre once, as a rather throwaway comment in an interview. There is potential for bringing their work into dialogue – done by a few people, especially in Geography – if we can get past the fractures of the French left in this period.

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  21. Jan Philipp Schewe says:

    I am certain of two things when it comes to neoliberalism and Foucaults relation to it. 1. Foucault was clearly against it. 2. He didn’t thought, like Zamora suggests during the interview with Jacobin, “[that] neoliberalism is a ‘much less bureaucratic’ and ‘much less disciplinarian’ form of politics than that offered by the postwar welfare state. [And] seemed to imagine a neoliberalism that wouldn’t project its anthropological models on the individual, that would offer individuals greater autonomy vis-à-vis the state”. – [Bob Jessop has done great work on the picture, the use and the understanding of the ‘state’ within foucaultdian theory]
    Ok, the second one is tricky. I give you that. But just for the reason that it was exactly that what Foucault wanted to point out. Even if “neoliberlism is a ‘much less bureaucratic’ and ‘much less disciplinarian’ form of politics than that offered by the postwar welfare state”, it means that we are still governed, that power relations are still at play. But in a way, that we are ourselves sometimes producer, opponent and recipient at the same time. The lectures on bio-power (le bio-pouvoir) could be read as an attempt to show, that over the course of centuries the form of power has developed. It is not only anymore a destructive, negative, diciplinatory power. It is one that constructs, looks out for postive energies, combines forces, reconstructs agendas, institutions, structures and colonizes the self. But not in an understanding of demoizing the Individual. Foucault doesn’t take the easy way out. He could have easily blame the subject and advise it to act aggainst these bad ‘influences’. No. At the same time there may be good reasons for one to alligne with powers (even the state), whereas other times it is most effective to battle against it or see other powers fit. The subject is a messy place. Therefore one need to reflect. One need to be shown, who one has become and the forms through which one has become to decide if one want to continue beeing that way. [Sorry, it isn’t correct, but I am just headquoting here the lectures from 1978/79].
    Since the late 1970s Foucault poses the question, how we are governed and where and how we govern ourselves. And that this is very much interrelated. The sphere of Object and Subject are to a big degree interwoven.
    And because of that, neoliberlism is an object, a field of interest, and by that it has to be analized like so many were before. The prison, madness, the clinic, sexuality. Foucault wants to find the tools to understand, to critique it from the inside. Therefore he had to read extensivly liberal and neoliberal authors, to understand the inner logic of this field, the homologies, the powerforms, and the architectures of these dimensions, to understand this particular way of governing. For him it wasn’t just anymore capitalism we needed to analyse and critique but also the (cognitive) structure in which it pre-imposes itself. We had to acknowledge that there were and are many more shades yet to be unmasqued.

    I have to say, that the short outline in Jacobin feels, apart from Zamora’s point, which seems to be his actual main concern anyway, that the understanding and statement of exploitation and the question of the working class had come out of fashion and isn’t central anymore to the dicussion of the left, more like using Foucaults considerations of neoliberlism as a strategy to get recognized.

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  25. wobblywheel says:

    Foucault’s drift from anarchist in the 60s to tentative dabbler in free-market ideas by the early 80s strongly resembles the general intellectual and political drift of the period. There is nothing especially noteworthy there, though perhaps it indicates that Foucault was more a recipient than shaper of dominant ideas.

    I am not at all persuaded by Drezner’s suggestion that 21st century libertarians would find Foucault’s lectures on neoliberalism particularly useful. Anyone who reads through these lectures immediately finds that they sound somewhat dated — or to put it more sympathetically, that they sound like artifacts of a particular moment.

    To me, the more striking discursive phenomenon is that, in the Anglo/American humanities and social sciences, Foucault has been the most cited figure for several decades — precisely during an era when the academy itself has become aggressively neoliberalized. Of course not all academics who love Foucault are neoliberals. But the neoliberal academy, thought of as a “diffuse network of power relations,” certainly loves Foucault.

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  27. Stephen Shapiro says:

    As its Stuart’s blog, it didn’t seem fair to use it as a platform for back and forth. But given the blog’s centrality now for the discussion, it’s useful to add some clarifying context.

    In the early 1970s, there was increasing labor conflict at the LIP factory in Besançon.
    This eventually led to a famed 1973 strike. The event is a crucial plateau in early 1970s France, partially because it stands as a moment that magnetized thoughts about post-68 politics.


    Readers interested in this history might watch two recent documentaries by director Christian Rouaud: Les Lip: L’Imagination au Pouvoir (2007) and Tous au Larzac (2011). The films are commented on by Julian Bourg in the recent Indiana UP collection The Long 1968: Revisions and New Perspectives.

    Or more simply quickly look at Wikipedia:

    Several strands emerge from this. The strike was led by the French Democratic Confederation of Labor (CDFT) trade union, which advanced the idea of autogestion, worker self-management in contrast to the factory’s new-wave Taylorism. An important theoretician of this turn at that moment was Pierre Rosanvallon. Rosanvallon, however, as time goes on becomes more amenable to neoliberal predicates.

    Yet it’s a mistake to read backwards and assume that all paths from the early 1970s lead to later positions.

    On the other hand, two academics, François Guéry and Didier Deleule working nearby the factory wrote an unapologetically marxist, but anti-Althusser school, commentary on the separation of managerial “knowledge” from the laboring class. This was published in 1972 as Le Corps Productif (The Productive Body, newly translated + available from Zero Press by Philip Barnard and myself).

    As it happens, Guéry and Deleule’s timing was off. The book was published a touch too early and by the time of the big strike the following year, it was eclipsed. But not all forgot it. Years later, in Discipline + Punish in the Panopticism chapter in the paragraph when Foucault explicitly cites Marx’s Capital, he recommends The Productive Body to his readers. Those familiar with Foucault’s style will recognize how unusual it is for Foucault to cite another scholar in this way.

    Unlike many in his generation, Deleule did not follow the path to the right. Nor did Foucault forget him. In Foucault’s invitation-only seminar series for 1979-80 On the Government of the Living, both Deleule and Rosanvallon were allowed to present theory research. Deluele’s arguments then were probably published in his as-of-yet untranslated Hume et la naissance du libéralisme économique [Hume and the Birth of Liberal Economics] (1992).

    This is to say, that a year after the Birth of Biopolitics, Foucault invited both Deleule and Rosanvallon to present their ideas in the non-public sphere linked to the public College de France lectures. One reading of this might be that Foucault was trying to collect a spectrum of interpretations about liberalism for his seminar, and went out of his way to invite individuals who were not ones that were consistently involved in the seminars, such as Ewald.

    Foucault’s actual monograph publication comments on Guéry and Deleule and his invitation to Deleule years afterwards need to be balanced against speculative interpretations of motive.

    What does seem clear is that Foucault did not carry these discussions forward, as he then turned to focus more on classical Greek texts. How we read this, alas, last phase of Foucault’s research is another question altogether.

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  29. wobblywheel says:

    @ Stephen Shapiro:

    This contextualization is very informative and I appreciate your providing it. But I’m left wondering: must we all become historians of French labor politics in the 1960s and 70s in order to understand Foucault? Must the tens of thousands of Anglo/American scholars in the humanities and social sciences who regularly cite Foucault become experts in post-war French political history in order to proceed with citing him? Does that fact that the vast majority of Anglo/American scholars who cite Foucault are *not* experts in post-war French political history mean that the ongoing Anglo/American preoccupation with Foucault is a case of collective delusion?

    Matthew Hannah has a rather interesting essay in a book co-edited by Stuart Elden. In that essay, Hannah writes about the emergence of a discourse of “Foucault” in the Anglo/American academy during the neoliberal period. Hannah doesn’t go this far, but it seems to me that “Foucault” (the academic discursive phenomenon) has been especially useful both for analyzing and for “going along with” the currents of institutional neoliberalization. The fact that the real Foucault (i.e. the person) was in fact quite interested in, and perhaps drawn to, freemarket thinking is certainly striking, and it shouldn’t be dismissed as mere “presentism” to wonder if Foucault’s hostility to the regulatory state wasn’t premised on naive ideas about economics. At any rate, Foucault’s way of thinking would encourage us to seek out the discursive roots of our current political condition — even if some of those roots might be his own lectures and essays.

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  42. Editor says:

    Stuart has indicated an important source of misunderstanding (generally speaking) when he said:

    “Foucault’s… 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.”

    It was only through conversations that I have had over the years that I realized how few people really understood this about his ‘method’, a method which he seems to have originally developed and practiced assiduously in his Historie de la folie (and so that is probably the best place to turn in order to understand it).

    In any case, it is in a similar spirit that I would like to follow this discussion, so if anyone knows of any other material in which it is carried out in an exemplary way and furthered could they please link it here?

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  46. Angus Michael McKenzie says:

    Alas no. I read the first chapter. I can’t remember who wrote it but they start off criticising Foucault for not supporting the Stalinist CPF then at the end argue that his concept of state racism stops him being able to distinguish between dictatorships and democracies. Pretty incoherent and inconsistent to start your argument as a Stalinist and end it as a social democrat willing to down play the place of racism within the West, especially when the author themselves seem to have difficulty distinguishing between dictatorships and democracies. Not sure where these people are actually coming from.

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