Nancy Fraser: Discussion Points on Birth of Biopolitics

By Nancy Fraser

What interests me most in this rich and fascinating text is Foucault’s contrast between “German ordo-liberalism” and “American anarcho-liberalism.” Evidently, he identifies each of these two “neoliberalisms” with a distinctive form of governmentality—a concept I assume others will discuss. But I am struck by another, less emphasized aspect of the contrast he draws: namely, the way in which each of these political rationalities assumes, indeed produces, a distinctive mapping of societal space. Each produces/assumes a distinctive constitution of the institutional/ontological divisions among “economy,” “politics,” and “society.” Each elaborates a societal ontology, which defines “the economic,” “the political,” and “the social” as mutually distinct and demarcate-able from one another, yet also as co-defined by reference to one another. On this basis, each “neoliberalism” also assumes/produces an account of the proper relations among these instances or “realms,” as well as a diagnosis of the danger to the overall societal formation that results when the proper relations do not obtain. Then, too, each offers a diagnosis of the form that danger takes in its own conjuncture, as well an account of the historical path along which that danger developed. Finally, each neoliberal variant offers an inventory of the available means for addressing the danger, a proposal for the appropriate point of application for those means, and a view of the subjects whose conduct is to be governed by and through them.

I would like to discuss Foucault’s contrast between “German ordo-liberalism” and “American anarcho-liberalism” along these lines. I would also like to expand the contrast to encompass in addition some comparable “leftwing” or “socialist” mappings of societal space, such as those of Karl Polanyi and Jürgen Habermas, which seem to me to offer analogous constitutions of the institutional/ontological divisions among “economy,” “politics,” and “society,” as well as analogous diagnoses of societal dangers that arise from their violation (“disembedding of markets,” “colonization of the lifeworld,” etc).

On this basis, finally, I would like to consider two further questions—one implicit, the other explicit in Foucault’s text. First, why does his discussion of capitalism appear to accept the neoliberal conception of it as an economic system in the narrow sense. And what sort of critique of neoliberalism might be enabled if we were to understand capitalism more broadly, as an institutionalized social order which demarcates and separates “the economic,” “the political,” and “the social” from one another?

Second, I would like to revisit Foucault’s question, why is there no socialist governmentality? I wonder whether this question is rightly posed. Perhaps the conceptual counterpart to socialist governmentality is not liberal or neoliberal governmentality, but capitalist governmentality—a term that Foucault might consider equally problematic or suspect. If so, the difficulty of conceiving capitalist governmentality may help clarify the difficulty Foucault experiences here in conceiving socialist governmentality. I suspect, moreover, that the counterpart to liberal (or neoliberal) governmentality is better conceived as democratic governmentality. So I would like to consider whether that concept is equally inconceivable or problematic—and if not, what sort of critique of neoliberalism it might enable.