Luca Provenzano | Foucault on the Aporias of State-Phobia

By Luca Provenzano

In the course of the seminar discussion on The Birth of Biopolitics, Seyla Benhabib expressed disappointment that Foucault’s own positions were not differentiated from the neoliberal critique he described.  Professor Benhabib compared Foucault in this regard to members of the early Frankfurt school, whose post-war critiques often led them to analyze elements of the American New Deal in terms of fascist corporatism. My impression was that Benhabib would have liked to see from Foucault a more explicit defense of the emancipatory potential of bureaucratically administered social policy. Although I sympathize with the direction that her critique is coming from, I would like to challenge her claim that Foucault effectively fails to distinguish between state forms or encouraged non-distinction between fascist and democratic states. In fact, in his lecture of March 7, 1979, Foucault offers a striking critique of the tendency towards contemporary conceptual “inflationism” and dismisses the underlying assumptions that the state has an intrinsic dynamic and there is contiguity and natural progression from democratic to authoritarian to Nazi, fascist, and Communist states. In the same lecture, Foucault explicitly frames his decision to examine neoliberalism in terms of this broader tendency of anti-statist thought, even announcing that it is a matter of urgent contemporary “critical morality.” He also unambiguously rejects what he views as its conceptual basis. His critique of styles of analysis that conflate state forms and presume a ‘natural’ progression from bureaucracy to totalitarianism is perhaps the most passionate part of the series—a point where Foucault does not merely describe a contemporary discourse but explicitly sets out to refute it. These passages seem to offer an obstacle to the consensus among some members of the seminar that Foucault’s immanent descriptions of ordoliberalism and Chicago school neoliberalism never offer a critique, as Foucault is quite critical–even condescending– towards anti-statist assumptions.

Before I begin, I would just note that it is well-documented in the historical literature that some of the proponents of the American New Deal were rather ambiguous in their relationship to Italian Fascism throughout the Thirties. In his recent book Fear Itself, Ira Katznelson notes that although the admiration by some New Deal elites for fascism appears to have been rather superficial, the Roosevelt administration did in fact send observers to Mussolini’s Italy to study fascist administrative methods and policies. One does not have to go far to find incendiary details: thus, the early National Recovery Administration official Hugh Johnson distributed copies of the Fascist pamphlet The Corporate State and even placed a portrait of Mussolini in his office (Katznelson, Fear Itself,  93). Meanwhile, recent historiography on the French state and its social policy has outlined the continuities between the corporatist social policy of the Vichy régime and the social policies of the French Fourth Republic, and underlined the corporatist background of pioneers of French social security like Pierre Laroque (see among others Eric Jabbari, Pierre Laroque and the Welfare State in Postwar France, Oxford University Press, 2012). History is not always politically convenient, and continuities and transfers between fascist social policy and elements of the New Deal or the post-war French social state did exist: the fact is that proponents of the welfare state in the Thirties and the early post-war, whether fascist or democratic, were often embedded in the same corporatist discourse and borrowed from one another in their practical innovations. Yet in my view, this detail makes Foucault’s unambiguous emphasis on the discontinuity between state forms and his harsh and insistent rejection of the conceptual inflationism linked to the generic term “state” all the more striking.

To my main point. In his lesson of March 7, 1979, Foucault suggests that a central reason for his decision to linger on the theme of neoliberalism is one of “critical morality,” flagging the normative implications of his claims. He then expands: “We might say that what is currently placed in question, from very diverse horizons [à partir d’horizons extrêmement nombreux], it is almost always the state, the state in its indefinite growth, the state in its omnipresence, the state and its bureaucratic development, the state with the germs of fascism that it brings, the state and the intrinsic violence [concealed] under its providential paternalism.”[1] This critique of the state, he argues, is subtended by two elements. First, the notion that the state has an intrinsic tendency towards expansion that pushes it forward “such and so well that it will succeed in totally taking charge of that which constitutes for it at once its other, its exterior, its target and its object, that is: civil society.” “The first element,” he concludes, “that seems to me to effectively run through all the general themes of state-phobia, is therefore the intrinsic power of the state in relation to its object and target which would be civil society.”  Thus, the first general element of the critique of the state is the fear that “civil society,” the “outside” of “the state,” will suffer from the constant expansion of its power.

Although his further developments will evince that Foucault rejects this premise, it is worth pausing to note that already in the 1977-8 lectures he had described the vision of civil society returning to itself beyond the intrusion of the state as a messianic response to the invention of modern state governmentality. Thus, although Foucault will go on in the March 7, 1979 lecture to historicize contemporary anti-statism—or “state-phobia”—in terms of the various crises of the 20th century, it appears from his remarks in the earlier course that he views the civil society-state opposition as a key conceptual pair that has a venerable history.  But insofar as his research in the early Seventies had not merely studied forms of power in the state but had extended the focus to power relations beyond the state apparatus, Foucault had already implicitly rejected this conceptual framework as valid for his work (see among others his methodological comments on 28 March 1973 in The Punitive Society). Thus, although it is true that his critique of the focus on the state as the locus of domination had been framed in the early Seventies as a criticism of Marxism (Lenin and Althusser), in fact he agreed with contemporary Marxist theoreticians on a very basic point: ‘civil society’ could not be presupposed as a site of freedom from power relations and potential domination. Sure enough, Foucault rejects the idealization of civil society yet again in a later interview:

In fact, the idea of an opposition between civil society and state was formulated in a given context in order to respond to a precise intention…[Civil society] was a quasi-polemical concept opposed to the administrative options of the states of the epoch in order to make a certain liberalism triumph. But something bothers me even more [davantage encore]: the reference to this antagonistic couple is never exempt from a sort of Manichaeism afflicting the notion of the state with a pejorative connotation at the same time that it idealizes society in a good, living, warm ensemble. What I am attentive to is the fact that every human relation is to some degree a relation of power.” [Foucault, “Un système fini face à une demande infinie,” DE, vol., 4, no. 325, pp.367.]

Thus, Foucault does not conceptualize civil society as a realm of non-coercion; nor does he consider the State to be the single or even principal locus of domination. In fact, as early as 1978 he conducts a critique of the partisans of civil “society against the state” (inter alia, Pierre Clastres and the representatives of the Second Left) precisely by pointing out the liberal sources of their central concept (civil society). His later remarks in 1979 represent variations on this theme.

Back to the March 7, 1979 lecture: the second element that Foucault identifies in contemporary anti-statism is the notion of a “filiation” or “genetic continuity” between different forms of the state, from the administrative state through the totalitarian one. According to Foucault, for contemporary anti-statists, all of these would represent but species of the same genus, subgroups on the great phylogenetic diagram of the state. He then goes on to describe how these two ideas sustained one another and tended to constitute the conceptual corpus of contemporary critiques of the state.

“But,” he adds, “it seems to me that these themes place into circulation a certain critical value, a certain critical money that we might call ‘inflationist’” (NBP, 193, italics mine). These lines are not without a certain malice, since there is some reason to believe (as in the following pages) that Foucault has directly in mind the anti-statist analyses of a certain Austrian liberal economist who was notoriously hostile to inflation,  F.A. Hayek (in The Road to Serfdom). He will go on to directly refer to German-speaking neoliberals as bearers of this sort of inflated critique of “the state,” claiming that early versions of this critique occurred well before the Seventies. Rather than representing a novel occurrence, Foucault asserts, contemporary anti-statism is nothing new.

I will not go further into the passages at length where Foucault dismisses contemporary anti-statism for its failure to adequately identify the specificity of different institutional practices; resort to a form of “disqualification by the worst” that enables programs like social security to be assailed as representatives of stealth statification; elision of the present; and complete lack of historical reflexivity about its own conditions of emergence (NBP, 193-194). More importantly, Foucault unambiguously declares himself against the presuppositions behind this form of anti-statist critique – for Foucault, “the state” has no essence:

The welfare state [État-providence], the state of well-being has neither the same form, of course, nor, it appears to me, the same source [souche], the same origin as the totalitarian, Nazi, fascist, or Stalinist state. I also want to suggest to you that the state that we call totalitarian, far from being characterized by the intensification and the endogenous extension of the mechanisms of the state, this state said to be totalitarian is not at all the exaltation of the state, but constitutes, to the contrary, a limitation, a lessening [amoindrissement], a subordination of the autonomy of the state, of its specificity and its own functioning… (NBP, 197).

Foucault goes on to suggest that actually, contemporary liberalism and Communism have something in common—namely, the depreciation of the state. Foucault’s claims about totalitarianism strike me as provocative, but it is not hard to see why as an intellectual historian, or a historian tout court, we might take his claims about fascism and Soviet communism seriously. To take only the Soviet example, in Stalin, vol. 1., (Penguin, 2014), Stephen Kotkin notes that the early Bolshevik project of 1917 and 1918 was focused far more on the destruction of the Tzarist form of the state (the Polizeistaat) and on foreclosing the possibility of new incipient forms of a potential liberal state (the Provisional Assembly) than on the construction of a new state. In fact, and without presuming too much of a convergence between high philosophical discourse and Soviet practice, it would appear that for Lenin in State and Revolution in 1917, the point was precisely to destroy anything resembling a bourgeois state and to return the political as an independent pole of existence to the social from whence it had supposedly derived. Moreover, as Foucault observes in the 1979 lecture, the intrusion of the party into the performance of traditional state functions was a constant in Soviet history. Likewise, historians of the German Reich have noted the extreme havoc and rivalries imposed on the German Reich by the Nazi party. In both cases, rather than elevated, we might say that “the state” in the 19th century sense was subjected to a higher authority.

In any case, Foucault finds that the two conceptual elements of (French) contemporary anti-statism tend to produce an endless “inflation” of denunciations of the state, denunciations that have absolutely no connection to real contemporary processes. However often Foucault evinces hostility to the notion of ideology in his lectures at the CdF, he spontaneously depicts contemporary anti-statism as one—a form of discourse distinct from, and misleading us about, contemporary reality even as it incites us to act upon that reality. Foucault states:

I don’t want to say that it would not be legitimate, if you like, to hate the state. But I believe that what one must not do is imagine to ourselves that we describe a real, actual process concerning us when we denounce statification [étatisation] or fascization, the inscription of state violence, etc. Let all who participate in the great fear of the state know that they are going in the direction of the wind and that in effect, everywhere has been announced for years and years a limitation of the State and statification and statified and statized governmentality… I say that one must not fool oneself [se leurrer] on the belonging of the state to a process of fascization that is [in reality] exogenous to it and that comes much more from the [contemporary] limitation and the dislocation of the State. I also want to say that it is necessary not to fool oneself about the nature of the historical process that renders the state at once so intolerable and problematic today…The German model that is diffusing itself, the German model that is in question, the German model that makes up our actuality, that structures it … this German model is the possibility of neoliberal governmentality [and not fascism or authoritarianism]. (NBP, 197-198).

For his contemporaries in 1979 whose radical sympathies Foucault often shared, his remarks might have been a shock. After all, in these passages Foucault sounds like an indirect defender of the state insofar as he acts as a critic of precisely those conceptual schemas that lead us to see everywhere the domination, the intensification, the mounting power and coming tyranny of the state and to denounce every state intervention for the sake of the supposedly worse state to come. It is a key aspect of this unexpected turn that the lecture evinces Foucault, not without shades of mockery, ranging together both the contemporary radical left and neoliberals as agents of the same reactive state-phobia.



[1] Translations from Naissance de la biopolitique are my own.