Luca Provenzano | Foucault and Neoliberalism Conference Report

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Foucault and Neoliberalism:

A Report from American University of Paris

On Friday, March 25 and Saturday, March 26, participants in Foucault 13/13 went to Paris to present at (and report from) the conference “Foucault and Neoliberalism” organized by the Center for Critical Democracy Studies at the American University of Paris. Organized by Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins and Stephen W. Sawyer, the goal of the conference was to take an inventory of the current scholarship on Foucault and neoliberalism and promote an exchange of views at a time when “The question of neoliberalism and particularly its ostensible triumph remains as vexing as ever” (Sawyer).

In his introduction on Friday, Stephen Sawyer noted that in a sense, conference participants came ‘après la bataille’: much of the most acrimonious debate in the immediate aftermath of Critiquer Foucault volume by Daniel Zamora (2014) and Penser le néolibéralisme by Serge Audier (2015) appears to be behind us, though perhaps the English publication of Critiquer Foucault will interrupt the calm. Nevertheless, Sawyer noted that recent works have raised more questions than answers about how the lectures on neoliberalism fit into Foucault’s oeuvre. In particular, Sawyer asked about how Foucault’s neoliberal moment relates to his later turn to the issue of democracy via his final lectures on the Greeks.

Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins made his provocative contribution by considering the recent critiques of Foucault by Daniel Zamora, who has emerged as the most aggressive and assertive critic of Foucault’s ‘relationship’ to neoliberalism since the publication of his polemics in Vacarme and Jacobin (1 and 2).  Steinmetz-Jenkins surveyed Zamora’s angle on Foucault in his published texts and the introduction to Critiquer Foucault and argued that ultimately, current critiques of Foucault may be far less novel than they appear; rather, they tend to have succeeded precisely in so far as they have reactivated longstanding resentment by Foucault among many self-identifying on the left. Steinmetz-Jenkins criticized Zamora for exaggerating the role played by Foucault in the historical transition between the ‘old left’ model of class-based projects and identifications towards a ‘new left’ model based on marginality, suggesting that this amounts to a massive inflation of Foucault’s actual influence and ‘responsibility.’ Finally, he remarked upon analogies between ‘left’ critiques of Foucault in the name of the eternal verities of the working class and neoconservative attacks on Foucault on behalf of his supposed post-modernism, suggesting that in both cases, Foucault is resented for his iconoclasm and corrosion of what are held to be universally valid projects.

Claudia Castiglioni presented on Foucault’s reportage on the Iranian revolution in 1978 and its potential relations to the neoliberalism lectures. She noted that Foucault appeared to care very little about the actual political struggles taking place in Iran but interpreted the Iranian revolution as a revolt against the West and a manifestation of a new form of revolution outside of the framework of the Enlightenment, one that challenged Western mainstream political thought. According to Castiglioni, Foucault’s reports on Iran were thus marked by their anti-political posture. Nevertheless, Castiglioni insisted that Foucault’s interest in the mobilizing role of religion, the revolutionary process, and its negative quality, differentiated his position from the typical left-wing third-worldism [tiers mondisme] of the Seventies.

Duncan Kelly situated Birth of Biopolitics at the nexus of Foucault’s history of political thought and interrogation of the state. One strain of the Collège de France lectures Security, Territory Population and Birth of Biopolitics –as well as his October 1979 Tanner Lectures at Stanford University— is the historical genealogy of modern politics and the state through its discontinuities from pastoral power to the Raison d’État to the emergence of liberalism, and finally from the liberalism of the 1930s to the ‘neoliberalism’ of Germany, France, and the United States. Foucault was attempting to analyze the shifts in politics and governmentality without formulating his own theory of the state, showing in turn how ‘theories’ of the state were related to competing conceptions of the political and modes of governmentality.

Aner Barzilay, staged a rereading of Foucault’s lectures on Gary Becker in Birth of Biopolitics in light of Foucault’s 1950s manuscripts on Marxist anthropology and his discussion of labour in Les mots et les choses [The Order of Things]. Barzilay offered a critique of a recent article on Foucault and Marx by our very own colleague Étienne Balibar, who has explored the three Abrechnungen [‘reckonings’ or ‘settlings of accounts’] between Foucault and Marx in the recent French volume Marx et Foucault: Lectures, Usages, Confrontations. Rather than travel within the contours of Althusserian Marxism, according to Barzilay, Foucault had offered a radical Nietzschean critique of Marxist anthropology in the early Fifties. This critique, later reprised in part in the section ‘Life, labor, and language’ of Les mots et les choses in 1966, constructed the philosophical grounds for the later analysis of human capital in the 1979 courses, which Foucault interpreted as a move beyond the Marxist anthropology of laboring man. Just as Foucault had asserted in the early Seventies that the emergence of genetics in biology inaugurated the end of the quasi-transcendental of ‘life’ that he had analyzed in Les mots et les choses, his commentary on the human capital analysis of the Chicago School in 1979 demonstrated that developments in economics had dissolved the quasi-transcendental of ‘labor.’ The advent of the human capital concept offered a both a radical shift beyond the Marxian anthropology of alienation and a confirmation of the ‘end of man.’

Luca Paltrinieri explored the techniques of modern ‘managementality’ and the limitations of Foucault’s analysis of neoliberalism in line with the contemporary reality of firms and self-entrepreneurship today. Paltrinieri noted that contemporary managerial practices date Foucault’s discussion of the neoliberal subject and argued that it was necessarily to go beyond the framework of ‘governmentality’ to focus on the strategies of management in the neoliberal firm and the forms of self that it imposed. In the history of capitalist enterprise, neoliberal theories and practices remodeled the firm. The theory of agency, financialization, and the proliferation of the contract within the firm eroded the traditional distinction between the firm and the market as the latter became the theoretical and organizational model of the former. Second, the passage from the paradigm of human relations to ‘human resources’ remodeled the ‘target’ of ‘managementality’ and its practices. Here Foucault’s own analysis of human capital could not have anticipated the shift to social and emotional skills in the context of the workplace rather than acquired knowledge. Nor does the ‘hermeneutic of the self’ that Foucault described in his later lectures correspond to the conceptualization and practice of the self, the ‘managerial self,’ that emerges in these conditions. Finally, the self-entrepreneurship encouraged in the neoliberal firm blurs the Foucauldian distinction between subjection and subjectivation as the worker is pressured to continually enhance their portfolio and not merely bound to their place in the relations of production.  Paltrinieri closed by encouraging us to consider Foucault a pathfinder, but not a prophet of the present.

Luca Provenzano focused on the critiques of anti-statism in Foucault’s March 7 1979 lecture and criticized contemporary historical contextualism for eliding Foucault’s often forceful attacks on ‘state phobia’ in the course of their analyses. In his view, because the Foucauldian critiques of ‘state-phobia’ explicitly traced impoverished anti-statist critique to the neoliberal thought of the interwar period and prolonged Foucault’s earlier ‘reckonings’ with state-centric analysis and his efforts to detranscendentalize ‘the state’ as the central concept of political thought, his critical remarks on state-phobia in 1979 point to the theoretical disjuncture separating Foucault from the neoliberalism he was discussing –a point that contextualist intellectual historians have not duly acknowledged.  Foucault’s anti-Hegelian to desire to dis-assemble the notion of the state as an autonomous form did not necessarily have normatively anti-statist implications: it led Foucault to explicitly mock both German ordoliberals and contemporaries who in his view hypostasized the state as an intrinsically violent, self-engendering phenomenon always threatening to transition towards a more repressive form via its own internal logic.

Michael Behrent excavated Foucault’s discussion of liberalism prior to the 1979 lectures in such readings as Les mots et les choses [The Order of Things] and Histoire de la folie à l’âge classique [Madness and Civilization], noting that Foucault’s first encounters with ‘liberalism’ were not in the 1978-1979 courses. He argued that Foucault’s earliest interpretations of liberalism in Madness and Civilization emphasized its exclusionary and repressive nature, an emphasis that shifted considerably by the 1970s. Behrent interpreted Foucault’s discussion of human capital analysis and Gary Becker’s 1968 “Crime and Punishment” in light of Foucault’s philosophical anti-humanism, arguing that Foucault made strategic use of neoliberal analyses to further his political and philosophical aims. Any rapprochement between Foucault and liberalism was founded on his fundamental anti-humanism.

Serge Audier, author of the most comprehensive historical contextualization and interrogation of the 1979 lecture series to date, Penser le néolibéralisme, explored the Birth of Biopolitics lectures in light of Foucault’s assertion that liberalism involved the auto-limitation of government. According to Audier, Foucault’s discussion of American neoliberalism focused on shifts in governmentality that Foucault believed involved agnosticism towards minority practices and deviance: this was an important consideration in his analysis of the ‘negative tax’ and ‘Crime and Punishment’ by Gary Becker. If Foucault was undoubtedly not a neoliberal and expressed some misgivings about some parts of the neoliberal project, neither was he the prosecutor of neoliberalism that his later followers have sometimes imagined.

Bernard E. Harcourt reviewed three moments of critique in Foucault’s Collège de France lectures. Harcourt suggested that the Birth of Biopolitics lectures and the earlier 1978 series Security, Territory Population ought to be understood as a coherent cycle and argued for a method of reading that would avoid questions of Foucault’s subjectivity to focus directly on the texts. He proposed a “casuistic” methodology focused on the texts read in relation to each other. Already in January 1978, Foucault’s example of modern governmentality was based on ‘Crime and Punishment’ by Gary Becker; thus, Becker’s analysis served as the model for securitarian power both in 1978 and in the final lectures of the 1979 course. What drove Foucault’s inquiry in the 1979 lectures and the 1978 lectures alike was his conviciton that the new art of governing had set into place a regime of truth that operated in the present, with the market operating as the space of the production of that truth (‘véridiction’). This is why Foucault’s lectures never investigated ‘biopolitics’ directly but required a detour through the discussion of neoliberalism. Harcourt then turned to three critiques developed by Foucault in the lectures: the ‘danger’ [menace] of the theory of human capital insofar as it legitimates discriminatory investment strategies; the thinness of the behaviorist governmental techniques, given the underlying assertion that neoliberal human capital analysis provides a framework for behavioralist manipulations of homo oeconomicus; and the claim that the theory of homo oeconomicus rests on aprioristic disqualifications of state intervention.

François Ewald interpreted Foucault’s method in Birth of Biopolitics in line with the 27 May 1978 Qu’est-ce que la critique? Critique et Aufklärung presentation before the Société Française de la Philosophie. Foucault’s method in the 1979 Birth of Biopolitics is to trace contemporary governance in the interest of the type of critique he explored in May 1978: the critique in Birth of Biopolitics is therefore not a denunciation but an effort to understand the contemporary contours of governance. [One question from this author is whether or not we ought to assume that Foucault uniformly valorizes ‘critique’ – his tirade against the contemporary critique of the state as ‘inflationist’ suggests that this is not the case.]

On Sunday, March 26, 2016, the conference reconvened for presentations by Judith Revel, Danilo Scholz, and Colin Gordon. Judith Revel interrogated Foucault’s analysis of neoliberalism in terms of the current refugee crisis in Europe, asking whether the Foucauldian ‘toolbox’ remains pertinent for accounting for the management of ‘migrants’ and ‘refugees.’ Does the governmentality on display in the treatment of the refugee crisis represent another new form or stratum of governmentality or can it be interpreted within another Foucauldian paradigm? Reminding the audience that Foucault’s understanding of discontinuity requires attention to the contemporary emergence of new phenomena, Revel noted that the management of migrants today appears to have left behind the paradigm that Foucault identified in the analysis of human capital as well as the ‘make live and let die’ [faire vivre et laisser mourir] model of biopolitics from 1975-1976. She argued that the management of refugees demonstrates shifts in the temporality of governmental rationality: the instantiation of a double temporality structured by the concept of ‘crisis,’ on the one hand, and that of the temporality of the electoral cycle, on the other. Current governmental policy is actually irrational within the paradigm of economic rationality. Meanwhile, in a shift from conventional biopolitical rationality, we have moved into a paradigm of ‘not making live, and letting die’ [ne pas faire vivre, et laisser mourir].

Danilo Scholz analyzed Foucault’s 1978 and 1979 lectures within the reigning contemporary French discussion of the state, in particular noting Foucault’s ongoing critiques of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari and contrasting Foucault’s positions to those of François Châtelet. Foucault’s polemic against Deleuze and Guattari’s abstract conceptualization of the state and positive theory of society is for Scholz a leitmotif of the 1978-1979 lecture cycles: where Deleuze and Guattari had mocked the ‘paranoid state’ [état paranoiaque], Foucault criticized the excessive ‘state-phobia’ [phobie d’État] of his contemporaries. Meanwhile, the emergent Foucauldian concept of governmentality responded to the disjuncture between the macroanalysis and microanalysis of powers in Foucault’s earlier work. 1979 was an ‘année étatique’ in French thought, and the historicization of the state by Foucault might be usefully contrasted to his contemporary Châtelet’s conception of the ‘État-Savant’ [Knowledge-State] based in the use of information collection and modern managerial strategy. For Châtelet, the État-Savant emerged in an ongoing process in both the Soviet model of the État-parti [Party State] and the Western European and American model of the ‘État-gérant’ [Manager state]. Nevertheless, while Foucault kept his distance from the Socialist government in the Eighties, Châtelet embraced it.

Colin Gordon noted the tension between an obligation to the Foucauldian corpus and the obligation to the present that are difficult to reconcile in the discussion of Foucault and neoliberalism, admitting his ambivalent reactions to contemporary suggestions that Foucault’s analyses of neoliberalism were prescient or sufficient. He noted a number of points in Foucault’s lectures that contemporary intellectual historians and critics have not often directly addressed, including Foucault’s assertion that in contradistinction to the homo oeconomicus of classical liberalism, the homo oeconomicus of Gary Becker is the potential target of behaviorist techniques of the milieu and ‘eminently governable’; the remarks on phobie d’État; and the claims that although socialism did not have its own autonomous governmentality, it was ‘necessary to invent it’ [il faul l’inventer]. Gordon contested the hasty absorption of Foucault into narratives of the ‘liberal turn’ or the ‘anti-totalitarian moment.’ Finally, he suggested that Foucault’s three courses from 1975 to 1979 ought to be read as a triptych interrogating the terms ‘government,’ ‘state,’ and ‘the political.’ Unlike contemporaries like Claude Lefort, Foucault did not offer an ‘onto-deductive’ theory of the political.

The conference closed with remarks by Bernard Harcourt and Stephen Sawyer, and Daniel Defert. Defert urged historical reflexivity in the discussion of Foucault’s analysis of neoliberalism, and remarked that after all, the French government that Foucault referred to as surreptitiously adopting neoliberal tenets was that of Raymond Barre. (Barre is not known to posterity for his particularly aggressive ‘neoliberal’ positioning.) He added that to the best of his knowledge, the ‘neoliberalism’ lectures were something of a one-off.  Defert also recalled that already in the late Sixties, he had had conversations with Foucault about the ‘investment’ strategies of Breton peasants in the health of their children: parents would expend more on children studying for the liberal professions than worker siblings. Defert suggested that in part, Foucault’s interest in human capital analysis stemmed from earlier observations on the familial strategies of French peasants (for potential support for this view, see Foucault’s return to his discussion of Pierre Rivière in the 21 March 1979 lesson.)


The ‘Foucault and Neoliberalism’ presentations on 25-26 March 2016 seemed to display two important general shifts. One was the narrowing of the contours of the debate and the general dismissal of two extreme positions: 1) that Foucault unequivocally identified with neoliberalism and 2) that Foucault’s lectures offer a global denunciation of neoliberalism. Alongside this, I would suggest that there was a marked tendency to minimalize psychologistic or sensationalist interpretations in terms of ‘seduction,’ ‘sympathy,’ or ‘attraction.’

Aside from this however, the diversity of the contributions suggests competing tendencies. Some conference participants continued to contest the precise contours of his position in Naissance de la biopolitique. In this group, I wanted to push back against what I perceived as the elision of the distancing between Foucault and neoliberalism or the basic philosophical discontinuity and incompatibility between Foucault’s positions and central aspects he identified in neoliberalism (i.e., its exorbitant ‘fear of the state’). Other participants stressed elective affinities between Foucault and particularly American neoliberalism at both a philosophical and immediate political level. There are differences of interpretation here but also different principles of selection about what is important in the lecture series. Thus, on the one hand, there may be something to the notion that Foucault presented American neoliberals like Becker as confirming his ‘end of man’ hypothesis from Les mots et les choses (Barzilay and Behrent), or even that Foucault anticipated some forms of emerging Chicago School neoliberalism as affording an anthropological minimalism that might prove tolerant to minority practices (Audier). (In this case, we might have to conclude that economic anti-humanisms — if indeed, liberal homo oeconomicus is a figure of the ‘end of man’ — do not in any sense necessarily contribute to less repressive penal outcomes and that the ‘anthropological erasure’ of the criminal has only a contingent relationship to less repressive outcomes, something Foucault would perhaps have got wrong.) However, as both Gordon and Harcourt note, promoters of the view that Foucault was ‘sympathetic’ towards American neoliberal governmentality based on homo oeconomicus tend to ignore or downgrade the passages in which Foucault explicitly stipulates that for neoliberals like Gary Becker, homo oeconomicus is the target of potentially unlimited psychological and environmental behavioral modifications such as those analyzed by his contemporary Robert Castel – and ‘eminently governable’ (Foucault, Naissance de la biopolitique, 274).

On the other hand, there is a desire to transcend the debate entirely, recuperating what can be recuperated for future analysis (Luca Paltrinieri and Judith Revel) without agonizing over the minutiae of ‘Foucault and neoliberalism,’ and downgrading the status of the ‘neoliberalism’ lecture in the overall corpus to focus on more enduring issues such as Foucault’s basic philosophical metacommitments (Barzilay) or his shifting positions on the state, governmentality, and politics (Gordon, Kelly, Scholz). It seems likely that the first mode of transcendence—pointing towards a critical use of Foucault –is also, generally speaking, what the vast majority of theoreticians and analysts have been and will continue to do in the future, far from the ruckus of the Foucault and neoliberalism debate. Consider the ‘Heidegger case’ – neither intellectual historians nor philosophers have dismissed the corpus on the grounds that Heidegger was a Nazi, and the intellectual zone of ‘complicity’ between Michel Foucault and neoliberalism is – if it even exists, – of another, far lesser, order of magnitude. And as Judith Revel and Luca Paltrinieri demonstrated in their outstanding presentations, much can be said for the critical use of the Foucauldian corpus to interrogate the contemporary moment and continue  critique without being fixed in specific Foucauldian propositions. This brings us perhaps to a third point: it is commonly recognized that Foucault’s own interpretations of neoliberalism, though not without merit, were finite – subject to the constraints of the historical moment and constructed within his own matrix of philosophical, political, and polemical concerns.  On this view, analysts have perhaps also not taken seriously enough the issue that our own academic obsession with neoliberalism was not shared by Foucault. In short, the degree to which these lectures have been taken as seminal may be an artifact of our own discourse formation and time, not his.

by Luca Provenzano