Stephen Sawyer | Michel Foucault, Neoliberalism and Beyond

The following is a guest post by Stephen Sawyer, organizer of the March 25-26 Foucault and Neoliberalism Conference at the American University of Paris. Professor Sawyer has kindly provided us with concluding remarks on the conference. 

By Stephen Sawyer

Michel Foucault’s reflections on neoliberalism have ultimately left us with more questions than answers. They have opened a path toward a more sophisticated reflection on one of the most important thinkers of the last half century, while providing an unexpected point of entry into one of the most vexing political, economic, cultural and social movements of our contemporary world. While the “critique” of Foucault as a closet neoliberal by the far left and the right is tenuous at best (Steinmetz-Jenkins), the extraordinary success of neoliberal ideology has made Foucault’s interest in this question in the late 1970s at once prescient, puzzling and alluring. Moreover, the full release of Foucault’s Collège de France lectures along with the spate of previously unreleased material has led to something of a Foucault renaissance that has only raised the stakes.  The question, then, almost four decades after Foucault’s reflections is: How do we craft a sophisticated history of this moment without either falling into sensationalist critiques or an uncritical assumption that Foucault’s exploration of neoliberalism was an insignificant passing concern.

A (very) brief neoliberal moment

At the center of this investigation is the undeniable fact that Foucault’s interest in neoliberalism was extraordinarily brief. We must therefore look horizontally toward the other issues that intersected with neoliberalism in his work at this time. The final years of the 1970s marked a particularly productive period in Foucault’s life beyond his published works, from his “Qu’est-ce que la critique?” (Ewald) to the Tanner lectures in Stanford (Kelly), and his political engagements (Defert) in Spain, Iran (Castiglioni) and Poland. This brevity however raises another, particularly challenging question: Does this moment have echoes throughout his larger oeuvre and if so how and where? Here, we are faced with the somewhat troubling fact that one could no doubt start from any of the many subjects with which Foucault engaged in these years to interpret his work. But the fact remains that neoliberalism’s pervasive and destructive power has made it a particularly enticing, if small, window through which to explore his thought. Thus his interest in this problem forces us to dig deep into the Foucauldian oeuvre, back to his anti-humanism and anthropology first outlined in the 1950s and 1960s (Barzilay and Behrent).

Beyond Neoliberalism

The star-studded meeting of Michel Foucault and a neoliberal thinker like Gary Becker risks blinding us to the wider set of engagements with American neoliberalism that were taking place in France and beyond during this period (Audier). Many (throughout the world) engaged with this question from across the political spectrum, including Foucault’s French colleague François Châtelet and those involved in the Nouvel Ordre Interieur conference (Scholz). So how might we come to terms with Foucault’s interest in neoliberalism amidst this larger engouement? In answering this question, we cannot ignore that there was something like a neoliberal moment lodged within a longer liberal moment. This of course raises the more important question of the relationship between liberalism and neoliberalism more generally and in Foucault’s work in particular. For all that we have learned about the new interest in liberalism in France in the 1970s and 1980s, it’s relationship to neoliberalism continues to remain something of a mystery. No doubt, a central piece of this knotty relationship was Foucault’s consistent interest in the state. While he refused to elaborate a theory of the state, he also rejected the state-phobia that was so common among liberals and neoliberals alike. Indeed, Foucault’s discussion of neoliberalism hardly coincided with a blanket anti-statism (Provenzano). Considering the importance of liberalism and neoliberalism in leading a consistent critique of the state, Foucault’s cultivated ambivalence on this question merits further study.

Toward Democracy?

Since the 1980s, there has been a steady line of argument—this time mostly on the part of liberals themselves—that because Foucault refused notions of sovereignty, he did not cultivate an interest in the democratic. His analyses after the brief neoliberal moment suggest, however, that this is only partly true. Indeed, he did reject one of the driving themes of the liberal moment in France—led by such figures as Claude Lefort or Pierre Rosanvallon, with whom he interacted regularly—that is, the distinction between politics and the political. In its place, Foucault historicized the emergence of both politics and the political, avoiding the idea that one could somehow transcend the other (Gordon). Such a perspective however hardly closed the door on a Foucauldian interest in democracy (Sawyer). Indeed, almost immediately following his exploration of neoliberalism and liberalism more broadly, ancient democracy became one of the themes for which he sustained a steady interest. It would seem that at least one consequence of his critique of neoliberalism and the liberal revival in France was a reconsideration of the legacy of Athenian democracy.

Foucault’s work consistently emphasized an engagement with the present through critical reflection on the past. If we want to think “beyond” neoliberalism, then, it will be necessary to consider critically the relevance of Foucault’s thinking on this question today on the other side of the neoliberal triumph. To what extent and in what ways does Foucault’s interpretation of neoliberalism need to be reconsidered in our present? We are of course struck by Foucault’s prescience in interrogating questions like neoliberalism and mass incarceration, issues where Foucault did indeed seem ahead of his time (Harcourt). But this doesn’t mean that his analysis is entirely sufficient for coming to grips with these phenomena almost four decades later. From this perspective, Foucault’s approach to the neoliberal question opens a potential path, but must be largely updated if it is to come to grips with the new forms and sources of our current neoliberal condition (Paltrinieri). The renewal of Foucault’s commitments and the revision of his categories may ultimately force us to recognize the complex history of neoliberalism and push us to more sophisticated analyses of its impact on the most pressing social and humanitarian crises of our day (Revel).