Can We Criticize Foucault?

Daniel Zamora

Late in life, Michel Foucault developed a curious sympathy for neoliberalism.

Interview by

Since his death in 1984, Michel Foucault’s work has become a touchstone for the academic left worldwide. But in a provocative new book published in Belgium last month, a team of scholars led by sociologist Daniel Zamora raises probing questions about Foucault’s relationship with the neoliberal revolution that was just getting started in his last years.

In an interview this month with the new French journal Ballast, Zamora discusses the book’s fascinating findings and what they mean for radical thought today. Below is the text of the interview, translated from French by Seth Ackerman.

In his book Foucault, Sa Pensée, Sa Personne, Foucault’s friend Paul Veyne writes that he was unclassifiable, politically and philosophically: “He believed in neither Marx nor Freud, nor in the Revolution nor in Mao, in private he snickered at fine progressive sentiments, and I knew of no principled position of his on the vast problems of the Third World, consumerism, capitalism, American imperialism.”

You write that he was always “a step ahead of his contemporaries.” What do you mean by that?

Daniel Zamora

It should be said that Foucault undeniably put the spotlight on themes that were very clearly ignored, even marginalized, by the dominant intellectuals of his era. Whether it was on psychiatry, the prison, or sexuality, his works clearly marked out a vast intellectual terrain. Of course he was part of an era, a much wider social context, and he wasn’t the first to work on these questions. These themes were popping up everywhere and became the objects of significant social and political movements.

In Italy, for example, the anti-psychiatry movement initiated by Franco Basaglia didn’t have to wait for Foucault to challenge the mental asylum to formulate stimulating political proposals of its own for replacing that institution. So obviously Foucault did not originate all these movements — he never claimed to — but he clearly opened the way for a very large number of historians and scholars working on new themes, new territories that had been little explored.

He taught us to always politically question things which at the time seemed “beyond” all suspicion. I still remember his famous discussion with Chomsky, where he declared that the real political task in his eyes was to criticize institutions that were “apparently neutral and independent” and to attack them “in such a way that the obscured political violence within them would be unmasked.”

I might have some doubts about the nature of his critiques — we’ll come back to that I’m sure — but it was nevertheless an extremely novel and stimulating project.

By making Foucault compatible with neoliberalism, your book could ruffle a lot of feathers.

Daniel Zamora

I hope so. That’s sort of the point of the book. I wanted to clearly break with the far too consensual image of Foucault as being in total opposition to neoliberalism at the end of his life. From that point of view, I think the traditional interpretations of his late works are erroneous, or at least evade part of the issue. He’s become sort of an untouchable figure within part of the radical left. Critiques of him are timid, to say the least.

This blindness is surprising because even I was astonished by the indulgence Foucault showed toward neoliberalism when I delved into the texts. It’s not only his Collège de France lectures, but also numerous articles and interviews, all of which are accessible.

Foucault was highly attracted to economic liberalism: he saw in it the possibility of a form of governmentality that was much less normative and authoritarian than the socialist and communist left, which he saw as totally obsolete. He especially saw in neoliberalism a “much less bureaucratic” and “much less disciplinarian” form of politics than that offered by the postwar welfare state. He 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.

Foucault seems, then, in the late seventies, to be moving towards the “second left,” that minoritarian but intellectually influential tendency of French socialism, along with figures like Pierre Rosanvallon, whose writings Foucault appreciated. He found seductive this anti-statism and this desire to “de-statify French society.”

Even Colin Gordon, one of Foucault’s principal translators and commentators in the Anglo-Saxon world, has no trouble saying that he sees in Foucault a sort of precursor to the Blairite Third Way, incorporating neoliberal strategy within the social-democratic corpus.

At the same time, your book is not a denunciation or a prosecutorial inquiry. As you said earlier, you recognize the quality of his work.

Daniel Zamora

Of course! I’m fascinated by the personality and his work. To my mind it’s precious. I also enormously appreciated the work recently published by Geoffroy de Lagasnerie, La dernière leçon de Michel Foucault. Ultimately his book is sort of the flip side of ours, since he sees in Foucault a desire to use neoliberalism to reinvent the Left. Our perspective is that he uses it as more than just a tool: he adopts the neoliberal view to critique the Left.

Still, Lagasnerie underlines a point that to my mind is essential and goes to the heart of numerous problems on the critical left: he argues that Foucault was one of the first to really take the neoliberal texts seriously and to read them rigorously. Before him, those intellectual products were generally dismissed, perceived as simple propaganda. For Lagasnerie, Foucault exploded the symbolic barrier that had been built up by the intellectual left against the neoliberal tradition.

Sequestered in the usual sectarianism of the academic world, no stimulating reading had existed that took into consideration the arguments of Friedrich Hayek, Gary Becker, or Milton Friedman. On this point, one can only agree with Lagasnerie: Foucault allowed us to read and understand these authors, to discover in them a complex and stimulating body of thought. On that point I totally agree with him. It’s undeniable that Foucault always took pains to inquire into theoretical corpuses of widely differing horizons and to constantly question his own ideas.

The intellectual left unfortunately has not always managed to do likewise. It has often remained trapped in a “school” attitude, refusing a priori to consider or debate ideas and traditions that start from different premises than its own. It’s a very damaging attitude. One finds oneself dealing with people who’ve practically never read the intellectual founding fathers of the political ideology they’re supposedly attacking! Their knowledge is often limited to a few reductive commonplaces.

In your book, you contest his vision of social security1 and wealth redistribution. Could you talk about that?

Daniel Zamora

It’s practically an unexplored issue within the immense corpus of the “Foucauldians.” To tell the truth, I didn’t think I’d be working on this when I was thinking up the plan of the book. My interest in social security wasn’t originally connected to Foucault directly, but my research on this issue led me to think about how over the past forty years we’ve gone from a politics aimed at combatting inequality, grounded in social security, to a politics aiming to combat poverty, increasingly organized around specific budget allocations and targeted populations.

But going from one objective to the other completely transforms the conception of social justice. Combatting inequalities (and seeking to reduce absolute disparities) is very different from combating poverty (and seeking to offer a minimum to the most disadvantaged). Carrying out this little revolution required years of work delegitimizing social security and the institutions of the working class.

It was while reading closely through the texts of the “late” Foucault (from the late seventies and early eighties) that it became clear to me that he himself fully took part in this operation. So, he not only challenged social security, he was also seduced by the alternative of the negative income tax proposed by Milton Friedman in that period. To his mind, the mechanisms of social assistance and social insurance, which he put on the same plane as the prison, the barracks, or the school, were indispensable institutions “for the exercise of power in modern societies.”

It’s also interesting to note that in François Ewald’s central work, he doesn’t hesitate to write that “the welfare state fulfills the dream of ‘biopower.’” No less! [Ewald was Foucault’s disciple and assistant, now a leading intellectual aligned with France’s insurance industry and the Medef, the main French business federation.]

Given the many defects of the classical social security system, Foucault was interested in replacing it with a negative income tax. The idea is relatively simple: the state pays a benefit to anyone who finds themselves below a certain level of income. The goal is to arrange things so that without needing much administration, no one will find themselves below the minimum level.

In France this debate begins to appear in 1974, through Lionel Stoléru’s book Vaincre la pauvreté dans les pays riches (Conquering Poverty In the Rich Countries). It’s also interesting to note that Foucault himself met with Stoléru several times when Stoléru was a technical advisor on the staff of [right-wing French president] Valéry Giscard D’Estaing. An important argument runs through his work and directly attracted Foucault’s attention: in the spirit of Friedman, it draws a distinction between a policy that seeks equality (socialism) and a policy that simply aims to eliminate poverty without challenging disparities (liberalism).

For Stoléru, I’m quoting, “doctrines. . . can lead us either to a policy aiming to eliminate poverty, or to a policy seeking to limit the gap between rich and poor.” That’s what he calls “the frontier between absolute poverty and relative poverty.” The first refers simply to an arbitrarily determined level (which the negative income tax addresses) and the other to overall disparities between individuals (which social security and the welfare state address).

In Stoléru’s eyes, “the market economy is capable of assimilating actions to combat absolute poverty” but “it is incapable of digesting overly strong remedies against relative poverty.” That’s why, he argues, “I believe the distinction between absolute poverty and relative poverty is in fact the distinction between capitalism and socialism.” So, what’s at stake in moving from one to the other is a political issue: acceptance of capitalism as the dominant economic form, or not.

From that point of view, Foucault’s barely masked enthusiasm for Stoléru’s proposal was part of a larger movement that went along with the decline of the egalitarian philosophy of social security in favor of a very free-market-oriented fight against “poverty.” In other words, and as surprising as it may seem, the fight against poverty, far from limiting the effects of neoliberal policies, has in reality militated for its political hegemony.

So it’s not surprising to see the world’s largest fortunes, like those of Bill Gates or George Soros, engaging in this fight against poverty even while supporting, without any apparent contradiction, the liberalization of public services, the destruction of all these mechanisms of wealth redistribution, and the “virtues” of neoliberalism.

Combatting poverty thus permits the inclusion of social questions on the political agenda without having to fight against inequality and the structural mechanisms that produce it. So this evolution has been part and parcel of neoliberalism, and the objective of my text is to show that Foucault had his share of responsibility in this development.

The question of the state is omnipresent in your book. Whoever critiques its raison d’être is allegedly a liberal. But isn’t that forgetting the traditions of anarchism and Marxism, from Bakunin to Lenin? Aren’t you overlooking that dimension?

Daniel Zamora

I don’t think so. I think the critique from the Marxist or anarchist tradition is very different from the one Foucault was formulating, and not only him but also a significant swath of the Marxism of the 1970s.

First, for the simple reason that all those old anarchist and Marxist writers knew nothing of social security or the form the state would take after 1945. The state Lenin was addressing was effectively the state of the dominant class, in which workers played no real role. The right to vote, for example, wasn’t really generalized — for men — until the interwar era. So it’s hard to know what they would have thought of these institutions and their so-called “bourgeois” character.

I’ve always been very irritated by this idea, which is relatively popular within the radical left, that social security is ultimately nothing more than a tool of social control by big capital. This idea demonstrates a complete misunderstanding of the history and origins of our systems of social protection. These systems were not established by the bourgeoisie to control the masses. On the contrary, it was totally hostile to them!

These institutions were the result of the strong position held by the workers’ movement after the Liberation. They were invented by the workers’ movement itself. From the nineteenth century onward, workers and unions had established mutual societies, for example, to pay benefits to those unable to work. It was the very logic of the market and the enormous risks it imposed on the lives of workers that pushed them to develop mechanisms for the partial socialization of income.

In the early phase of the industrial revolution, only property owners were full citizens, and as the sociologist Robert Castel emphasizes, it was only with social security that the “social rehabilitation of non-property-owners” really took place. It was social security that established, alongside private property, a social property, intended to usher the popular classes into citizenship. This is the idea Karl Polanyi advances in The Great Transformation, which sees in the principle of social protection the aim of withdrawing the individual out of the laws of the market and thus reconfiguring relations of power between capital and labor.

One can, of course, lament the statist form in which social security is managed, or say, for example, that it ought to be run by collectives — though I don’t really buy that — but criticizing the tool and its ideological basis as such, that’s very different. When Foucault goes so far as to say it’s “clear that there is hardly any sense in speaking of a ‘right to health,’” and asks, “should a society seek to satisfy individuals’ need for health? And can those individuals legitimately demand the satisfaction of those needs?” we are no longer really within the anarchist register.

For me, and contrary to Foucault, what we should do is deepen the social rights that we have already, we should “build on what already exists,” as Bernard Friot says. And social security is an excellent tool that we should both defend and deepen.

Along the same lines, when I read the philosopher Beatriz Preciado, who writes in Libération that “we’re not going to cry over the end of the welfare state, because the welfare state is also the psychiatric hospital, the disability office, the prison, the patriarchal-colonial-heteronormative school,” it makes me think that neoliberalism has done much more than transform our economy; it has profoundly reconfigured the social imagination of a certain “libertarian” left.

If you look at the few critical intellectuals who contest Foucault (I’m thinking of Mandosio, Debray, Bricmont, Michéa, Monville, or Quiniou), you might say, in broad terms, that they criticize him for positioning himself as more “sociétal” than “social” [i.e., more socio-cultural than socio-economic].

But in focusing on “the marginal” (the excluded, the prisoners, the mad, the “abnormal,” the sexual minorities, etc.), didn’t Foucault make it possible to bring into the light all these people who had until then been ignored by orthodox Marxism — which had only been able to see economic relations?

Daniel Zamora

You’re absolutely right. I’ll say it again: his contribution on this point is very important. He clearly removed from the shadows a whole spectrum of oppressions that had been invisible before. But his approach did not solely aim to put these problems forward: he sought to give them a political centrality that can be questioned.

To say it plainly: in his eyes, and in the eyes of many writers of that period, the working class today is “embourgeoisée,” it is perfectly integrated into the system. The “privileges” that it obtained after the war make it no longer an agent of social change, but, on the contrary, a brake on the Revolution. This idea was very widespread at the time, it can be found in authors as varied as Herbert Marcuse or André Gorz. Gorz would go so far as to speak of a “privileged minority,” with respect to the working class.

The end of this centrality — which was also a synonym for the end of the centrality of work — would find its outlet in the “struggles against marginalization” of ethnic or social minorities. The lumpenproletariat (or the “new plebeians,” to use Foucault’s term) acquired a new popularity and was now seen as a genuinely revolutionary subject.

For these authors, the problem is thus no longer so much exploitation, but rather power, and modern forms of domination. As Foucault wrote, if “the nineteenth century was concerned above all with relations between large economic structures and the state apparatus,” now it was “the problem of petits pouvoirs [little powers] and diffuse systems of domination” which “have become fundamental problems.”

The problem of exploitation and wealth had been replaced by that of “too much power,” the power of control over personal conduct, and forms of modern pastoral power. At the dawn of the 1980s, it seems clear that for Foucault it was no longer a question of redistributing wealth. He has no trouble writing: “One could say we need an economics that deals not with production and distribution but an economics that deals with relations of power.” Thus, it’s less about a struggle against power “as economic exploiter,” and more about struggles against day-to-day power, embodied especially by feminism, student movements, prisoners’ struggles, or those of the undocumented.

Let me be clear, the problem is obviously not to have placed on the agenda a whole spectrum of dominations that had once been ignored, the problem comes from the fact that these dominations are more and more theorized and thought outside of questions of exploitation. Far from outlining a theoretical perspective that thinks through the relations between these problems, they are little by little pitted against each other, even thought of as contradictory.

That’s essentially what some people criticize him for: praising the figure of the “delinquent,” the criminal, and the lumpen while ridiculing the “conservative” laborer and worker.

In your book, Jean-Loup Amselle draws a link between this abandonment of “the people” and the “écolo-bobo” position of the governmental left, along the lines of Terra Nova [a neoliberal French think tank close to the Socialist Party]. What do you think of that?

Daniel Zamora

The problem is that this dismissal of the working class had rather astonishing effects. It put at the forefront of public debate the “social exclusion” of the unemployed, immigrants, and the youth of the banlieues as the principal political problem. This evolution ended up being the point of departure — on both the Right and the Left — for the centrality “the excluded” were to assume, the idea that now “post-industrial” society would divide between those who have access to the labor market and those who, to one degree or another, are excluded from it — thus displacing the focus from the world of work to exclusion, poverty, or unemployment.

As the sociologists Stéphane Beaud and Michel Pialoux have noted, this displacement would indirectly place workers “on the side of the ‘ins,’ those who have a job on the side of the ‘privileged’ and ‘unearned advantages.’”

This logic, which redefined the social question on both sides — on both the Right and on the Left — as a conflict between two factions of the proletariat, rather than between capital and labor, is something that needs to be examined. On the Right, the aim was to limit the social rights of the “surplus population” (surnuméraires) by mobilizing the “workers” (actifs) against them, and on the Left it was about mobilizing the “surplus population” against the embourgeoisement of the “workers.” Both sides, then, accept the centrality of the factions “excluded” from the stable workforce, at the expense of the “workers.”

We can thus ask ourselves whether, when Margaret Thatcher contrasted the “protected” and “coddled” “underclass” with those “who work,” was she not expressing in inverse form the thesis of Foucault or André Gorz? This new doxa of the conservative neoliberal right seeks essentially, as Serge Halimi notes, “the redefinition of the social question in such a way that the line of cleavage no longer divides rich from poor, capital from labor, but rather two fractions of the ‘proletariat’ from each other: that which is suffering from ‘compassion fatigue’ from that which represents the ‘welfare nation.’”

Obviously the political content of these right-wing statements differs radically from those of these late 1970s authors, but they both presuppose that today it is “the excluded” who pose the problem, or the solution; it is the surplus population that has become the central political subject and no longer the working class.

Indeed, how can we not see a strange paradox between Gorz’s “non-class” and the “underclass” that is so dear to the ultra-conservative ideologue Charles Murray? Both for Gorz and for the neoliberal movement, it is no longer the fact of being exploited that poses the problem, so much as one’s relationship to work. Gorz sees the way of life of the surplus population as a “deliverance” from work, and Thatcher sees a “vice” of laziness that must be combated. One elevates a “right to be lazy” to the status of virtue, whereas the other makes it out as an injustice that must be destroyed.

But underneath, these two versions function in the same logic. Thus, both the Left and the Right want the “surplus population” to be the problem, thereby supplanting those old, out-of-date, dogmatic ideas that placed exploitation at the heart of the social critique.

Both the Left and the Right want to pit against each other two factions of the proletariat which, with the neoliberal economic evolution, have entered into a destructive competition with each other. As the Marxist philosopher Isabelle Garo described it so well, this shift would help to “replace exploitation and the critique of it with a centering of the victim who is denied justice, the prisoner, dissident, homosexual, refugee, etc.”

Debray writes in Modernes catacombes that Foucault, the rebel and subversive, has become an “official philosopher.” How do you understand this paradox? And how do you explain how Foucault can seduce so many of those in radical milieus who nevertheless affirm with force that they wish to put an end to the neoliberal era?

Daniel Zamora

It’s a very interesting question, but one I don’t have a satisfying answer to. I would, nevertheless, suggest that it’s in large part due to the structure of the academic field itself. You’d have to go back to Bourdieu and the precious works of Louis Pinto to better understand this evolution.

It should never be forgotten that joining a “school,” or associating oneself with a certain theoretical perspective, means associating oneself to an intellectual field, where there is an important struggle for access to the dominant positions. Ultimately, calling oneself a Marxist in the France of the 1960s — when the academic field was in part dominated by self-identified Marxists — did not have the same meaning as it does to be a Marxist today.

Concepts and canonical authors are obviously intellectual instruments, but they also correspond to various strategies for becoming part of the field and the struggles over it. Intellectual developments are then partly determined by relations of power within the field itself.

Also, it seems to me that relations of power within the academic field have changed considerably since the end of the 1970s: after the decline of Marxism, Foucault occupied a central place. In reality, he offers a comfortable position that allows a certain degree of subversion to be introduced without detracting from the codes of the academy. Mobilizing Foucault is relatively valued, it often allows his defenders to get published in prestigious journals, to join wide intellectual networks, to publish books, etc.

Very wide swaths of the intellectual world refer to Foucault in their work and have him saying everything and its opposite. You can be an adviser to the MEDEF and edit his lectures! [A reference to François Ewald, adviser to the main French business federation; see above.] I would say that he opens doors. And you can’t really say the same of Marx nowadays.

This critique of the “margins” as the center of political combat could end up delighting all manner of counter-revolutionaries in France or Belgium. Aren’t you afraid of playing into their hands?

Daniel Zamora

I do think there exists a “conservative” critique of Foucault — and more broadly of what May ’68 represents in French social history. This critique is no longer marginal at all: you can find it among the thinkers of the conservative right like Eric Zemmour or within the National Front. It openly critiques the whole feminist, anti-racist and cultural legacy of May ’68 while having much less to say about the economic ravages of neoliberalism. It’s as if the problem were the political liberalism that came with the 1980s, and only by going back on these societal evolutions will we be able to “faire société.”

One often hears this kind of thinking, according to which it was the destruction of family values or communitarian forms of the social bond that allowed the expansion of neoliberalism. There may be a grain of truth in these analyses, but they are totally deluded when they propose a return to more “traditional” ways of life. We’re heading towards a much more authoritarian kind of liberalism, with a return to family values, a return to a total fantasy of national culture, and the good old pre-globalized capitalism…

As for the idea of “playing into their hands,” I don’t think it’s a problem. If there’s a problem with certain aspects of the legacy of May ’68, the role of the Left is not to close its eyes because the far right is saying it, but on the contrary, to render its own judgment, to formulate its own critique, so as not to totally lose the ideological battle. That is the task we need to get started on in order to reconstruct a left that is both radical and popular.

1. “Social security” is used here in its French meaning, to refer to all social insurance. For example, France’s national health insurance is part of its “social security” system.