How Michel Foucault Got Neoliberalism So Wrong

Daniel Zamora
Seth Ackerman

In the emerging neoliberalism of the 1970s, Michel Foucault saw the promise of a new social order, more open to individual autonomy and experimental ways of living. That’s not how things turned out.

Michel Foucault. (AFP / Getty Images)

Interview by
Kévin Boucaud-Victoire

In a new book coming out in English next year from Verso, sociologist Daniel Zamora and philosopher Mitchell Dean retrace Michel Foucault’s post-1968 intellectual journey, in which a flirtation with leftist radicalism gave way to a fascination for neoliberalism.

In this interview with the French website Le Comptoir, Zamora reflects on the intellectual turmoil of 1970s France and how Foucault’s response to it prefigured so much of our political world today.

Kévin Boucaud-Victoire

The self-proclaimed heirs of Foucault are highly diverse; they range from left-libertarians to Chamber of Commerce officials, and include social democrats and the vestiges of the French “second left.” How do we explain this? How do we situate Foucault?

Daniel Zamora

First of all, I think some intellectuals have a questionable habit of imposing their own agenda on certain philosophers. Placing yourself under the authority of some great figure of intellectual life to legitimize your own ideas is a common practice, but it has been pushed to a particularly bizarre degree in the case of Foucault. Even the most basic contextualization of his work is hard to do in France. You have to ask why, today, some of the most stimulating works on French intellectual history are produced by Anglo-Saxon scholars like Michael Behrent or Michael Scott Christofferson. You also have to wonder why reminders about Foucault’s association with the “new philosophers” or the “second left” are so inaudible.

It’s not a little ironic that a self-proclaimed “historian of the present” is now read and interpreted in complete abstraction from his own present. Those who like to claim him today want to make him into a figure that responds to their own expectations.

More fundamentally, I think that enormous diversity is also partly the result of how Foucault himself presented his work. He never sought to build a system of thought or a grand social theory; he defined himself more generally as an “experimenter.” The texts and the concepts that were important to him only interested him as ways of interrogating his own era. So he could call himself a “structuralist,” he could flirt with the Maoism of the gauche prolétarienne, or, later, marshal the ideas of neoliberalism in his battle against anything that assigns the individual to a certain conception of himself. That’s where his famous metaphor came from, comparing his books to “toolboxes” that we could mobilize as we liked. But that view has its limits.

A concept is never completely independent of the context or the purposes that surrounded its birth. It always remains partially a prisoner of its own architecture. So we can be skeptical of those endless incantations aiming, for example, to reconcile Marx and Foucault in some grand synthesis, when in fact at the end of his life Foucault was seeking precisely to “get rid of Marxism.” The same is true of those who try to make him into a thinker hostile to neoliberalism.

Kévin Boucaud-Victoire

What is the contribution of Foucault’s analysis of neoliberalism?

Daniel Zamora

His analysis is remarkable in that it represents one of the first attempts to closely study neoliberalism as a thought collective — the things that united it as well as the great differences that coexisted within it. We often forget that between Friedman and Hayek there was an intellectual chasm. But it wasn’t until the 1990s that more researched studies of the intellectual history and analysis of neoliberalism appeared. So Foucault offered one of the first interesting interpretations of its main concepts and ideas.

In particular, he distinguishes it from classical liberalism, in that it isn’t a form of “laissez-faire” but, on the contrary, an active politics of market construction. There isn’t the domain of the state on the one hand and the free play of market forces on the other hand. Foucault observes quite rightly that for the Austrian neoliberals the failure of nineteenth-century economic liberalism led them to see their own doctrine as one of actively and conscientiously constructing the market, an entity that was in no way natural. “There will not be the market game, which must be left free, and then the domain in which the state begins to intervene,” he explained in his lectures, “since the market, or rather pure competition, which is the essence of the market, can only appear if it is produced, and if it is produced by an active governmentality.”

Another interesting element of his analysis, in this case bearing mainly on American neoliberalism, is that it sees this new neoliberal mentality as “environmental.” It wasn’t aiming to produce subjectivities but to stimulate individuals to behave in certain ways, mainly by acting on their economic environment. Neoliberalism as a “technology of the environment,” he said in his lectures, heralds a “massive withdrawal with regard to the normative-disciplinary system.” Foucault observed that for someone like Gary Becker, crime should be dealt with by acting on economic incentives and not by constructing criminal subjectivities. In the neoliberal view, the criminal is merely someone whose cost-benefit calculus inclines them toward crime.

As a result, the goal of economic action should be to alter these variables so as to “optimally” reduce the “incentive” for crime. Foucault thus understands neoliberalism not as the withdrawal of the state, but as the withdrawal of its techniques of subjection. It wasn’t trying to assign a certain identity to us, but simply trying to act on our environment.

For the premier thinker of modern techniques of normalization, that’s saying something! This analysis explains the deep connection between the deployment of neoliberalism as a form of governmentality in mid-1970s France and Foucault’s championing of the invention of new subjectivities. Far from being opposed, in his eyes the two go together. Neoliberalism, being more open to pluralism, seems to offer a less constrictive framework for the proliferation of minoritarian experiments.

But all of this represents less a critique of neoliberalism than a way of making its rationality intelligible. On this point, it’s significant that Gary Becker, one of the fathers of American neoliberalism, found himself in perfect agreement with Foucault’s analysis of his own texts. Critiquing neoliberalism means not mirroring its own image of itself, but, on the contrary, deconstructing the mythology it’s built for itself.

Kévin Boucaud-Victoire

Foucault’s analysis of neoliberalism seems to studiously ignore the Pinochet experience, which started in 1973, and the fact that this “governmentality” can accommodate itself to authoritarianism. It seems oddly ahistorical.

Daniel Zamora

Indeed, it’s a deliberate choice on Foucault’s part. Thatcher and Reagan weren’t yet in power at the time, but you could already see the conservative features that would characterize their political triumph. Thus, Foucault was well acquainted with the politics of Ronald Reagan, who was then governor of California, where Foucault traveled regularly beginning in the mid-1970s. And Milton Friedman’s association with the campaign of ultraconservative Republican Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential election probably didn’t escape him either.

I do, however, think his analysis was historically situated, but more in the French context. To understand it, you first have to place it in the context of the intellectuals’ growing opposition to the program of the (1972–1977) Union of the Left and to postwar socialism. And then as joining with the ideas advanced by the “second left” in France, organized around figures like Michel Rocard in the Socialist Party or Pierre Rosanvallon in the CFDT. So in this scenario, where parts of the Left were questioning what its future would be, Foucault didn’t see neoliberalism as a bogeyman, but rather, as Serge Audier put it, he was seeking out an “intelligent use” of it as an alternative to socialism.

He thus examined neoliberalism as a “governmentality,” as a way of thinking politics, rather than as an economic agenda. This way of seeing neoliberalism, incidentally, was motivated in France by the very particular context of the policies of Valéry Giscard-d’Estaing. Foucault saw the development of neoliberalism in France with the Giscard government as a break with the classic “left-right” cleavage. Indeed, he pointed out, as Serge Audier has quite rightly observed, Giscard’s excellent relationship with the socialists of Helmut Schmidt’s German SPD. It must be recalled that before taking a more conservative turn in 1976, his presidency was marked by the decriminalization of abortion, the introduction of prisoners visits, the end of censorship, as well as lowering the legal voting age. Neoliberalism thus wasn’t seen strictly in the framework of left-right opposition, but as a governmentality that was capable of redrawing the way politics itself was thought.

Foucault saw the Gaullists and Communists as belonging to the “social-statist” camp, in the terminology of the second left, whereas the Giscardians and Rocardians seemed to represent a camp that was less focused on the state, contrasting it with the virtues of civil society and entrepreneurship. This aspect, by the way, seems to be totally ignored in the works of Geoffroy de Lagasnerie or Christian Laval. Foucault’s effort to reinvent the Left and scrutinize neoliberalism wasn’t taking place in a void but in his own political context, especially in dialogue with the second left.

Kévin Boucaud-Victoire

In that sense, wasn’t Foucault’s analysis purely theoretical?

Daniel Zamora

Indeed. Just as Lagasnerie is right to see in Foucault’s lectures not a denunciation but precisely a form of intellectual experimentation, that experimentation was aimed at questioning his era, not ours. In a context where he believes questions of inequality and exploitation have been basically solved and where the idea of revolution is outdated, what’s at issue is individual autonomy. Power was no longer something to be “taken”; rather, within it spaces must be built within which individuals can reinvent themselves and test out other forms of existence. His critique was focused on all the mechanisms of subjection: social security, schooling, the justice system, etc. It should make it possible for us, as he said in his famous quote referring to the Enlightenment, to “not be governed so much.”

Since power is omnipresent, Foucault’s thought didn’t aspire to “liberate” the individual, but rather to increase his autonomy. So although change had to take place largely via a proliferation of minoritarian experiments, within power, this “environmental” neoliberal governmentality could, in his view, widen spaces of autonomy that would be freed from “social-statist” normativity.

And this was not an idea that was limited to Foucault. We can recall, in the same context, André Gorz’s view on neoliberalism. In the Nouvel Observateur he wrote under the pseudonym Michel Bousquet that “if Giscardism can loosen the power of the center and open up new spaces for collective initiative, why not take advantage of it?” Although Giscard was a neoliberal, he added, “it does not follow that the liberalization of society must necessarily be a project of the Right.” He went on to emphasize that “throughout today’s Europe there are exchanges and partial permeations between neoliberals and neo-socialists.” For Gorz and Foucault, it’s not that neoliberalism represented a solution, but it opened their eyes to the prospect of occupying the spaces liberated from the state and filling them with other types of experiences. Of course, their prescriptions didn’t exactly materialize, and the great swaths of the state that were “liberated” through neoliberal policies did not lead to a politics of emancipation. The evacuation of the state did not lead to a proliferation of autonomous spaces and the discourse of autonomy paradoxically transformed the welfare state into an “activation” (i.e. welfare-to-work) machine that is more disciplinary than emancipatory. But that’s another story . . .

Kévin Boucaud-Victoire

Foucault did not believe in revolution, but rather in day-to-day micro-resistances, and in the need to “invent one’s own life.” He thought “one’s relation to oneself” was the “first and ultimate” point of “resistance to political power.”

Daniel Zamora

For a long time, Foucault never really offered any perspective with regard to social transformation. He presented dazzling portraits of the mechanisms of normalization, of power, of the disciplining of the body, etc. But resistance was, generally speaking, the great missing piece. His subject was fairly passive, incapable of responding to power. It was, I think, only in his last decade, through his interest in techniques of the self, that he started to grant the subject more autonomy. Thus, power gradually started to take shape as a blend of the techniques of constraint and techniques of the self, in which the subject constitutes itself. Power and resistance are now two sides of the same coin. The relation to the self thus becomes a potential space of freedom and autonomy that individuals can mobilize in opposition to power.

In this context, resistance for Foucault no longer takes the form of social movements or class struggles. It flows, as he said about a forum organized by Pierre Rosanvallon in 1977, “from an individual, moral concern.” It was no longer a question of “taking” power or transforming the world in the classic sense but, he wrote, “changing our subjectivity, our relationship to ourselves.” The question of a model of society was thus replaced by how we ought to live in society. Foucault proposed an “art,” a “stylization” of life, rather than a political strategy. Changing oneself could thus spur what Deleuze would call “molecular revolutions,” changing society from below. In other words, ethics would take the place of politics.

There’s no need to explain that in the decades that followed his death in June 1984, this turn would, to say the least, take an ambiguous direction. By locating resistance mainly in the relationship to the self, Foucault significantly diminished the range of his social critique. It paradoxically put out of reach precisely those economic and political structures that make up the framework within which this “relationship to the self” can be experimented with. Questions around exploitation, the unequal division of labor (now on a global scale), or economic inequality disappear and seem completely inaccessible through these “micro-resistances.”

In reality, the idea that decentralized “molecular” revolutions could in some way bring about large-scale aggregate effects has been shown to be totally unrealistic when applied to economic relations. If one wanted to be polemical about it, one could even question the relationship of this vision to that of neoliberalism. “Don’t forget to invent your life,” Foucault concluded in the early 1980s. Isn’t this view in remarkable harmony with Gary Becker’s injunction that we should become “entrepreneurs of the self”?

Kévin Boucaud-Victoire

Ultimately, you’re kind of echoing the critique of what Murray Bookchin denounced as “lifestyle anarchism.”

Daniel Zamora

Bookchin was absolutely right to see these “personal insurrections” of Foucault as a sort of unending guerrilla war that always seems destined for failure. Or at least that seems to prevent any reflection about how to invent different institutional and organizational forms of our existence.

The main limitation of this perspective, it seems to me is, is that it assumed that capitalism and power rested on a wide array of micro-powers that operated at the level of sexual relations, schooling, family structures, expertise, science, etc. In this view, the state, for example, appears merely as the more general armature for a set of relations that work at smaller scales. Hence the strategy of subverting capitalism and the state not by frontal attack, but by acting at this microlevel, that is, in “daily life.”

So through the styling of one’s existence, through the creation of spaces of experimentation, it was possible to transform the whole social edifice from within. The idea was that capitalism is ultimately, by its nature, connected to a certain form of social and cultural organization; that to reproduce itself, it needs, for example, patriarchal family organization. But history has instead shown that while capitalism can mobilize such structures, it is also quite capable of accommodating, even promoting, other ways of life or family structures. It makes them into excellent markets to be conquered.

Of course, the “everything is political” of May ’68 did make it possible to interrogate a broad array of power relations that had previously been kept invisible. But paradoxically it also went along with a retreat from collective action, and now seems more a symbol of a historic defeat than a new form of revolution. When the big macroeconomic variables seem out of reach to us, a retreat to the relationship with the self, or to a transformation of language, sort of amount to making a virtue of necessity.

This way of conceptualizing things led to all sorts of pseudo-contestations, like Hakim Bey’s “TAZs” (Temporary Autonomous Zones), where a “happening” in a chic art gallery can constitute a “temporarily” autonomous space. Or we could think of all the still very popular varieties of alternative forms of consumption, which are supposed to save us from disaster through individual ethics.

Kévin Boucaud-Victoire

Would you agree with Jean-Claude Michéa when he says Foucault is the cultural complement of Hayek, Friedman, and Gary Becker?

Daniel Zamora

I would say, more than “complementing” Hayek and Friedman, the problem with Foucault is that he implicitly embraced their representation of the market: that of a less normative, less coercive, and more tolerant space for minoritarian experiments than the welfare state, subject as it is to majority rule. Friedman always liked to say that “the ballot box produces conformity without unanimity” while “the market produces unanimity without conformity..” In his eyes, the market by definition represents a more democratic mechanism than political deliberation because it protects the plural nature of individual preferences.

Implicitly, I think Foucault helped to disseminate this false dichotomy. By that, I don’t mean we ought to jettison struggles against certain kinds of normalization or coercion — the art, as Foucault said, of “not being governed so much.” It’s true that the postwar welfare state aimed to reproduce a certain model of the family, and the justice system certain criminal “profiles.” But by definition, all politics — whether statist or neoliberal — is normative. And it’s good to contest these mechanisms. But that doesn’t mean that we can dispense with normativity. If we decide to grant everyone a basic income instead of free medical care, we’re substituting one normativity (which defines certain subjects through certain “social rights”) for another (which prioritizes individual “choice” in the market). But Foucault, in the context of French “anti-totalitarianism,” generally associated such mechanisms of normalization with the state, and in that way, he implicitly viewed the market as a site where normativity could be more easily subverted.

However important Foucault’s elaboration of the ways institutions like social security or the justice system could assign us to a certain conception of ourselves, he completely missed the normativity and coerciveness of the market. In his eyes, it was politics conceived on the model of sovereignty, especially via majority rule, that was essentially the space of coercion and normativity; the impersonal and decentralized signals of the market were a seductive alternative to political deliberation in that they seemed to protect minoritarian choices, precisely through the supposedly “environmental” way in which they acted.

Every economic or institutional configuration is normative — the important thing is to figure out what type of institutions we want. In a recent book, the philosopher Martin Hägglund wrote quite rightly that to be free does not mean being free from normative constraints, but rather being free to negotiate them, to transform them, to contest them. It’s the ability to build democratic institutions within which we might collectively define the norms that should govern society. The market does not offer an alternative to normativity, it merely loosens normativity’s grip on those with enough capital to enjoy the “choices” it offers.