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?
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 discussionwith 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.
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.
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.