mercoledì 24 dicembre 2014

Jason Read: A Genealogy of Homo-Economicus: Neoliberalism and the Production of Subjectivity @ Foucault Studies, No. 6, February 2009

Jason Read: A Genealogy of Homo-Economicus: Neoliberalism and the Production of Subjectivity @ Foucault Studies, No. 6, February 2009

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ABSTRACT: This article examines Michel Foucault’s critical investigation of neoli- beralism in the course published as Naissance de la biopolitique: Cours au Collège de France, 1978-1979. Foucault’s lectures are interrogated along two axes. First, ex- amining the way in which neoliberalism can be viewed as a particular production of subjectivity, as a way in which individuals are constituted as subjects of “human capital.” Secondly, Foucault’s analyses is augmented and critically examined in light of other critical work on neoliberalism by Wendy Brown, David Harvey, Christian Laval, Maurizo Lazzarato, and Antonio Negri. Of these various debates and discus- sions, the paper argues that the discussion of real subsumption in Marx and Negri is most important for understanding the specific politics of neoliberalism. Finally, the paper argues that neoliberalism entails a fundamental reexamination of the tools of critical thought, an examination of how freedom can constitute a form of subjection.

In the opening pages of David Harvey’s A Brief History of Neoliberalism we find the following statement “Neoliberalism... has pervasive effects on ways of thought to the point where it has become incorporated into the common-sense way many of us interpret, live in, and understand the world.”1 While Harvey’s book presents a great deal of research on neoliberalism, presenting its origins in such academic institutions as the “Chicago School,” its spread in the initial experiments in Chile, and its return to the countries of its origin through the regimes of Reagan and Thatcher, as well as its effects on China and the rest of the world, the actual process by which it became hegemonic, to the point of becoming common sense, is not examined. While it might be wrong to look for philosophy in a work which is primarily a work of history, a “brief” history at that, aimed at shedding light on the current conjuncture, it is worth pointing out this lacuna since it intersects with a commonly accepted idea about “neoliberalism,” that it is as much a transformation in ideology as it is a transformation of ideology. Neoliberalism, in the texts that have critically confronted it, is generally understood as not just a new ideology, but a transformation of ideology in terms of its conditions and effects. In terms of its conditions, it is an ideology that is generated not from the state, or from a dominant class, but from the quotidian experience of buying and selling commodities from the market, which is then extended across other social spaces, “the marketplace of ideas,” to become an image of society. Secondly, it is an ideology that refers not only to the political realm, to an ideal of the state, but to the entirety of human existence. It claims to present not an ideal, but a reality; human nature. As Fredric Jameson writes, summing up this connection and the challenge it poses: “The market is in human nature’ is the proposition that can- not be allowed to stand unchallenged; in my opinion, it is the most crucial terrain of ideological struggle in our time.”2

A critical examination of neoliberalism must address this transformation of its discursive deployment, as a new understanding of human nature and social exis- tence rather than a political program. Thus it is not enough to contrast neoliberalism as a political program, analyzing its policies in terms of success or failure. An ex- amination of neoliberalism entails a reexamination of the fundamental problematic of ideology, the intersection of power, concepts, modes of existence and subjectivity. It is in confronting neoliberalism that the seemingly abstract debates of the last thirty years, debates between poststructuralists such as Michel Foucault and neo-Marxists such as Antonio Negri about the nature of power and the relation between “ideologies” or “discourses” and material existence, cease to be abstract doctrines and become concrete ways of comprehending and transforming the present. Foucault’s lectures on neoliberalism do not only extend his own critical project into new areas, they also serve to demonstrate the importance of grasping the present by examining the way in which the truth and subjectivity are produced. 

Homo Economicus: The Subject of Neoliberalism
The nexus between the production of a particular conception of human nature, a particular formation of subjectivity, and a particular political ideology, a particular way of thinking about politics is at the center of Michel Foucault’s research. As much as Foucault characterized his own project as studying “...the different modes by which, in our culture, human beings are made subjects,” this process has always intersected with regimes of power/knowledge.3 Thus, it would appear that Foucault’s work takes up exactly what writers on neoliberalism find to be so vexing: the manner in which neoliberalism is not just a manner of governing states or economies, but is intimately tied to the government of the individual, to a particular manner of living. However, it is well known that Foucault’s research primarily views this relation from ancient Greece through the nineteenth century, leaving modern developments such as neoliberalism unaddressed. While this is the general pattern of Foucault’s work, in the late seventies he devoted a year of his lectures at the Collège de France to the topic of neoliberalism. These lectures, published as The Birth of Biopolitics, are something of an anomaly in part because of this shift into the late-twentieth century and also because unlike other lecture courses, at least those that have been published in recent years, on “abnormals,” “psychiatric power” and “the hermeneutics of the subject,” the material from these lectures never made it into Foucault’s published works.
In order to frame Foucault’s analysis it is useful to begin with how he sees the distinction between liberalism and neoliberalism. For Foucault, this difference has to do with the different ways in which they each focus on economic activity. Classical liberalism focused on exchange, on what Adam Smith called mankind’s tendency to “barter, truck, and exchange.” It naturalized the market as a system with its own rationality, its own interest, and its own specific efficiency, arguing ultimately for its superior efficiency as a distributor of goods and services. The market became a space of autonomy that had to be carved out of the state through the unconditional right of private property. What Foucault stresses in his understanding, is the way in which the market becomes more than just a specific institution or practice to the point where it has become the basis for a reinterpretation and thus a critique of state pow- er. Classical liberalism makes exchange the general matrix of society. It establishes a homology: just as relations in the marketplace can be understood as an exchange of certain freedoms for a set of rights and liberties.4 Neoliberalism, according to Foucault, extends the process of making economic activity a general matrix of social and political relations, but it takes as its focus not exchange but competition.5 What the two forms of liberalism, the “classical” and “neo” share, according to Foucault, is a general idea of “homo economicus,” that is, the way in which they place a particular “anthropology” of man as an economic subject at the basis of politics. What changes is the emphasis from an anthropology of exchange to one of competition. The shift from exchange to competition has profound effects: while exchange was considered to be natural, competition is understood by the neo-liberals of the twentieth century to be an artificial relation that must be protected against the tendency for markets to form monopolies and interventions by the state. Competition necessitates a constant intervention on the part of the state, not on the market, but on the conditions of the market.6
What is more important for us is the way in which this shift in “anthropology” from “homo economicus” as an exchanging creature to a competitive creature, or rather as a creature whose tendency to compete must be fostered, entails a general shift in the way in which human beings make themselves and are made subjects. First, neoliberalism entails a massive expansion of the field and scope of economics. Foucault cites Gary Becker on this point: “Economics is the science which studies human behavior as relationship between ends and scarce means which have alter- nate uses.”7 Everything for which human beings attempt to realize their ends, from marriage, to crime, to expenditures on children, can be understood “economically” according to a particular calculation of cost for benefit. Secondly, this entails a mas- sive redefinition of “labor” and the “worker.” The worker has become “human capital”. Salary or wages become the revenue that is earned on an initial investment, an investment in one’s skills or abilities. Any activity that increases the capacity to earn income, to achieve satisfaction, even migration, the crossing of borders from one country to another, is an investment in human capital. Of course a large portion of “human capital,” one’s body, brains, and genetic material, not to mention race or class, is simply given and cannot be improved. Foucault argues that this natural limit is something that exists to be overcome through technologies; from plastic surgery to possible genetic engineering that make it possible to transform one’s initial investment. As Foucault writes summarizing this point of view: “Homo economicus is an entrepreneur, an entrepreneur of himself.”8
Foucault’s object in his analysis is not to bemoan this as a victory for capitalist ideology, the point at which the “ruling ideas” have truly become the ideas of the “ruling class,” so much so that everyone from a minimum wage employee to a C.E.O. considers themselves to be entrepreneurs. Nor is his task to critique the fun- damental increase of the scope of economic rationality in neo-liberal economics: the assertion that economics is coextensive with all of society, all of rationality, and that it is economics “all the way down.” Rather, Foucault takes the neo-liberal ideal to be a new regime of truth, and a new way in which people are made subjects: homo economicus is fundamentally different subject, structured by different motivations and governed by different principles, than homo juridicus, or the legal subject of the state. Neoliberalism constitutes a new mode of “governmentality,” a manner, or a mentality, in which people are governed and govern themselves. The operative terms of this governmentality are no longer rights and laws but interest, investment and competition. Whereas rights exist to be exchanged, and are some sense constituted through the original exchange of the social contract, interest is irreducible and inalienable, it cannot be exchanged. The state channels flows of interest and desire by making desirable activities inexpensive and undesirable activities costly, counting on the fact that subjects calculate their interests. As a form of governmentality, neoliberalism would seem paradoxically to govern without governing; that is, in order to function its subjects must have a great deal of freedom to act—to choose between competing strategies.

The new governmental reason needs freedom; therefore, the new art of government consumes freedom. It must produce it, it must organize it. The new art of government therefore appears as the management of freedom, not in the sense of the imperative: “be free,” with the immediate contradiction that this imperative may contain...[T]he liberalism we can describe as the art of government formed in the eighteenth century entails at its heart a productive/destructive relationship with freedom. Liberalism must produce freedom, but this very act entails the es- tablishment of limitations, controls, forms of coercion, and obligations relying on threats, etcetera.9

These freedoms, the freedoms of the market, are not the outside of politics, of governmentality, as its limit, but rather are an integral element of its strategy. As a mode of governmentality, neoliberalism operates on interests, desires, and aspirations rather than through rights and obligations; it does not directly mark the body, as sovereign power, or even curtail actions, as disciplinary power; rather, it acts on the conditions of actions. Thus, neoliberal governmentality follows a general trajec- tory of intensification. This trajectory follows a fundamental paradox; as power becomes less restrictive, less corporeal, it also becomes more intense, saturating the field of actions, and possible actions.10

Foucault limits his discussion of neoliberalism to its major theoretical texts and paradigms, following its initial formulation in post-war Germany through to its most comprehensive version in the Chicago School. Whereas Foucault’s early analyses are often remembered for their analysis of practical documents, the description of the panopticon or the practice of the confessional, the lectures on “neoliberalism” predominantly follow the major theoretical discussions. This is in some sense a limitation of the lecture course format, or at least a reflection that this material was never developed into a full study. Any analysis that is faithful to the spirit and not just the letter of Foucault’s text would focus on its existence as a practice and not just a theory diffused throughout the economy, state, and society. As Thomas Lemke argues, neoliberalism is a political project that attempts to create a social reality that it suggests already exists, stating that competition is the basis of social relations while fostering those same relations.11 The contemporary trend away from long term labor contracts, towards temporary and part-time labor, is not only an effective economic strategy, freeing corporations from contracts and the expensive commitments of health care and other benefits, it is an effective strategy of subjectification as well. It encourages workers to see themselves not as “workers” in a political sense, who have something to gain through solidarity and collective organization, but as “companies of one.” They become individuals for whom every action, from taking courses on a new computer software application to having their teeth whitened, can be considered an investment in human capital. As Eric Alliez and Michel Feher write: “Corporations’ massive recourse to subcontracting plays a fundamental role in this to the extent that it turns the workers’ desire for independence...into a ‘business spirit’ that meets capital’s growing need for satellites.”12 Neoliberalism is not simply an ideology in the pejorative sense of the term, or a belief that one could elect to have or not have, but is itself produced by strategies, tactics, and policies that create subjects of interest, locked in competition.
Because Foucault brackets what could be considered the “ideological” dimension of neoliberalism, its connection with the global hegemony of not only capitalism, but specifically a new regime of capitalist accumulation, his lectures have little to say about its historical conditions. Foucault links the original articulation of neoliberalism to a particular reaction to Nazi Germany. As Foucault argues, the original neo-liberals, the “Ordo-liberals,” considered Nazi Germany not to be an effect of capitalism. But the most extreme version of what is opposed to capitalism and the market—planning. While Foucault’s analysis captures the particular “fear of the state” that underlies neoliberalism, its belief that any planning, any intervention against competition, is tantamount to totalitarianism. It however does not account for the dominance of neoliberalism in the present, specifically its dominance as a particular “technology of the self,” a particular mode of subjection. At the same time, Foucault offers the possibility of a different understanding of the history of neoliberalism when he argues that neoliberalism, or the neo-liberal subject as homo economi- cus, or homo entrepreneur, emerges to address a particular lacunae in liberal economic thought, and that is labor. In this sense neoliberalism rushes to fill the same void, the same gap, that Marx attempted to fill, without reference to Marx, and with very different results.13 Marx and neo-liberals agree that although classical economic theory examined the sphere of exchange, the market, it failed to enter the “hidden abode of production” examining how capital is produced. Of course the agreement ends there, because what Marx and neo-liberals find in labor is fundamentally different: for Marx labor is the sphere of exploitation while for the neo-liberals, as we have seen, labor is no sooner introduced as a problem than the difference between labor and capital is effaced through the theory of “human capital.”14 Neoliberalism scrambles and exchanges the terms of opposition between “worker” and “capitalist.” To quote Etienne Balibar, “The capitalist is defined as worker, as an ‘entrepreneur’; the worker, as the bearer of a capacity, of a human capital.”15 Labor is no longer limited to the specific sites of the factory or the workplace, but is any activity that works to- wards desired ends. The terms “labor” and “human capital” intersect, overcoming in terminology their longstanding opposition; the former becomes the activity and the latter becomes the effects of the activity, its history. From this intersection the discourse of the economy becomes an entire way of life, a common sense in which every action--crime, marriage, higher education and so on--can be charted according to a calculus of maximum output for minimum expenditure; it can be seen as an in- vestment. Thus situating Marx and neoliberalism with respect to a similar problem makes it possible to grasp something of the politics of neoliberalism, which through a generalization of the idea of the “entrepreneur,” “investment” and “risk” beyond the realm of finance capital to every quotidian relation, effaces the very fact of exploitation. Neoliberalism can be considered a particular version of “capitalism with- out capitalism,” a way of maintaining not only private property but the existing distribution of wealth in capitalism while simultaneously doing away with the antagonism and social insecurity of capitalism, in this case paradoxically by extending capitalism, at least its symbols, terms, and logic, to all of society. The opposition between capitalist and worker has been effaced not by a transformation of the mode of production, a new organization of the production and distribution of wealth, but by the mode of subjection, a new production of subjectivity. Thus, neoliberalism entails a very specific extension of the economy across all of society; it is not, as Marx argued, because everything rests on an economic base (at least in the last instance) that the effects of the economy are extended across of all of society, rather it is an economic perspective, that of the market, that becomes coextensive with all of society. As Christian Laval argues, all actions are seen to conform to the fundamental economic ideas of self-interest, of greatest benefit for least possible cost. It is not the structure of the economy that is extended across society but the subject of economic thinking, its implicit anthropology.16 (...) Read Jason's full article 

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