Michel Foucault’s “apology” for neoliberalism
Mitchell Dean, CBS.
British Library, 25th June 2014. “Remembering Foucault” on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the death of Michel Foucault, organized by Department of Law, LSE.
- The title of my talk is “Michel Foucault’s ‘apology’ for neoliberalism”. I know it’s a bit provocative. The word “apology” is in inverted commas, so that is acceptable; but the phrase “apology for neoliberalism” slightly misquotes the words of perhaps his closest and most influential follower. Nevertheless, on this evening, the thirtieth anniversary of his death, I want to raise the question of Foucault’s critical and political legacy given his status today as among the most influential thinkers in the contemporary human and social sciences. What is at stake is less Foucault himself than ourselves in a time of the active withdrawal of the critical vocation of these sciences, in which the vocabulary of power would itself be suspect and replaced by the idiom of governance, and in which empirical analysis is encouraged but narrowed. In our universities, academic quality has become increasingly measurable in monetary terms. Certainly a cool and contextualized investigation of the case for this apology is warranted. But so too would be a thinking beyond Foucault, or at least to a place that is necessarily somewhat different from his – to move laterally like a crayfish as he put it (2008, 78).
On the 9th of May, 2012, at the University of Chicago François Ewald found himself in a seminar in the presence of Gary Becker, the Chicago economist whose work Foucault addressed in several lectures of The Birth of Biopolitics in 1979. Ewald described these lectures as the place “where he (Foucault) made the apology of neoliberalism – especially the apology of Gary Becker, who is referred to...as the most radical representative of American neoliberalism” (Ewald in Becker et al 2012, 4). Ewald it must be said spoke here with some authority. He completed his doctorate on the Welfare State under Foucault and he has the honor of being directly referred to in these lectures. He was his personal assistant at the Collège de France. He would co-edit Foucault shorter pieces (Dits et Ecrits) and act as general editor for the recent publication of his lectures at the Collège. Yet he is something of a problematic figure for those on the Left: a “right Foucauldian” (Negri 2001) who would promote the “policies and mechanisms for...reconstructing society according to neoliberal principles” first revealed to him in Foucault’s lectures (Lazzarato 2009, 110). Ewald had been a militant Maoist who would enlist Foucault in 1972 in what became known as L’Affaire Bruay – the dubious politics surrounding the still unsolved murder of the teenaged daughter of a mining family in northern France. He would nevertheless receive the Legion of Honour in 2006 for his services for the employers association, Medef. These included the break-up of corporatist arrangements between employers, unions and the state, and the introduction of direct contractual negotiations, in what amounted to a self-styled “coup of civil society against the state” at the time of the premiership of Lionel Jospin (Behrent 2010, 619).
In Chicago, Ewald would claim that Foucault offered an “apology of neoliberalism” and an “apology of Gary Becker”. Even allowing for language difficulties, perhaps he meant less “an apology for” than “an apologia of” neoliberalism and Becker, that is, Foucault offered a form of public defense of them, of their relevance against those who would otherwise dismiss or denounce them. In fact Ewald’s appraisal is even more positive than this. After discussing the post-68 situation, he suggests Foucault answered the demand for a theory of the state with the notion of governmentality within which economists would act as “truth-tellers” in relation to government. Foucault, he suggests, was searching for non-moral and non-juridical theory and he found it in the economists. “That is the celebration of the economists’ work, of your work” he said to Gary Becker (Ewald in Becker et al. 2012, 5). Ewald counseled Becker that Foucault discovered in him the “possibility of thinking about power without discipline” and thus “to conduct the behavior of the other without coercion, by incitation” (Ewald in Becker et al. 2012, 6). And there is no doubt that Ewald means all of this in an extremely complimentary way when he concludes this address with respect to Foucault’s views: “Certain kinds of truth-telling are death for liberty, other kinds of truth-telling give new possibilities for liberty. And he sees your work, your kind of analyses as creating the possibility to promote, to envision new kinds of liberty”. Ewald would even go so far as to clam that the idea of homo œconomicus contained in Becker’s theory was decisive in the movement of Foucault’s thought between “his earlier theory of power” and his later “lectures about subjectivity” (ibid, p. 7). (...)