The Foucault You Didn’t Know


In an interview discussing a new volume of essays he edited about the French philosopher, Daniel Zamora portrays Foucault, especially in his later years, as more friendly to and fascinated by neoliberals Hayek and Friedman than many of his votaries on the academic left want to believe. Zamora claims to have been “astonished by the indulgence Foucault showed toward neoliberalism”:

[H]e 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.

Dan Drezner nods, telling conservatives and libertarians to take a second look at their unlikely ally:

One of the virtues of teaching at a policy school is that Foucault is not quite as central to scholarly conversations as in traditional humanities departments. That said, Zamora’s observation rings true — which is why conservatives should embrace him and his work. From a conservative perspective, the great thing about Foucault’s writing is that it is more plastic than Marx, and far less economically subversive. Academics rooted in Foucauldian thought are far more compatible with neoliberalism than the old Marxist academics.

In some ways, Zamora’s book is an effort by some on the left to try to “discipline” Foucault’s flirtation with the right. It will be interesting to see the academic left’s response to the book. But Zamora also reveals why free-marketeers might want to give Foucault another read and not just dismiss him with the “post-modern” epithet.

Update from a reader:

This being an area I am quite familiar with, let me just say that there is very little new in Zamora’s “discovery.” Only the petty bourgeois of identity politics in US academia could ever embrace Foucault as “left-wing.” And they sure did, bereft that they were of any context or any economic culture (let alone knowledge).

It’s not that Foucault is “right-wing” or “left-wing.” I am not even sure that he could be pegged on some sort of “progressive vs conservative” scale.  On the one hand, he once stated that everything that is historically constructed can be politically changed. On the other hand, he blurted out the mother of all elisions in Discipline and Punish (if I remember well): talking of the invention of biopolitics, the thrust by the modern state to catalogue, normalize and regiment living beings (with a particular focus on humans), he wrote “this all took place on the backdrop of the industrial revolution.”

And that was that for economic forces. One sentence! The gall of that man! It’s hilarious. It was a dig at a certain naive and mind-numbing strand of Stalinist historical materialism in vogue in France at the time (the irrelevant and awful Althusser, Sartre, Bourdieu: in the late ’60s-early ’70s Foucault was cleverly waging a positional war against the grand poobahs of France’s intelligentsia).

Of course this played very well in US comp-lit departments, where all things economic or material are sneered at. Now you could be a true armchair radical, no need to worry or study actual economics and the history of capitalism. Boring. Besides, Foucault himself thought it was useless. And that way, as a tenured radical on a US campus, you did not have to question the society, the economic incentives and the motivations that had lead you there in the first place. That is, the booming market for mass education in the late-sixties. Suddenly any small-town middle-class American, low on cultural capital but armed with good grades, could legitimately compete for a tenured job at any University nearby.  Fucking boomers.

Not saying it’s all bad, but hey, you must take the bad with the overall good.  Incredible development in human capital comes with a few philistines. It’s a small price to pay.

(Photo of painted portrait of Foucault by thierry ehrmann)