Did Foucault Reinvent His History of Sexuality Through the Prism of Neoliberalism?

We may be living the end of politics. For if it is true that politics is a field that has been opened by the existence of the revolution, and if the question of revolution can no longer be posed in these terms, then politics may disappear.

Michel Foucault, 1977


THE RECENT PUBLICATION of the long-awaited fourth volume of his History of Sexuality, Les Aveux de la chair[1] raises questions as to why and how Foucault chose to reinvent his magnum opus as an investigation of ancient “techniques of the self” and their incorporation in early Christianity. In some ways, this shift parallels his reformulation of power relations in terms of governmentality, which was triggered by his encounter with neoliberalism during the same period.

As early as 1970, in one of the interventions that Michel Foucault devoted to the work of the Marquis de Sade, he noticed an apparent contradiction in Justine, or The Misfortunes of Virtue. On one hand, de Sade claims to want to “demonstrate a fundamental truth that vice is always rewarded, and virtue always punished,” but on the other hand, remarks Foucault, the entire architecture of the story undermines this proposition. Indeed, when one reads the novel carefully, it is clear that the punishment Justine endures is never the direct or logical consequence of her actions; it is always arbitrary. In this sense, it is Sade himself “who has created a system of intersections, of arbitrary events […] in such a way that in his history, vice is always rewarded, and it is virtue that is always punished.” [2] In fact, Sade does not seek to tell us the “fundamental truth” of vice or virtue, but rather to change his — and our — relationship to them. He seeks to transform the relationship that the subject has to truth, and to constitute new forms of desire and subjectivity. His writing does not aim “to persuade someone of an external truth” but “to rearticulate desire and truth in their fundamental relations.” The importance of Sade’s work, therefore, would be that it shifts something that lies at the very heart of Western knowledge — the relations between truth and desire, between desiring subject and discourse on sexuality — in order to make possible the irregular existence of his characters. Thus, to quote Foucault, “Sade is the one who actually liberated desire from subordination to the truth, in which it had always been caught in our civilization.” From now on, it is through the very life of the libertines that desire can be reinvented. Sade’s approach is fundamental to Foucault’s project: it does not aim to find any “truth of desire” that should be “liberated” but rather to open a space in which different articulations of truth, desire, and subjectivity would be possible.

This thematic of the relationship between truth and the subject, far from being confined to Sade, will be at the center of both Foucault’s research and his vision of politics in the coming years. Indeed, while immersing himself in his history of sexuality, Foucault never departs from the “present” he has always wanted to grasp as a critical historian. His growing interest in subjectivity and the techniques of the self through which it is formed (first in Antiquity and then in Christianity) provided a means of questioning the disproportionate importance that our societies have given to “truth” in the process of our constituting ourselves as subjects. “Why has all Western culture begun to revolve around this obligation of truth?” asks Foucault. [3] Thus, the justice system, the psychiatric and medical apparatus, and the human sciences revolve around an obligation of truth for the subject, the constitution of a certain type of relation to oneself. These techniques, like those of Dr. Leuret, [4] whose main objective was precisely to obtain from the patient the avowal of his madness, seem then to cross the entire social body. Does the penal system not seek, beyond the punishment of an act, to sketch a homo criminalis? Are not social security systems, too, techniques aimed at subjugating individuals to a particular way of life so that they are no longer excluded or form an “underclass”? And do not the mentally ill, the criminal, and the welfare recipient have to confess or avow their madness, their guilt, or their demoralization, and then acknowledge, recognize, and come to terms with them and their causes and consequences, to overcome them, and to create new forms of more responsible and independent selves?

The fundamental issue for Foucault is therefore the identities created by a modern state that had integrated the techniques of Christian pastoral power. This secular pastorate gives us a form of power that influences daily life, which “categorizes the individual, marks him by his own individuality, attaches him to his own identity, imposes a law of truth on him which he must recognize and which others have to recognize in him.” [5] As he writes, “since the 1960s, subjectivity, identity, and individuality constitute a major political problem”; we must therefore first of all change “our subjectivity, our relation to ourselves.” [6] This type of struggle is no longer directed against exploitation or against large macroeconomic structures, but against that which binds the individual to himself. As he observes in 1977 at the Forum “Vivre à Gauche,” organized by members of the “Second Left,” such as Pierre Rosanvallon, “innovation no longer passes through parties, unions, bureaucracies, politics. It is an individual, moral concern.” [7] He then describes the “new social movements” as movements against assujetissement. There is a play here on the word “assujettissement,” meaning both “subjection,” in the sense of domination, and what is variously translated into English as “subjectification” or “subjectivation,” the making of the subject. The main objective is to “promote new forms of subjectivity,” placing “self-invention” at the center of Foucault’s conception of politics.

It is precisely from this perspective that we must understand the interest that Foucault will bring, from the end of the 1970s, both to the nascent neoliberal governmentality under President Giscard d’Estaing and to the techniques of the self that appear from Greek Antiquity onward. Indeed, these two objects, on which he works during the same period, emerge as “laboratories” to constitute his “aesthetics of existence.” Antiquity will constitute the proof that other arrangements about selfhood have existed; the new neoliberal governmentality will open spaces for experimentation with new forms of relation to oneself.

For Foucault, Antiquity appeared to manifest a way of constituting a radically different subjectivity than under Christianity. As he will explain in a conference at Berkeley in 1983, “the most striking thing about Greco-Roman culture is the fact that people have what appears to be a true, autonomous cultivation of the self.” [8] This autonomy does not imply that the ancient ethic was independent of any form of power relationship, but it was not a “question of obligation based on authority,” [9] such as that finally deriving from God, as in Christianity. In this perspective, the “goal of the Greek philosophical schools was the transformation of the individual,” [10] to give him the capacity to invent himself. To write the history of the “techniques of the self” is thus also to start thinking about how to “change these technologies” for the present.

However, when pushed by his colleagues at Berkeley, Foucault replied that the Greeks do not represent a solution to current dilemmas as much as an alternative “problématique,” something “very different from our present culture of the self.” [11] The current “Californian cult of the self” concerns the attempt to “discover the true self,” and thus is an inverted image and inheritor of the Christian renunciation of the self. Christianity “substituted the idea of the self one had to renounce” for the Greek “idea of a self which had to be created as a work of art.” While there is much of Greek ethics that is no longer tolerable (the exclusion of women, the practice of slavery), their approach to the cultivation of the self offers us something from which we can benefit.

As Foucault puts it, “the problem is not at all to return to this Greco-Roman ethic,” but to imagine an ethic “without any reference to religion, law, and science.” In this framework, neoliberalism proves to be an innovative and stimulating form of governmentality, which allows both resistance to older forms of subjectification by law and discipline and also the deployment of new forms of subjectivity. Foucault thus draws a historical parallel between the transition from Antiquity to Christianity and the reform of statist postwar France under emergent neoliberalism. The neoliberal reform, in this instance, presents an opportunity to undo what early Christianity had achieved. Since the mid-1970s in France, Foucault observes, the fact that “the idea of a morality as obedience to a code of rules” — which had many centuries ago removed the autonomy of ancient ethics — “is now disappearing, or has already disappeared,” [12] opens the way to a possible new, more autonomous ethics. From this point of view, it is interesting to note that there is a deep connection between the rise of neoliberalism as a form of governmentality and the advocacy, by Foucault, of the invention of new subjectivities. Indeed, far from constituting an obstacle to these new forms of resistance, neoliberalism seems rather to open spaces for experimenting with different forms of existence, and to offer a framework for the invention of a more autonomous ethics. The fundamental element here is that Foucault does not grasp neoliberalism so much as a withdrawal from the state but rather as a withdrawal from its subjugation techniques and its normative dimensions.

As he will argue in his 1978 course on The Birth of Biopolitics, neoliberalism, as he understands it, shapes the idea of a society in which

there is an optimization of systems of difference, in which the field is left open to fluctuating processes, in which minority individuals and practices are tolerated, in which action is brought to bear on the rules of the game rather than on the players, and finally in which there is an environmental type of intervention instead of the internal subjugation of individuals. [13]

Foucault thus makes an important distinction between “internal” and “external” forms of subjection. If the former are aimed at the production of a subjectivity — that is, at subjectification — the latter are only intended to affect the environment in which the subject is located, and thus could allow individuals to “subjectivate” themselves through new techniques of the self. For Foucault, neoliberalism seems to break with past forms of governmentality in that it does not impose normative models on individuals but rather seeks to optimize the incentive structure in which they operate. Thus, as José Luis Moreno Pestaña writes, neoliberalism could make “individuals responsible for their lives without imposing on them a definite anthropological model,” [14] that is, a definite conception of what it is to be human. For a thinker who had spoken of a “society of normalization,” the discovery of a form of regulation that does not subjectify or normalize through the fabrication of subjectivity is, as Foucault himself might have said, a colossal conclusion. Crucially, this new governmentality no longer indexes the subject to a specific regime of truth, thus allowing greater pluralism and greater autonomy for the subject in its relation to itself.

It’s fascinating, then, to see how Foucault’s interest in neoliberalism’s less normative governmentality affected his research agenda on sexuality. Indeed, the long wait between 1976 and 1984 for the second and third volumes of the History of Sexuality indicated not simply a change of content and historical focus but a more fundamental shift. In 1976, the key contrast was between our own scientia sexualis, which obliges us to render into discourse the truth of sex, and the ancient and oriental ars erotica, where truth is drawn from the economy of pleasures itself. By 1984, the key contrast is with the techniques of the self found in Greco-Roman antiquity and those which were institutionalized within the ascetic practices of the Christian pastorate and focused on renouncing the temptations of the flesh. This reformulation underlines the close ties between the genealogy of governmentality outlined in his course in 1978 at the Collège de France, which devotes five lectures to the Christian pastorate, and the examination in that and the next course of the arts of government found in liberalism and neoliberalism. [15] The work on governmentality and the exploration of ancient techniques of the self remained bound throughout the rest of Foucault’s work. In subsequent courses, when Foucault returns to power, it is within a governmentality framework, since “power relations, governmentality, the government of self and others, and the relationship of self to self” form a series that connects “the question of politics and the question of ethics.” [16]

Although Foucault was not, of course, a partisan of neoliberalism in our contemporary sense, and partially perceived its dangers, it nevertheless seemed to offer new margins of freedom for minority practices, a stimulating starting point so as “to be governed less” or at least to contest how to be governed, by whom, and for what purpose. Citing drug use, sexuality, and the refusal to work under the proposed system of negative tax, Foucault saw in neoliberalism a reflection of his own ambition to rethink the task of criticism outside a Marxist and socialist framework. In this sense, far from sketching separate research programs, the redefinition of the history of sexuality through the prism of self-techniques and the study of neoliberalism as a type of “governmentality” indicate the philosopher’s desire to displace the politics of macro-economic structures onto the problematic of individual self-formation. That’s precisely why the historian Julian Bourg saw in those evolutions a turn to ethics in the French left, a turn that “revolutionized what was the very notion of revolution itself.” [17] However, in the long run, the slow substitution of “care of the self” for the old “class struggle” and the reduction of politics to the restrictive terms of the ethics of subjective identity, has, in many respects, fundamental affinities with contemporary neoliberalism. In this sense, though Foucault bequeathed us powerful tools to rethink our relationship with ourselves and the specificities of neoliberalism, these tools will prove very weak to challenge its logic. “Do not forget to invent our own life,” concluded Foucault at the dawn of the entry of neoliberalism into mainstream political discourse. But does not this idea resonate surprisingly with Gary Becker’s call to become “entrepreneurs of ourselves”?

Of course, there are many other elements of Foucault’s intellectual-political transformations in these years. Not least of these are his experimentation in S&M bathhouses, his LSD experience in Death Valley in 1975, [18] his heady engagement with the Iranian Revolution, and his need to adjust to a public discourse in France in which the virulent anticommunism and anti-totalitarianism of the nouveaux philosophes had assumed a prominent role. [19] It would be a mistake to overestimate one single factor in his own trajectory, but it would also be wrong to miss how integral his careful and perspicacious reading of neoliberalism proved to be to the main lines of his research during his last decade, including and especially that of his history of sexuality. On one key point, we find ourselves in agreement with perhaps his most influential follower today, his assistant, François Ewald, now the general editor of his lectures, interviews, and essays. In discussion with Gary Becker in Chicago in 2012, Ewald said that Becker’s human capital theory is something “like a step between [Foucault’s] earlier theory of power and the later lectures about subjectivity.” [20] In this respect, Foucault’s relation to neoliberalism is one of “sympathetic critique and indebtedness” [21] and a key pathway to his later work, and thus perhaps rather more than a straightforward “strategic endorsement.” [22]

We believe there is a significance to Foucault’s trajectory that goes beyond French intellectual history and politics. He inaugurated a whole series of concerns that came to characterize critical and radical thought over the ensuing 30-odd years, and which remains salient today. They included the questions of what sociologists in the 1990s would variously term “self-identity,” “the reflexive project of the self,” “inventing our selves,” and “ethico-politics,” which would place new forms of political action and self-invention on the agenda, often sidelining politics conducted through parties, trade unions, parliaments, and governments. [23] It seems to us that the left — particularly what came to be described as the center left exemplified by the Third Way — came to focus on the arts of self-invention on the one hand and the neoliberal hollowing-out of the political on the other, while dismissing the salience of the “class struggle.” From Trump to Brexit, to the demise of French socialism, the recent disaster of the Italian elections, and the crisis at the Nordic heart of the social democratic model, the folly of this strategic intersection and its evacuation of the problem of economic exploitation and inequality has become all too plain to see.


Daniel Zamora is a postdoctoral sociologist at the Université Libre de Bruxelles and Cambridge University.

Mitchell Dean is professor of Public Governance at the Copenhagen Business School.


[1] Michel Foucault, Les Aveux de la chair, Paris, Gallimard, 2018.

[2] Michel Foucault, La grande étrangère. À propos de la littérature, Paris, EHESS, 2013, pp.155–156.

[3] Michel Foucault, “L’éthique du souci de soi comme pratique de la liberté,” in Dits et écrits, vol. II., 1976–1988, no. 356, Paris, Gallimard, 2001, p. 1542.

[4] French anatomist and psychiatrist in the mid-19th century. His work on the moral treatment of madness is the opening illustration of the idea of “truth-telling” and avowal in Foucault’s inaugural lecture at Louvain in 1981. See Michel Foucault, Wrong-doing, truth-telling: the function of avowal in justice, Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 2014, pp. 11–17.

[5]Michel Foucault, “The subject and power,” in H. Dreyfus and P. Rabinow, Michel Foucault : beyond structuralism and hermeneutics, Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 1982, p. 212.

[6] Michel Foucault, “Foucault étudie la raison d’État,” 1980 in Dits et écrits, vol. II., 1976-1988, no. 280, Paris, Gallimard, 2001, p. 856.

[7] Michel Foucault, “Une mobilisation culturelle,” Le Nouvel Observateur, no. 670, 12–18 septembre 1977, p. 49. Online version: http://1libertaire.free.fr/MFoucault344.html

[8] Michel Foucault, Qu’est-ce que la critique? suivi de La culture de soi, Vrin, Paris, p. 140. This preoccupation with the “self” as a work of art in the ancient philosophical schools, which somehow connects the wisdom of the Stoics with 19th-century dandyism, has been strongly criticized, of course, by the great historian of ancient thought, Pierre Hadot, “Reflections on the idea of the ‘cultivation of the self’,” in Philosophy as a way of life, Oxford, Blackwell, 1995, pp. 206–213.

[9] Foucault, Qu’est-ce que la critique, op.cit.

[10] Michel Foucault, L’origine de l’hereméneutique de soi. Conférences prononcées à Dartmouth College, 1980, Paris, Vrin, p. 41.

[11] Michel Foucault, “On the genealogy of ethics: an overview of a work in progress,” in The Foucault Reader, ed. P. Rabinow, New York, Pantheon, 1984, p. 343, p. 362.

[12] Michel Foucault, “Une esthétique de l’existence,” in : Dits et écrits, vol. II., 1976–1988, no. 357, Paris, Gallimard, 2001, p. 1551.

[13] Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics, New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2008, pp. 259–260.

[14] José Luis Moreno Pestaña, Foucault, la gauche et la politique, Textuel, Paris, 2011, p. 122.

[15] Lectures five to nine of Michel Foucault, Security, territory, population, New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

[16] Michel Foucault, The hermeneutics of the subject, New York, Picador, 2003, p. 252.

[17] Julian Bourg, From revolution to ethics. May 68 and contemporary French thought, McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal & Kingston, 2007, ebook.

[18] Michel Foucault in “Death Valley: A Boom interview with Simeon Wade,” Boom California, September 10, 2017, https://boomcalifornia.com/2017/09/10/michel-foucault-in-death-valley-a-boom-interview-with-simeon-wade/

[19] See: Michael Scott Christofferson, French Intellectuals against the Left: The Antitotalitarian Moment of the 1970s, Berghahn Books, New York, 2004.

[20] Ewald, in: Gary Becker, François Ewald and Bernard Harcourt, “Becker on Ewald on Foucault on Becker: American neoliberalism and Michel Foucault’s 1979 ‘Birth of Biopolitics’ lectures,” Institute for Law and Economics Working Paper No. 614, Chicago, University of Chicago Law School, p. 7.

[21] Andrew Dilts, “From ‘Entrepreneur of the Self’ to ‘Care of the Self’: Neo-liberal Governmentality and Foucault’s Ethics,” Foucault Studies 12, 2011, p. 133n.

[22] Michael Behrent, “Liberalism without Humanism: Michel Foucault and the Free-Market Creed,” in D. Zamora and M. Behrent (eds), Foucault and neoliberalism. Cambridge: Polity Press. pp. 24–62.

[23] For example, a series of publications by Anthony Giddens, including Modernity and Self-Identity (1991), Beyond Left and Right (1994), and The Third Way (1998), all Cambridge, Polity, and, with the Foucauldian twist, Nikolas Rose, Inventing Our Selves (1996), and Powers of Freedom (1999), both Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.