Searching for Foucault in an Age of Inequality

Can Foucault be blamed for an anti-human neoliberal age of inequality?

Critiquer Foucault: Les Années 1980 et la tentation néolibérale by Daniel Zamora, Jan Rehmann, Jean-Loup Amselle, Loic Wacquant, Michael C. Behrent, and Michael Scott Christofferson. Editions Aden. 95 pages.

JACOBIN RECENTLY PUBLISHED an interview with a little-known sociologist that provoked a wave of reactions. A young Belgian scholar named Daniel Zamora claimed that the philosopher Michel Foucault — a major contributor to radical thought of the last 30 years — not only helped bring about the success of free-market ideology, but also is significantly responsible for the left’s inability to oppose it. Immediately after the interview’s publication, many scholars and intellectuals rushed to Foucault’s defense. Supporters claimed that although Foucault was never a rank-and-file socialist, he never abandoned his radical commitments or embraced the ideology, neoliberalism, often associated with the rise of the modern right. Zamora did not back down. Five days after the release of his interview he published another piece in Jacobin raising the stakes. Foucault, he said, “actively contributed” to the “destruction” of the welfare state and “in a way that was entirely in step with the neoliberal critiques of the moment.” Again, Foucault’s defenders refuted Zamora’s arguments as based on weak, ahistorical, and ideologically driven readings of the philosopher’s works.

As a matter of practice, intellectuals regularly debate the work of important philosophers. Yet not all of their discussions reach the intensity that Zamora’s interview sparked. He’d hit a nerve, for the argument over Foucault’s supposed neoliberalism is in many ways a proxy debate about a much larger question. Did the left take a fatal turn in the 1970s when it began to advocate more for those on the margins of society than for the traditional working class? Zamora would have us believe the answer is yes, and that Foucault was a major force driving this turn.

Zamora’s provocative claim assumes a particular understanding of recent history. In his reading, during the last 40 years the left has fragmented and lost its way. Having once identified itself as a major force fighting against economic exploitation, much of the left in the 1970s abandoned its faith in the possibility of radical socioeconomic change and took a more comfortable, and conservative, seat at the political center. Chief among those to blame, Zamora maintains, are radicals who, during the 1970s, exchanged the banner of “class struggle” for a platform more oriented around the rights of the excluded. In doing so, these hapless activists ­­— first among them Foucault­­ — not only ceased to be a force of socioeconomic transformation, they also unwittingly became “seduced” by an ideology — neoliberalism — that has “triumphed” with their support, leading to the explosion of the most egregious inequality the world has ever seen.

Zamora writes with the confidence of someone who believes the evidence is incontrovertibly on his side. Indeed, the very goal of the Jacobin interview was to call attention to the book he had just edited: Critiquer Foucault: Les années 1980 et la tentation néolibérale (Criticizing Foucault: the 1980s and the neoliberal temptation). Published at the end of 2014, the book contains a robust adjudication of the charge that Zamora could only perfunctorily make in Jacobin.

In his article in Critiquer Foucault, Zamora emphasizes what he thinks was the crux of Foucault’s neoliberal inclinations. One of his central arguments is that Foucault was critical of the welfare state in ways eerily similar to neoliberal critiques. Like neoliberals, Foucault thought state institutions had attained an unacceptable level of coercive power. Also, like neoliberals, Foucault believed a new form of political organization needed to replace the welfare state model of the postwar period, one that refrained from imposing rigid structures upon its subjects.

For those familiar with his work, the idea that Foucault was critical of the postwar French state comes as no surprise. Nor does his opposition to structures he thought forced people into preconceived categories. In a number of ways, Foucault’s 1970s critique of state institutions built on his earlier philosophical projects, many of which were aimed at trying to liberate individuals from the confines imposed upon them by inherited norms. Foucault’s critique was clearly part of a long-term philosophical project that called into question all normative structures. Simply pointing to his critical remarks about the state is not enough to prove that he was “seduced” by a neoliberal “temptation.” One would have to show that a deeper affinity going beyond a broad critique of the state united Foucault to the neoliberals of his day.

Zamora tries to prove that such an affinity did exist. To do so, he relies on Foucault’s public lectures of the late 1970s, as well as on a number of interviews Foucault gave toward the end of his life. Unfortunately, none of the sources on which Zamora draws are new, so those looking to Critiquer Foucault for any new archival discoveries will be disappointed. And when read carefully, the sources on which he does draw do not make the points he would like them to. Take for example Foucault’s rejection of the idea that there exists a right to health, a position that neoliberals, Zamora points out, share with him. Foucault did agree that no such right existed, but he did not think, like neoliberals, that it was because state provision of healthcare was inherently contrary to personal freedom, or was inefficient. Instead Foucault believed that health was an unquantifiable, subjective quality rather than a fact, and therefore he thought it could not be “guaranteed” or enforced by law.

Instead of reproducing the “neoliberal doxa” as Zamora says he does, Foucault takes a rather different tack. He does not argue that people should be forced to purchase healthcare on an open market. Rather Foucault says that a political community should take the necessary steps to preserve an individual right to live in conditions that are conducive to health, and to collectively decide the best way to do so. Undoubtedly Foucault was critical of the system of health that existed in France in the 1970s. Yet his lack of “unconditional support for the system” is not an indication that he ceded to a neoliberal temptation, as Zamora would have us believe. Rather, Foucault’s criticisms were aimed at pushing people to creatively rethink that system while preserving its basic commitment to healthcare. His commitment to public health, and his skepticism that it could be assured through the market, is blatantly clear in the very same interview to which Zamora erroneously points as evidence that Foucault succumbed to the neoliberal view. In it, Foucault says, “I do not adhere to­ — it goes without saying — a savage liberalism that would provide individual coverage for those with means, and an absence of coverage for those without them.”

Zamora’s criticism of Foucault also takes on another form. Foucault, Zamora writes, was sympathetic to important aspects of Milton Friedman’s thought. Often believed to be one of the founding fathers of neoliberalism, Friedman argued for a negative income tax that would guarantee a minimum income to everyone, regardless of whether or not they worked. This negative income tax had the advantage, he claimed, of providing basic sustenance to all, while remaining blind to how much money individuals earned above a certain limit. Through removing the capacity of the state to make a normative judgment about what constitutes “just” and “unjust” distributions of wealth, Friedman believed that the negative income tax honored individual economic freedom in ways that the postwar welfare state did not.

At the beginning of the section on Foucault’s view of the negative income tax, Zamora writes that Foucault was “manifestly seduced” by the argument for a negative income tax. He supports this claim by stating that Foucault sympathetically analyzed the tax in his 1978 public lectures called The Birth of Biopolitics. In these lectures, Foucault — as he had done throughout his career — read neoliberalism’s key texts with an eye to understanding their internal logic. Zamora says, however, that when discussing the idea of a negative income tax, Foucault does more than just describe it. He “positively evaluates it.” His evidence for this point is that, in reading Foucault’s analysis of the tax, one “feels that Foucault had a certain sympathy” for the fact that the negative income tax’s benefits were provided to all, refraining from imposing models of behavior upon them.

Zamora has to claim that one “feels” Foucault had a “certain sympathy” for the idea, because in his discussion of the tax Foucault himself does not directly express such sympathy. Unfortunately for Zamora’s argument, this lack of explicit endorsement is not even coupled with a covert one. Foucault begins his rather circumspect discussion of the tax by telling his audience that he will not spend too much time discussing it “because time is pressing and also because I don’t want to bore you too much with this.” This is not an introduction one would give to an idea he or she strongly supports.

Foucault then goes on to discuss the tax using language that makes it clear he is describing the position of others’, not his own. His discussion of the tax essentially takes the form of listing its major effects and implications. Astutely, Foucault points out that a fundamental goal of this policy is to assure that people, even when they benefit from social assistance, are still motivated to search for work, and participate as economic competitors. He writes: “Through the negative tax, the individual will be guaranteed a given level of consumption, but with enough motivations, or, if you like, enough frustrations, so that he still always wants to work and so that it is always preferable to work rather than receive a benefit.”

As Foucault rightly points out, this last aspect of the negative income tax ­­— that people should be motivated to work when work is available, and that social benefits should not provide a disincentive to do so — is a central and indispensible thrust of the neoliberal attitude toward social policy. This attitude itself rests on another constitutive idea of neoliberalism, which Foucault describes with great clarity. The notion that “the economy is basically a game, that it develops as a game between partners, that the whole of society must be permeated by this economic game, and that the essential role of the state is to define the economic rules of the game and to make sure that they are in fact applied.” This perspective united the 20th century’s most famous neoliberal thinkers, from Friedrich Hayek to Milton Friedman, and motivated politicians such as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher to implement neoliberal reforms. It was however, not one that Foucault ever came to endorse.

Foucault might well have found neoliberalism’s lack of normative constraints salutary. But Zamora fails to show that Foucault outright defended the idea that the market should replace the state as the major organizing force of society. Nor does such an argument appear in any of his public writings or comments. If Foucault failed to support an idea so central to neoliberalism as we know it, we are left at the end of Zamora’s piece still asking the question: can it really be said that Foucault succumbed to the “neoliberal temptation”?

Anthropologist Jean-Loup Amselle’s essay argues that Foucault was indeed seduced by the temptation of neoliberalism. But Amselle points to other forms he believes this seduction took. Foucault’s studies not only of neoliberalism but also his later studies of asceticism helped hyper-capitalism come to power. These studies, he claims, convinced people to stop working for the collectivity, and to begin focusing primarily on their own development. True, toward the end of his life Foucault did indeed start to analyze ways in which individuals could better care for themselves spiritually and emotionally. At the same time he found certain aspects of neoliberalism philosophically compelling. However, it is still a stretch to say that because of this Foucault can be held accountable for the fragmentation of society Amselle thinks aided the rise of late-20th-century capitalism. To do so would both exaggerate the degree of Foucault’s individualism, as well as overestimate the influence he had on recent historical events.

None of the other authors of the book try to claim that Foucault had as much influence over the rise of neoliberalism as Zamora and Amselle do. Their claims are in fact much more limited, and provide little support to Zamora’s overarching project. Take for example the article of historian Michael Behrent. In his chapter “Le libéralisme sans l’humanisme” (Liberalism without humanism), Behrent argues that Foucault indeed was attracted to neoliberalism, but primarily for philosophical reasons. Foucault “strategically endorsed” neoliberal ideals, Behrent says, because he believed they lacked the philosophical individualism he found repugnant; refrained from targeting individuals for disciplinary action, preferring to influence them by providing incentives and disincentives; were useful tools against Foucault’s rivals on the left whom he thought mistakenly believed that the state had to be the motor of radical change.

To demonstrate that Foucault shared some of neoliberalism’s critical aspects, however, is not to prove he was a proponent of neoliberalism’s positive social vision. All we can conclude from Behrent’s article is that Foucault shared certain philosophical outlooks with neoliberals, not that he concurred with the neoliberal project of making all levels of society conform to the laws of the market, or with the policies used to enact that project.

If this is the case, then we can only say that Foucault was “seduced” by neoliberalism in a very narrow sense, and not the one that has become politically important in the last 40 years. After all, the “triumph of neoliberalism” Zamora decries has not been first and foremost the victory of the aspects of neoliberalism that Behrent shows attracted Foucault­­ — for example its antihumanism. Rather, it has been the triumph of political and economic policies whose original inspiration might have come from neoliberal philosophers, but whose applications and effects have had much broader and more complex causes. As interesting as it is, then, Behrent’s article does little for Zamora’s broader project of trying to demonstrate that Foucault shares responsibility for the economic injustices he believes neoliberalism has wrought.

If there is one way in which Foucault can be criticized for his view of neoliberalism, it could be because he misunderstood the ways in which it would develop in the years following his lectures. Loïc Wacquant, for instance, shows in his essay “Foucault, Bourdieu et l’État pénal à l’ère néolibérale” (Foucault, Bourdieu, and the criminal state in the neoliberal era) that Foucault was wrong in his prediction that the disciplinary society of the 19th and early 20th centuries ­­— one in which individuals were controlled, monitored, and normalized through institutions like prisons and asylums ­­— was giving way to one in which individuals were influenced through less direct means. As Wacquant demonstrates, actual neoliberal economic policies such as the deregulation of the labor and monetary markets have been intimately intertwined with the expansion of disciplinary institutions, namely the prison. Wacquant’s claim that Foucault’s predictions for the future were off is echoed in critical theorist Jan Rehmann’s essay. Rehmann shows that a concept­­, “governmentality,” that Foucault thought would be productive for the study of late 20th-century life has not turned out to be as useful as Foucault thought. To say however that Foucault was wrong in his prediction of how neoliberalism would develop as a political practice or that his concepts have not turned out to be as useful as he foresaw is not to say that “les effects politiques du dernier Foucault” (the political effects of the late Foucault) necessarily aided the rise of neoliberalism, as Zamora would have us believe.

So what were the political effects of this “late Foucault?” According to Zamora they are the following: Foucault led the left to abandon the working class and the fight against exploitation, gave critical support to neoliberal anti-statism, and helped garner backing for major aspects of neoliberal policy, namely the negative tax and the dismantling of a universal healthcare system. We have already shown that Foucault’s critical discussion of the neoliberal policies Zamora cites did not constitute an endorsement thereof. We have also seen that Foucault’s anti-statism was of a fundamentally different variety than that of neoliberalism, due to the fact that he did not propose that the market should replace the state as the fundamental organizing mechanism of society. And while it is true that Foucault believed that the defense of the working class and the fight against exploitation were not the left’s most important issues in the 1970s, these beliefs were not new. Long before the 1970s, Foucault had faulted Marxism for idealizing the working class and failing to see that much more stood in the way of social transformation than the structures of capitalism. The idea that the proletariat and its struggle against exploitation were the driving force of history, he believed, were holdovers from 19th century thought that pertained less and less to the realities of the 20th century. The left, Foucault thought, needed to advocate for a new facet of society in new ways if it wished to actually effect change.

Of all of Foucault’s claims that Zamora criticizes, it is this last one he believes poses the most danger. As long as the left continues to favor fights against marginality over fights against exploitation, it will remain, as Foucault did, a hopeless pawn in neoliberalism’s advance. Zamora is not alone in making this argument. Indeed, his is part of a larger view of the last 40 years that sees the rise of late-20th-century capitalism as being integrally linked with a loss of the left’s critical edge, either through the process of co-optation by the status quo, or isolation into provincial academic circles. It is this view of recent history that motivates Zamora’s attempt to Criticize Foucault. In order to break out of the left’s spiral downward, he believes, it is important to pinpoint the moment at which the left took a wrong turn so as to reverse that turn’s catastrophic effects.

Unfortunately, it is nearly impossible to use intellectual history instrumentally in order to reorient contemporary politics in this way. This is even more the case when the history one calls upon is either poorly construed, or fails to support the conclusions one would like it to. Nevertheless, perhaps despite the limitations of his scholarship. Zamora is in fact right to believe that the left should indeed reinvest itself in the fight against exploitation. If this is the case, however, then far from running away from the influence of Foucault, perhaps it is time to reengage his thought, which though not useful in an instrumental way, does provide key insights for those hoping to reinvigorate the struggle for economic equality. After all, Foucault recognized earlier than most that society was going through fundamental shifts in the 1970s. The nature of economic exploitation has changed; as a result, the way in which the fight against exploitation is waged must change as well. Instead of rendering the left unable to rethink its fight against economic exploitation, as Zamora thinks it does, Foucault’s thought can help reorient it in important ways.

However, if one wants to understand how this fight should be waged now, and the reasons why it wasn’t waged effectively in the past, one must look far beyond the work of Foucault. Instead of blaming intellectuals of the past for our current malaise, or looking to them for some magic bullet to solve our contemporary problems, it would serve us well to begin to think more for ourselves. There is neither solution to nor blame for our age of inequality to be found through the process of Criticizing Foucault.


Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins is a doctoral student in the history department at Columbia University and currently a visiting researcher at L’École des hautes études en sciences sociales in Paris, France.

Alexander Arnold is a PhD candidate in History and French Studies at New York University, where he specializes in Modern European Intellectual History.

LARB Contributors

Alexander Arnold is a PhD candidate in History and French Studies at New York University, where he specializes in Modern European Intellectual History. He is also a fellow at the Center for International Research in the Humanities and Social Sciences and the Centre national de la recherche scientifique. His current research focuses on the history of political-economic thought in postwar France.

Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins is the managing editor of Modern Intellectual History and a postdoctoral researcher in the History Department at Dartmouth College. He is writing a book for Columbia University Press titled Raymond Aron and Cold War Liberalism.


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