Skip to content Skip to footer
On whether Foucault is a Neoliberal Philosopher – And what it means to ask?

On whether Foucault is a Neoliberal Philosopher – And what it means to ask? 

The germ of the central question I will attend to in this essay is owed to an interview published in Jacobin magazine under the title ‘Can We Criticize Foucault’.1 The interviewee was a French sociologist who has published an edited volume titled Foucault and Neoliberalism in which the contradictory political affiliations of the French philosopher are questioned from different angles. In the age of the dead author, I will not be directly engaging with either the interview or the edited volume per se – I will not even attempt to answer the question of whether or not Foucault can be criticized. In lieu of this, I will concern myself with how to think about whether Foucault was neoliberal, and what it means to ask this question.

Let us briefly interrogate the question posed in the title of the Jacobin interview ‘Can We Criticize Foucault?’ What does this question imply? One can begin by asking, who is the “We” that is posing this question as a hypothetical collective subject? Who does the “We” include, and more importantly, what does it exclude when this question is posed from the point of view of a collective pronoun? The other thing to note in this formulation is the fact that it is posed in a way as if to ask for permission. From whom is this collective subject asking permission? And, what is it asking permission to do? It is asking permission to “criticize” an author without mentioning the crime they might have committed.

I would like to point out a key distinction here between the terms ‘to critique’ and ‘to criticize’. While critique can carry the same sense, it also has a more technical sense in the way it was used by Kant in the titles of the tomes of the three Critiques. In this sense, a critique is a laying out of a concept by way of an exposition in order to understand the conceptual limits and means of validity. As opposed to this, criticize, means to actively rebuke someone – not even in the sense of art or literary criticism, but more in the sense of censure. Finally, we must turn to the specter who is at the center of this phenomenon of a collective subject asking permission of a hypothetical other to commit the act of criticism, i.e. Michel Foucault.

Foucault is not an uncomplicated or unprovocative philosopher, and for good reason. From his being on-the-fence about structuralism as opposed to poststructuralism (Order of Things), or whether it has to do with the impossibility of being a Nietzschean and a Kantian both at once (Habermas), or whether it is to do with constantly skirting back-and-forth between philosophy and history (Power/Knowledge), the philosopher has been at the center of controversy between many realms. In the current context we find Foucault again placed at the center of two supposedly incongruent forms: i.e. Neoliberalism and the Left. The question at hand proposes a counterintuitive hypothesis in the manner of Foucault himself (for instance, when he claims that the prison was planned as a humanitarian project,2 or that Victorian sexuality was first taken up by the bourgeoisie themselves3). In saying that the philosopher who is most associated with developing the lines of critique of neoliberalism is somehow himself a neoliberal is a claim that has certain shock value. No doubt, it is a claim that is seductive, and grabs readers – but it might work to ostracize a theoretical construct without working through its premises.

It is a fact of irony that the philosopher who brings attention to this form of power in a prescient manner is in turn accused of himself being implicated in the neoliberal project. Even if Foucault didn’t coin the term “neoliberalism,” he was certainly among the first to inaugurate the philosophical discussion on a phenomenon that was fast becoming the structuring rubric of contemporary everyday life in late twentieth century France. Foucault brought attention to the very thing that is now called “Neoliberalism” in the mid-1970s in the now famous Birth of Biopolitics lectures (as Foucault himself admits, a more accurate title for these lectures would be a history or genealogy of Neoliberalism, which is what he proceeds to trace in the lectures).

So what does it mean to be a neoliberal, or even a neoliberal philosopher? As others have noted, the term Neo-Liberal was means of self-identification for certain economists writing in the post-WWII era. Between then and now, it has morphed into an often always already critical word. To be sure, Foucault can be found at the center of the term itself morphing from a positive self-assertion to a form of disavowal. The accusation of terming Foucault a neoliberal—albeit seductive—is thus a retroactive accusation. Once the negative usage of the term is deployed back to “criticize” Foucault, we find that Foucault himself is wholly bound up within the concept as its meanings mutate through various discursive layers of the conceptual history of Neoliberalism.

At this point I would like to differentiate between what it means to be a neoliberal as opposed to what it means to be a philosopher of neoliberalism. The difference, I would contend would be the difference between the economist Gary Becker and Foucualt. This is again a complex difference. Interestingly, when Gary Becker was alerted to Foucault’s reading of his texts in 2012, he agreed that whatever Foucault says about his claims is in fact correct.4 However, what Foucault presents is a positive reading, or a critique if you will. This certainly doesn’t mean that if you read a text faithfully that you correspond with the same beliefs and opinions. In this regard, we can say for instance that Marx was a philosopher concerned with capitalism, but to say that Marx was himself a capitalist would imply a whole range of assertions that are not directly associated with Marx’s system of thought (while, of course, living in the day and age of capitalist social and economic transformations), or with the economic system he was deeply concerned with his whole life. In this regard, Foucault himself has distanced himself from the study of opinions (doxology), while favoring instead, the excavation of systems of knowledge (archeology).5

To wager a blame on the philosopher for being what he studies by way of his supposed opinions (i.e. Foucault may have studied neoliberalism, but his opinions suggest he was himself a neoliberal, as the Jacobin piece suggests) seems like a brash commentary, which instead of taking his philosophy on its own terms, uses extraneous information (his meetings with politicians, or the jokes that he may or may not have cracked in private gatherings) to make other claims that one would be hard pressed to locate in his written work or public lectures.

Allow me to pose a counter-question: Supposing Foucault turns out to be a card-carrying neoliberal, so what? It is true neoliberalism has become somewhat of a dirty word in contemporary academic and critical discourse (usually coming from the Left). In a manner of speaking, by our very existence in the neoliberal day-and-age (for, we still don’t know what neoliberalism exactly!), to some extent we are all neoliberal subjects. However, lets assume that it is possible to be other than neoliberal in an intermeshing globalized economic system, and within this typology of difference we situate Foucault as fundamentally neoliberal. Should his philosophy then be disparaged, or his whole system of thought refuted and found to be corrupt at the core? Should we then burn all the books authored by Michel Foucault – starting with the published lectures as a false flag whose neoliberal siren calls we were once deluded by? Moreover, should we stop reading Foucault if he is neoliberal and has shown his true colors to be such tinted hues of neoliberalism?

Let me attend this question with a comparison with another horrific political category that flourished in the twentieth century only to become even more of a dirty word in contemporary lexicon. This word is Nazism, and we have examples of two self proclaimed Nazi philosophers or theorists who were implicated at the time with the Third Reich, i.e. Martin Heidegger and Carl Schmitt. We have no doubt about their allegiances to National Socialism at the time, but does that mean we should stop reading them? Their theories and philosophies stand in their own right. Carl Schmitt for instance provides us one of the most fundamental critiques of liberal politics, while Heidegger’s philosophical career gives us a deep insight into his very failure to disavow fascism and the implications it has for his written philosophy.6 So in short, Foucault should be read despite being a neoliberal, by liberals and by those on the left (especially by those on the Left) to understand what in his philosophy, after all, is symptomatic of what we have now are coming to recognize as neoliberalism.

Now we can turn to the question of whether Foucault’s philosophy can be read in a neoliberal manner – or whether it can prove to be useful to actual agents of neoliberalism in this day and age. Of course, there can be many interpretations of philosophical discourse, or otherwise. And, as Foucault has noted, certain types of discursive interventions produce manifold interpretations and generate debates and polemics from multiple angles that can span over centuries.

The fact that there can be multiple interpretations of a single philosophy can be illustrated through the example of Hegel whose oeuvre generated two opposing bodies of discourse in the form of Right Hegelians and Left Hegelians. Of course, the more interesting expositions out of that lot come from the proponents of Hegel on the Left – like Marx and Fuerbach – while the Hegelian Right has drifted into relative obscurity. Similarly, with the question of people like François Ewald, Foucault’s research assistant in the 70s who is also responsible for editing many of the lectures. A prime allegation against Foucault in the aforementioned argument comes by way of Ewald having advised insurance companies and even a bosses union. Even if Ewald is out to put a neoliberal twist on Foucault, does Ewald’s interpretation or redeployment of Foucault implicate Foucault’s own philosophy? That question can be left open to interpretations – as there may be several! I would simply like to point that Left readings of Hegel are still possible and are still conducted as a manner of thinking through problematics and ideas.

Balibar has pointed in his reading of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, that it seems like Marx and Foucault each grabbed a part of Hegel’s chapter on Abstract Right and effectively tore it in half in their struggle. Thus the part on property and exchange ends up in Marx’s hands eventually finding its way into Capital. While the part on “Wrong,” which deals more broadly with the State, ends up with Foucault and eventually manifests in Discipline and Punish.7 This is not to suggest that Marx and Foucault are perfectly reconcilable via Hegel, or even that attempts should even be made to reconcile their somewhat divergent systems of thought. Rather, it implies that the argument is taken up on different registers, commodity exchange versus exclusions and penality of the state that protects private property. Hegel’s system is a complex philosophical statement and it should be taken on its own terms regardless of how, Marx or Foucault, Right Hegelians or Left Hegelians, etc. have taken it up in the history that has followed Hegel.

To return to the point of complex discursive events, we must seek to engage Foucault’s interventions through the terms in which he himself developed an understanding of the historical dynamics of debates and disagreements. Particularly, in The Order of Things, as well as in The Archeology of Knowledge, Foucault lays out a detailed introspection of how discursive formations operate, and how the debates that have constituted most concepts that we have come to be familiar with in modernity took place and shaped the societies that were engaging in them.

A prime example of discursive complexities generated by subversive thought can be found in the role Machiavelli plays in Foucault’s 1977 lectures Security, Territory, Population.8 Machiavelli’s Prince is interesting to Foucault, not so much in what it laid out in itself, or what was internal to the text. Rather, it was interesting in the debates it generated between the anti-Maciavellians and the anti-anti-Machiavellians (for Machiavelli himself is a “point of repulsion” at the time). As Foucault argues, a discourse on the Art of Government comes out of Machiavelli’s assault on the Prince. This Art of Government was not present in the Prince or anything else written by Machiavelli for that matter. A positive criterion for governance as care for a new category of the population came out of the physiocratic arguments which excised the Prince or the sovereign from political discourse while developing a role for “Government” as such. The emergence of the Art of Government discourse is where Foucault locates the practices of “Governmentality” to have been incorporated into the emerging state apparatus – this is incidentally a genealogical precursor to what Foucault later defines as “Neoliberal Governmentality”. Towards the end of his discussion on the discourses that sprouted out of Machiavelli, Foucault adds an insight in terms of contemporary debates:

[Machiavelli] is not at the center of debate insofar as it takes place because of what he said, but insofar as the debate is conducted through him. The debate does not take place because of what he said, and an art of government will not be found through or in him. He did not define an art of government, but an art of government will be looked for in what he said. This phenomenon in which one searches in a discourse for what is taking place, while actually only seeking to force it to say something, is not unique. From this point of view, Marx is our Machiavelli: the discourse does not stem from him, but it is through him that it is conducted.9

          As a discursive experiment, the passage quoted above can be reread substituting Foucault for Machiavelli, and Neoliberalism for Art of Government. A corollary could then be added to this, taking into account the contours of the discursive specimen this essay began with. Insofar as Foucault’s own discourses (as someone who understood the subtleties of how history has its way with what mere authors put out into the world) have generated the types of debates they have and insofar as all contemporary debates need to be conducted and articulated through what he said, we might be able to claim that from this point of view that Foucault is our Marx.

Machiavelli is but one example in Western political and philosophical discourse, he would be considered in line with other producers of great debates which Foucault terms “founders of discursivity.” This includes Marx and Freud who “made possible not only a certain number of analogies but also (and equally important) a certain number of differences. They have created a possibility for something other than their discourse, yet something belonging to what they founded.”10 Thus it is not so much what is stated in the philosophical system per se, rather the divergences their discourse generates. Balibar has suggested that the discourse generated by Foucault himself can be added to this category. In his discussion of “the point of hearsay” in Foucault’s The Order of Things, Bailbar points to the appearance of this word in association with a splitting effect, or a kind of feedback loop generated by certain discursive interventions at certain times, by the delicate methodological balancing act between structuralism and poststructuralism that gives his arguments a janus-faced appearance. Balibar connects Foucault’s internally contradictory modus opperendi via “the point of hearsay” to Pascal’s discussion of hearsay in relation to Christ: “one can speak of Christ’s humanity and one can speak of Christ’s divinity; the only thing you can do about the fact that Christ is both God and man is, paradoxical though it may sound, to hold two contradictory discourses simultaneously.”11

         The question of whether Foucault is a neoliberal, or not can hence be considered as a non-question in this context: paradoxically, he is, he isn’t and he both is and isn’t neoliberal all at the same time – it depends on who is the speaking subject asking the question, and from what vantage point they pose it. What does it mean to ask this question? The fact that this debate is even taking place at this point in history speaks directly to something inherent in how Foucault himself understood the history of systems of thought. The point of such debates should not be, in some grand ideological sense, to excise Foucault from the ranks of the “Old Left” or to situate him in some other Left. It should be to take his objections and statements in accordance and to seriously and critically examine them – along with the nature of our contemporary debates in them. Indeed with his understanding of how discourses work (Foucault warns against polemics, precisely because he knows what discursive effects these forms produced in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries).12 To be sure, Foucault has made an intervention within Left and critical discourses – this should be taken seriously and built upon to develop new ways of understanding ourselves and the kinds of societies we live in, in order to bring about new kinds of subjects and modes of subjectivation that are possibly different from neoliberalism as such.

1 Zamora, Daniel. “Can we criticize Foucault?.” Jacobin, www. (2014).

2 Foucault, Michel. Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison. Vintage, 1977.

3 Foucault, Michel. The history of sexuality. Volume one: An introduction. 1980.

4 Becker, Gary S., François Ewald, and Bernard E. Harcourt. “‘Becker on Ewald on Foucault on Becker’: American Neoliberalism and Michel Foucault’s 1979’Birth of Biopolitics’ Lectures.” University of Chicago Institute for Law & Economics Olin Research Paper 614 (2012).

5 Foucault, Order of things: an archeology of the human sciences, London: Routledge 2002, 217-218.

6 See for example, Critchley, Simon. “Being and Time, part 1: Why Heidegger matters” The Guardian. 2009.

7 This analogy was presented by Professor Balibar during a lecture on Hegel’s Philosophy of Right.

8 Foucault, Michel. Security, territory, population: Lectures at the Collège de France 1977–1978. Vol. 4. Macmillan, 2009. 89-100.

9 Ibid., 243.

10 Foucault, Michel. “What is an Author” in Aesthetics, method, and epistemology. Vol. 2. Edited by J. D. Faubion. New York: The New Press; 1998. 217-218.

11 Balibar, Étienne. “Citizen Balibar: An Interview with Étienne Balibar” by Nicolas Duvoux & Pascal Sévérac, In Books And Ideas. 26 November 2012 translated by Michael C. Behrent

12 In an Interview with Paul Rabinow, on the question of polemics Foucault elaborates: “I like discussions, and when I am asked questions, I try to answer them. It’s true that I don’t like to get involved in polemics. If I open a book and see that the author is accusing an adversary of “infantile leftism” I shut it again right away. That’s not my way of doing things; I don’t belong to the world of people who do things that way. I insist on this difference as something essential: a whole morality is at stake, the one that concerns the search for truth and the relation to the other.” Foucault, Michel “Polemics, politics and problematizations” in Essential Works of Foucault, Vol. I. Edited by Paul Rabinow.” (1997).

This article is part of Naked Punch Issue 18. To buy the issue click here.

Subscribe to our Newsletter

Naked Punch © 2024. All Rights Reserved.