Foucault and Neoliberalism AUFS Event: Verena Erlenbusch – Neoliberalism and the Genealogy of Biopolitics

And now our AUFS Event on Foucault and Neoliberalism begins.  -MWW

Verena Erlenbusch is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Memphis. In much of her research, Erlenbusch brings to bear Foucault’s genealogical method on the phenomenon of terrorism. She has two noteworthy pieces forthcoming: “Foucault und die Realitätsbedingungen leiblicher Erfahrung” (Foucault and the Conditions of Existence of Embodied Experience) in Leiblichkeit und Politik, edited by Thomas Bedorf and Tobias Klass. Velbrück Wissenschaft, 2015 (forthcoming) and “Terrorism: Knowledge, Power, Subjectivity,” in Terrorism as Practice: Using Critical Methodologies for the Study of Terrorism, edited by Jacob Stump and Priya Dixit. Routledge, 2014 (forthcoming).

Daniel Zamora’s edited volume Critiquer Foucault: Les années 1980 et la tentation néolibérale (Criticizing Foucault: The 1980s and the neoliberal temptation), published in November 2014 with Éditions Aden, has been hotly debated over the past few weeks on the philosophical blogosphere. My contribution to the conversation here has two main purposes. First, since the volume will remain unavailable for English readers until later in 2015, I want to give a brief overview of the chapters assembled by Zamora. Second, I’d like to offer some thoughts on an aspect that appears to me to be largely absent from discussions of Foucault’s relationship with neoliberalism, namely the hermeneutical salience of Foucault’s methodology. This is to say that Zamora et al.’s failure to engage Foucault’s methodology leads to a very specific reading, a misreading to my mind, of Foucault’s project. As opposed to their interpretation of Foucault as interested in the political claims made by neoliberals, I suggest that Foucault is concerned with the production of neoliberalism as a regime of truth (thanks to Andrew Dilts for his helpful comments here).

That Zamora’s collection has caused quite a stir has, I believe, more to do with Zamora’s interview with Jacobin Magazine, provocatively titled “Can We Criticize Foucault?,” than with the book itself. For many of the arguments presented in the volume are neither as revolutionary nor as provocative as the interview would make it seem. This is, in part, because Foucault’s relationship with neoliberalism has been subject to critical scrutiny by Clive Barnett (also here and here), John Clarke, Mitchell Dean, Andrew Dilts (also here), Colin Gordon (and here), Trent Hamann, Bernard Harcourt (also here), Nicholas Kiersey (as well as here and here), Thomas Lemke, Johanna Oksala, Jason Read, Keith Tribe, and Shannon Winnubst, but also because in addition to three new pieces by Daniel Zamora, Jan Rehmann, and Jean-Loup Amselle, the volume includes previously published work by Michael Scott Christofferson, Michael C. Behrent, and Loïc Wacquant. Moreover, the chapters in Critiquer Foucault are rather impressive in their careful evaluation as well as application of Foucault’s work. Based on his 2004 French Intellectuals against the Left, Christofferson’s piece, for instance, raises some critical points concerning Foucault’s account of power, but otherwise offers a nuanced explanation of Foucault’s arguably surprising endorsement of André Glucksmann as the result of a strategic alliance between the philosophers. Wacquant’s contribution, a condensed version of his conclusion, or “Theoretical Coda,” of his 2009 Punishing the Poor, draws on his work on the American carceral system to highlight the limitations of Foucault’s examination of penal practices in Discipline and Punish, but it is hardly surprising that Foucault’s account of the emergence of disciplinary mechanisms in eighteenth-century Europe must be modified when applied to penal practices under conditions of twentieth-century American neoliberalism. More provocatively, perhaps, Behrent, whose essay is a French translation of his 2009 article “Liberalism without Humanism,” argues that Foucault actually endorsed neoliberalism. Yet, he carefully situates Foucault’s alleged fascination with neoliberalism in the context of the political situation of post-war France and examines the significance of economic liberalism’s anti-humanism in rousing Foucault’s interest.

More provocative, perhaps, are the three new pieces by Zamora, Rehman, and Amselle, who diagnose a certain conservatism in Foucault’s late work. For Amselle, this conservatism is manifest in Foucault’s local strategies of critique and resistance, which he regards as representative of a paradigm shift from revolt to indignation. Foucault’s concern with the individual, illustrated by Foucault’s interest in the care of the self, as well as his focus on zones of autonomy, which has replaced an attempt to devise strategies for usurping power to change the world, is, Amselle says, eminently conservative and perfectly compatible with neoliberalism. Without being able to respond to this argument in detail, it is worth pointing out that, for Foucault, for resistance to be effective, it must operate on the same level as technologies of power. As a consequence, as Dilts rightly emphasizes, Foucault’s engagement with neoliberalism allows him to think about modes of being that are, precisely, alternatives to neoliberal forms of subjectivity.

Based on a very helpful discussion of the notion of governmentality, Rehmann criticizes Foucault for not examining liberalism as a practice. Rather, Foucault is said to “identify himself with his object of study without critical distance and remain at the level of empathetic and intuitive repetition” (146). He suggests that Foucault’s failure to adhere to his own analytic distinction, the multiple meanings he gives to the concept governmentality, and his inability to tie governmentality to structures of social domination result in a failure to grasp the relationship between domination and subjectivation under conditions of neoliberalism on Foucault’s part as well as on the part of those scholars engaged in Foucaultian governmentality studies. What is needed to bridge the gap between technologies of domination and technologies of the self, Rehman argues, is a reinterpretation of Foucaultian governmentality studies from the perspective of a critical theory of ideology. While I agree with Rehman’s criticism of an unreflexive and unmodified application of Foucault’s notion of governmentality to different contexts, his turn to ideology critique takes Foucault’s project in a decisively non-Foucaultian direction that, while certainly a worthwhile intellectual endeavor, risks distorting Foucault’s claims about (neo-)liberalism and governmentality. For Foucault is not interested in a history of ideologies, which evaluates discourses by reference to the accuracy of their representation of reality, but a history of the rules that make statements true or false, the norms and mechanisms that make use of these statements to manage and control the behavior of individuals, and the kinds of subject one can be in a context shaped by particular forms of knowledge and certain relations of power. Foucault’s lectures, then, should be read as an attempt to analyze neoliberalism as a phenomenon that not only plays out alongside the axes of knowledge, power, and subjectivation, but also elucidates how knowledge, power, and subjectivation take effect in a biopolitical regime.

A similar rejoinder can be made to Zamora’s chapter, in which he suggests that the late Foucault is sympathetic to and has, in fact, been seduced by and converted to neoliberalism. Zamora develops this argument on the basis of a reading of Foucault’s lectures Security, Territory, Population and The Birth of Biopolitics, among other texts, where he takes Foucault to rather faithfully accept neoliberal doctrine. As evidence for this claim he cites, among other things, Foucault’s statements about the negative economic effects of systems of social security, his taking up of the classical neoliberal argument that social security benefits the rich at the expense of the poor, and the fact that Foucault dedicates a long section of his lectures to the idea of a negative tax proposed by Lionel Stoléru. While Foucault indeed says and does these things, Zamora fails to recognize that Foucault is not speaking in his own voice but paraphrasing important representatives of neoliberal thought.

As Stuart Elden has pointed out in his reflections on Zamora’s Jacobin interview, “Foucault’s mode of reading texts often makes it look like he is agreeing with arguments, when he is really trying to reconstruct them, to understand their logic, and so on.” This way of reading is part of Foucault’s analytic strategy, which can be described in rather general terms as a kind of historical-philosophical inquiry that engages empirical historical content in order to uncover the conditions of possibility of discursive and non-discursive practices. Instead of trying to refer practices back to a single origin, fundamental principle, or first cause that made them necessary, he asks about the historically specific conditions that make them possible. To reveal the contingency of what appears to be necessary, Foucault proposes to uncover the history of the objectification of phenomena that are usually assumed to be objectively given. Employing a nominalist principle of reversal, he inverts traditional explanations of social, historical, or cultural phenomena and shows that they are not causing certain events, practices, institutions, laws, and so on, but are themselves effects of the things they are assumed to cause.

Foucault mobilizes two analytic strategies to pursue this critical historical-philosophical inquiry. The first one, archaeology, aims to reveal the historically variable conditions of possibility of systems of knowledge as they are expressed in scientific theories or invested in practices. As a “method specific to the analysis of local discursivities” (“Society Must Be Defended,” 10-11), archaeology is not interested in their truth or falsehood, legitimacy or illegitimacy, reality or illusion, ideology or scientificity, but in the epistemic ground on which these distinctions become possible. In other words, Foucault’s archaeologies seek to undermine claims to universal truth by showing that what counts as true and false at any given moment is historically contingent and variable. Yet, while a description of what has been said and done allows Foucault to show that the conditions of possibility of knowledge are contingent, this strategy is not enough to also say something about how the emergence of new ways of thinking, knowing, and acting becomes possible. To address this second question, Foucault deploys genealogy, the “indispensable historical other side to the genealogy of knowledge” (Psychiatric Power, 239), which operates as a “tactic which, once it has described these local discursivities, brings into play the desubjugated knowledges that have been released from them” (“Society Must Be Defended,” 10-11). That is to say, genealogy traces the random events and contingent historical practices that constitute the conditions of emergence of systems of thought, whose internal structures are the object of archaeology.

Consider, as an example, Foucault’s genealogy of penal practices in Discipline and Punish, which opens by contrasting the public torture of Damiens the regicide in 1757 with Faucher’s rules for prisoners. Separated by a mere 80 years, each of these events, Foucault says, represents a distinct penal style. Foucault’s aim is not merely to describe and contrast these styles (the archaeological project), but to show how the transformation of punishment became possible (the genealogical project). To this end, he maps those disparate and unrelated practices, techniques, institutions, and mechanisms, whose colonization and co-optation gave rise to a system of disciplinary power. He thus shows that disciplinary power was not the inevitable result of a predestined historical process or the intentional doings of rational agents, but the accidental outcome of contingent events. To elucidate this new form of power, Foucault considers the writings of Jeremy Bentham, whose Panopticon he regards not as a normative model of penal practice but as the architectural figure of disciplinary power.

In the same way Discipline and Punish examines practices of punishment to develop a genealogy of disciplinary power, it might be argued that the lectures The Birth of Biopolitics constitute (part of) Foucault’s genealogy of biopolitics on the basis of a consideration of neoliberalism. In keeping with his effort to reveal the historical a priori, or the conditions of possibility, of discursive and non-discursive practices, Foucault wants to show how it was possible for neoliberals like Gary Becker or Lionel Stoléru to articulate their economic programs. He finds these conditions of possibility of neoliberalism in a biopolitical concern with the regulation and management of populations and in regulatory practices of environmental modification, whose genealogy Foucault traces from the Christian pastorate through a new art of government that emerged in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In this genealogy of biopolitics, neoliberals like Becker function, in analogy to the architectural figure of Bentham’s Panopticon in Discipline and Punish, as intellectual figures, if you will, of neoliberalism. In light of my argument for a genealogical reading of Foucault’s lectures, then, Zamora’s claim that Foucault has “made his choice” between capitalism and socialism (111), right and left, seems to be missing the point of Foucault’s inquiries – for these categories, at least as we commonly understand them today, only make sense once the distinction between them has been accepted. Part of Foucault’s concern in his genealogy of biopolitics, however, is to map the logical space in which these distinctions become possible in the first place. Perhaps it is this interest in the historical a priori of the divide between “the Left” and “the Right,” rather than a clear taking of sides, that explains at least in part Zamora et al.’s unease with Foucault’s work on neoliberalism (I owe this point to Colin Koopman).

To say that Foucault’s writings on neoliberalism have to be read against the background of his genealogy of biopolitics is, of course, not to deny Foucault’s keen interest in neoliberalism, and specifically in the neoliberal understanding of the subject. Neither do I mean to suggest that Foucault’s lectures are the last word on neoliberalism and biopolitics. As he himself was well aware, genealogy is infinite and incomplete because not only are concepts, statements, and practices subject to continuous change, but empirical content can always be reexamined on different levels and according to a different periodization. Foucault, in other words, has given us a model of inquiry, which calls for a continuation and modification of his work in the form of our own genealogies of neoliberalism that are attentive to our own historical context. Such a project appears to me more interesting, more important, and also more in tune with Foucault’s ambition to write not for readers but for users who could borrow from his tool-box to pursue their own investigations, than the question if we can criticize Foucault.

12 Responses to “Foucault and Neoliberalism AUFS Event: Verena Erlenbusch – Neoliberalism and the Genealogy of Biopolitics”

  1. Hill Says:

    I learned a ton from reading this.

  2. Gordon Hull Says:

    This is really helpful and nicely put, especially for those of us who haven’t looked at the actual book yet! It’s disappointing that Zamora would fall for the “capitalism or socialism” line – not just because Foucault pretty clearly had a very complicated relation to both of them (and one really needs to be careful to distinguish Marx from the PCF etc.) – but because that’s precisely the neoliberal construction of the theoretical environment. It’s really clear in Hayek’s Road to Serfdom, for example, where the strategy is to repeatedly say how bad Soviet-style planning is, and then argue that free markets are better – anything else is said to be epistemically (b/c of the price mechanism) or morally (“rule of law”) inferior, or else on some sort of slippery slope to disaster. So the wise consumer chooses “capitalism.”

  3. Andrew Dilts Says:

    Well said.

  4. krigstid Says:

    I haven’t yet read Zamora, but I’m curious about this:

    “While Foucault indeed says and does these things, Zamora fails to recognize that Foucault is not speaking in his own voice but paraphrasing important representatives of neoliberal thought.”

    You are here refering to the interviews where Foucault, as I’ve understood it in his own words, says that social security makes recipients dependent on welfare? Because aren’t those what Zamora references, at least in the interview?

    Also, one more thing that all Foucault’s “defenders” in this debate tend to ignore is Zamora’s claim that Foucault, along with Gorz and Marcuse and others, through their insistance on combatting a logic of exclusion rather than exploitation, came to contribute to a significant shift in political discourse. While attempting to deal with working class complacency under European and North American late capitalism, the new left went looking for new revolutionary subjectivities. As it turns out, according to Zamora, this came to mirror the political discourse of Thatcher and Reagan. Now, this seems to me to be a shift that in an interesting way could be investigated with the help of Foucault’s theories (or criticized on its own merits, at least), but also something that might require some distancing from Foucault himself. What does it matter if Foucault himself thought that neoliberal economics would be an improvement to keynesian politics? It’s high time to start historicizing the political thought of the 1980s and 1990s. Foucauldians should worry more about that than about saving Foucault’s reputation.

  5. Verena Says:

    Thanks, all, for your responses.
    @krigstid, in the line you quote, I’m actually referring to Zamora’s chapter in Critiquer Foucault, and more specifically to his interpretation of Foucault’s reading of Stoléru in The Birth of Biopolitics. I think it is clear, at least in the lectures, that Foucault discusses Giscard, Stoffaës, and Stoléru (in the lecture of March 7) in order to show that their economic policy is, as he says, a radicalization of ordoliberal themes he examined earlier in the course. But is this really evidence that Foucault was seduced by neoliberalism? With regard to the interviews Foucault gave, it seems to me by no means necessary that Foucault always speaks in his own voice. Of course, it is possible that he does, but he might also summarize research findings or describe developments – which is what he seems to be doing when he says, for instance, that social assistance is a form of exercising power in modern society (this is the example Zamora gives in the Jacobin interview). Again, I see little evidence for a reading of such statements as an endorsement of neoliberalism on Foucault’s part, but those more up to speed on those interviews might want to weigh in on this point. As a final thought on the interviews, I might add – and Andrew Dilts and Stuart Elden have made this point before – that it seems problematic to read the interviews and lectures in the same way as those works Foucault prepared for publication. Finally, I’m in full agreement with your last point. In fact, I take my last paragraph to be making exactly the argument that instead of worrying about Foucault’s own position on neoliberalism, socialism, capitalism, etc. (as Zamora et al. do), it would be much more interesting to critically use Foucault’s mode of inquiry to push beyond Foucault.

  6. Mark William Westmoreland Says:

    Thanks, Verena, for this opening post.

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  10. Mark William Westmoreland Says:

    I raised this point in the comments to Johanna’s post as well and it is something that I thought of as I read your third paragraph. Just a little devil’s advocate…

    One might argue that Foucault’s own notions of care of the self or fashioning an aesthetics of existence are concepts that presuppose an atomistic, self-interested individual. I don’t buy this myself, but it seems like a response I’ve heard before, namely, that Foucault’s emphasis on the self aligns him quite closely to current mode of governmentality. Or, in short, (the later) Foucault focuses too much on individuals and not enough of institutions. (I put “the later” in parentheses because one could argue that even the stuff on medical and penal institutions is really about how those institutions create individual subjects and not so much about the institutions qua institutions.)

  11. Verena Says:

    Thanks, Mark, for raising this point. I’m largely in agreement with Johanna Oksala’s and your responses to this question in the comments section to Johanna’s post. Assuming that the Greek care of the self appeals to the same kind of individual as neoliberalism relies on a kind of transhistoricism that Foucault doesn’t subscribe to.
    I’m also wondering if Foucault’s focus on the self is an attempt to come up with alternative modes of being that nevertheless take into consideration the “reality” of his situation. Let me try to be a bit clearer. In “Bodies and Pleasures,” Del McWhorter argues that even though normalized bodies aren’t ahistorical, they are the kinds of bodies we have now. Once we accept that we are normalized bodies, we have recourse to new possibilities for resistance that use disciplinary practices to increase our pleasures rather than our oppression. Could we read Foucault’s notions of the care of the self and the aesthetics of existence as modes of being the kinds of individuals we are under conditions of (neo)liberal governmentality, but in a different, less oppressive way? I haven’t thought this through properly, so I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.

  12. Mark William Westmoreland Says:

    This rings right to me. The claim that McWhorter makes in B&P is akin to something that I hear regularly from Gabriel Rockhill (Villanova), namely, that there aren’t ahistorical or transhistorical universals. Rockhill gives his own critique of a lot of philosophy of history and also gives his own account of radical historicism, which for GR means that (a) while things are contingent from a long view, (b) things might be necessary at a particular historical conjuncture. I don’t remember where, but I recall GR giving the example of the English language. Of course, English as a language is historically contingent. And yet, for me–here, now–I must speak/type in English in order to communicate to my intended audience. In short, the language is contingent but necessary for me.


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