Foucault and Neoliberalism AUFS Event: Johanna Oksala – Never Mind Foucault: What Are the Right Questions for Us?

Johanna Oksala is currently Academy of Finland Research Fellow (2012-2017) in the Department of Philosophy, History, Culture and Art Studies at the University of Helsinki, and a Visiting Professor in the Department of Philosophy at the New School for Social Research, USA (2013-2015). Oksala is the author of Foucault on Freedom (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), How to Read Foucault (London: Granta Books, 2007), Foucault, Politics, and Violence (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2012), and Political Philosophy: All That Matters (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2013).

Daniel Zamora’s recent interview in Jacobin titled “Can We Criticize Foucault?” has sparked another discussion on Foucault’s alleged endorsement of neoliberalism. For those of us who did not know Foucault personally, the evidence for such a claim can only be found in his writings. I, for myself, have not found any such evidence yet. Zamora’s revelations that Foucault met with Lionel Stoléru several times seem inconclusive at best.

More importantly, this debate itself seems misguided to me. Whether Foucault had some secret sympathies for neoliberalism might obviously be of some biographical or historical interest, but theoretically the answer to this question would only be relevant if it disqualified his thought as a useful toolbox for the academic left today. Zamora’s aim seems to be to show that this is in fact the case. In a follow-up article to the initial interview he claims that Foucault was not asking the “right questions” due to his neoliberal leanings, and that his thought has therefore contributed to the disorientation of the left and to the dismantling of the welfare state.

In this short response I want to suggest that it is Zamora, and to some extent us too, as participants to this debate, who are not asking the right questions. We should not be asking whether we can criticize Foucault, nor should we be asking whether he endorsed neoliberalism. The answer to the first of these questions is an obvious yes: we have criticized him repeatedly and we should continue to do so. And when the answer to the second question is supposed to determine the theoretical and political relevance of his thought today, we are ultimately engaging in biographical speculation and ad hominem reasoning, the problems of which I do not need to point out here.

The only relevant question the academic left should be asking regarding Foucault’s analyses of neoliberalism is whether they provide us with any useful tools that can be successfully deployed against the current neoliberal hegemony. And I believe that the answer to this question is, significantly, also a yes. Foucault’s thought continues to provide an important theoretical perspective for the academic left today, and I also believe that his lectures on neoliberalism delivered at the Collège de France in 1979 offer a novel conceptual and theoretical framework for the critical analysis of neoliberalism today. It is my contention that his investigation of neoliberal governmentality represents in many respects a theoretical advance over the traditional leftist defenses of the welfare state that Zamora is hankering after. Foucault’s thought provides a more nuanced diagnostic approach to neoliberalism than traditional welfare socialism, because it enables us to account for neoliberalism’s constitutive effects. These effects include both new forms of the subject as well as new limitations on what are understood as viable and rational political options in today’s society.

I can only provide a brief outline here of what I take to be Foucault’s key contributions to a critical study of neoliberalism. I have to refer you to my publications for a more detailed argument.[i] I want to highlight three distinctive ideas in particular.

1. What makes Foucault’s philosophical interpretation of neoliberalism particularly helpful, in my view, is his critical analysis of it, not as an ideology, economic doctrine or political regime, but as a specific, rationally reflected and coordinated way of governing: a form of liberal governmental rationality or governmentality. Neoliberalism is thus not reducible to a set of economic policies such as limiting the regulation of capital, maximizing corporate profits, and dismantling the welfare state. As a form of governmentality neoliberalism extends beyond economic policy, or even the economic domain as traditionally conceived. A fundamental feature of neoliberal governmentality is not just the eradication of market regulation, for example, but the eradication of the border between the social and the economic: market rationality—cost-benefit calculation—must be extended and disseminated to all institutions and social practices. In other words, while in many socialist analyses neoliberalism is seen just as an intensification of capitalism, from a Foucaudian perspective it is in fact a distinctive organizing principle for the economic, but also for the social and political spheres.

Foucault’s approach also implies that neoliberalism and the state cannot be understood as simply antithetical to each other when they are understood to combine in the form of a rationally coordinated set of governmental practices. Hence, the political stakes do not come down to being for or against the state. Foucault was not suffering from “state-phobia” and explicitly warned the left against it. Our current problem, on the other hand, is not “the erosion of the state,” but its neoliberal reorganization.

2. Instead of treating neoliberalism as an ideological mask for a hidden truth, Foucault advocates a response to it on the level of the production of truth. The spread of neoliberalism has been difficult to stop in our current governmentality according to which economic progress, defined as GDP growth, is the unquestioned political end of good government and politically neutral economic truths are understood as the essential means for achieving it. The neoliberal economic argument has kept winning in this governmental game of truth: according to neoliberals, economic growth can be best achieved via free international trade, sound budgets—meaning normally fiscal austerity, which translates into cuts in welfare spending—low inflation, privatization, and the deregulation of markets. In such economic reasoning commodification and privatization, for example, are particularly effective means of speeding up growth given that GDP is measured in terms of market transactions.

The socialist critics of neoliberalism are undoubtedly right in demonstrating that its rise has been contemporaneous with the dramatic increase of the wealth of the elites. Since the global neoliberal turn in the 1970s, there has been an enormous spiralling of the levels of wealth in the top income categories. This new distribution of wealth is often presented as the primary aim of the neoliberal turn by its socialist critics: the neoliberal project has been a deliberate attempt to restore the power and the wealth of the capitalist classes.[ii] However, the models of resistance to neoliberalism become more complicated if we accept that the aim of neoliberal governmentality is to maximize economic growth – in other words, everybody’s material welfare, not just the welfare of the elite. The growing disparities of wealth are then perceived as the unfortunate, but inevitable consequence of neoliberal government and not as its conspiratorial aim. Since the end of the 1970s the left has repeatedly lost in the economic debates centred on the key question of economic growth. It has been forced to either accept “hard economic facts” or to back up its political demands with moral arguments—arguments that have appeared as misplaced compassion for those failing to give their lives proper entrepreneurial shape.[iii]

In other words, the left has not been disarmed or disorientated by post-structuralism nor has it been duped by dubious ideological propaganda; rather, it has been defeated by economic truths. Truth poses a far more difficult political conundrum than ideology or the restoration of class privilege because opposing it politically appears irrational. The incongruous question that the left has had to face is: how can we resist politically economic truths, which are supposed to be politically neutral?

3. The third key issue that points beyond traditional socialist welfare politics concerns the political subject. Foucault’s perhaps most important contribution to political theory has been his philosophical insight that any analysis of power relations must recognize how these relations are constitutive of the subjects involved in them. This insight must continue to remain central when we try to understand and evaluate the political impact of neoliberalism. The Foucauldian critique against traditional forms of Marxist theory has targeted the latter’s inability to account for the different ways in which subjects are constituted in intersecting, capillary networks of power.

Foucault theorizes neoliberal governmentality as a particular mode of producing subjectivity: it produces subjects who act as individual entrepreneurs across all dimensions of their lives. He shows how governable subjects are understood as self-interested and rational beings navigating the social realm by constantly making rational choices based on economic knowledge and the strict calculation of the necessary costs and desired benefits. They are atomic individuals whose natural self-interest and tendency to compete must be fostered and enhanced. Instead of capitalists and workers, in contemporary society everybody has become an entrepreneur of the self attempting to maximize his or her human capital. A Foucauldian approach thus shows that the political impact of neoliberalism is not limited to the dismantling of the welfare state, but extends even to the most private and personal aspects of our being. As a form of governmentality neoliberalism is constitutive of our conceptions of politics and political action, but also of ourselves as political subjects.

As Zamora notes, relations of power within the academic field have changed considerably since the end of the 1970s. Tables have turned: Marxism has declined and Foucault’s thought has occupied a central place. Hence, it is Foucault’s turn now to be attacked by the radical Marxist margins. A critical analysis of contemporary capitalism is a pressing task for political theory today and I am sympathetic to the attempts to combine Marxist and poststructuralist frameworks. However, it is my contention that the poststructuralist turn in political thought in the 1980s and 1990s was an important advance. Now its theoretical and political force has to be redirected to the overlapping social, political, economic, and ecological crises facing us. Anything else would be dangerous nostalgia.

[i] See e.g. Johanna Oksala, Foucault, Politics, and Violence (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2013); Johanna Oksala, ‘Foucault, Feminism and Neoliberal Governmentality’, Foucault Studies, No. 16, pp. 32-52, 2013; Johanna Oksala, ‘Neoliberalism and the Feminine Subject’, Public Seminar, http://www.publicseminar.org/2014/12/neoliberalism-and-the-feminine-subject/.

[ii] See e.g. David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).

[iii] See Wendy Brown, Edgework: Critical Essays on Knowledge and Politics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), 56.

6 Responses to “Foucault and Neoliberalism AUFS Event: Johanna Oksala – Never Mind Foucault: What Are the Right Questions for Us?”

  1. Alex Says:

    Great post.

    “Foucault theorizes neoliberal governmentality as a particular mode of producing subjectivity: it produces subjects who act as individual entrepreneurs across all dimensions of their lives. He shows how governable subjects are understood as self-interested and rational beings navigating the social realm by constantly making rational choices based on economic knowledge and the strict calculation of the necessary costs and desired benefits. They are atomic individuals whose natural self-interest and tendency to compete must be fostered and enhanced. Instead of capitalists and workers, in contemporary society everybody has become an entrepreneur of the self attempting to maximize his or her human capital.”

    This bit is the bit that never convinces me about this aspect of Foucault’s work. In saying that neoliberalism formulates subjects in this manner, I think we grant too much success to the neoliberals. That it has smoothly managed to reformat human nature in this way. If they have in any serious sense it is going to be patchy at best. Empirically, we should see also a trend that the models of the market that the neo-classical division of neoliberalism subscribe to, which assume the rationally self-interested entrepreneurial self are becoming more true, more capable of predicting the economy as the subjects it describes become fashioned – I don’t think we see this. Do we really think as sociologists that families, with neoliberalism now ascendent, operate in the manner in which his theories describe? We give too much ground to economic imperialism if we do.

    Though it is doubtless true that neoliberalism has approached institutional design in a particular manner, which has caused people to be forced to act in certain manners in the absence of any other alternatives, is it not better to claim in a more Marxist manner that actually (as Marx did in acerbically viz the political economy of his own time) the individual described in neoliberal theory is an ideological fiction? Amongst other things, I think the sheer depth to which some Foucault inspired accounts of the construction of a neoliberal subject say that neoliberalism has got to us (“the most private and personal aspects of our being”) seem radically pessimistic politically.

  2. Foucault and Neoliberalism AUFS Event – four commentaries | Progressive Geographies Says:

    […] – Johanna Oksala – Never Mind Foucault: What Are the Right Questions for Us? […]

  3. Johanna Says:

    Thanks, Alex. I think you’re right in emphasizing that Foucault describes technologies and rationalities rather than their actual empirical outcomes. And there is of course a voluminous debate on whether Foucault’s theoretical accounts of subjectivation are pessimistic and to what extent they leave room for agency and resistance. I agree that it is important to see that these processes are never complete or deterministic. I am not so excited about your alternative of ‘ideological fiction’ though for the reasons briefly discussed in my post in connection with truth. Any simple opposition between ‘truth’ and ‘idealogical fiction’ is going to be problematic when we are dealing with economic propositions that function as scientific truths in the current governmentality.

  4. Mark William Westmoreland Says:

    Thanks, Johanna. Just to play devil’s advocate…consider when you write (in the penultimate para.), “They are atomic individuals whose natural self-interest and tendency to compete must be fostered and enhanced. Instead of capitalists and workers, in contemporary society everybody has become an entrepreneur of the self attempting to maximize his or her human capital.” 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.)

  5. Johanna Says:

    Thanks, Mark. Yes, I have heard that response a few times too… Foucault’s models for the practices of the self originate from ancient Greece, so it has always seemed crazy to me to equate them with neoliberal practices. Practices of the self imply a very different understanding of the self, political community, freedom, ethics – just to list a few differences.

  6. Mark William Westmoreland Says:

    Right. It seems, though, that those critics think (perhaps) that the atomistic individual self is a transhistorical reality. In other words, maybe the ancient Greek self was (neo)liberal self and that (again, perhaps) modern political theory finally caught up on this.


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