Foucault and Neoliberalism AUFS Event: Daniel Zamora – A Reply: Was Foucault Speaking in His Own Voice?

I want to thank Daniel for offering a reply post. If only we had time for a second round of discussion where we all referred to the exact same source material, but alas. -MWW

UPDATE: Seth Ackerman generously agreed to translate Daniel’s reply. The translation is provided above the original. -MWW

Daniel Zamora is a doctoral candidate in Sociology at the Université Libre de Bruxelles. Later in 2015, a translation of Critiquer Foucault: Les années 1980 et la tentation néolibérale will appear in English. Two recent discussions by Zamora on Foucault and Neoliberalism can be found at Jacobin.

First I would like to thank the four contributors and AUFS for devoting this series to the theme of Foucault and neoliberalism. All the interventions are highly stimulating and take us to the heart of a debate of great current moment. Obviously I am not able to undertake a general discussion of all the interventions and all the central questions they pose. But I am sure that the debate will not end here, that it will continue when the book is published in English. However, I would like to revisit the reasoning behind my argument, and why I do not think that it is a problem of interpreting Foucault’s words.

It is indeed true, as Stuart Elden notes in his response, that “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.” Verena Erlenbusch, for her part, adds that I “[fail] to recognize that Foucault is not speaking in his own voice but paraphrasing important representatives of neoliberal thought.” The argument made by Stuart Elden clearly applies to Foucault’s lectures at the Collège de France. But while I am largely in agreement with his critique, I do not think it affects my argument. This is the case for two reasons.

First, because my argument is only secondarily based on Foucault’s lectures. Indeed, of the 45 footnotes citing Foucault in my text [in Critiquer Foucault], only 9 come from the lectures he delivered at the Collège de France. The other 36 are from texts, interviews, and interventions that he delivered over a period stretching from 1972 to 1983. Thus, when Foucault takes aim at the notion of a “right to health,” in terms that are ambiguous to say the least, or when he invokes the “perverse” effects of social security, he is responding to a national secretary of the CFDT [the French union federation] in one of the rare interviews that he devoted to this subject. To this, Verena Erlenbusch replies that “with regard to the interviews Foucault gave, it seems to me by no means necessary that Foucault always speaks in his own voice.” But on what basis can she claim this? Why, in this interview given in 1983, in which absolutely nothing indicates he was not speaking in his own name, should I think this is the case? And if it is the case, should we then conclude that there is no interview where Foucault ever gave his own opinion? If this were the case, it would be necessary to revise the great majority of the existing studies of Foucault.

The truth is much simpler: the person interviewing Foucault is very clearly addressing him and soliciting his opinion, using terms such as “do you think”, “in your opinion,” “is it your view that,” “do you support the goal I’ve just outlined?” Foucault is speaking in his own name; it is necessary to accept this and to try to understand why he thinks such things. The same goes for all the other interviews where he takes up neoliberal arguments in his own words and speaks in his own name. Understanding Foucault means above all to read him honestly, not to attribute to him the opinions that suit us and to ignore those we don’t like. As Michael Behrent notes, “the real danger consists in turning Foucault into our fantasy philosopher, the thinker we want him to be—an unrelenting critic of Marxism who somehow remained a kind of socialist; a Nietzschean who embraced solid progressive principles. This is just wishful thinking. Historicizing, in this instance, is the best form of critique.”

Second, I do not think we can exempt from discussion the texts of the Collège de France lectures. The least that can be said is that they are ambiguous, and that what he is saying in them is a matter of debate. In addition, the argument I make about Soléru’s negative income tax is based on a more general theoretical discussion about the shift from exploitation to exclusion, and towards those on the “margins” of the workforce. These two shifts – the end of the political centrality of the working class and the notion of exploitation – constitute, in my view, two of the principal theoretical evolutions that accompanied the advent of neoliberalism. And it cannot be denied that, on these two planes, in his books as well as his texts and interviews, Foucault participates in this evolution. Certainly all of this is complicated and demands much more thorough discussion. But I think that today these questions are quite pertinent and absolutely necessary.

Thus, to the criticism that this isn’t the “right question,” I would respond, on the contrary, that it is precisely the right question. The neoliberal offensive profoundly reconfigured the intellectual field of the 1970s, and to better oppose it we must understand its origins. In this sense, my response would take the form of that which Foucault gave to Chomsky concerning anarcho-syndicalism. In our haste to oppose neoliberalism, without first understanding the profound revolution of which it is the product, we risk perpetuating it in our discourse, however progressive that discourse may be.

________

Tout d’abord j’aimerais remercier les quatre contributeurs et le blog AUFS pour avoir consacré cette série au thème de Foucault et le néolibéralisme. Les interventions étaient toutes très stimulantes et nous plongent au coeur d’un débat qui est d’une grande actualité. Je ne pourrais évidemment pas entamer une discussion générale sur toutes les interventions et sur les questions centrales qu’elles posent. Je suis cependant certain que ce débat ne s’arrêtera pas ici et qu’il pourra continuer lors de la parution du livre en anglais. J’aimerais cependant revenir sur les raisons de mon argument et sur pourquoi je ne pense pas qu’il s’agisse d’un problème d’interprétation des propos du philosophe.

En effet, comme le note Stuart Elden dans sa réponse : « 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. » Verena Erlenbusch ajoute, pour sa part que je « fails to recognize that Foucault is not speaking in his own voice but paraphrasing important representatives of neoliberal thought. » L’argument que fait légitimement Stuart Elden porte bien évidemment sur les cours au Collège de France qu’a donné Foucault. Si je suis en grande partie d’accord avec cette critique, je pense cependant que cela ne porte pas atteinte à mon argument. Et cela pour deux raisons.

La première est que mon argument ne se base que secondairement sur les cours. En effet, sur les 45 notes renvoyant à Foucault dans mon texte, seuls 9 proviennent des leçons qu’a donné Foucault au Collège de France. Les 36 autres sont issues de textes, d’interviews et d’interventions que le philosophe a donné sur une période qui s’étend de 1972 à 1983. Ainsi, lorsque Foucault s’en prend à la notion du « droit à la santé », dans des termes pour le moins ambigus ou qu’il évoque les effets « pervers » de la sécurité sociale, il répond à un secrétaire national de la CFDT dans une des rares interviews qu’il consacre alors à ce sujet. A cela Verena Erlenbusch répond que « with regard to the interviews Foucault gave, it seems to me by no means necessary that Foucault always speaks in his own voice. ». Mais en vertu de quoi peut elle affirmer cela ? Pourquoi, lors de cet entretien donné en 1983 ou strictement rien n’indique qu’il ne parle pas en son nom, devrai-je penser que c’est le cas ? Et si c’est le cas, faut il alors considérer qu’il n’y a aucune interview ou Foucault donne son avis ? Si tel était le cas, il faudrait dès lors revoir une grande majorité des études faites sur Foucault. La réalité est beaucoup plus simple, la personne qui interroge Foucault s’adresse très clairement à lui et à son opinion dans des termes tels que « estimez vous ? », « a votre avis », « est-ce votre avis ? », « souscrivez vous à l’objectif que je viens d’énoncer ? »,… Foucault parle en son nom et il faut accepter ce fait et tenter de comprendre pourquoi il pense de telles choses. Il en va de même pour toutes les autres interviews où il reprend les arguments néolibéraux à son compte et s’exprime en son nom. Comprendre Foucault c’est avant tout le lire honnêtement et pas lui prêter les opinions qui nous conviennent et écarter celles qui nous plaisent moins. Comme le note Michael Behrent, « the real danger consists in turning Foucault into our fantasy philosopher, the thinker we want him to be—an unrelenting critic of Marxism who somehow remained a kind of socialist; a Nietzschean who embraced solid progressive principles. This is just wishful thinking. Historicizing, in this instance, is the best form of critique.”

Ensuite, je pense que nous ne pouvons pas écarter de toute discussion sur les textes des cours donnés au collège de France. Le moins qu’on puisse dire c’est qu’ils sont ambigus et que ce qui y dit est – au moins – matière à débat. Par ailleurs l’argument que je mène sur l’impôt négatif de Soléru se base sur une discussion théorique plus générale à propos du recentrage de l’exploitation vers l’exclusion et les figures aux « marges » du salariat. Ces deux déplacements – la fin de la centralité politique de la classe ouvrière et de la notion d’exploitation – constituent à mon sens deux des principales évolutions théoriques qui ont accompagné l’avènement du néolibéralisme. Et force est de constater, que sur ces deux plans, autant dans ses livres, ses textes et interviews, Foucault participe à cette évolution. Bien sur tout cela est beaucoup plus compliqué et demanderai une discussion beaucoup plus aboutie. Cependant je pense que ces questions sont tout à fait pertinentes aujourd’hui et absolument nécessaires.

Ainsi à la critique que ce n’est pas « la bonne question » à poser, je répondrais qu’au contraire, c’est précisément la bonne question. L’offensive néolibérale a profondément reconfiguré le champ intellectuel des années 70 et nous devons, pour mieux s’y opposer, en comprendre la genèse. En ce sens ma réponse sera à l’image de celle qu’offre Foucault à Chomsky concernant l’anarcho-syndicalisme. A vouloir trop vite s’opposer au néolibéralisme, sans, au préalable, en avoir compris la profonde révolution dont il est le produit, on risque de le voir se perpétuer dans nos discours, aussi progressistes soient-ils.

11 Responses to “Foucault and Neoliberalism AUFS Event: Daniel Zamora – A Reply: Was Foucault Speaking in His Own Voice?”

  1. Mini-Series on Foucault and Neoliberalism: Responses to Zamora | An und für sich Says:

    […] Foucault and Neoliberalism AUFS Event: Daniel Zamora – A Reply: Was Foucault Speaking in His O… […]

  2. Mark William Westmoreland Says:

    It seems that the two sides here are relying mostly on different source material. And, I do wonder to what extent we can understand Foucault’s own voice in some of the interviews. If we had more time, I’d ask all the contributors to take a handful of passages from texts/interviews and see if we’re all on the same page about the question of voice.

  3. Stephen Keating Says:

    Thanks Daniel and all the other contributors for the stimulating discussion.

  4. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I see no reason to limit the discussion to this four-day period if the contributors are willing to go into more depth on the source material as Mark suggests. Indeed, I would welcome such a development.

  5. Mark William Westmoreland Says:

    Seth Ackerman’s translation is now online. Spread the word. Thanks, Seth!

  6. Alex Says:

    Yeah, I would also be interested to keep this rolling. I’d gladly write something long form as I have a view (it doesn’t matter either way to the burgeoning field of neoliberal studies).

  7. Verena Says:

    Thanks to the contributors for their interesting perspectives on Foucault and neoliberalism, to Daniel Zamora for his response, and to Seth Ackerman for his translation. I want to briefly clarify some of my comments Zamora cites in his post. First, my statement that “it seems to me by no means necessary that Foucault *always* speaks in his own voice” is a response to krigstid’s comment on my post, which I took to imply that the form of an interview means that we’re getting Foucault’s own position. All I’m claiming is that this is not necessarily the case. In particular, it doesn’t seem to be the case in the claim that social assistance is a form of exercising power, to which Zamora refers in his initial interview with Jacobin Magazine. Nothing in my response is meant to imply that Foucault *never* speaks in his own voice in interviews, so I’m happy to accept that in the 1983 interview, to which Zamora refers here, Foucault is indeed speaking in his own voice. But even if we accept this, I’m skeptical that an invocation of the perverse effects of social security amounts to an endorsement of neoliberalism. I think more work needs to be done to argue (rather than assert) that “Foucault is seduced by/endorses Y” follows from “Foucault says X.” I agree with Johanna Oksala that the evidence presented at this point is “inconclusive at best.” So, my worry might ultimately have less to do with defending Foucault as an intellectual of the Left as with defending certain standards of philosophical inquiry.

    To be sure, one might object that Zamora’s guiding interest is purely sociological, and the aim is to understand Foucault’s contribution to the development of a particular neoliberal discourse. But if this is the case, I don’t quite see why it’s relevant to establish Foucault’s own position on neoliberalism. Rather, one might, in genealogical fashion, substitute this kind of biographical interest with an attempt to trace the practices that made it possible for Foucault to speak in those terms.

    Another sociological question one might raise concerns the amount of attention Zamora’s book and interviews have received over the last few weeks. I’m surprised by this because the argument that some of Foucault’s late work is at least compatible with neoliberalism is not a new one (in fact, three out of the six chapters in Zamora’s volume were available, in English, in 2004 and 2009). So why hasn’t this been debated with the same kind of intensity before? What is different about the current moment, in particular with regard to the academic Left, that might help to explain this interest in Foucault’s position on neoliberalism?

  8. C Koopman Says:

    “Today when a periodical asks its readers a question, it does so in order to collect opinions on some subject about which everyone has an opinion already; there is not much likelihood of learning anything new” (-MF, 1984).

    Why so much concern with what Foucault’s opinions were, when he himself was not particularly invested in (and indeed frequently resisted) offering his opinion, his advice, political prophecy and the such? I have always understood genealogy (including Foucault’s) as a critical work that would aim to gain grasp on the historical conditions whereby certain formations of opinion become possible. For such a work, what matters more than one’s own opinions (how easy they are to come by!), is how it became possible to have these (and only these or the opposite) opinions. To confine Foucault to opinionating is to confine him to dialectics. (Some may consider this an advantage, to be sure, but I would insist that we must work to find our advantage and our edge elsewhere.)

    Further, aren’t the historical conditions whereby somebody in 1979 could have an opinion on ‘neoliberalism’ quite different from the historical conditions today in 2015, when nearly every progressive academic thinks that we are obliged to issue an opinion about so-called ‘neoliberalism’? (Consider this picture.) Even if Foucault did have opinions about neoliberal practices in 1979, I am not sure they would even fit into our current configuration in which neoliberal strategy is referenced primarily as an ideological -ism and thereby assumes the sort of gargantuan sprawl that Foucault always cautioned against.

    I think I agree here with Verena Erlenbusch, who wrote in her post of “Foucault’s ambition to write not for readers but for users.” Why read Foucault for opinions? Why not read him for redeployments?

  9. Mark William Westmoreland Says:

    This is good: “In particular, it doesn’t seem to be the case in the claim that social assistance is a form of exercising power, to which Zamora refers in his initial interview with Jacobin Magazine. Nothing in my response is meant to imply that Foucault *never* speaks in his own voice in interviews, so I’m happy to accept that in the 1983 interview, to which Zamora refers here, Foucault is indeed speaking in his own voice. But even if we accept this, I’m skeptical that an invocation of the perverse effects of social security amounts to an endorsement of neoliberalism. I think more work needs to be done to argue (rather than assert) that “Foucault is seduced by/endorses Y” follows from “Foucault says X.””

    Here we could discuss to what extent Foucault is (not) endorsing neoliberalism. Any thoughts on this particular interview?

  10. Mark William Westmoreland Says:

    I’m not sure why we can’t do both wrt asking questions of biography–questions posed to that person named Michel–and asking questions about texts and/or implications of texts. To me, both of these seem fair game as lines of inquiry. The problem IMO would be in reducing one to the other.

  11. danbarber Says:

    This may appear a bit non sequitir, but a general question — has there been any discussion of a possible relationship between Foucault’s relation to neoliberalism and his interest in the political theology (or perhaps he called it something like spiritual politics) of Islam vis-a-vis his writings on revolution and Iran?

    Specifically, i’m thinking about the remark, stated on this blog, by Selim: “Lastly, as a Muslim, my heretical contention issues out of the precedence of creation to salvation. As Agamben, alongside with many Muslim philosophers before him, recognized that the reversal of this order in Islam is of utmost importance. God cannot be his religion, and thus, you cannot replace Allah with society.” (reference is here: https://itself.wordpress.com/2014/08/04/secular-currents/#more-13424

    Might it then be possible that Foucault’s interest in the neoliberalism has to do with an emergence of the political “outside” of society, where society would somehow be marked by the state? And, in this connection, might this interest be connected to a political theology that emerges “outside” of society?

    Obv lots of imprecision in the way i’ve put this, but i hope my gist is apparent.


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