Stuart Elden on Foucault and Neoliberalism

Here. I had been rounding up a post on this but never got around to it, and Stuart makes excellent and helpful points (with the modesty to suggest his views are revisable once the book referenced in the Zamora interview is published). Daniel Zamora’s original interview at Jacobin got picked up quickly by two “libertarian” sources at Reason and at, of all places least likely to see a reference to Foucault, the Washington Post in the form of Daniel Drezner’s piece on “Why Michel Foucault is the libertarian’s best friend.” First, from Stuart Elden:

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. To suggest there is some sympathy to neoliberalism is one thing, to claim he was a neoliberal/libertarian or other labels is quite another. Compare these lectures’ tone to those on early Christianity and late antiquity in the next two courses – does this mean Foucault was also a Christian and a stoic?

This should be obvious, though of course I’ve heard from those who think somehow Foucault was converting to Catholicism late in life, so I guess this first warning about reading Foucault–not to confuse him with his sources–is sometimes just completely missed. It’s also notable that Zamora tends to paint Foucault by way of quoting from some people formerly in his orbit, though the actual quotations that would address this from Foucault’s own writings–he wasn’t exactly shy on giving his stances–are notably missing.

In any event to state the obvious: Foucault could not be a friend of neoliberal libertarianism for one reason: libertarians see all power at the level of the state, and thus any diminishment of the state increases the freedom of individuals both in the market and in their conduct. This is the core of libertarian thinking. But of course Foucault’s notions of discipline and governmentality put the lie to this: you could get rid of the state and power would still have you within its grasp, so to speak. Libertarianism is the child-like dream that if you get rid of mom or dad (or the paternalist state) you will suddenly be free. Perhaps that’s why in North America libertarianism tends to be a phase for teenage males. In any case, it’s not a fantasy that could survive any reading of Foucault, including the Birth of Biopolitics lectures that are central to these claims.

via Foucault and Neoliberalism – a few thoughts in response to the Zamora piece in Jacobin | Progressive Geographies.


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