Michel Foucault, Neoliberalism and the Failures of the Left

Rather than criticizing and working against the rise of a free market-oriented liberalism, sociologist Daniel Zamora argues that Foucault was actually somewhat sympathetic to it.

BY Daniel Zamora and Dave Zeglen

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What we need today are not programs designed to make the market more efficient and "just" for "equal opportunity," but programs designed to enact real change through the decommodification of housing, education and health.

The work of the late French social theorist and philosopher Michel Foucault has had a tremendous impact on progressive and leftist movements in the United States and around the world in recent decades. Though Foucault's heyday was in the 1980s and '90s, he is still a staple of undergraduate reading lists and his work has helped shape the common sense that guide the work of many 21st-century activists.

His work is generally seen as essential in order to understand neoliberalism and criticize its intellectual foundations. But Belgian sociologist Daniel Zamora has raised some doubts about Foucault’s relation with neoliberalism in the late 1970s. In this interview, Zamora—coeditor of Foucault and Neoliberalism with Michael C. Behrent—underlies the overlap between Foucault's views at that moment and the rise of neoliberalism in France. Rather than opposing it, Zamora argues, Foucault was seduced by some of the key ideas of neoliberal ideology. Zamora was interviewed by Dave Zeglen, a graduate student in Cultural Studies at George Mason University.

Let us begin with your primary thesis: How did Foucault understand neoliberalism, and how did he actually position himself within the shifting political currents of the 1970s? How was his thinking shifting on questions related to the social democratic welfare state? What factors contributed to Foucault’s opposition to socialism and the state in France?

These are some of the most important questions to ask in order to understand Foucault’s relationship to neoliberalism. And we can’t understand that relationship without placing Foucault’s work within the French context of the mid-1970s. More specifically, Foucault’s work is situated in the conflict between Old and New Lefts, in the post-1968 Left’s increasing opposition to the postwar Left. 

It is not difficult to discern Foucault’s animosity toward the post-war Left project. Obviously he was very hostile to Marxism. In an interview for a Japanese journal titled “How to Get Rid of Marxism,” he openly described Marxism as nothing more than “a modality of power in an elementary sense.” He elaborates: “the fact that Marxism has contributed to and still contributes to the impoverishment of the political imaginary, this is our starting point.”

In another interview with the “new philosopher” Bernard Henri-Levy, he discusses the question of revolution. For Foucault in 1977, “the return of the revolution, that’s our problem (…) You know it very well: it’s the desire itself of the revolution that is a problem.” This assertion is very interesting, as Foucault not only dismisses the idea of revolution but also makes a subtle reference to its return in the context of the union of the Left and its expected victory in the legislative elections of 1978.

At the time (1972 to 1981), the Left was united under a “union of the Left” that included the French Communist Party, the Socialist Party, and the MRG (mouvement des radicaux de gauche). All three parties agreed on the “common program” in 1972; it called for nationalization of the banking system, reduction of the workweek, a broad expansion of social security, an increase in wages, etc.

In that context, the common program was seen by its proponents as a way to induce structural economic changes in France’s class relations—and ultimately as a way to “open the path to socialism.”

So, Colin Gordon is correct in writing that Foucault was obviously not a Marxist or a supporter of any existing model of revolutionary socialism. But what he and many others refuse to admit (or are ignorant of) is that Foucault was not only opposed to Marxism but also to the much wider political vision. It’s not only about Marxism as a political doctrine, but, more generally, as the symbol of the political project of the postwar Left—a project that included strong labor unions and militant socialist organizations.

Thus, what Foucault and many intellectuals at that time were struggling against was not only a certain kind of socialism abroad (e,g., the Soviet Union) but also a certain kind of socialism in France. That’s what he meant when he asserted in 1977 that “all that the socialist tradition has produced in history is to condemn.” And that’s also the main reason why Foucault did not vote for Mitterrand in 1981, as his close friend and historian Paul Veyne notes. 

To understand the full force of this you have to realize that this election was not seen at the time as a standard choice between the lesser of two evils. Just the opposite: Mitterrand had intense support from 70 percent of the working class who saw in his election a real opportunity for real social transformation. So it’s really striking that not only did Foucault not vote for Mitterrand, he was “surprised” that Veyne did. 

Obviously we now know that the expected transformation did not happen. But Foucault’s vote against Mitterrand in 1981 was about more than just a vote; it revealed his deep suspicion of the whole project of the Left after 1945, with its strong state, universal rights, and public services. The new philosopher Andre Glucksman summarized this sensibility in “The Master Thinkers” – a book that Foucault endorsed in a long review and characterized as “brilliant”: “what have we won in replacing a capitalist with a functionary?” In his view, “in the long run, nationalization is domination.”

So it’s in the context of a continual refutation of the “old” socialism that neoliberal ideas seemed interesting to Foucault and many other post-68 intellectuals. Neoliberalism afforded them an opportunity to think about what an “anti-statist” Left would look like.

This, by the way, also shows us how we should understand one of the aims of his lectures on the birth of biopolitics. Foucault focused part of his interest on Valery Giscard D’Estaing and Raymond Barre’s neoliberal policies, and Helmudt Schmit’s SPD policies in Germany. This choice of focus might seem strange for anyone who is interested in the rise of neoliberal governmentality in the late seventies. Indeed, why is there no mention of Pinochet’s brutally violent coup d’état against Allende and the neoliberal experiment that followed in Chile? Why was he only interested in a very theoretical version of neoliberalism, without considering any of the conservative effects that were already plainly visible in Chile and would soon be on display in Reaganite and Thatcherite revolutions? He doesn’t even discuss Friedrich Hayek’s aristocratic understanding of democracy or Milton Friedman’s defense of Pinochet’s coup.  

Serge Audier elucidates one of the reasons for this bias in his last book. He argues that if Foucault was interested in neoliberalism at that moment, it’s in part because of good relations between the neoliberal government of Valery Giscard D’estaing in France and the social-democratic government of Schimdt in Germany and what those relations meant for the future of socialism. As Audier suggests, “if Foucault assumes a very German-centered point of view, it’s because he is questioning the destiny of France and of French socialism in 1979: If the “neoliberal” policies of Barre and Giscard seem to partially imitate the social-democratic policy of Schmidt, what then does socialism mean today?”

From this perspective, Foucault’s lectures on biopolitics appear to be deeply concerned with the crisis that faced the union of the Left at that moment (they lost the elections of 1978) and the whole project of the postwar Left. 

Without understanding the French political and intellectual context of that time it is thus very difficult to grasp the complete meaning of Foucault’s last decade of work (or at least his reflections on neoliberalism and politics). Let’s not forget that at that moment, he thought that the French Left had no proper “governmentality.” In other words, the socialists hadn’t invented a governmental rationality of their own. From that perspective, neoliberalism was thus attractive for a rethinking of the Left—a rethinking that would put aside all his ideas of revolution and of socializing the means of production.

You argue that one of the main consequences that emerges out of Foucault’s interest in neoliberalism is that he helped displace the centrality of the working class with the “new plebians,” contributing to the contemporary Left’s “lumpen-idealism” (which we see in Antonio Negri, David Harvey, Slavoj Žižek, Herbert Marcuse, et al). What are the stakes of this displacement for you?

This shift of attention to the margins of wage-labor was very strong after May 1968. It is well known, for example, that what Marx called the lumpenproletariat and its struggles were very important for the Maoist movement, especially La Gauche Prolétarienne. This group had a significant cultural impact on the intellectual field between 1968 and 1973 and was very active in campaigning on behalf of immigrants, undocumented workers, and prisoners.

For the French Maoists, as Daniel Defert—Michel Foucault’s companion—has said, “new principles of identification were replacing the unity that working class culture had created in the 19th century.” Marginal or excluded groups were said to be in a relation of “autonomy” from “the field of proletarian struggles.”

These new struggles fell within what Foucault called in 1972 “an entirely new phenomenon, which is related to the appearance of the new plebeians” who constitute the “non-proletarianized” faction of the working class. These struggles, which he characterized as “revolts of conduct,” became more important as Foucault’s analysis shifted to the study of governmentality and biopower. For him, the problem was no longer about “exploitation” or “inequality” but about “micropowers” and “diffuse systems of domination,” more about being “less governed” rather than “taking” power.

As Foucault himself wrote, the problem is “essentially power itself, much more than anything like economic exploitation, much more than anything that looks like an inequality. The central question of those struggles is the fact that a given power is imposed and that its very imposition is unbearable.” 

The obvious problem is that two incompatible versions of a Left politics emerged out of this shift. One version aimed to abolish difference and the class structure itself, and thus did not exclusively focus on the way power was exercised. The question was not about “brutality” or the “normative” effects of exploitation but about the very fact that there was exploitation and inequality.

Foucault’s approach was emblematic of the other version. His analysis focused on the process that distributes the effects of inequality rather than those who produce it in the first place. Forms of discrimination, stigmatization, and exclusion from the labor market clearly structure the organization of class, but they produce neither unemployment nor unstable employment.

The problem that I am attempting to underscore is not that a range of previously ignored forms of domination have now been recognized, but the fact that they are increasingly theorized independently of any notion of exploitation. So, far from drawing a theoretical perspective that examined the relationship between exclusion and exploitation, Foucault gradually saw the two as opposed, even contradictory, principles.

It is this shift of the locus of political action from the working class to more “marginal” groups that would lead Sartre to speak of essentially “moral gestures” and the emergence of a “moral Marxism.” Its moral dimension lay in its concern with “minorities,” “marginals,” and the “excluded,” and thus with issues of domination and discrimination. That’s precisely what the historian Julian Bourg saw in those actions: a turn to ethics on the French Left; a turn that not only transformed the main subject of social change, but also “revolutionized what was the very notion of revolution itself.”

In the long term, this change will lead to the substitution of “human rights” for “class struggle.” This later struggle will be, in many ways, perfectly compatible with capitalism. In this regard it’s interesting to mention a 1981 text of Foucault titled “Against governments, human rights.” In that essay, he praises the action of NGOs like Amnesty International and sees in those humanitarian organizations a new political form of resistance against governmentality and an alternative to the state for political action.

So to revisit your first question: Foucault’s focus on forms of normalization produced by the state and oppressive institutions will also be a reason for Foucault’s interest in neoliberalism. He thought that neoliberalism represented an interesting new form of governmentality, a form that was less concerned with how people behaved. He thought that neoliberal governmentality, in that perspective, could be less normative.

But let’s not forget two things. First, Foucault did not see neoliberalism as an attempt to create a “mass consumption” homogenized society (this is an implicit critique of Debord or Marcuse’s ideas); rather, he understood neoliberalism as a governmentality that produces difference. In his lecture on German neoliberalism, Foucault asserts that it “involves, on the contrary, obtaining a society that is not orientated towards the commodity and the uniformity of the commodity, but towards the multiplicity and differentiation of enterprises.”

Second, Valery Giscard D’Estaing’s arrival to power in 1974, and his accompanying neoliberal policies, were viewed with a certain interest by the post-1968 Left. His liberal reforms on youth, prisoners, women and immigrants were seen by Foucault as the sign of the development of a “new art of governmentality” in France that could free the Left from the state.

Sociologist Loic Wacquant (in your volume) and many others argue that the America’s mass incarceration problem is an important issue for the Left since U.S. prisons contain the deproletarianized portions of the working class that might otherwise become disorderly or politically problematic. Given that the U.S. incarcerates far more people than any other country in both per capita and raw numbers, couldn’t the “new plebians” be a fairly important group of people for the Left to put their energy into helping?

This question is at the heart of the decline of the Left since the crisis of the seventies. It’s not only mass incarceration—we don’t have it in Europe—but the growth of unemployment in the industrialized world (the consequences of which the American system deals with punitively, we might say). As income inequality rose in our countries, so did inequality of unemployment. By “inequality of unemployment” I mean the ratio of risk for the most wealthy to fall into unemployment as compared to those at the bottom of the distribution of income.

Contrary to ideas popularized by Ulrich Beck and Zygmunt Bauman, the distribution of risk—at least for unemployment—looks a lot like the evolution of the distribution of wealth inequalities that was recently popularized by Thomas Piketty. That is to say, since the seventies, unemployment has been highly concentrated in a specific fraction of the workforce. There is no such thing as a “generalization” of risk. Not coincidentally, this errant notion that class inequalities no longer mattered provided the context for understanding the social question more and more as a problem of exclusion rather than exploitation.

The effects of this development are quite problematic because the more the left understood these problems in moral and ethical terms, the more they disconnected them from the general question of capitalism. Consequently, the Right (which also has a moral narrative) started winning important factions of the working class with a narrative on the “welfare queen,” the “privileged” living on the dole, and an overarching narrative of government “dependency.” Rather than finding a way to overcome this strong division within the workforce, the Left transformed this sociological division into a political (or better yet ethical) program.

As the sociologist Michèle Lamont has shown, this transformation reshaped the symbolic boundaries of the working class, making ethno-racial boundaries more salient and increasing the antagonisms between these two political factions of the working class. So if you’re right to say that the negative competition between these two factions of the working class is partially responsible for the retreat of many social rights, we have also to admit that the retreat from “class politics” in favor of a defense of those fragments of the working class who were excluded from wage labor wasn’t the solution.

What we need now is a program and a strategy that can unite these two factions. As Fredric Jameson has suggested, we need to “think of unemployment as a category of exploitation” and not just as a precarious “status” or a separate situation in relation to the exploitation of the salariat. We can no longer separate discussion of the “excluded” from an analysis the structural necessity for capitalism to create a reserve army of the unemployed and to exclude whole sections of society (or here, in globalization, whole sections of the world population).”

And this perspective, for me, implies the necessity of rehabilitating universal programs and rights that could at the same time address the questions of the unequal effects of the market while also beginning to decommodify important parts of our lives. It’s not about making the market more functional; it’s about limiting the market itself.

Speaking of policies intended to mitigate the unequal effects of the market, in your chapter “Foucault, The Excluded, and the Neoliberal Erosion of the Welfare State,” you mention that Milton Friedman’s negative income tax has been adapted by the New Left, notably by André Gorz, in the form of universal basic income (UBI). This “revolutionary reform” sounds in line with your sentiment about solutions that grow organically out of the welfare state. Does UBI have the ability to help separate wages from labor, as some have claimed? Would it be a game-changer in labor-capital relations?

The question of basic income is a complex one, partly because of its many different versions. Depending on the amount or the way it’s implemented, it could have very different outcomes. But there are in my view two main reasons why it can’t be, in any way, a Left policy.

First, it is impossible to create a generous version of universal basic income without cutting social spending. For example, consider a simple mathematical formulation for a basic income scheme: only 1,000 dollars for Americans 18 years old and above. Obviously, you can’t choose “not to work” with only 1,000 dollars per month if you want a decent life for you and your family. So this would essentially become a government subsidy for low-wage industries. The reality is that a version of UBI in which you could choose not to work couldn’t ever happen under capitalism, it would be too expensive.

Look, this basic scheme of 1,000 dollars would cost more than 2.7 trillion dollars a year. The total federal budget for social security, Medicaid, Medicare and all the means-tested programs is about $2.3 trillion. So if you supply a universal basic income by replacing all those programs, you get a massive privatization of the public good. All the money that was hitherto socialized to give social rights will be therefore privatized.

We give people money rather than rights because, of course, as Milton Friedman would say, “they know how to use their money better than the state.” This demise of the idea of public good itself or of socialized wealth for the common good cannot, in my view, ever lead to social progress. Obviously we could say that we should finance UBI by new, very high taxes on income, so we could have both social security and basic income. But the amount of income tax increase needed to finance this scheme would be very high.

So why not use that money for free health care, free education, and public housing instead? Rather than expanding the market—rather than giving more people the “chance” to participate in it with basic income—let’s instead get some of the most important things in our lives out of the market.

Second, as Seth Ackerman has pointed out, UBI does not address the problem of the unequal distribution of work. Indeed, unemployment or “McJobs” are not randomly assigned but are distributed in a very unequal way. For argument’s sake, let’s say that we did have a UBI that could enable you to choose not to work and still have a decent quality of life at the same time (which is very unlikely). This could be a game-changer but it still assumes that those who are unemployed actually don’t want to work or would be happy not to work. And what if they do want to work? Why would it be fair that some won’t be able to work and others will?

The idea that we should address the question of unemployment by reducing the demand for work rather than working for full employment doesn’t offer a solution to why people want to work. It presupposes that the despair the unemployed feel is just false consciousness that we could mitigate by promoting non-work. But I think it’s a weak explanation of what is at stake with the question of work. As Ackerman argues, “so long as social reproduction requires alienated work, there will always be this social demand for the equal liability of all to work, and an uneasy consciousness of it among those who could work but who, for whatever reason, don’t.”

That is why I think full employment and reducing work-time are still, in my view, the most important objectives for any Left politics. Collectively reducing work time is both politically and socially more preferable than creating a segment of citizens who are out of work with heavy consequences for the workers. You can immediately see how this idea would foster divisions within the working class (and how it has already done this over the last thirty years).

Perhaps the Democratic primaries played out an opposition between the radical popular politics that you advocate and the Left version of neoliberalism that you critique: Democratic socialist candidate Bernie Sanders called (and is still calling) for universal entitlements, while Hillary Clinton calls for means-tested programs targeted at poor and disadvantaged populations.

This campaign is very exciting in many ways. I can’t help but note how difficult it seems in the U.S. to understand the purpose of a universal program without reducing it to mere economism. It was surprising to hear Hilary Clinton at one of her events asking, “If we broke up the big banks tomorrow, would that end racism?” Her answer is obviously “no.” Her remark, and others like it, was obviously an attack on Bernie’s program.

This position, in my view, has two major problems. First, the idea that universal rights have nothing to do with race is in itself ridiculous. How can universal free healthcare have nothing to do with race in a country where African Americans and Latinos are disproportionately affected by poverty? How is the demand for a minimum wage of $15 per hour also not a race issue? In a country where 54 percent of African-American workers make less than that, raising the minimum wage would profoundly affect racial inequality.

But obviously, it seems that only a certain kind of “disproportionality” interests Hillary Clinton, and perhaps she thinks that $15 is already too much for lower-income African-American men and women. The reality is that she is only concerned about race or gender if it does not affect the market too much.

The essentially neoliberal idea that the only way to combat racism is through means-tested policies meshes poorly with political reality. Today in Europe, the rise of racism corresponds with the decline of the welfare state and its associated entitlements. The welfare state is not the only solution to racism, but reducing it (as Bill Clinton did during his presidency) will only intensify racial inequalities.

In any case, we already know the story of what happened in Europe. Attacks on universal programs in the seventies under the argument that they did not help the “excluded,” that they would give free education to rich people, or that their aim was to reproduce racist, gendered and traditional familial structures—arguments that actually were all addressable under the logic of universal entitlement—ultimately led to the defunding of those programs in favor of means-tested policies. And the resulting means-tested programs represented only a tiny fraction of what was cut from the original programs.

Furthermore—and this is important—the development of means-tested policies makes it much more difficult to generate public support for those programs in the long term. Many studies have shown that the more a program is associated with a defined group, the less the general public will support the program. Rather than being more efficient means of redistribution than the universal programs of the post-war period, a lot of means-tested entitlements created after the seventies undermined the idea of redistribution itself. The point is to give everyone a stake in social security, public health, and education rights. The point is to pursue goals that promote a broad sense of social solidarity.

And there you have the crux of the matter, and what makes this primary season so exciting. What we need today are not programs designed to make the market more efficient and “just” for “equal opportunity,” but programs designed to enact real change through the decommodification of housing, education, and health.

This interview first appeared at the George Mason University Cultural Studies Program's Edges blog.

Daniel Zamora is a postdoctoral fellow in sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the coeditor of Foucault and Neoliberalism. Dave Zeglen is a graduate student in Cultural Studies at George Mason University.

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