Academic journal article New Formations

Foucault's 'Critique' of Neoliberalism: Rawls and the Genealogy of Public Reason

Academic journal article New Formations

Foucault's 'Critique' of Neoliberalism: Rawls and the Genealogy of Public Reason

Article excerpt

Foucault devoted seven out of the twelve lectures he delivered at the College de France in 1979 to German and American neoliberalism. (1) Readers often assume that the purpose of these lectures was to 'critique' neoliberalism, where the nature of this critique is to be understood in the terms of one or other of the programmatic formulations he proposed around this time. For example, in his 'What is Critique?' lecture to the Societe Franqaise de Philosophie the previous year, he suggested that the critical question he sought to pursue was not why we are governed but how: 'how not to be governed like that, by that, in the name of those principles, with such and such an objective in mind and by means of such procedures, not like that, not for that, not by them'. (2) John Protevi follows this formula in suggesting that the purpose of the 1979 lectures on neoliberal governmentality was 'to provide tools by which the governed can understand the rationality that informs the way that they are governed and thereby better resist intolerable governance'. (3) In 'What is Enlightenment?' Foucault suggested that his genealogical practice of criticism should be understood as an historical investigation of the events and processes that have made us what we are so that we can find ways to escape our present social identities. In this sense, the aim of critique is to 'separate out, from the contingency that has made us what we are, the possibility of no longer being, doing, or thinking what we are, do or think'. (4) I drew upon this formulation in a 2010 essay in suggesting that, to the extent that Foucault's brief genealogy of neoliberal governmentality was also a critical history of the present, its aim was 'to find points of exit from or transformation in present social reality'. (5)

Comments such as these, I now think, are evidence of widespread confusion about the object and aims of Foucault's lectures on neoliberalism. This confusion involves, firstly, what is meant by neoliberalism in these lectures. They focus on the forms of rationalisation, objectives and modes of exercise of a particular kind of governmental power, rather than the policies and procedures of actually existing neoliberal governments. These lectures help us to understand the rationality, objectives and methods of this kind of power. They do not pursue the strategy outlined in the first part of 'The Subject and Power' that consists in taking forms of resistance against particular modalities of power as the 'starting point' or the 'catalyst' for their analysis. (6) They do not address the strategies by which neoliberal techniques of government were introduced or the struggles they may have provoked, nor do they address the different political dynamics that allowed what David Harvey calls the construction of consent in favour of neoliberal government policies, much less the kinds and degree of economic restructuring and social differentiation that followed. (7) None of this should be surprising when we consider that these lectures were delivered shortly before the election of Margaret Thatcher's government in Britain in May 1979 and over a year before the election of Ronald Reagan as US president in 1980.

There is also considerable confusion about the nature of the critical project that is undertaken in these lectures. I think it is more modest and open-ended than the kinds of critique referred to above. In the third lecture on German neoliberalism, Foucault suggests that his aim is simply to grasp neoliberal government 'in its singularity' (Birth of Biopolitics, p30). Certainly his reconstruction of the program of government outlined by the German ordoliberals serves further polemical aims such as challenging what he called the 'state phobia' that was common among the French left at the time. Foucault's lectures explicitly sought to disqualify the kind of political analysis that simply applies pre-existing historical moulds in order to suggest, for example, that neoliberalism is just Adam Smith revived, or the final achievement of the market society described by Marx, or the further extension of state power. …

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