Foucault and Neo-Liberalism
15 min read

Foucault and Neo-Liberalism

Foucault and Neo-Liberalism

The contemporary debate on Foucault's relationship to neoliberalism appears to have the tendency to turn Foucault into the Machiavelli of the late-20th century. For centuries there was only two positions on the work of Machiavelli, either he really meant what he said, in which case he was evil or – in the Enlightenment view of Diderot and Rousseau – what he said was masked his real intention, which was the education of the governed in the machinations of their governors.

These tendencies have certainly begun to take root in response to Foucault's relationship with neoliberalism: either Foucault was in favour of neoliberalism, in which case his appropriation by the political Left is improper (and his thought is therefore wicked) or his writings merely unearth the inner workings of neoliberalism in order to provide a basis for its critique.

If you survey the academic literature on Foucault in the political and social sciences you will find that Foucault has been utilised by most scholars as a critic of neoliberalism. As the standard doctrine goes, if neoliberalism has entailed the destruction of traditional state-structures and the central institutions of modernity: family, the trinity of army-school-prison and perhaps most importantly the factory then we are no longer confronted with Power with a capital P and Authority with a capital A. Yet does this mean that we are therefore free from matters of domination and oppression? The instinct of such writers is to say no, though not from a Foucauldian position. Rather they are good Marxist's and therefore anti-capitalists and begin from the position that capitalism itself implies domination and oppression which must therefore continue to be present in neoliberalism. Foucault for such writers is no more than a tool, for if Marx is said to have outlined the domination of Capital in terms of State, Class and Labour, Foucault's notion of the power-relation and his "microphysics of power" is capable of exposing the functioning of power and authority in the present era as subtle and less visible.

Within such a literature then, were Foucault to have endorsed or been a supporter of Neoliberalism he would no longer be of use.

Its on this basis that I have a suspicion that we should affirm the general thesis that Foucault was a supporter of neoliberalism not because he as such was (though as this piece will seek to show neoliberalism certainly plays a role in his thought), but because it challenges a certain Left appropriation of Foucault's thought which has been uncritical and therefore to a certain extent has stultified the ability of Foucault's thought to radically challenge existing political categories. We all too often read self-evident tracts about the ways in which we are dominated, ruled and oppressed by neoliberalism, but this seems to ignore the complexity entailed in the category of neoliberalism itself (or what it means to be dominated or oppressed), and therefore hinders our attempt to think of new political forms in the present.

I think a truer perspective is that Foucault approached his investigations into neoliberalism without a "capitalist/anticapitalist" binary in mind. If its hard to completely pin-down Foucault's politics, its much easier to negatively define what it was not. And on this basis he was neither for nor against neoliberalism but rather saw in neoliberalism the development of a form of political action outside of the modern state and modern society, which made it, for Foucault, a category worth thinking through on its own terms.

Why Foucault was for Neo-Liberalism

  1. Neoliberalism as Critique

Certainly one of the fundamental ways in which Foucault attempts to sum up his intellectual project is in a certain approach to the question of what it is to critique. At its most basic, in his recorded talks given on the problem of Enlightenment he will  outline two contrary forms of critical attitude. The negative form of critical attitude will be presented through the thought of Kant, and will function through the imposition of limits. On this basis to critique is to assert the point at which we can no longer do, know or think past, and critique is thus the agent which seeks to prevent reason's own passage into unreason. On the other hand the positive form of critical attitude under the name of Nietzsche doesn't institute limits but rather challenges them, seeking to find in that which is to given to us as a matter of reason, authority, universality that which is contingently imposed through the play of power.

Now in the Birth of Biopolitics such a binary can be said to be reproduced in the opposition Foucault will make between two modes of political reason, that which developed by the Jurists around the issue of right, and that which in the 18th century develops into the doctrine of Liberalism. The doctrine of right stands in for the figure of negative critique, for the very basis of asserting one's right presupposed a limit past which the state is not allowed to go, and presupposes the sanctity of the individual who is the place of such a limit. As Foucault will repeatedly outline the very motto of such political reasoning is always therefore "this far and no further". In contrast liberalism stands in for the figure of positive critique for Liberalism doesn't worry about the external apriori limits of power but an economy of power which simultaneously places no limits on where power may operate, but criticises all of those operations by power which are uneconomic. In this sense Foucault will talk of liberal political reason in terms of power's self-limitation.

Now if you take one of Foucault's examples, say of the functioning of the penal system, the importance of the differences between these two modes of critique can be uncovered. Certainly the traditional juridical approach to punishment occurs through a binary of licit/illicit and transgression/punishment in which all that matters is the crossing of a limit and the corresponding imposition of a punishment. Turning to modern liberalism and the penal reform advocated by thinkers such as Beccaria and Bentham we find a certain cross contamination of the two critiques, thus the matter of Right remains important, but the problem of Right is now to be related to a whole liberal economy of power. On this basis punishment is no longer simply a response to a crime, but is rather tasked with managing the tendency towards crime, and reforming the criminal through the most economic means. Bentham's Panopticon is precisely such a model which through the generalization of a penal gaze over the exposed prisoner institutes the conscience of being watched without the need for physical presence or force.

What happens in this intermingling of these two forms of political reason is two-fold, on the one hand right becomes not simply a limit, it realises its own desire to prevent its own transgression and thus in accruing this whole penal apparatus can come to envision a society of order devoid of transgression, whilst from the liberal point of view the economy of power comes to be tied to the problem of right, such that the desire of Right for non-transgression comes to overpower liberalism's tendency for power to self-limit, which could for example justify the transgression of law of the basis that the cost of punishment would outweigh the cost of the crime.

What occurs is, as Foucault identifies, a certain historical irony in the functioning of liberalism. Whilst figures like Bentham set out to limit the functioning of the State on the basis of utility, Liberalism presided over a tremendous expansion of state apparatuses. Thus from the penal perspective a whole apparatus of prisons, mental institutions and policing was produced which didn't have the effect of a reduction in crime, but the mass management of penal populations.

In the penal arena neoliberalism inserts itself in between such a cross contamination of right and economy in favour of economy. Thus it inserts itself as a critique of the expansionary nature of the penal apparatus which has lost sight of its attempt to manage transgression. Yet what this means in reality is something very important, that some transgressions of right aren't worth punishing on the basis of the effects produced. Here the state is forced to experience its very own limitation and inability of function and we are able to see outside of right's desire to be enforced absolutely – and thus outside of the dream of modern social thought towards the totally managed and ordered society.

Neoliberalism appears here as a certain limit-crossing and therefore possessive of critical energies.

  1. Neoliberalism as the abandonment of Christian technologies of the self.

Foucault will also show neoliberalism to be destructive of another fundamental structure of modernity and of right: the subject.

If you take Foucault's exegesis of the negative income tax (more properly understood as a Minimum Income Guarantee) Foucault will expose in neoliberalism a fundamentally new approach to the administration of welfare.

What is the negative income tax? It is a replacement of a whole series of social benefits to which all are entitled to, by the principle that the state's only welfare responsibility is to respond to the effects of poverty through ensuring that all meet a certain social minimum income level and none are able to fall below such a level.

Now what this reproaches is the whole division between the deserving and undeserving poor, or the removal of any concern on behalf of the State for the causes of poverty, and therefore alters the fundamental relationship between governors and governed.

The cash benefit of the negative income tax is given freely and without restriction to be used by individuals as they wish. It as such no longer depends upon an individual proving their need for the benefit, proving they are worthy to be in receipt of it, feeling as in receipt of charity, and therefore forced to feel a general social gratitude and need to repay their receipt of such a benefit. It is therefore a benefit that concerns neither bureaucracy nor an individual inquisition and removes from the act of government the power to judge an individual, and removes from the individual the requirement for confession, the adoption and recitation of truths and a general labour of self-on-self as a means of discipline.

Now if you take Foucault's general reading of the operation of power within the bounds of the modern state he notes that it operates through a certain "double-bind" which denotes simultaneous tendencies towards totalization and individualization, or a simultaneous integration of individuals into a mass, and an isolation of individuals and thus a production of individuality. Certainly such a tendency is evident in 20th century welfare policy, which always had as its object the general social good, such that welfare always had to be justified in relation to society as a whole, alongside an obsession with governing individual behaviours and intentions in order to produce individuals who would use welfare responsibly and deservingly.

On the basis of such a "double-bind" Foucault will suggest that the task of critical thought is not to discover who we are, or to find a positive basis on which we can produce individual identities, but rather refuse the very notion of such a positive foundation of identity in preference for the creation of different forms of subjectivity.

Now from the perspective of modern welfare policy what this means is something relatively concrete. Not to begin policy on the basis of individual intentions, natures, personalities and not to have as one of policy aims the attempt to mould or model individuals into ideal citizens but rather to let people be, without general prescriptions or dictates, to open up a space for the free development of individuals on the basis of a realization of potentialities that were previously unable to be realised.

Isn't therefore the provision of a minimum income to individuals without just desert and without any ends or restrictions in mind, the very basis for such different forms of subjectivity?

Is there a Foucauldian critique of Neoliberalism?

The only answer to this can therefore be that it depends on what is meant by neoliberalism. If it refers to the tendency towards the self-limitation of power highlighted above then I think not.

But this type of neoliberalism has never in fact possessed a substantial reality. The historical irony of neoliberalism matches the historical irony of liberalism, that it began as a project aimed at realising the limit of the states action, but in fact presided over a tremendous expansion of state activity which has occurred from Thatcher-Regan onwards and has taken various forms: from the creation of vast security-intelligence apparatuses, the assumption by the state of private debts (particularly in response to the financial crisis), the regulation of migration, the increasing regulation of work & state subsidisation of work on behalf of private enterprise to name just a few instances.

As such what is perhaps most important to confront in actually existing neoliberalism is the way in which it never managed to fully reach outside the binaries operative in modern politics as outlined by Foucault, either of governmental reason based on  a combination of right and economy, or the "double-bind" of the totalization and individualization of societies. As such if we approach the administration of law and welfare today, we don't confront their neoliberalization as such. It would seem to me that from the perspective of law the problem today isn't that states recognise their internal limitations and do too little, but rather on the basis of a utilization of technology and modern forms of organization, under the banner of the "rule of law", that states cannot imagine any transgression of the law, and have rather presided over a grand expansion of criminal legislation. Similarly in relation to welfare there hasn't been some grand delinking of welfare from moral ends, and the requirement of individuals to prostrate themselves infront of bureaucrats to remain only on the breadline. If anything this has become considerably worse, welfare offices are now (once again through technology, corporate organisation and the principle of the "rule of law" which tends to coincide with the principle of bureaucratic control) capable of much more intrusion into individual's lives, much more disciplining of individual personalities and are much more demanding of individuals to be worthy of benefit payments.

In fact at the end of the Birth of Biopolitics Foucault will declare something similar. Defining politics as the point of intersection between different rationalities of government he will argue that  the history of modern politics has been the history of a certain intersection between these differing rationalities: government according to truth, government according to the rationality of the sovereign state, government according to the rationality of economic agents or government according to the rationality of the governed. Today we tend to view neoliberalism in terms of the complete domination of one form of government over any other but we might be better to view it alongside other logics of government that we have certainly not yet been liberated from. On this basis the problem of criticising neoliberalism will turn the focus away from neoliberalism as such and towards the intersection of rationalities of government which is at the centre of the operation of power today.

It might then in this sense be possible to return to a critique of neoliberalism not however not in terms of its tendency towards domination and oppression but in terms of its  functioning alongside other rationalities of government which critically interrogates the way in which the logic of neoliberalism can coexist with these other governmental rationalities. The question to be asked then would I think be the following: "Why is the logic proper to neoliberalism, that of the self-limitation of power, so susceptible to domination by other governmental logics which reverses its tendency towards limitation into a tendency towards expansion? And in what ways might we be able to think the realization of such a project of powers self-limitation?".

'Liberogenic Liberalism'

To answer such a question it will be neccessary to read, through Foucault, neoliberalism not as a enemy which stands against us, but rather as the place of a fundamental weakness or contradiction.

This weakness appears as the following. The fundamental substance of Liberalism is freedom, this freedom however isn't a pre-given substance to which neoliberal policies are able to attach themselves freedom is something that rather requires production such that freedom is always the place of a tension between the act of governing and the act of being governed or between the threat of too little freedom and the threat of too much.

What liberalism operates through is therefore a manufacture of freedom. However the process of manufacturing freedom is fundamentally contradictory in that it exposes freedom to its opposite, unfreedom. For manufacturing freedom is neccessarily caught up in processes of forcing people to be free, that is removing those securities from individuals which allow them to be free of decision making, and limiting freedom, in order that individuals do not use their freedom in such a way as to destroy it. As such the name that Foucault will give to this weakness or contradiction inherent to liberalism will be security.

Now the problem of security will be to produce a proper balance between freedom and unfreedom. Thus if the motto of liberalism is "Live dangerously!" or "Take a risk!" the problem of security is how much danger or risk it is proper to take or to expose individuals to. Thus to remove the weapons of an army in the face of an imminent assault, and demand that they be free and "Live dangerously!" is as absurd as dropping someone onto a motorway and demanding that they freely risk themselves. In both cases freedom will simply pass into its opposite: unfreedom and thus death. This is precisely the role in the 19th century of disciplinary institutions and in the 20th century of the development of welfare states. These institutions and this enlarged form of the state appear as tremendously large illiberal rule governed apparatuses which restrict and constrain individuals, were actually justified on the basis of their ability to secure and conduct individuals towards actualizing freedom.

However – and this is certainly the start of the critique of individuals like Friedman and von Hayek – the weakness of liberalism occurs when this security function begins to operate out of measure and therefore is no longer subordinating itself to freedom. What Foucault will term as "liberogenic" are those crises of liberalism in which there is an inflationary growth in mechanisms of security to the point at which freedom appears to be at risk. Writing of the crisis of the 1970's Foucault will go onto say

This is precisely the present crisis of Liberalism. All of those mechanisms which since the years from 1925 to 1930 have tried to offer economic and political formulae to secure states against communism, socialism, National Socialism and fascism, all these mechanisms and guarantees of freedom which have been implemented in order to produce this additional freedom or, at any rate to react to threats to this freedom have taken the form of economic interventions, that is to say shackling economic practice, or anyway of coercive interventions into the domain of economic practice.

As such liberalism, against its own antitheses, socialism, fascism and communism, which would, it was argued, extinguish freedom, corresponded with an attempt to secure freedom through its very own sacrifice and the establishment of vast apparatuses to protect freedom in its absence.

Yet if in this way we can see how through a mechanism of security liberalism passed from a tendency towards the actualization of freedom and to the self-limitation of attempts to impinge upon freedom, to the limitation of freedom and the growth of illiberal apparatuses. How is this mechanism at work today in the era of neoliberalism?

Neoliberal Security

Neoliberalism is traditionally represented as the complete removal of any security mechanism proper to liberalism in favour of the complete exposure of freedom to itself. Thus the argument of the neoliberals begins from the belief that the market place requires no artificial supports, for them the free marketplace is the very basic level of human interaction. On this basis it neither requires producing nor protecting, but all that occurs within its remit will always function in terms of the best in the best of all possible worlds.

This is however certainly against the experience of neoliberalism we have come to recognise. There has certainly been a proliferation of mechanisms of security in the past few decades which has taken many forms, a proliferation of legislation and an expansion of the criminal code, of increased forms of surveillance, a focus on regulation and a bureaucratization of social life, management of identities, migration controls, regulation of the internet, increased criminalisation of speech and free expression. What we have therefore witnessed is alongside an unshackling of freedom, or of an exposure of large swatches of populations to danger, is a corresponding proliferation of security which increasingly pervades all areas of life – and which is why you can feel as if you're never leaving its reaches.

The big difference that has therefore occurred with neoliberalism is not the abolition of the principle of security but rather the abolition of the figure of the state as the principle which transcends the market and acts as the overseer and organiser of mechanisms of security. Mechanisms of security on this basis increasingly don't function in relation to a central point, but proliferate over the social body and for this reason can be found in all areas of life from organisations of the state, to regulatory bodies, private security firms, outsourcing organisations but also universities, charities, NGO's and even activist organisations who all come to possess governing functions. Most importantly individuals themselves all come to internalise such a security function in the most minute moments of their life and thus forever exist in a relation of regulation with themselves.

In this sense the most supposed radical realisation of freedom comes to coincide with its complete opposite, permanently viewing this freedom as only based on a network of authoritative and power functions which both protect and help realise this freedom.


It is on this basis that it can be argued that the place for a Foucauldian critique of neoliberalism isn't neoliberalism as such, as a substantial form of power with a whole series of attributable effects, but rather the mechanisms of security which develop and multiply at neoliberalism's very point of weakness or contradiction.

What this calls for in terms of a critical attitude is not an anti-neoliberalism but rather an attitude which is "anti-security", a fact which differentiates Foucault from Marxist understandings of neoliberalism centred around narrow understandings of capitalism.

Mechanisms of security are those things which are always given to us as absolutely obligatory and neccessary to the functioning of political and social life, and those mechanisms without which we are told everything would fall apart. In the spirit of critique put forward by Foucault, is the task not then to uncover in this obligatory, neccessary and universal blackmail of security the very contingent and imposed nature of mechanisms of security, which reinforce systems of domination and oppression.

Fundamental here is to take up the possibility of thinking neoliberalism without its tendency towards security, or rather of a means of overcoming the central weakness in neoliberalism which introduces its inflationary tendency. Key here would then be the development self-sustaining practices of freedom or of a free praxis which doesn't require government.

On this basis is it perhaps then that the thought of Foucault has as one of its ends the rescuing of neoliberalism from itself and not its absolute destruction?