The critical discourse regarding neoliberalism has always included as a leading scholar the late French philosopher Michel Foucault, whose theoretical contributions to the critique of power, medicine, and sexuality continue to inform Left academics and politics. The traditional view is that his anti-authoritarian views are important to understand and can be utilized in a fashion to critique the political shortcomings of a socialist state like the USSR or China.
The intersection between Foucault and working class politics is perhaps best exemplified by the late thinker’s debate with Noam Chomsky and his interactions with the mass strikes that turned France upside down in May 1968. Many prominent Marxists like Angela Davis or Fredric Jameson have worked to integrate his critiques of Marxism into their own works.
However, a new reading of Foucault has emerged that is not at all radical. Centered around French sociologist Daniel Zamora, it re-examines the writings of Foucault, particularly his key text The Birth of Biopolitics, and sees his comments regarding the early days of American neoliberalism as what they plainly are, laudatory. Zamora says in a piece for Jacobin magazine:
The welfare state is obviously the result of a compromise between social classes. It is not, therefore, a question of “stopping there,” but, on the contrary, of understanding that the welfare state can be the point of departure for something new. My problem with Michel Foucault, then, is not that he seeks to “move beyond” the welfare state, but that he actively contributed to its destruction, and that he did so in a way that was entirely in step with the neoliberal critiques of the moment. His objective was not to move towards “socialism,” but to be rid of it… Colin Gordon, one of Foucault’s principal translators and commentators in the Anglo-Saxon world, has no trouble saying that he sees in Foucault a sort of precursor to the Blairite Third Way, incorporating neoliberal strategy within the social-democratic corpus. [Emphasis added]
One of the other key elements of this critique from Zamora is the fact that one of the philosopher’s literary executors, François Ewald, is a mover and shaker in the intellectual world of neoliberal policy. Perhaps one of the best examples of this is his May 2012 session at the University of Chicago. Here we have a perfect example of the kind of thing only fantasized of in comic books regarding super-villains.
This is of course the University that was home to Milton Friedman and Arnold Harberger, the two economists whose Chicago Boys from Chile used their homeland as a test case for the roll out of neoliberal policy under the auspices of Augusto Pinochet after the socialist Salvador Allende was overthrown in a 1973 coup backed by the Nixon administration. It is worth noting that a young neoliberal Barack Obama made key connections at this same institution and used it to gain footing as a “community organizer” by gentrifying historic black neighborhoods in the city.
This reading of Foucault is one that might leave some quite shaken. Zamora is adamant when he says “his contribution on this point [regarding marginalized social groups not discussed by Old Left critiques of capitalism] is very important. He clearly removed from the shadows a whole spectrum of oppressions that had been invisible before. But his approach did not solely aim to put these problems forward: he sought to give them a political centrality that can be questioned… Let me be clear, the problem is obviously not to have placed on the agenda a whole spectrum of dominations that had once been ignored, the problem comes from the fact that these dominations are more and more theorized and thought outside of questions of exploitation. Far from outlining a theoretical perspective that thinks through the relations between these problems, they are little by little pitted against each other, even thought of as contradictory.” To deny that Foucault’s impact on academia and the mainstream media discourse is absurd.
And yet here is the ultimate, sad irony of his support for the neoliberal project. In the early 1980’s Foucault took on a series of lectures at California universities, spending his nights exploring the gay men’s bath house scene partly because of his interest in the power dynamics of BDSM culture and partly because he was openly gay. These were the early days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and Foucault contracted the virus. In the book And the Band Played On, San Francisco gay journalist Randy Shilts make it abundantly clear that the epidemic happened precisely because the Reagan administration’s embrace of neoliberal policy decimated the ability of the Centers for Disease Control and other federal agencies to properly respond to the outbreak of communicable illnesses. How ironic then that the recent controversy regarding Hillary Clinton on the death of Nancy Reagan, a public instance of disrespect for the queer radical movement that responded with militancy to the excesses of neoliberalism, should require us to take into account the role played by one of the philosophers of that very radical movement and his dubious legacy.