“Since his death in 1984, Michel Foucault’s work has become a touchstone for the academic left worldwide. But in a provocative new book published in Belgium last month, a team of scholars led by sociologist Daniel Zamora raises probing questions about Foucault’s relationship with the neoliberal revolution that was just getting started in his last years.
In an interview this month with the new French journal Ballast, Zamora discusses the book’s fascinating findings and what they mean for radical thought today. Below is the text of the interview, translated from French by Seth Ackerman.
In his book Foucault, Sa Pensée, Sa Personne, Foucault’s friend Paul Veyne writes that he was unclassifiable, politically and philosophically: “He believed in neither Marx nor Freud, nor in the Revolution nor in Mao, in private he snickered at fine progressive sentiments, and I knew of no principled position of his on the vast problems of the Third World, consumerism, capitalism, American imperialism.”
You write that he was always “a step ahead of his contemporaries.” What do you mean by that?
It should be said that Foucault undeniably put the spotlight on themes that were very clearly ignored, even marginalized, by the dominant intellectuals of his era. Whether it was on psychiatry, the prison, or sexuality, his works clearly marked out a vast intellectual terrain. Of course he was part of an era, a much wider social context, and he wasn’t the first to work on these questions. These themes were popping up everywhere and became the objects of significant social and political movements.
In Italy, for example, the anti-psychiatry movement initiated by Franco Basaglia didn’t have to wait for Foucault to challenge the mental asylum to formulate stimulating political proposals of its own for replacing that institution. So obviously Foucault did not originate all these movements — he never claimed to — but he clearly opened the way for a very large number of historians and scholars working on new themes, new territories that had been little explored.
He taught us to always politically question things which at the time seemed “beyond” all suspicion. I still remember his famous discussion with Chomsky, where he declared that the real political task in his eyes was to criticize institutions that were “apparently neutral and independent” and to attack them “in such a way that the obscured political violence within them would be unmasked.”
I might have some doubts about the nature of his critiques — we’ll come back to that I’m sure — but it was nevertheless an extremely novel and stimulating project.
By making Foucault compatible with neoliberalism, your book could ruffle a lot of feathers.
I hope so. That’s sort of the point of the book. I wanted to clearly break with the far too consensual image of Foucault as being in total opposition to neoliberalism at the end of his life. From that point of view, I think the traditional interpretations of his late works are erroneous, or at least evade part of the issue. He’s become sort of an untouchable figure within part of the radical left. Critiques of him are timid, to say the least.
This blindness is surprising because even I was astonished by the indulgence Foucault showed toward neoliberalism when I delved into the texts. It’s not only his Collège de France lectures, but also numerous articles and interviews, all of which are accessible.
Foucault was highly attracted to economic liberalism: he saw in it the possibility of a form of governmentality that was much less normative and authoritarian than the socialist and communist left, which he saw as totally obsolete. He especially saw in neoliberalism a “much less bureaucratic” and “much less disciplinarian” form of politics than that offered by the postwar welfare state. He seemed to imagine a neoliberalism that wouldn’t project its anthropological models on the individual, that would offer individuals greater autonomy vis-à-vis the state.
Foucault seems, then, in the late seventies, to be moving towards the “second left,” that minoritarian but intellectually influential tendency of French socialism, along with figures like Pierre Rosanvallon, whose writings Foucault appreciated. He found seductive this anti-statism and this desire to “de-statify French society.”
Even 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.”