There’s an interesting interview over at Jacobin Magazine of Daniel Zamora, who has written a book about Michel Foucault’s fascination with neoliberalism in the latter stages of his intellectual life. The whole thing is worth a read, but there are a few parts that stand out:
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 was one of the first to really take the neoliberal texts seriously and to read them rigorously. Before him, those intellectual products were generally dismissed, perceived as simple propaganda. For Lagasnerie, Foucault exploded the symbolic barrier that had been built up by the intellectual left against the neoliberal tradition.
Sequestered in the usual sectarianism of the academic world, no stimulating reading had existed that took into consideration the arguments of Friedrich Hayek, Gary Becker, or Milton Friedman. On this point, one can only agree with Lagasnerie: Foucault allowed us to read and understand these authors, to discover in them a complex and stimulating body of thought. On that point I totally agree with him. It’s undeniable that Foucault always took pains to inquire into theoretical corpuses of widely differing horizons and to constantly question his own ideas.
The intellectual left unfortunately has not always managed to do likewise. It has often remained trapped in a “school” attitude, refusing a priori to consider or debate ideas and traditions that start from different premises than its own. It’s a very damaging attitude. One finds oneself dealing with people who’ve practically never read the intellectual founding fathers of the political ideology they’re supposedly attacking! Their knowledge is often limited to a few reductive commonplaces.
The irony is that Zamora may well be correct in his critique of the “intellectual left,” but as Reason’s Brian Doherty points out, intellectuals outside the left have been quite happy to plumb the depths of neoliberal thinking (though one could argue that the intellectual right has its own bugaboos… such as reading Foucault without mocking him).
Indeed, one could argue that we’re in the middle of a golden age of serious intellectual histories of the topic. Angus Burgin’s “The Great Persuasion,” Daniel Stedman Jones’s “Masters of the Universe,” and Jennifer Burns’s “Goddess of the Market” have all recently looked at how free market advocates managed to emerge from World War II to advance a set of ideas that became intellectually dominant a half-century later. The great thing about these intellectual histories is that they take the ideas and the progenitors of the ideas seriously, without being either hagiographic or oppositional.
Zamora’s interview closes with his pretty astute observation about Foucault’s significance in today’s academy:
[I]t seems to me that relations of power within the academic field have changed considerably since the end of the 1970s: after the decline of Marxism, Foucault occupied a central place. In reality, he offers a comfortable position that allows a certain degree of subversion to be introduced without detracting from the codes of the academy. Mobilizing Foucault is relatively valued, it often allows his defenders to get published in prestigious journals, to join wide intellectual networks, to publish books, etc.
Very wide swaths of the intellectual world refer to Foucault in their work and have him saying everything and its opposite.
One of the virtues of teaching at a policy school is that Foucault is not quite as central to scholarly conversations as in traditional humanities departments. That said, Zamora’s observation rings true — which is why conservatives should embrace him and his work. From a conservative perspective, the great thing about Foucault’s writing is that it is more plastic than Marx, and far less economically subversive. Academics rooted in Foucauldian thought are far more compatible with neoliberalism than the old Marxist academics.
In some ways, Zamora’s book is an effort by some on the left to try to “discipline” Foucault’s flirtation with the right. It will be interesting to see the academic left’s response to the book. But Zamora also reveals why free-marketeers might want to give Foucault another read and not just dismiss him with the “post-modern” epithet.