Late last year, a PhD student in Belgium, Daniel Zamora, published a smallish edited collection of essays in French called “Criticising Foucault” (Critiquer Foucault). An interview he gave in relation to the book was translated into English for the Leftist journal Jacobin and then widely shared on social media. This interview contains some interesting and worthwhile discussion, but the strapline of the English translation (absent in the French original) focuses on an allegation that Michel Foucault had an “affinity” for neoliberalism, and indeed it is this claim of Zamora’s that leads the subsequent interview. The interviewer sets up the claim that Foucault was a neoliberal as something new and shocking, but it has been aired in Foucault scholarship for a decade at least (not least in articles now reprinted in Zamora’s collection). Despite this, search online for “Foucault” and “neoliberalism” and it’s now this interview that pops up first.

It is not so much that I have a specific gripe with Zamora—whose work I have not read, though I have read other work in his collection—but rather that I want to contradict both the likely impression that the allegation of neoliberalism against Foucault is some new scandal, and also that there is substance to that claim. And I won’t do the latter full-frontally, through point-by-point refutation. I will leave that to future scholarly work. I find these allegations almost entirely without merit and, here, I will explore the political motives and effects.

The first time I encountered the accusation that Foucault was a neoliberal was at a conference in London in 2004. The accuser was an American graduate student from Harvard’s history program, Eric Paras, who would go on to publish a reading of Foucault, entitled Foucault 2.0, which cherry-picked the most extreme moments in Foucault’s output and assembled them to make him into a figure of wild contradictions.1

Like all the other readings of Foucault as a neoliberal that have proliferated since, Paras’s leans primarily on Foucault’s Collège de France lectures from 1979, The Birth of Biopolitics, which were only published in French just over a month after Paras’s talk, and in English in 2008. Before the publication, the only way to access the lectures was to access the tape recordings, which I hadn’t. At the conference in 2004, I was immediately taken aback by Paras’s conclusion, since it didn’t accord at all with anything in Foucault’s published writings at that time. I put it to Paras then that the lectures were intended as a genealogy (that is, a critical history) of neoliberalism, not to express support for it. Paras seemed to me to concede this point.

Since publication in English, The Birth of Biopolitics2 has become a magnet for commentary. Indeed, it seems to me that it is currently the most widely discussed of any of the ten books of Foucault’s Collège de France lecture courses that have been published in English over the last decade. It has the second most citations of any of Foucault’s Collège courses according to Google Scholar: just over 3,000; the course with the most is Society Must Be Defended, with just over 4,000, but this was the first of the courses to be published, and has thus been in print in English almost twice as long as Birth of Biopolitics. This is, I think, symptomatic, inasmuch as it’s the singular course that can be used to best effect in neutering Foucault’s radical challenge and diverting attention towards neoliberal thinkers instead.

The Birth of Biopolitics comprises twelve lectures, the middle six dealing with neoliberalism, sandwiched between lectures on the history of liberalism more broadly. As a professor of the Collège de France, France’s highest academic institution, Foucault was required as his sole duty to give a series of work-in-progress lectures every year. As befits such a remit, much of the material in The Birth of Biopolitics comprises simply summaries of research on primary texts, with some preliminary interpretative gloss. Foucault moreover tried to discourage the public from attending these lecture series to the extent this was possible, and tried to forbid the posthumous publication of any of his work, including presumably these series.

I’ve now read the book multiple times, written, and spoken about it.5 It seems to me that, notwithstanding its generic literary limitations, the Birth of Biopolitics represents an apposite or even prescient attention by Foucault in 1979 to neoliberalism as the most significant political-theoretical strand of the age. I simply see nothing in it to suggest any affinity of Foucault to liberalism in general or neoliberalism more specifically. It is certainly possible to go through the passages in which it is alleged Foucault aligns himself with neoliberalism and explain why I believe these show no such thing, though this kind of forensic scholarship is not the point of this present essay.

There is a spectrum of views on the issue of course, between those who completely dismiss the notion of Foucault as a liberal and those who think he actually was a neoliberal. The existence of this spectrum, and the fact that readers of The Birth of Biopolitics in particular repeatedly and independently see some degree of sympathy in Foucault’s writing for the neoliberalism he describes, does stand as a challenge to those like me who deny it.

If the claim that Foucault was a neoliberal is not a new one, the claim that Foucault might have had less than radical politics is much less novel still. Attempts to paint Foucault as a crypto-Right-winger date back to the publication of his The Order of Things in 1966, which was attacked by Jean-Paul Sartre’s Les Temps Modernes, Satre himself denouncing Foucault as the “last rampart of the bourgeoisie.”3 The essential stake of this discussion, and I think some of the continuing invective, is that Foucault was articulating a radical position that was explicitly anti-Marxist. Foucault has been consistently opposed by the more doctrinaire sections of the Marxist Left, who view his challenging of their dogmas as reactionary insofar as it stands in the way of the single path to revolutionary progress.

Conversely, so too has Foucault been opposed by much of the right, including those who accuse him of being a “cultural” Marxist. Such criticism is to my mind closer to the truth than accusations that he is a conservative or liberal, inasmuch as Foucault was a Left-wing radical who had much in common with Marxism. Indeed, from the point of view of defenders of the status quo, Foucault might as well be a Marxist. There are some prominent laudatory comments one can find by Foucault about Marx, much more explicit than his supposed support for liberalism.

Despite vociferous initial hostility, many in fact, on both Left and Right, have come to embrace Foucault’s name over the decades. The effect here is similar to that described by Lenin in relation to Marx:

What is now happening to Marx’s theory has, in the course of history, happened repeatedly to the theories of revolutionary thinkers and leaders of oppressed classes fighting for emancipation. During the lifetime of great revolutionaries, the oppressing classes constantly hounded them, received their theories with the most savage malice, the most furious hatred and the most unscrupulous campaigns of lies and slander. After their death, attempts are made to convert them into harmless icons, to canonize them, so to say, and to hallow their names to a certain extent for the “consolation” of the oppressed classes and with the object of duping the latter, while at the same time robbing the revolutionary theory of its substance, blunting its revolutionary edge and vulgarizing it.6

Now, it must be admitted that Foucault is not as unambiguously revolutionary a thinker as Marx. Indeed, Foucault refuses to privilege the revolution as the sine qua non of politics.7 Nevertheless, I believe the same basic procedure of domestication of Foucault’s thought has occurred through the desire to appropriate his ideas in the service of the status quo. No one has done this better than Foucault’s own sometime assistant, François Ewald, who has for decades been a Foucauldian neoliberal apparatchik of French capitalism.

Distortions of Foucault from both Left and Right serve to occlude his radical message, the one actually articulated in his published work. Foremost among Foucault’s radical lessons, I would place the idea that we need to understand specific effects of power, to analyse how power actually works, at the level of its “strategies.” This is to say, recognizing that human actions at a micro level combine together at a macro level to produce effects that may be unintended by the participants, but nevertheless shape our society and our lives. An example is the prison system, studied by Foucault in his 1975 book, Discipline and Punish, which is intended to reduce crime, but in fact objectively does nothing so much as produce recidivism and bring together criminals into a subculture.

Such simple lessons of Foucault’s have been absorbed, in radical criminology in this instance, but are more often ignored in favour of inaccurate and platitudinous references to the less political of his writings, meaning primarily his later writings on Greek and Roman ethics. Admittedly much of Foucault’s output does lack explicitly political content. Indeed, the starkly political phase of his thought amounted to well under half his career, coinciding almost exactly with the 1970s. The Birth of Biopolitics lectures represented the tail-end, the fizzling out, of this political period, after which he moved on to studying Ancient texts for his remaining years of life, which would amount to less than five years.

While it is possible to cast the lectures on neoliberalism as working notes in pursuit of the analysis of power relations, he went on to give years of lectures and publish two books thereafter, the second and third volumes of his History of Sexuality, which were extraordinarily apolitical. Still, there are mitigating factors: these books were rushed out when Foucault was on his deathbed and they represented a fulfillment of the History of Sexuality project, which found Foucault getting into increasingly antiquarian territory. It is impossible to know what he might have done had he lived past the fruition of that project; a return to the political themes of the 1970s was hinted at by him, and is a possible trajectory his work would have taken. But we can also suspect him of backing off from his own political insight, much as those who followed him did. He nowhere actively repudiated his earlier political insights, however, and he remained explicitly committed to the same intellectual project.

A banal reason for Foucault’s retreat from politics was that he was moving with the times. He was politicized around the Events of May 1968, along with a significant segment of French society, and retreated from politics in the late 1970s as the movement inaugurated in 1968 faltered and the soixante-huitards merged into the French establishment. It should be noted however that he did not abandon his commitment to political activism, though some have questioned the trajectory of that activism in this period (specifically his enthusiasm for the Iranian Revolution and his support for the burgeoning discourse of human rights).

Foucault found himself in the political doldrums—as did the entire West and, to some extent, the entire world—in the late seventies. This followed a series of extraordinary successes, such as the final victory of the people of Vietnam against colonialism, the Portuguese Carnation Revolution, and the increasing progress of social struggles against discrimination towards women, homosexuals, and ethnic minorities. These successes were balanced against a series of failures of militant movements for the abolition of capitalism that emerged in many countries in the West during the late 1960s but also encompassed, perhaps as its centre, the Chinese Cultural Revolution and included the Indian Naxalbari revolt. This ushered in the neoliberal era of economic and social laissez-faire, in which personal freedom was valorised within the framework of unfettered capitalism.

Of course, many millions have kept revolutionary faith during these ostensibly post-revolutionary times, but, for a realist of Foucault’s ilk, the possibility for the sudden overthrow of the existing order vanished—his position on revolution being that it may or may not be appropriate as a form of resistance depending on the situation. In a non-revolutionary situation, one may indeed retreat into the recesses of scholarship in order to try to uncover the resources to change things in the present. In this relation, Žižek refers to Lenin reading Hegel while exiled in Switzerland as a paradigm of the kind of activity we should engage in politically fallow times.4

Should we then similarly attribute the tame banality of Foucault scholarship today as simply reflecting the political temperature of our times and hope that when things are ripe the political resources of Foucault’s thought will activate again? This clearly is too deterministic an approach: while it might be reasonable to engage in deep scholarship which informs political work, a characterisation that may be applied to both Foucault’s and Lenin’s philosophical writing, much academic writing that invokes Foucault is politically demobilising, even when it invokes his theory of power directly. Tepid scholarship not only reflects but contributes to the tepidity of the times. Foucault scholarship is an ideological battlefield, by which I mean not that it is a Kampfplatz where social forces meet in a sublimated form, but rather something more complicated: a Kampfplatz which has the possibility of generating new resources and perspectives that can change the wider war. In this, it is in fact no different from any literal battle, because wars, like everything else, are much more complicated than our binary imagination allows. Foucault Studies might seem to be an area of concern only to academics with little relation to the real world, but this is just what casting Foucault as a conservative tends to make it: it discourages people from reading his radical work or from reading his work as radical.

Today, since the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, there is a palpable sense abroad that we cannot go on like this, which is to say cannot go on with free market capitalism. This expresses itself in nebulous ways, because has tended to cohere in its opposition insufficiently to challenge neoliberalism’s institutionalized hegemony. Still, there are signs of a movement coalescing, for example in the emergence from the seemingly abortive evanescence of the Spanish Indignados of Podemos as a political party apparently capable of taking state power.

At the point where such a party, like Syriza in Greece, actually forms a government, a number of practical questions are posed: will the party manage to break with previous styles of government; will it offer an alternative to both neoliberalism and previous forms of social democracy? In The Birth of Biopolitics, Foucault neatly summarises this problem by noting, in relation to the Left-wing coalition that was on the verge of winning state power in France at the time of the lectures, that there had never been a socialist form of governmentality.8 That is, socialists have never had their own form of government appropriate to their aims, but rather in practice have either been liberal capitalist governors or had taken the route of the totalitarian party form of government also adopted by fascists. Some readers of Foucault’s lectures seem to have taken him here to be recommending neoliberalism itself as the appropriate governmentality for socialism. That such a view could be imputed to Foucault boggles the mind. He was clear enough that he thought the existing centre-right regime in France in the 1970s was already neoliberal: then as now, it is a socialist alternative to neoliberalism that is needed. The dual danger for Podemos and Syriza is that, on the one hand, they contain enough orthodox Marxists, particularly Trotskyists, that they will repeat mistakes of past attempts to govern in a socialist way, or on the other hand, that they contain enough political naïfs that they will simply fall into standard, which is to say neoliberal, ways of wielding governmental power. Of course, it remains opaque what it can mean to have a socialist governmentality: Foucault never provides us with a solution, only the means for analysing the problem.

Still, we see a situation in which neoliberalism has driven us into a brick wall and people are trying to find a way to get out of it. Foucault’s intention in his political thought is to offer conceptual tools to those who are trying to change the world.9 In our contemporary conjuncture to attempt to mobilise Foucault’s name precisely to shore up neoliberalism, as some are doing, is perverse.

  1. Eric Paras, Foucault 2.0: Beyond Power and Knowledge (Other Press, 2006). 

  2. Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1978-1979 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008); Naissance de la biopolitique: Cours au collège de France (1978-1979), ed. François Ewald (Paris: Seuil, 2004). 

  3. Jean-Paul Sartre, “Sartre répond,” La Quinzaine Littéraire, October 15, 1966, p. 4. 

  4. Slavoj Žižek (presentation at On the Idea of Communism, Institute of Education, University of London, March 13–15, 2009). 

  5. Mark Kelly, “Alterliberalism,” review of The Birth of Biopolitics, by Michel Foucault, Radical Philosophy 153 (January/February 2009): 46–9. 

  6. V. I. Lenin, “The State and Revolution,” in Collected Works (Progress Publishers, 1964), vol. 25. Available online

  7. Mark G. E. Kelly, “Revolution,” in The Cambridge Foucault Lexicon (Cambridge University Press, 2014). 

  8. Foucault The Birth of Biopolitics, 94. 

  9. Michel Foucault, Dits et écrits (Gallimard, 1994), 2:523.