Foucault News

News and resources on French thinker Michel Foucault (1926-1984)

Michael C. Behrent, Liberalism without humanism: Michel Foucault and the free-market creed, 1976–1979, Modern Intellectual History / Volume 6 / Issue 03 / November 2009, pp 539 – 568

10.1017/S1479244309990175

Editor’s note: This article appears in French translation in the recent volume edited by Daniel Zamora Critiquer Foucault, Les années 1980 et la tentation néo-libérale, Aden, Bruxelles, 2014. This volume will appear in English translation later this year. With thanks to Stuart Elden at Progressive Geographies for details on this article.

Abstract

This article challenges conventional readings of Michel Foucault by examining his fascination with neoliberalism in the late 1970s. Foucault did not critique neoliberalism during this period; rather, he strategically endorsed it. The necessary cause for this approval lies in the broader rehabilitation of economic liberalism in France during the 1970s. The sufficient cause lies in Foucault’s own intellectual development: drawing on his long-standing critique of the state as a model for conceptualizing power, Foucault concluded, during the 1970s, that economic liberalism, rather than “discipline,” was modernity’s paradigmatic power form. Moreover, this article seeks to clarify the relationship between Foucault’s philosophical antihumanism and his assessment of liberalism. Rather than arguing (as others have) that Foucault’s antihumanism precluded a positive appraisal of liberalism, or that the apparent reorientation of his politics in a more liberal direction in the late 1970s entailed a partial retreat from antihumanism, this article contends that Foucault’s brief, strategic, and contingent endorsement of liberalism was possible precisely because he saw no incompatibility between antihumanism and liberalism—but only liberalism of the economic variety. Economic liberalism alone, and not its political iteration, was compatible with the philosophical antihumanism that is the hallmark of Foucault’s thought.

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