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Colin Gordon, Foucault, neoliberalism etc.

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The recent online debate triggered by the Ballast interview (translated in Jacobin) with Daniel Zamora will no doubt have helped to publicise Zamora’s book and its forthcoming translation. As publicity for the French and English editions of the book, the interview seems to have been remarkably successful. I noticed the original report in Foucault News partly, I must confess, because it mentioned me and purported to report my views. I have been surprised by the amount of attention the piece has received, which seems to be disproportionate to its merits. The content of the interview, apparently summarising the content of the book, gives the impression that it consists of a mixture of old news and falsification. The old news is that Foucault was not a Marxist or a supporter of any existing model of revolutionary socialism, and was hostile to the USSR and the political influence of the French Communist Party. The falsification is the claim that Foucault ‘endorsed’ or ’embraced’ some or all forms of liberalism and neoliberalism. This combination of the already known and the false is in turn packaged in the attention-seeking claim that Foucault’s thought has become the unassailable, hegemonic discourse of our time, while its Marxist critics are now reduced to marginality within the neoliberal academy. The first part of this claim has already been met with deserved ridicule. As far as the second is concerned, the quality of this intervention does not tend to inspire regret at the decline in influence of the particular style of political culture it represents. Zamora, unborn at the time when Foucault was lecturing, appears, on the evidence of this interview and its successor interventions, to have put together an anthology of recycled old new left slurs on Foucault’s work and politics, spiced up with one or two new confabulations of his own, plus a supplement of misinformation issuing from a rather different ideological source. I limit myself in the following notes to comment on some salient points in the online discussion.

I: My comments on Foucault and Blair

Zamora says in his interview: “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”, adding subsequently, “Foucault, then, doesn’t advocate neoliberalism, but he adopts all of its critiques of the welfare state. He attacks the supposed “dependency” it produces, the very notion of “rights,” and its negative effect on the poor. His objective is thus not to move towards a totally neoliberal society, but to incorporate within the socialist corpus some of the decisive elements of the neoliberal critique of the state. It’s precisely in this sense that Colin Gordon sees him as a sort of precursor to Blairism”. Zamora does not provide a reference to my remarks, which occur in my discussion with Jacques Donzelot (Esprit and Foucault Studies).

What I actually wrote (in 2007) was a little more nuanced and qualified than Zamora suggests:

 I am not aware that Blair ever read Foucault. Anthony Giddens, for a time the Blair‐Clinton court philosopher, usually includes a caricatural account of Foucault only as a marginal item in his doctrinal digests. But I think parts of the formulae of Clinton and Blair for a ’third way’ may have effectively carried out a form of the operation which Foucault might have been taken as challenging the socialists to contemplate – the selective incorporation, in an updated and corrected social democracy, of certain elements of neoliberal analysis and strategy. In some ways, it is the continuation of a trend initiated in the 70s by Schmidt in Germany, Giscard in France and Healey in Britain, and in her different way by Thatcher – the truth‐telling role of government, in a world of global economic uncertainty and competition, as moral tutor of citizens in an ethic of enterprise and responsibility. The success of this formula in Britain seemed for a long time to be limited only by the irritability of citizens and the claims of the fourth estate, the media, to make and unmake governmental power (both of these reactions being severely aggravated, of course, by Blair’s extension of his governmental agenda to include the neoconservative enterprise of civilisational confrontation and global war on terror).

The comment on “irritability of citizens” was an allusion to the emerging public perception in these years of a “political class” separate from the rest of society, a perception itself no doubt generated in large part by the contradictory effects of neoliberalism itself – the new strident leadership style combined with the hollowing out of democratic political authority.

I stand by these comments, which clearly fell some way short of representing Blairism as a fulfilment of Foucault’s political dreams. The New Labour project was, however partially, incompletely and inadequately, an attempt to devise and apply a form of centre-left governmentality – drawing both on ideas from the triangulating New Democrats in the USA, and from policies of social inclusion developed under Socialist governments in France. One thoughtful paper by William Davies (an intelligent reader of Foucault’s work albeit not a card-carrying practitioner of governmentality studies) offered what seems to have been an isolated attempt, drawing on work by Rose and Miller among others, to analyse this project, and some of its difficulties, in these terms. [1] Some more work of this kind would, I suggest, still be useful.

[1]            William Davies, “The Governmentality of New Labour”, Public Policy Research 13, 4 (2006).

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4 thoughts on “Colin Gordon, Foucault, neoliberalism etc. (2015)

  1. stuartelden says:

    Reblogged this on Progressive Geographies and commented:
    Colin Gordon comments on the Foucault and neoliberalism debate. A nuanced, thoughtful and powerful response.


  2. Jack Eaton says:

    This is a good elucidation and quite incisive in its perceptions of Blair and New Democrats. I found the link back to Healey very thought-provoking. Having attempted to utilise Foucault’s thought myself in relation to teaching Organizational Theory to partially enthusiastic undergraduates, Colin Gordon’s command and confident exposition is admirable.


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