Patrick West Foucault: from libertine to neoliberal , Spiked, 3 July 2015
Was the French philosopher really a Reaganite in poststructural clothing?
Was Foucault a neoliberal?’ So asked an accusatory headline the other day in Le Nouvel Observateur, France’s centre-left news weekly. It’s a grave allegation. ‘Saint Foucault’, as the article sarcastically calls him, was a heavyweight figure in the humanities, and his theories about truth and power have filtered down into society’s mainstream. He remains a legend of postwar philosophy in France, and queer theory in general. To accuse him of Anglo-Saxon right-wingery is tantamount to lèse majesté.
Michel Foucault popularised the idea that power and truth are intimately intertwined, and that who is making a statement is as important as what is being said. As he wrote in his iconic 1975 text, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (Surveiller et Punir: Naissance de la Prison): ‘It is not the activity of the subject of knowledge that produces a corpus of knowledge, useful or resistant to power, but power-knowledge, the processes and struggles that traverse it and of which it is made up, that determines the forms and possible domains of knowledge.’ Truth is perspectival: it is the mere creation of the strong. Might makes right. Power is knowledge.
Several generations of teachers, social-policy strategists, professors and politicians would have been taught Foucault at university at the height of his academic celebrity in the 1980s and 1990s. His thoughts have been widely disseminated as a consequence.
Foucault said that power was omnipresent. Hospitals and schools are no better or worse than factories or prisons: all are based on the same desire to inspect, classify, control, monitor. A security camera is a manifestation of power in action, but so, too, is a restaurant menu or a double-yellow line on a road.