Foucault News

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

Marder, L. Rethinking homo economicus in the political sphere. Constellations, 31 August 2017

DOI: 10.1111/1467-8675.12295


Homo-economicus, this rational cost-benefit calculating interest-pursuing subject, in political analysis usually stands for the ordinary citizen little interested in unprofitable political knowledge. This subject appears as an obstacle to democratic governance, but it does not have to appear as such. On the basis of Michel Foucault’s analysis of homo-economicus in The Birth of Biopolitics, I argue that others who rely on his account and political scientists too quickly dismiss the possibility that homo-economicus may support the democratic system. As long as this subject’s image remains antithetical to democratic governance, its potential remains unrealized and its treatment focuses only on its destructive behavior.

Extract from introduction
Various versions of the homo economicus story highlight different aspects. At a very general level of understanding, there seems to be agreement that homo economicus is the subject of economic rationality, and it is an analytic tool that does something. It may be a fiction, but it is a useful one that affects the way scholars and policy makers treat societal concerns. Beyond that, scholars amplify some of the characteristics of homo economicus over others as it suits their purposes. Economists including Vilfredo Pareto focus on the economic, profit-maximizing principles that homo economicus represents (1909/1927); rational choice scholars are quite comfortable with the economists’ accounts and record homo economicus’s appearance in politics and how it operates in electoral politics in particular (Carpini & Keeter, 1997; Congleton, 2001; Downs, 1957); Michel Foucault traces the evolution of homo economicus to understand shifts in governmentality (2010); and some political theorists—picking up on Foucault’s insights—warn about the devastating activity of homo economicus in politics.

The latter stories of homo economicus based on Foucault’s account in the Birth of Biopolitics (2010) describe the harm homo economicus inflicts on homo politicus (Brown, 2011, 2015), the suffocating neoliberal policies that reduce political decisions to market rationality (Brown, 2015; Callison, 2014; Peters, 1995), the constriction of possibilities of collectively changing existing conditions (Read, 2009), and the responsibilization that is inseparable from this subject’s invasion of the political sphere (Hamann, 2009). Not all these works highlight homo economicus’s destructive nature, as the notable exceptions of the works of John Clarke (2009) and Jason Weidner (2009) show. Yet none of the narratives exalt homo economicus when it comes to its activity in the political sphere and, more specifically, democratic rule, by which I mean the representative democracy model that conflates the rule of the people with electoral politics.1

To re-evaluate what homo economicus does in the political sphere I offer an account that emphasizes this subject’s ignorance, based on Foucault’s Birth of Biopolitics. Considering that Foucault associates homo economicus with ignorance only in the 18th century and does not follow this thread into the 20th century, I take his theorization as the starting point and enhance it. My account of homo economicus, based on Foucault’s text, is no more complete than the others. However, it differs from the others in that (a) it puts in question the assertion of homo economicus’s inherently destructive nature when it comes to democratic politics and (b) taking this a step further, it allows us to link homo economicus positively with democratic governance.

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