Episode 24: Foucault & Neoliberalism, with Magnus Paulsen Hansen

Hello, Fully Automated friends! For your coronavirus lockdown listening pleasure, we are today releasing a really special episode. Our guest is Dr. Magnus Paulsen Hansen, who is an Associate Professor at the Department of Social Sciences and Business, at Roskilde University. Magnus researches the role of ideas and evaluation in the legitimation of welfare state transformations. But he is also a bit of a Foucault ninja. And he is joining us today to discuss a question that has vexed me for a long time: was Foucault a neoliberal?

Veteran listeners may recall the last time we discussed this issue, when we had Mark GE Kelly on the show, all the way back in Episode 2! But I wanted to get Magnus on the show to go a little deeper into some of these arguments, as its a debate that doesn’t seem to be going away. In 2015, Magnus published an article in the journal Foucault Studies, entitled Foucault’s Flirt? Neoliberalism, the Left and the Welfare State; a Commentary on La dernière leçon de Michel Foucault and Critiquer Foucault. For me, it stands as one of the most exhaustively researched and argued rebuttals of the contention, by Daniel Zamora, and other fellow travelers (see also here), that Foucault bears some kind of intellectual responsibility for the rise of neoliberal thought.

Honestly, I’ve always been a little alarmed by the argument that Foucault was a neoliberal. Its not so much the idea itself that offends me, as the slipshod nature of the way the argument is made. With a strong tendency towards ad hominem argumentation, and little consideration for Foucault’s core teachings on power, the argument appears to be quite ideologically driven. Often, it seems to boil down simply to the argument that Foucault was some sort of intellectual magpie, and all too easily distracted by shiny objects. Zamora and his fellow travelers claim that Foucault was “seduced” by the basic model of freedom offered by neoliberal thought, and that he was thus blinded to its more disciplinary tendencies. Given Foucault’s prestige and influence among the left, this was an abdication from his intellectual duty, weakening the left just at the moment of Reagan and Thatcher’s arrival.

In this interview, we discuss the danger of looking for “hidden” or “unconscious” intentions in an author, and the idea that such intentions might relate to any conclusion about an author’s politics. We discuss the “best case” defense of the claim that Foucault was somehow seduced by neoliberal thought, and the way this argument often gets linked in an under-nuanced way to Foucault’s critique of the post-war welfare state. We also explore the various ways in which Foucault, while often categorized as a libertarian, with anti-state proclivities, was equally opposed to anarchist theoretics of the state, going even so far as to refer to them as a form of “state phobia” — something that is especially interesting think about today, in light of Agamben’s recent interventions on Coronavirus measures as amplifying permanent state of exception (I discussed this at length in the intro to our last episode, with Garnet Kindervater).

In the face of such weak evidence, we should note that Foucault in no way accepted or endorsed the idea that he was himself a neoliberal. To the contrary, as Magnus notes, there is a strong cautionary voice in Foucault’s writings on neoliberalism. Indeed, he appears to argue that it foreshadows the dawn of a new and sinister mode of political power; at the moment of neoliberalism’s birth, Foucault was warning that neoliberal theory imagines itself installing a “permanent economic tribunal” and becoming a hegemonic “model of social relations and of existence itself.” Certainly, this is not to say Foucault’s work has no blind spots when it comes to the question of what neoliberal theory would later become. One common objection to Foucault in this sense is his failure to anticipate the disciplinary aspects of contemporary neoliberalism, such as work fare, for example. How should we assess this failure? For Magnus, the contention is complicated by the fact that work fare didn’t really become a part of the neoliberal toolbox until the 1990s.

Unless we are to accept that failure to predict the future is a sign of scholarly weakness, it might more reasonably be said that we are overloading the concept of neoliberalism, to ask it to explain literally everything that happens in contemporary capitalism. And it is to this question that Magnus and I turn, towards the end of the interview, when we explore the question of Foucault’s contentious relationship with Marxism, and his suggestion that the left has “yet to invent” a socialist governmentality.

You can follow Magnus on Twitter, here. Hope to you enjoy the show. Please leave us a positive review on Apple Podcasts, or your podcast app of choice!

Episode 23: Coronavirus, Catastrophe & Agamben, with Garnet Kindervater

This episode is about the biggest story of the decade so far, COVID-19, or the coronavirus. But its also an episode with someone I’ve been wanting to have on the show for a long time, Garnet Kindervater.

Before we get started, just a few observations about the politics of the coronavirus itself. I don’t know if its fair to say viruses have a politics, but their human victims certainly do. And, as some of you may have been following, we’ve seen a big debate break out this week over a piece on the virus by Giorgio Agamben. Garnet and I don’t talk about Agamben in this interview. At the time of recording, we were only just becoming aware of this debate. But I want to talk a little bit about it before we get started, as I think its relevant to the interview you’re about to hear. Continue reading Episode 23: Coronavirus, Catastrophe & Agamben, with Garnet Kindervater

Episode 22: Sinn Féin and the 2020 Irish election, with Colin Coulter

Today we are joined once again by Colin Coulter, of National University of Ireland, Maynooth. You might remember Colin from way back in Episode 8. That was like. 3 years ago! I didn’t even know I’d been doing this for three years!

But I wanted to ask Colin back on this week to talk about the recent election in Ireland. Because it turns out this wasn’t any old election in Ireland! In a stunning result, Sinn Fein, a party which probably more than any other symbolizes the troubled history that many Irish people would sooner forget, surged from the 23 seats it won in the 2016 election, to 37 seats. Now, considering that prior to 2016, Sinn Fein typically never had more than 4 or 5 seats, the momentum here is clear. But it is now the second largest party in the Dail, just one seat behind Fianna Fáil (38 seats). Yet Sinn Fein isn’t just a relic of Ireland’s Civil War history. While it is a party with a complicated and often contradictory set of ideological commitments, the 2020 election result (ironically!) suggests a major realignment of the Irish political spectrum, away from Civil War politics, and towards something much more like the traditional European left-right model.

Colin Coulter is going to talk us through it all in just a moment. Before we get to the interview tho, Colin asked me to mention that he has a new article he has out, with Francisco Arqueros-Fernández, called “The Distortions of the Irish ‘Recovery.’” You can find it in the Spring 2020 issue of the journal Critical Social Policy:

https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0261018319838912

As ever, if you have any feedback, you can reach us on Twitter @occupyirtheory. If you like this episode, please leave us a positive review on Apple Podcasts, or your preferred podcast provider. This is an occasional show. Its free. We never ask you for money. But we do want to spread the word.

Episode 21: Morbid Symptoms on Brexit Day, with Owen Worth

This episode comes to you on February 6, 2020, just six days after so-called “Brexit Day.” That is, the day Britain legally departed from the European Union. In honor of this occasion, in this episode we talk to another returned guest, Owen Worth, of the University of Limerick. You may remember Owen from Episode 4, where we talked with him about the 2017 British General Election, and the surprising performance of Jeremy Corbyn, and the British Labour Party. In this episode, Owen is going to help us try to get our heads around not only some of the implications of Brexit but, more importantly, the implications of the 2019 election for the British left.

Now, as you know, in our last episode, we had Lee Jones of the Full Brexit blog on, giving his take on the election. And Lee’s views on the election are complex, but the basic idea I think is that he sees the election as effectively a second referendum on Brexit, and an underlining of the desire of the British electorate to leave the European Union. In this sense, taking his cues from scholars like Peter Mair, Lee sees the election as a kind of revenge of those who feel themselves materially abandoned by mainstream liberal democracy. Continue reading Episode 21: Morbid Symptoms on Brexit Day, with Owen Worth

Episode 20: UK General Election with Lee Jones

Hello friends, and welcome to Episode 20 of Fully Automated, an Occupy IR Theory podcast.

Its January 4, 2020, and kicking off our fourth season of the show 2020 with two episodes on the recent elections in the UK. In this episode, we are joined by a former guest, Lee Jones, Reader in International Politics at Queen Mary, University of London, who is also a contributor at the blog, The Full Brexit. In the next episode, which should be posting sometime in the next few days, we’ll have Owen Worth, of the University of Limerick.

Now, both these guests have been on before and, as you’ll see, they have slightly different explanations not only about what happened in the UK election, but about where the left goes from here. But today we get the ball rolling with Lee Jones. The last time you heard him on this show was in Episode 14, in December 2018. We recorded that episode right after the European Council had agreed to the terms of Prime Minister Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement. Its hard to imagine that, a year later, after countless delays, Britain is actually about to leave the European Union!

The UK election took place on December 12, just before Christmas. The results were one of the worst ever for the British Labour Party and so, as we might expect, there have been a lot of “what happened” pieces circulating in the last couple weeks. But one of the more prominent explanations circulating is that the result was kind of a “revenge of the boomers” scenario, or the triumph of British nationalism, or what some even call “nativism.” On the night of the election, for example, Paul Mason tweeted that the results represent “a victory of the old over the young, racists over people of colour, selfishness over the planet.”

In this episode, you’re going to hear Lee Jones repudiate that argument in no uncertain terms. As he argued in a recent blog post on The Full Brexit, the results of the election are intimately connected to the politics of Brexit, which itself can’t be understood unless we first have a grasp on the strange tragedy of the British left. In the episode, we’re going to talk about the significance of the decision at the Labour Party’s 2019 annual conference, to support the call for a second referendum. For Lee, however, this decision was merely the latest in a long series of betrayals by the Labour Party of its working class base. This is a contestable argument, I should note, and in our next episode you’re going to hear Owen Worth push back on it, a little. For now though, Lee’s critical point is that this defeat was more a wake up call for the British left than a defeat of leftist ideals and principles. And, as we discuss towards the end of the show, there are lessons here for other leftist parties around the world, and especially for activists supporting the Bernie Sanders campaign in the United States.

Episode 19: Generation Left, with Keir Milburn & Chairman Moe’s Magic Contradiction

Welcome to another episode of Fully Automated! Our guest for this episode is Keir Milburn, Lecturer in Political Economy and Organization at the University of Leicester. Keir has a new book out, called Generation Left. I had a chance to discuss the text recently, with my Columbus, OH-based friends, Chairman Moe’s Magic Contradiction (AKA Charlie Umland and Jim Calder). We liked it so much, we thought we’d reach out to Keir and see if he’d come on the show, to discuss.

American audiences may have heard Keir interviewed by Chuck Mertz a couple of weeks ago, on This Is Hell! We’re kind of hoping this could be a good companion episode to that interview, as we go deep into some aspects of the book that Chuck didn’t have time to address. And there is a LOT going on in this book! It starts by questioning the popular notion that Millennials and Zoomers are a bunch of entitled snowflakes, and suggesting that this myth is actually doing quite a lot of work, politically, in dividing young and old members of the working class, giving them over to the idea that they have fundamentally different interests.

But of course, as with many myths, an investigation of the facts produces a rather different persecutive. It turns out, says Keir, that the generations are stuck in rather different material trajectories. One statement Keir makes early in the book really caught our attention: “the older generation are still tied to the neoliberal hegemony of finance while the young seek to escape it.” But these trajectories are not a given. To the contrary, the logic of neoliberalism forces the Boomer generation to hold onto its material advantages, as a retirement strategy. And, as it does this, it condemns Millennials and Zoomers to a life of debt and forces them into a culture of cynical entrepreneurialism.

In the show, we talk with Keir about the role of events in composing generations. Events, he says, can disrupt our accepted ways of making sense of the world, and lead to the emergence of radically new social energies. But not every disruptive event will necessarily lead to some kind of new configuration, nor will every new configuration necessarily be a progressive one.

One particular event, the 2008 financial crisis, of course looms large in Keir’s story. Unleashing austerity on the developed world, it represents in a sense the apogee of neoliberal governmentality. Milburn cites academic theorists like Wendy Brown, Maurizio Lazzarato, and Jennifer Silva to try to explain how neoliberal capitalism tries to get us to think and act as if there is no alternative to neoliberalism, even tho we all know its not working — we know we can’t all be entrepreneurs. (This reminded us a bit of Adam Curtis, and his hyper-normalization documentary). A key figure for Milburn here is Mark Fisher, and his argument about consciousness deflation.

Whatever we want to call this system (authoritarian neoliberalism? zombie capitalism?), clearly it is making us sick. Throughout the text, Milburn make repeated reference to how we are living in the midst of an epidemic of “depression, insomnia and mental distress.” Yet there’s kind of a mystery to unpack here. He cites Jennifer Silva, for example, to explain how capitalism prefers us to internalize these issues, making them questions more to to do with our emotional and psychic resilience, than anything to do with the structure of the economy.

And, as he argues, this way of thinking about our mental wellbeing even showed up in the “assemblyism” of the occupy Wall Street movement. Nevertheless, he insists, Occupy’s approach to the collective discussion of experiences and struggles did offer therapeutic and even political potentials to the young people who participated. And, as we discuss in the show (admittedly not in nearly enough detail) there are things we can learn here, very much in the spirit of the late Mark Fisher, that might be applied to a new model of treating mental and material health.

Today, the reputation of neoliberalism is today irredeemably tarnished. The question before us is how to build and leverage democratic competence and confidence, to build a new order in the face of zombie neoliberalism. We ask Keir about his own podcast, ACFM, and the role the suggest that might yet be played by the so-called “weird left,” as a way of engaging in consciousness raising. He acknowledges that while counter-cultural practices sometimes get a bad rep (and deservedly so), subcultures like punk and DIY do still offer the possibility of “conscious raising” that could meaningfully counter some of the “consciousness deflating” pressures of neoliberalism.

In the closing chapters of your book, however, Milburn is under no illusions: the left has a long history of melancholia. Ultimately, to succeed, says Milburn, generation left is going to have to bridge the generation gap. As he points out, this won’t be easy — boomers are dependent on financial instruments, 401k, stock markets, property values etc. Equally, we know that as much as they depend on these financial assets, they have very little control over them: 85% of the stock market is owned by the top 10%; property values are dependent on development funds, retirement funds, university endowments, etc. So, considering these interests, it may be hard to bring working class boomers around!

To fix this, he claims, we will need to engage in a “dual strategy.” On the one hand, we will need to get serious about wielding the power of the state, and building economies of the commons, to show Boomers that socialism can work for them, too. On the other hand, however, we will need to build political movements capable of holding our representatives in the state to account. This isn’t going to be easy, however. Time and resources are thin on the ground. Solidarity economies, UBI, UBS, etc, can be one answer here. But, as he concludes, the key fact is that we need to build these alliances. If the generation gap really is a class gap, as he argues, then solidarity economies and the like may be the vital tool we need, to help us achieve the the kind of inter-generational unity we need, if we are ever to win.

Episode 18: Science, Technology & Art in International Relations, with Anna Leander

Hey everyone, and welcome to a very special episode of Fully Automated. Why so special? Well, because this is our first ever joint episode! We’ve teamed up with the Science Technology and Art in International Relations (or STAIR) section of ISA, for the first of what we hope will be a series of collaborations on the politics and economics of science and technology (and art!) in global affairs.

Joining me as a co-host on this episode is Stéphanie Perazzone, who graduated recently with a PhD in International Relations and Political Science at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva (IHEID). Stéphanie is a post-doctoral researcher at the Institute of Development Policy (IOB), the University of Antwerp. She is working on a Swiss National Science Foundation-funded research project entitled “Localizing International Security Sector Reform; A Micro-Sociology of Policing in Urban Congo.” She is also the Communications Officer for STAIR.

Our guest for this episode is Anna Leander, the winner of the 2018 STAIR ‘Transversal Acts’ Distinguished Scholar Award. Anna is Professor of International Relations at the Graduate Institute in Geneva, with part-time positions also at the Copenhagen Business School. She is known primarily for her contributions to the development of practice theoretical approaches to International Relations and for her work on the politics of commercializing military/security matters. According to her bio, she is “focused on the material politics of commercial security technologies with special emphasis on their aesthetic and affective dimensions.”

In the interview, Stéphanie and I invite Anna to reflect on a number of the topics she has taken on, in the course of her career. One question of interest is the influence of Pierre Bourdieu on her thinking, especially concerning the role of symbolic power in reproducing systems of political violence, and the political value of reflexivity as a precursor of resistance. We also ask her about her work on the increasingly overlapping relationship between the commercial and the technological, and her thoughts on methodology in relation to studying this and other recent trends and developments in the security world.

Listeners interested in following up on Anna’s work might want to check out some of the following articles, which all get discussed to some extent in the interview:

  • The Paradoxical Impunity of Private Military Companies: Authority and the Limits to Legal Accountability. Security Dialogue, 41(5), 467–490. https://doi.org/10.1177/0967010610382108
  • Ethnographic Contributions to Method Development: “Strong Objectivity” in Security Studies, International Studies Perspectives, Volume 17, Issue 4, November 2016, Pages 462–475, https://doi.org/10.1093/isp/ekv021
  • The politics of whitelisting: Regulatory work and topologies in commercial security. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 34(1), 48–66. https://doi.org/10.1177/0263775815616971

Thanks for listening. As ever, if you have any feedback, you are welcome to connect with us on Twitter @occupyirtheory. And the STAIR section can be reached @STAIRISA

Episode 17: The Žižek-Peterson Debate, with Chairman Moe’s Magic Contradiction

Welcome back, friends! For this episode, we’re hooking up with our old friends in Columbus, OH, Chairman Moe’s Magic Contradiction, to discuss last week’s “mega debate” in Toronto, between Jordan Peterson and Slavoj Žižek, on “Happiness; Capitalism vs. Marxism.” Regular listeners to the show might remember we had Charlie Umland and Jim Calder as guests last year, in Episode 11, to talk about Situationism. That was probably one of the most fun shows we’ve ever done on this podcast and, given the spectacle of such an eagerly anticipated intellectual debate, I thought it would be a good idea to invite them on again, for a deep dive not only into the debate, but also what it means for the state of intellectual discourse today.

Just to provide some context for this particular episode: I’m lucky to be part of an occasional reading group with Charlie and Jim, and I think I speak for us all that we were all pretty excited when we heard this debate was going to be taking place. We knew there would probably be a pretty intense online reaction to it, especially from elements of the left that are already antagonistic to Žižek’s style and brand of Marxism (see here and here, for just two examples). So we thought we’d do this show, as a way of thinking our way through some of that likely response, and also to explore some of the disagreements we have among ourselves on some of the issues arising from the debate, including the political priority of identity politics for the left.

Special thanks to Darren Latanick, who graciously offered to step in as producer of the episode, on the Columbus side. Thanks for listening and, as ever, you can leave us a review on iTunes or reach out to us with feedback on Twitter @occupyirtheory.

Episode 16: What the Brexit? — LIVE at #ISA2019, Toronto (March 29)

Brexit & Beer, with Philip Cunliffe & Luke Ashworth

Welcome back, listeners, to what I hope you’ll agree is a very special episode of Fully Automated. As you know, the last two episodes have been focused on the Brexit debate, and whether or not the cause of the British left is best served by a departure from the European Union (EU), or by “remaining and rebelling” within the EU, in the hope of reforming it.

Two episodes ago, our guest was Lee Jones — an advocate of ’The Full Brexit.’ During the show, Jones advanced the idea that the ideals of the Left cannot be satisfied within the EU, whereas the most meaningful historic victories of the left have been achieved only by wielding the power of the state. Then, in our last episode, we heard a rebuttal of this idea from Luke Ashworth, who suggested that while the political entity we know as the modern state has played an important historical role for the Left, its time has been fleeting, and the forces of globalization are today of such power that any project of returning to sovereignty will prove inevitably fruitless.

Recorded late in the afternoon on Friday, March 29, in the lobby bar of the Toronto Sheraton, during the 60th Annual Convention of the International Studies Association, this episode brings Jones and Ashworth back to the microphone, this time for a live, in person debate. To keep things cordial, we bought them a brace of beers. And they appreciated the gesture it would seem, as the exchange proved to be probably the most collegial airing of political grievances in podcast history.

But, as if that wasn’t exciting enough, this special “Showdown in the Sheraton” episode also brings together another famous Brexit rivalry — none other than Phil Cunliffe and Sean Molloy, both of the Department of Politics and International Relations, at the University of Kent. Well known for their epic public disagreements on Twitter, this episode is a rare opportunity to hear Cunliffe (whose voice listeners may also recognize from the Aufhebunga Bunga podcast) and Molloy pretending to be polite to each other.

A quick note for listeners: with the Parliamentary dynamics surrounding Brexit now in a state of rapid flux, we’ve here largely avoided the topic of whether or how Theresa May can at this stage secure her deal, and avoid a ‘drop out’ Brexit. That said, for listeners who are interested in a play-by-play analysis of what’s going on in the House of Commons, we can recommend staying tunes to Novara Media’s Tyske Sour. Today’s show featured Sienna Rodgers and Owen Jones, and looked at a number of important questions, including whether Theresa May is prepared to sacrifice the Conservative Party, in order to cede meaningful ground the Labour Party’s demands for a Common Market deal, and the various divisions within Labour on question of a second referendum.

Finally, the bar we were in was starting to get pretty noisy by the end of the session. We’ve done our best to clear up the sound, but we ask your patience all the same.

(PS: listeners coming to this page may be curious if Molloy has plans to release any t-shirts bearing his “Tortuga on Themes” slogan. He has not responded to our queries).

Episode 15: Brexit Revisited, with Lucian Ashworth

This episode is the second in our Brexit series, and we are joined by Lucian Ashworth, Professor of International Relations at Memorial University of Newfoundland, and author of the influential text ‘A History of International Thought’ (Routledge, 2014).

Back before Christmas, in Episode 14, we heard Lee Jones offer what was perhaps not exactly a ‘Lexit’ (or ‘left exit’) position on Brexit, but nevertheless a progressive position very much in favor of a full Brexit. At the core of Jones’s arguments was, I think, the view that the EU is an essentially anti-democratic and unreformable project. The only way to address the problem, he claimed, was to restore British sovereignty. In this sense, Jones was critical not only of the deal Theresa May proposed, last December, but also the position of the Labour Party, with its now infamous six tests — that is, essentially, the idea that whatever deal the UK should pursue, it should be one that results in the “exact same benefits” as as those currently enjoyed by the UK, as a member of the Single Market, but with special additional provisions, including “fair management of migration.”

Since we spoke to Jones, there have been a number of important developments, but little by way of clarity as to how the drama will end. On January 15, in the greatest parliamentary defeat of any PM in British history, the British Parliament rejected Theresa May’s deal. Since then, following the terms of the so-called Brady amendment, passed on January 29, she returned to Brussels in order to try to negotiate “alternative arrangements.” She plans now to present her new deal to Parliament on March 12, just two weeks before the deadline March 29. This is very close to the wire, but May hopes to be able to get the EU to budge on the backstop — something she must do, if she is to persuade Tory Eurosceptics to support her plan.

In this episode, you will hear Ashworth engage with a number of Jones’s key points, including the ‘WTO rules’ issue, the importance of not overstating the power of the Far Right in Europe, and the history of reactionary politics, on the British left. But Ashworth’s core arguments stem from his concerns about the future of the Irish border, and the unacknowledged costs of a return to the fantasy of ‘the sovereign people’ — especially in an era where complex global flows of capital have made it harder and harder for the Left to leverage the state, as it pursues its mission of defending labour and democracy, from the interests of the global financial elite.

Importantly, this episode with Lucian Ashworth was recorded on February 16. Due to technical issues, it wasn’t ready for broadcast until today, February 28. This delay does not significantly effect the value of the interview, since our discussion focused mainly on the historical context of Brexit, and abstract questions about globalization, and its complex consequences for our traditional models of politics and economic life.

That said, it is worth mentioning that on Tuesday, February 26, Theresa May announced that, should her deal fail to pass the house, she is going to allow a vote on an extension of Article 50. The pressure is on, however, as we have also begun to see rebellion breaking out, and the creation in Parliament of a new ‘Independent Group,’ composed of rebels from both Labour and the Conservatives. Corbyn, for his part, announced his support for a second referendum — putting before the people a choice between whether to remain in the EU, or to pursue Labour’s alternative vision of a Brexit deal, which includes a permanent customs union.

If you have any questions or comments about the show, you are welcome to reach out to us via Twitter: @occupyirtheory — equally, feel welcome to leave us a positive rating on iTunes, or your favorite podcast software.

Thanks for listening!

Horizontal Politics & IR Theory

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