Today, we’re bringing you an interview with Dr. Vanessa Bilancetti, Lecturer in Political Sociology at UniNettuno University, in Rome. Vanessa is one of those rare scholars who can bring together Foucault and Marx, and apply them both to the interesting empirical questions of our time. In this episode, she’ll be talking with us about how we can approach their scholarship as a toolbox for analyzing European Governmentality in the context of post-financial crisis political economy.
Vanessa’s research interests include the European Union, financialisation, feminist political economy and critical European studies. I had the good fortune of meeting Vanessa at an online conference this summer, held by the Critical Political Economy Research Network. Vanessa was presenting a paper, called ‘How to study the commodification of social services following a gender perspective.’ Between sessions, we got talking about Foucault and how he is used in political economy, and I found Vanessa’s take on the inherent compatibilities between Foucault and Marx to be really interesting. She later sent me some of her research, which I read, and .. well, that’s when I decided I had to have her on for an interview!
Vanessa is an advocate of allowing the methods of Foucault with that of what she calls, “an anti-essentialist Marxism and a critical feminist political economy approach.” So, in this interview you’re going to hear me ask her to elaborate on that. We’re also going to talk about the case studies she presents in her published work, on the European Fiscal Compact. I’m very grateful to Vanessa for coming on the show, and I hope you enjoy the conversation.
Before I sign off here, just wanted to thank everyone who shared and commented on last week’s “special commentary episode” on the prominence of the K-Hive, in academia. Hope to do more of those “essay”-style pods, in the future.
We never ask for money for this show. However, if you enjoy it, please feel welcome to leave a rating on Apple Podcasts, or the podcast app of your choice. The ratings help improve the standing of the show, and help me book future guests for the show!
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!
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→
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.
Kelly has weighed in a number of recent ‘Foucault’ controversies, including the question of whether Foucault was a neoliberal. In this interview, we get into that debate. But I think for most listeners, the interesting stuff will be towards the end, where Kelly talks about Biopolitical Imperialism, and addresses the conflict in Syria.
The podcast was recorded on Wednesday, April 5, 2017. In the interview, you’ll hear Kelly comment on Donald Trump’s pivot a few days previous, on Syria. Two days after the recording, on April 7, the US military launched a cruise missile attack on a Syrian airfield. The attack was carried out in response to a chemical weapons incident in Idlib province, perpetrated allegedly by Syrian state forces. It would be hard to imagine a stronger confirmation of Kelly’s arguments about Biopolitical Imperialism.
It was my pleasure recently to be invited by the ‘Always Already Podcast’ team to put in a guest appearance on their show, and respond to their recent episode on Martijn Konings’s fascinating book, The Emotional Logic of Capitalism. They offered me a 10-minute slot, and ran it in Episode 19 of their Epistemic Unruliness series. Below, you can find a slightly edited and extended version of my remarks, which were provoked by their own engagement with Konings’s book, but also by my own, continuing work on austerity and recession in Ireland. For ease of reading’s sake, I have added in some material from remarks I made at another talk I gave on February 17, this year, at Ohio State’s ‘Research in International Politics’ (RIP) group, entitled Austerity as Tragedy? From Neoliberal Governmentality to the Critique of Late Capitalist Control:
Foucault often spoke of critique in vague terms. A truth that “functions as a weapon,” on the one hand, but which can “light fires, watch the grass grow, listen to the wind, and catch the sea foam in the breeze and scatter it,” on the other. Statements like these appear to us as riddles. But what is critique for Foucault, really? One fascinating answer to this question can be found in his short piece, “What is Enlightenment?”
Now, I confess, when I was in graduate school I used to think this was one of the toughest bits of Foucault reading out there. I suppose I still do. Where I really struggle is later in the piece, when he gets into the opposition between two ideal types, the man of the modern world and the flâneur. Here, he paraphrases Baudelaire’s description of the flâneur as one who adopts “the spectator’s posture.” It seems to me that the flâneur is kind of a drop out, or somehow self-involved – a cynical figure who refuses to engage with the world around him. Either way, against this passive figure (which Foucault does not praise), the modern man has an active stance in the world. His being in the world somehow changes it, but not fundamentally. Foucault observes that the modern man’s attitude towards the world, and himself, involves both ambition and acceptance of certain limits to that ambition. That is, it “does not entail an annulling of reality, but a difficult interplay between the truth of what is real and the exercise of freedom.” In this sense, modern man is he who strives to take what is natural in the world, including his own self, and make it somehow more than it was. And the emblematic figure of the modern subject here is the dandy, the ultimate entrepreneur of himself, who is compelled constantly to “invent himself” in relation to those limits. Perfect, or at least moving towards some sort of optimal state.