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!