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A Left Master's Dangerous Heresy

By: Andrei Znamenski
September 8, 2017

cademic leftists consider Michael Foucault an intellectual giant. His writings on the repressive power of modern institutions dominate our university departments, from literary studies to political science, anthropology, and geography. By the end of the 1980s, he had acquired a saint-like authority in Western academia. As Belgian sociologist Daniel Zamora stressed—in an interview tellingly titled “Can We Criticize Foucault?”—“he’s become...an untouchable figure within part of the radical left.”

Yet at some point in the 1970s Foucault caught a “neoliberal virus.” The first signs of this emerged in 1975, when he began revisiting the radical ’60s activities that he himself had molded. A few years later, he developed an interest in “neoliberalism”—progressive social scholars’ pejorative term for the renewed interest in individual liberty and free markets that emerged following the welfare state’s crisis and socialism’s decline.

Starting in 1978, in interviews and lectures, Foucault used modern libertarian and libertarian-leaning thinkers like F. A. Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, Wilhelm Röpke, Milton Freedman, and Gary Becker to challenge the Left's orthodoxies, especially their veneration of a benevolent welfare state. Foucault stunned his acolytes by suggesting that these writers rewarded serious study. Worse still, he castigated democratic socialism's failures and challenged his students to apply cost-benefit analysis to governmental bureaucracies.

Many left-wing academics downplayed Foucault’s libertarian interests as misunderstood episodes in an otherwise nobly progressive career. But publication in 2005 of his 1978-1979 lectures sparked a debate within Foucault scholarship about whether, and to what extent, he had come to favor capitalism.

A recent collection of Marxist and post-Marxist scholarship, edited by Daniel Zamora and historian Michael C. Behrent, Foucault and Neoliberalism (2016), explores Foucault’s “heretical” exercises. Their overall verdict is that the great Left thinker indeed betrayed the cause and joined the “dark forces” of neoliberalism. As Zamora exclaimed, “I was astonished by the indulgence Foucault showed toward neoliberalism when I delved into the texts. It’s not only his Collège de France lectures, but also numerous articles and interviews, all of which are accessible.”

Revelations about Foucault’s interest in the right—indeed, the very conversation about his “heresy”—worried the Left's gatekeepers. Nation magazine's Doug Henwood, who agreed to endorse the book, felt it necessary to also caution the faithful in his blurb: “The anti-statist turn of much of the global left has disturbing but largely unexamined affinities with neoliberalism. Michel Foucault, for all his greatness, is a key figure in this turn.”

Foucault’s “deviance” derives from his preoccupation with modern institutionalized power and its effects on the governed. In a 1979 lecture Foucault argued that “[w]hat is currently challenged, and from great many perspectives, is almost always the state: the unlimited growth of the state, its omnipotence, its bureaucratic development, the state with the seeds of fascism it contains, the state’s inherent violence beneath its social welfare paternalism.”

By the 1970s, it was clear that both the welfare state model and communism were economically unsustainable. This awareness produced an intellectual revolt against both communism and the social-democratic “third way” that dominated the ideological mainstream in France, Italy, Sweden, and other Western countries. As the voices opposed to these types of “governmentality” grew louder in the 1980s, the Left, which once attacked the welfare state as a bourgeois fraud, was increasingly becoming its major defender.

Foucault’s disillusionment with left-wing orthodoxies coincided with his support for Eastern European dissidents. Colin Gordon, who closely observed Foucault’s intellectual evolution, recalled that “Foucault’s interest in liberalism and neoliberalism is very much connected, around 1978, with his support for the East European dissidents. There is a marked anticommunist context in his lectures of 1978-9.”

Much of what we call the post-modern mindset—which Foucault was instrumental in forming—grew out of frustration with the traditional Left’s grand prophetic pretensions. It was a short step for Foucault to go from questioning the validity of omnipotent, all-explanatory “scientific” paradigms like Marxism to acknowledging the importance of spontaneous order and individualism. He hoped to exorcise “totalitarianism” from the human sciences, and place the individual at the center of both social scholarship and policies. With many on the Left, he sought an acceptable exit from Marxism and traditional socialism’s determinist, statist, and authoritarian temptations. The flirtations with the “methodological individualism” of the Austrian School, and Mises and Hayek’s writings on the spontaneity of human action, offered a means of escape.

By the 1960s, many Marxists had become frustrated with the unrevolutionary, “capitalistic” working class. They began searching for hitherto overlooked groups to act as revolutionary saviors: third-world populations, women, people of “color,” as well as various transitional and marginal groups, including students, gays, the mentally ill, and the homeless. When these “wretched of the earth” also failed to revolt, Foucault (among others) abandoned group-redeemers for the ultimate “revolutionary” self-redeemer—the individual.

Foucault’s explorations of libertarian writings show that, unlike many, he was able to think outside the Left’s comfort zone. He saw the study and use of libertarian ideas as a continuation of his past preoccupations, not a repudiation. Still, that a prominent philosopher of the Left would explore and endorse “forbidden” names in front of leftist audiences was a revolutionary act that roiled stagnant ideological waters.