I’ve said before on the blog that I’ve always considered myself a person of the left, and embraced all the conflicts, misunderstandings, paradoxes, and idiosyncrasies. Even though I’ve sometimes been told that I shouldn’t be a leftist, it’s where I always fall when it comes to my political beliefs. Besides, it’s not as though there isn’t plenty of room (and history) of people on the political left wildly disagreeing with each other about incredibly important topics.
I thought about the left’s tendency to internal divisions, critique, and also its short memories when I read this article at Jacobin that a lot of my online friends were linking over the last couple of days. It’s an interview with the scholar Daniel Zamora about Michel Foucault. Zamora has published a book of critical essays on Foucault, and its central angle is that, despite being one of the most popular and influential thinkers on the modern intellectual left, Foucault was actually a free-market neoliberal.
How, I can imagine you asking, does that make any bloody sense at all? Well, it goes something like this.
Near the end of his life, in the early 1980s, Foucault came to see economic liberalism as a way to overcome the disciplinary social control of state domination of industry, civil life, health, and other essential aspects of human life. This was why he supported many figures in the French Socialist party whose policies embraced a market-liberalized social democracy. There were similar reasons why his contemporary Gilles Deleuze, a man with whom Foucault shared many philosophical ideas, supported François Mitterrand. Deleuze, however, would live long enough to regret this. Foucault was dead in 1984.
Zamora doesn’t denounce Foucault’s work, as such a thing would be too much for a respectful philosopher (though if he were a click-chasing blogger, it would be a different story). Foucault also deserves respect, says Zamora, because he’s one of the few thinkers on the left who actually engaged with the ideas of Hayek, Friedman, and their ilk before summarily dismissing them, as too many everyday leftists often do.
Zamora also makes a very insightful point that the long-term conservative revolution of neoliberal economics shifted the priorities of the welfare state from combatting overall inequality to fighting the most desperate poverty. So the rich could be as rich as possible as long as society maintained a general standard of living that kept people from a totally abject state.
Zamora correctly describes this as making many of the government institutions that buoyed and supported the working class illegitimate. And slashing the welfare state has resulted in working people drifting closer to the borderline of poverty, living a largely hand-to-mouth existence. We are now the Dollarama generation, and a major intellectual hero of the left, Michel Foucault, endorsed the economic ideas at the heart of this shift.
But I don’t think Zamora is entirely fair to Foucault, and that he doesn’t understand the full depth of the problems with the world neoliberal economics replaced. Zamora expresses too much faith in the state as an institution to restore economic justice and fairness.
Foucault endorsed a vision of economic liberalism that broke down the immense power of the state to monitor and control its population down to each individual’s biological functions. Economic liberalization disconnects people, freeing them from a state apparatus that, while it does provide material services, also controls people.
You can also see this more purely conceptually in the discussions of deterritorialization as liberation in Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus. Zamora may be nostalgic for the welfare state of old, but that also means being nostalgic for a political principle of governance as population control. For the generation of Europeans whose teenage years were consumed by the war against Nazi totalitarianism (as Foucault’s and Deleuze’s were*), the power of the state to destroy individuality was the ubiquitous issue of politics, a spectre haunting the critical thought of the left.
* Deleuze himself lost his older brother Georges in the war, a French Resistance activist who was captured and disappeared in a Vichy government prison camp.
Foucault, Deleuze, Guattari, Negri, and the other post-pragmatist philosophers haunted the mainstream left of the 20th century with their more anarchistic visions of a left that didn’t rely on the state. I found one reaction to Zamora’s interview at a Washington Post blog, where Daniel Drezner writes that contemporary libertarians can learn a lot from Foucault. They certainly should learn a lot from Foucault: like how to become anarchists.
Ultimately, libertarian and neoliberal values will be defeated by the one problem that a society which ignores the problems of growing inequality always faces: the mass frustration of a huge majority of allegedly middle class people who can no longer afford any basic goods beyond the Dollarama level of quality. In allowing a collection of small oligarchies to concentrate almost all of Earth’s wealth in a few thousand hands, economic liberalization has failed.
But the vision of the people’s state has also failed. The generations who experienced Western totalitarianism in the Nazi and Stalinist regimes saw that. We see it today when we look at the militarization of the police, the American prison system, and the horrifyingly ubiquitous surveillance state institution we live under. Zamora is right about the bankruptcy of economic liberalism, but if he wants us to restore our faith in the state as the means of our liberation from this new regime, he’s a fool.