Foucault and Liberalism: Liberal Readings of Foucault Spreading

Looking at Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews through my email subscription this morning (link to site under ‘Philosophy’ on the right of Stockerblog), I noticed Ladelle McWhorter’s review of Foucault and Philosophy (edited by Timothy O’Leary and Christopher Falzon, Wiley-Blackwell, 2010).  Amongst other interesting points, I noticed some comments about Paul Patton’s views on Foucault’s politics.  Much to my surprise, Patton supports the idea that Foucault became more sympathetic to liberalism, and that is how we should read books like Society Must be Defended (in large part s discussion of 18th and 19th century liberalism) and The Birth of Biopolitics (a discussion of ‘Neoliberalism’ in Freiburg School  ‘Orderliberalism’, Austrian School Economics and Liberalism, and Chicago School  free market economics).  I quote at length from McWhorter’s summary (I do hope NDPR and  McWhorter do not mind, do check the whole review, which amounts to a really good survey of Foucault studies at present)

Beginning with a quick overview of Rawls, Patton suggests that “Foucault’s approach to the forms of governmental reason are an important supplement” (207) to Rawls’ project. Rawls calls for basic economic and social justice but focuses most of his attention on the state’s constitution; he gives little analytic attention to other aspects of political culture. Foucault, by contrast, is adamant that the state must be understood as an historically shifting apparatus that exists — where it does in fact exist — as a production of governmentality. As modes of governmentality alter, so too will the state form. States are neither monolithic nor logically necessary for government on Foucault’s view. It is a mistake, therefore, for political philosophers to focus their attention exclusively on the state, whether their purpose is simply to describe the political field or to critique an existing state or secure its legitimacy.

In The Birth of Biopolitics (Foucault’s 1979 lectures series and Patton’s primary text), Foucault critiques what he calls “state phobia” (see Patton, 208) and puts it in historical perspective as a quest for ways to limit state power in response to the ascendance of raison d’etat and the belief that the state form has an inherent tendency to expand. “Foucault’s objection to this essentialist conception of the state is, firstly, that it allows its protagonists to deduce a political analysis from first principles and avoid altogether the need for empirical and historical knowledge of contemporary reality” (208-9). This allows conflation of historical specificities to an extreme point where important distinctions are utterly obliterated — where, as Patton puts it, “social security ends up referring to concentration camps” (209). It also tends to perpetuate the idea that the state — no matter which state might be at issue — is a devouring monster. Foucault’s second objection to state phobia on the left is that it can only be maintained in ignorance of the ways in which anti-state liberalism has been engaged in “an effective reduction of the state” (209) since World War II. If leftist thinkers had paid more attention to what liberals and, now, neoliberals have been doing, they would see that the state is not necessarily the central issue or danger anymore. It is imperative to look at the state apparatus in the context of governmental reason and practice — i.e., governmentality.

This is where Foucault begins his analysis of neoliberalism, according to Patton. Whereas welfare state programs used disciplinary techniques to govern, Patton maintains, “neo-liberal governmentality relies much more on the autonomy and responsibility of citizens and, for that reason, may provide a more effective counter to the techniques of disciplinary power” (214). Patton suggests that Foucault pursued his analysis of neoliberalism at such great length in these lectures because he thought it might present a viable alternative to leftist critiques and techniques of resistance.

Another important point here is that Patton brings in Rawls.  It’s interesting to recall that Hayek had a favourable view of Rawls.  That is demonstrated by comments Hayek makes in volumes II and III of Law, Legislation and Liberty.  Hayek is one of the people that Foucault is discussing with some sympathy in his account of ‘Neoliberalism’.  Of course many link Foucault’s account with their own criticisms of ‘Neoliberalism’.  That is their right, but they should not confuse the framework they bring to Foucault with what Foucault is arguing.

I’m particularly interest that it is Paul Patton says so.  I was rather scathing about his own dismissal of liberalism from a ‘Nietzschean’ point of view in a review essay I published in Angelaki in 2006.  I had until now continued to assume that Patton was a leading representative of a ‘post-modern’, ‘post-structuralist’, ‘post-Marxist’ left (a view I adhered to many years ago) who assumed that ‘liberalism’ was the enemy, and would not even consider the possibility of looking at Foucault or Nietzsche, from a liberal point of view.  Either I missed something in his previous arguments, or his position has evolved.  Anyway, I’m happy to now have the chance to give credit to Paul Patton.  I can’t get hold of this book immediately, but I will do so as soon as I can, and I certainly look forward to reading Patton’s contributions with the others.

In fairness to McWhorter, I must point out that he does not endorse that reading of Foucault.  Though it is a very good review, I have to say that his evidence on that particular point is remarkably weak.  He just quotes Foucault as saying that he had not done enough work on ‘Neoliberalism’, which is not evidence at all that he would have become more critical, or was somehow completely critical underneath.

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