Foucault and Neoliberalism

So a lot of interesting stuff about Foucault popping up this week.  Last post was support for the idea that late Foucault is sympathetic to liberalism.

This post highlights a Foucault influence scholar of ‘neoliberalism’ who points out that ‘neoliberalalism’ is not the onslaught on welfarism and public services it is often presented as, by Focaukt influenced writers on discliplinarity, governmentality, and neoliberalism.  Foucault wrote on: disciplinarity in Discipline and Punish, with regard to the prison, and the way it provides a model of ‘displinary’ modern power; governmentality in Society Must be Defended, with regard to the emergence of liberalism as an art of government, which limits itself; neoliberalism in The Birth of Bipoloitics,with regard to market liberal ideas in the 20th century.

The relevant link is to ‘An Interview with Stephen J. Collier on Foucault, Assemblages and Topology’ at Theory Culture & Society. This is the most relevant section of the interview.

In a great deal of critical scholarship, the story has been that neoliberalism just displaces the existing norms and forms of the social state. Or, if elements of the social state are understood to persist, it is because they resist neoliberalism, but in any case they are opposed to it. But I have not found that such descriptions are very helpful for understanding neoliberalism and neoliberal reform in the sectors and the countries I have studied. It isn’t so much that neoliberalism displaces the social state. Instead, modifying Foucault, I have found that neoliberalism presents three things: first, a critique of the outcomes of the existing norms and institutions of social welfare, on the grounds of their inefficiencies and their inequities; second, a politico-philosophical critique of how norms such as social justice or public value are formulated and how the proper scope of governmental activity is conceived; third, a new programming that establishes a novel pattern of correlation between choice mechanisms and social welfare.

Well said.  ‘Neoliberalism’ in the USA and the UK did not lead to the dismantling of the welfare state or the politics of the public good.  The major social programs in the US dating from FDR’s New Deal (Medicaid and Social Security) and LBJ’s Great Society (Medicare) were untouched by Reagan.  Some people very seriously believe that George W. Bush was both a neoliberal and a market fundamentalist, but in fact he added a prescription benefit system to Medicare, so expanded on LBJ’s welfarism.  Anyway as the quotation from Collier above shows, a ‘Neoliberal’ and a ‘market fundamentalism’ are very definitely not the same thing.  In the UK, unlike Reagan, Thatcher did get public spending down as a proportion of national wealth,  However, the volume of public spending (even after adjusting for inflation) was much when she left office than when she came in.  Thatcher was only anti-welfare in the sense that the economy as a whole grew more quickly than public spending, and some areas of welfare spending increased strongly, e.g. disability benefits.  Her governments left the main welfare measures in the UK which date back to the 1906 Liberal government and the 1945 Labour government untouched.

Not much time to address the relevant theory here, but in brief Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek, the market liberal thinkers most often linked with ‘neoliberalism’ certainly did not think that Thatcher and Reagan had established the kind of limiting of government they favoured.  Even so, they did not propose the end of welfare of or public good as a goal of government.  Both supported forms of universal minimum income.  Friedman produced his own definition of public goods and bads in terms of negative and positive neighbourhood effects.  Hayek favoured public services if they satisfied criteria of universality and serving genuine public goods.

Hat tip to Ayşe Mermutlu (via Facebook).  I don’t think Mermutlu or Collier would agree with the political framework within which I place Foucault, but we could perhaps agree on some analytic issues.

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