Foucault’s Appreciation of Neoliberalism: Becker, Ewald and Harcourt

Some evidence has recently appeared online (hat tip to Foucault News) that Foucault, to some degree, was a defender of neoliberal economics, a conclusion some might have already drawn from previously published information.  The evidence can be found in a video of a seminar at the University of Chicago earlier this year, and in a  transcript of that seminar.  The participants are Bernard Harcourt, François Ewald, and Gary Becker.  Bernard Harcourt is a Professor of Law at Chicago (his work fits in with Chicago’s leading role as a centre of law and economics); he co-edits the volume of Foucault lectures Mal faire, dire vrai [Doing bad, speaking truth] which I have posted on extensively recently, and which will be published in English about a year from now.  FrançoisEwald was Foucault’s research assistant, and since Foucault’s death has played a large part in editing and publishing Foucault’s lectures, interviews and papers.  He has also worked in the business sector and in American and French universities on risk and insurance.  Gary Becker is a Nobel Prize winning Chicago economist, who has been a leading figure in ‘Neoliberal’ thought as an advocate neoclassical economics, particularly well known for his work on human capital.

You might think that Harcourt would be the mediating figure between Becker the ‘neoliberal’ (Becker states a preference for classical liberal as a label) and Ewald the Foucault associate.  However, Harcourt puts on an extraordinary act of passive-aggressive denigration of Becker and any recognition of what Foucault appreciated in neoliberalism.  He begins by stating that Becker had stated that he largely disagreed with Foucault’s reading of his own work, when Becker corrects him to point out that he said that he mostly agreed, Harcourt claims to have made a Freudian slip.  Later on Harcourt smears Becker’ work on human capital by suggesting that it justifies cutting investment in the education of African-Americans and putting them in prison instead.  Becker reacts to this outburst of angry polemical boorishness (which is what it is, though dressed in Ivy League polite manners) with admirable dignity and restraint, explaining that the idea of human capital provides justification for investing in ethnic groups historically subjected to discrimination.  Harcourt’s passive aggressive smear will dominate the understanding of many left-leaning readers/viewers.  I say this on the basis of evidence.  I posted the links on social media, and got the response that the claims about under investing in African Americans was a great analysis, without any acknowledgement that this remark comes from Harcourt.  There is no such suggestion in Foucault.  Ewald said nothing of the kind in the seminar.  Becker strongly rejected the claim.  I hope any left leaning readers of this post will go to the links with a mind open to what Foucault actually wrote in Birth of Biopolitics and what his old associate François Ewald has to say.  What Ewald says in the seminar is that Foucault appreciated Becker’s analyses as power without disciplinarity or ethics.  The remark about ethics may not sound complimentary but readers of Fooucault’s work on antiquity know that he regards the move from care of the self to more externally imposed ideas of morality and law with regret.  It is not the case that Foucault completely agreed with Becker, and the question of his relationship with neoliberalism is a very complicated one, but Foucault’s comments on Becker  concerning the specific issues raised are guided by a positive attitude.  Ewald’s comments certainly suggest a positive estimate by Foucault of Becker, as in his comment that Foucault preferred Becker to Pierre Bourdieu.  Bourdieu, as in the French sociologist well known for his work on education, taste, economic and social capital; and as a very prominent critic of Neoliberalism and as a defender of the radical left.

As suggested above, this all comes out of Michel Foucault’s well known discussion of ‘Neoliberalism’, in The Birth of Biopolitics. I put neoliberalism in scare quotes since it is a word with an odd status.  Its use dates from the Walter Lippmann Colloquium in Paris in 1938, a gathering of those who used to define liberalism in terms of the limited government, individualistic, free market sense dominant before ‘liberalism’ started to be used by those with more statist, collectivist and interventionist views in the late 19th century.  Participants at the Colloquium included figures still well known as representatives of the older understanding of liberalism: Hayek, Mises, Wilhelm Röpke.  However, the word has been used in an overwhelmingly negative sense by left wing critics of market liberalisation since the 1970s, and advocates of what in 1938 was referred to in 1938 came to prefer terms like classical liberal, market liberal, and libertarianism.  Those who use neoliberalism in a positive sense now are rare, Matthew Yglesias is the only who comes to mind right now.  He is left leaning American blogger, who uses neoliberalism to mean left liberalism of a kind which embraces market liberal concerns in many areas of policy without adopting it as a complete point of view.  The prominent American economics blogger Scott Sumner  uses neoliberal in a similar sense though in slightly less favourable terms.  In his account neoliberalism means state welfarism plus free market economics, while classical liberalism means free market economics with no state action with regard to maintaining minimum welfare.  Sumner defines himself as somewhere in the middle.  Personally I would define classical liberalism as somewhere in the middle, with some thinkers of the kind that Sumner mentions but only a minority.

Neoliberalism has become a negative term, if not term of complete abuse, for left wing analysts and polemicists who regard neoliberalism as characterised by: free markets, political privileges for corporations a weakened or completely eliminated welfare state, shrinking of the state in other respects, national and social conservatives like Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, authoritarian governments, particularly that of the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, elimination of any concern for public goods.  The first and second qualities attributed to neoliberalism contradict each other, you cannot have a fee market in which some economic entities are politically privileged so able to extract economic benefits from state actions.  The contradiction can be overcome by distinguishing between the free market ideology and the corporatist practice, and critiques of that gap are likely to be well grounded.  I cannot say that all left wing critics of neoliberalism have noted the difference though, since it is more fun to lash out at free markets and corporate privilege at the same time.  The second aspect is more real, the state including its welfare functions has just not shrunk as much as the critics usually claim, and is in fact much larger than in the early days of the welfare state.  Furthermore, downsizing has been accompanied by growth in regulation and expansion in the number of people who receive benefits.  Despite what the critics claim, since the ‘neoliberal’ turn of the 1970s, the number of those receiving income transfers has increased, as has the absolute expenditure on welfare and on public services.  ‘Neoliberal’ theory is very appreciative of public goods, and the defence of public goods is even at the heart of such theory.  Milton Friedman’s well known statement of his views on politics and political economy, Capitalism and Freedom, contains a definition of public goods as ‘positive neighbourhood effects’ and has a position for the best way of obtaining such effects.  The less ‘popular’, but intellectually equally important work of James Buchanan on public choice theory, is centrally concerned with the tendency for genuine public goods to be sacrificed to aggregations of private interests with negative effects on the public good, in the political process.  See for example, a book co-authored with his frequent collaborator Gordon Tullock, The Calculus of Consent.

There is a lot more to be said, and I will return to this.  For now, I will simply say that no one can claim to understand Foucault’s work completely without an open minded reading of Becker, and of other ‘neoliberal’ authors such as the ones mentioned above; no enthusiast for  ‘neoliberalism’ will have a comprehensive understanding of it without reading Foucault and without thinking about why Gary Becker has so much respect for Foucault’s reading of his own work.


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