Lagasnerie on Foucault and Neoliberalism

Geoffroy de Lagasnerie

La dernière leçon  de Michel Foucault

Sur le néolibéralisme, la théorie et la politique

Fayard, Paris. 2012.

ISBN 978-2-213-67141-3


This book has not come out in English and I am not aware of any plans to publish it in English. It’s a slightly odd book, but I think worth the attention of anyone with an interest i Foucault,,particularly as a political thinker, and does deserve to be translated. My sense of oddity is heightened by not being able to find any institution of higher education where Lagasnerie works, though he seems to have been employed by the University of Paris I Panthéon-Sorbonne in the recent past.

I say this book is odd because I find it difficult to see what Lagasnerie is claiming about Neoliberalism and Foucault’s attitude to it. The confusion maybe in Lagasnerie, I think he may believe that he has written something more critical of Neoliberalism that he has in reality. His approach to Neoliberalism is only to discuss it as it appears in Foucault’s own work, largely The Birth of Biopolitics. Another oddity is the title of the book, since Foucault’s ‘last lessons’, the lectures he gave at the Collège de France were on Ancient thought.

Lagasnerie’s lack of interest in Neoliberalism as a phenomenon independent of anything Foucault said about is even evident in the title, since generally speaking the intellectual tradition that Foucault is discussing as ‘Neoliberalism’ self-identifies through other labels: libertarianism, market liberalism, classical liberalism, more recently neo-classical liberalism. Foucault is famous for having a schematic approach to the history of the the discourses and systems of thought he writes about. His harsher critics claim this is falsification and charlatanism, I favour the view that it’s the study of a way thinking over time, from a limited perspective in order to get a distinct domain of knowledge, which can be compared with Weber, Durkheim and other greats of social theory and philosophical history. Anyway, it is particularly strange to look at Neoliberalism, or anything, just through Foucault’s account and not make any attempt at study and presentation of original sources. I’m an admirer of Foucault’s approach to Neoliberalism, and many other topics, but I would never consider it wise to discuss Foucault’s approach without delving into the field he is discussing, independently of Foucault’s account. It has to be said Lagasnerie goes about his task in a thorough and convincing way. He does sometimes seem to have read the vital texts discussed by Foucault (it does not look to me like he always does), but does not give much in the way of quotations of page references, so it is very hard to check how reliable his readings are.

One of the oddities of his approach is that where he does seem to get away from Foucault, it is to refer to Neoliberalism in a vague and even mangled way. At the beginning of chapter IX, for example, he refers to the phrase ‘there is no such thing as society’ as typical of Neoliberalism. This is not to be found in any Neoliberal text, and refers to a famous comment made by the British Prime Minister. Of course, along with Ronald Reagan, she is often taken as the ’80s political representative of Neoliberalism. The phrase in question was not offered as a definition of anything. It was said in a political debate context, going on to say that there are individuals and families, so suggesting that the word ‘society’ is an abstraction from real humans and their closest relations. If we wish to take it is a theoretical statement, then we will end up going back to the Utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who though ‘society’ only refers to aggregates of individuals and does not exist in itself. Such a position is an position in social ontology, which is an example of ontological Nominalism, according to which there are no abstract entities, only names which group concrete individual entities. As a political comment, Thatcher’s famous phrase should be taken in the context of a preference for voluntary action over state action, but voluntary action does not itself presume there anything about the non-existence of society. Certainly Neoliberal thinkers were not committed to the non-existence of society.

The overall argument in Lagasnerie’s book is that Foucault has a critique of Neoliberalism rather than a rejection. This is compared with the way that Marx uses ‘critique’ which comes from the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. For Marx ‘critique’ is the study of preconditions of a social phenomenon, or a way of thinking about society,  so that we have a deep explanation of it, and are able to see the  limits of it. Marx was engaged in ‘critique’ of political economy referring to ways that political economy as an intellectual discipline misses the deepest aspects of capitalism, and what is in the nature of capitalism that hides its own deepest aspects. However, Marx’s ‘critique’ rests on a rejection of capitalism in favour of socialism-communism, as Lagasnerie recognises, but there is no such alternative presented in Foucault. Lagasnerie does recognise that as well, drawing attention to the way that Foucault wants to explore the limits and possibilities of the present, but does not seem to notice the tension between critique which is base don rejection and critique which aims at an internal shift, a refinement and improvement, which is the aim of critique as Kant did it.

Lagasnerie’s own presentation largely concentrates on ways in which Friedrich Hayek (and the other thinkers indiscriminately grouped together) say things whşch can be taken beyond the stereotypical representation. Lagasnerie, for example,argues that ‘liberty’ which appears to be at the heart of Neoliberalism, is really less important than ‘pluralism’. ‘Liberty’ here refers to an individualistic conception of freedom, with Lagasnerie arguing that ‘pluralism’ refers more to interaction of different ways of living, different social possibilities, rather than a social world of isolated individuals. I cannot see that Hayek would have found this to be a negative or hostile reading, and I am left wondering how much Lagasnerie rejects Neoliberalism, and how much he wants to take it up in terms of left wing values.

So what Lagasnerie, referring to Foucault,  presents is a kind of left wing Neoliberalism which rejects moral conservatism, uses the economic world to challenge both ‘govenmentality’ and ‘discipinarity’ (key terms in Foucault’s writing).  He is committed to a left wing position himself, by which he understands a position of liberation, and he attributes this view to Foucault, which is very reasonable. However, what Lagasnerie does not consider is that a politics of liberation from state power, the kind of critique of capitalism to be found in Foucault  has an appeal going beyond the socialist, or even social democratic, left. Self-styled classical liberals and libertarians are frequently progressive in moral and social values, and aim to weaken the role of the state in creating economic privileges for the already rich and powerful. That is my position and how I like to think that Foucault can best be used, I do not think this is what Lagasnerie meant to support.



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