We just can’t seem to shake Foucault. The French philosopher, loathed or loved, has not dimmed in significance since his death of AIDS in 1984. In many ways the patron saint of contemporary humanistic inquiry, Michel Foucault’s work remains a source of both inspiration and frustration to scholars today. Conservatives, in turn, have long enjoyed propping him up as a left-wing bogeyman. In a delightfully vitriolic review for the New Criterion in 1993, Roger Kimball seethed, “The celebration of [Foucault’s] intellectual perversions by academics continues to be a public scandal.” More recently, Liz Truss, the U.K. international trade secretary and minister for women and inequalities, caused a stir when she claimed that since the 1980s, schools have made “no space for evidence” because they instead teach ideas with “roots in postmodernist philosophy—pioneered by Foucault” in which “truth and morality are all relative.”
But not everyone on the left is rushing to defend the thinker. In spite of his reputation as a progressive icon, Foucault has always had an at best contentious relationship with leftist politics. Jürgen Habermas, another philosophical great of his generation, once called Foucault a “young conservative,” attacking what he perceived to be Foucault’s rejection of modernity. Jean-Paul Sartre pilloried him as “the last barricade the bourgeoisie can still erect against Marx.”
More recently, leftist thinkers have cast Foucault as a neoliberal, arguing that the kind of politics incipient in his thought paved the way to the hollowing out of the welfare state that took place under the signs of Reaganomics and Third Way liberalism. This counterintuitive assertion is the principal argument of The Last Man Takes LSD: Foucault and the End of Revolution. The collaborative work of Mitchell Dean, a scholar at Copenhagen Business School, and Daniel Zamora, a sociologist at the Université Libre de Bruxelles, a version of the book was first published in French in 2019 before being adapted into English this year.
Appearing with the radical publisher Verso, it offers a generous consideration of Foucault’s dalliance with neoliberal thought, coming to the conclusion that the French philosopher used the work of the so-called “New Philosophers” and American neoliberal thinkers in order to question what he perceived as the sclerotic totems of the welfare state. In so doing, they bring together a growing scholarship on the topic, including Foucault and Neoliberalism, a 2016 volume coedited by Zamora to which Dean contributed. Ultimately, though, The Last Man Takes LSD questions the lingering significance of Foucault’s work today, highlighting a greater gap in Foucauldian thought: the absence of a well-developed theory of the state.
From a distance, there is a certain formal similarity between Foucauldian thought and neoliberalism. Both are prominent terms of academic discourse, and both have come to mean at once too much and too little. Many of those who appeal to Foucault’s works have not read them (a friend in graduate school ridiculed this kind of scholar who, in their words, “runs around yelling, ‘Foucault, Foucault, Foucault! Nothing exists!’”). By the same token, many of those who invoke neoliberalism would be hard-pressed to offer a coherent definition of it. Of course, they are typically associated with opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, Foucault as a creature of the left, neoliberalism a monster of the right.
Despite his iconoclastic style of thought, Foucault ascended to the very pinnacle of French intellectual celebrity at the young age of 43. In 1970 he was awarded a chair at the Collège de France, the most prestigious academic institution in that country, where he delivered regular public lectures until his untimely death. These lectures were posthumously published, the first English translation in the series appearing in 2003.
In the winter of 1979, Foucault offered a series of lectures intended to cover “the birth of biopolitics,” a concept he had first used in The History of Sexuality, volume I (1976), to explain the modern state’s growing will “to ensure, sustain, and multiply life.” But the lectures veered off course and morphed into a history of liberalism, including several sessions devoted to its postwar reemergence in Germany (ordoliberalism) and the United States (neoliberalism). The 1979 lectures, in which Foucault expressed a certain degree of sympathy for these new intellectual projects, are at the root of the contention that his late thought entwined itself with neoliberalism.
Neoliberalism, which fundamentally reshaped Western politics in the last decades of the twentieth century, encompasses a range of views, ideologies and policy prescriptions. From Thatcher and Reagan to Blair and Clinton, neoliberals on both the right and the left cut back the welfare state, lowered taxes and privatized government services. Foucault asserted that neoliberalism differed from nineteenth-century liberalism, Dean and Zamora write, in that it attempted “to extend the market and its rationality to all forms of social existence and to test and evaluate every single act of government” in relation to that market rationality. It sought in this way to unleash economic growth and to do away with the supposed inefficiencies and stifling regulations of the Keynesian state. “Our hero,” wrote Washington Monthly editor Charles Peters in his 1982 article “A Neo-Liberal’s Manifesto,” “is the risk-taking entrepreneur.” What, we might wonder, could a philosopher so critical of the workings of power have seen in the ideology of neoliberalism—an ideology that had, as Dean and Zamora point out, already been implemented with such violence in Pinochet’s Chile and which has led to such devastation in our own era?
The key, according to the authors, was in Foucault’s late turn to subjectivity, to how power—by which he meant the decentralized and dispersed ways that institutions and norms govern our lives—shapes and even creates identity. “The criminal,” “the homosexual,” “the pervert,” “the madman”: these, according to Foucault, are all inventions of this particular sort of power, which stemmed not from the edicts of a monarch, but from the surveillance and normative inquiries of scientists and police, doctors and bureaucrats over the course of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
His concern with the constitution of identity through power reached its most concise formulation in The History of Sexuality, a remarkable work that Foucault published after dropping LSD at Zabriskie Point in Death Valley (hence the Dean and Zamora’s title). It gave sexual identity a history, elucidating how nineteenth-century discourse invented modern conceptions of sexuality. For Foucault, this identity-creation was not liberatory (although he memorably conceded “where there is power, there is resistance”) but rather oppressive. The multiplication of discourses around sex in the 1960s and 1970s he thus regarded skeptically, writing that “the irony” of the sexual revolution “is in having us believe that our ‘liberation’ is in the balance.”
While these arguments will be familiar to readers of Foucault, one of Dean and Zamora’s excellent contributions is to place them in the political context of post-1968 France. After the failed May 1968 general strike, which very nearly ousted President Charles de Gaulle, the French left had to regroup. An increasingly prominent chorus of voices—the New Philosophers—called for a revitalized politics free of the socialist left’s devotion to the state, which many of them saw, at its root, as a legacy of Stalinism. “Having to think about revolution, its onset and end, the German thinkers have pegged it to the state,” Foucault wrote in an admiring review of New Philosopher André Glucksmann’s The Master Thinkers (1977). He carried on, “thus the master thinkers put together an entire mental apparatus, that which underlies the systems of domination and obedient behaviours in our modern societies.” It was also around this time that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago (1973) first appeared in English and French, horrifying Western leftists and turning them against traditional communist parties and ideologies.
Such fear of totalitarianism was not unique to Foucault, but rather a signal mania of Cold War thought. From Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) to Carl Joachim Friedrich and Zbigniew Brzezinski’s Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy (1956), the idea of totalitarianism held that there was something categorically different about socialist dictatorship and that this particular style of authoritarianism was liberalism’s true enemy. The fear of totalitarianism extended to the point that some Cold War liberals endorsed, in Friedrich von Hayek’s words, “an authoritarian government [that] may act on liberal principles.”
By the mid-1970s, then, we have a Foucault disgusted with Marxism, opposed to leftist politics that relied on the state and searching for new arts of government—what Dean and Zamora term a “left governmentality”—that would offer individuals “an ‘exit’ or ‘way out’” from the spiderweb traps of power. This, according to them, is where neoliberalism stepped into the void.
The post-1968 thinkers of the French left had begun to experiment with progressive politics that might elide the state. The Second Left, an explicitly non-Marxist iteration of French socialism, was defined in 1977 by future prime minister Michel Rocard as that which “refuses arbitrary domination, that of the bosses as well as of the state.” At the time, France was governed by Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, a conservative president who turned sharply away from Gaullism and embraced neoliberal policies in ways that intrigued Foucault. Dean and Zamora demonstrate that these political changes appealed to the philosopher and helped to shape his intellectual pursuits.
Neoliberalism, by cutting away the state, by guaranteeing a minimum of existence through a negative tax or some other universal basic income, by wielding power through a supposedly value-free economic rationality, would, in Foucault’s view, do away with many of the most insidious exercises of power that characterized the modern state, the kinds of discipline that had ensnared the modern subject within a proliferation of discourse. The blending of these two strands of thought appears prominently at the conclusion of Foucault’s March 21, 1979 lecture on American neoliberalism:
What appears on the horizon of this kind of [neoliberal] analysis is not at all the ideal or project of an exhaustively disciplinary society … On the horizon of this analysis we see instead the image, idea, or theme-program of a society in which there is an optimization of systems of difference, in which the field is left open to fluctuating processes, in which minority individuals and practices are tolerated, in which action is brought to bear on the rules of the game rather than on the players, and finally in which there is an environmental type of intervention instead of the internal subjugation of individuals.
These are the words, Dean and Zamora argue, of someone who saw potential in the neoliberal project, who believed it might offer a corrective to the kinds of biopolitical, disciplining power that the welfare state had built up around the individual.
Of course, Foucault was a nonsystematic thinker, whose “greatest danger” Louis Althusser’s Groupe Spinoza deemed to be his “political adventurism.” And, after all, Foucault sometimes contradicted himself even within the same text. That is to say, simply because he expressed sympathy or admiration for neoliberal thought in certain works does not mean we can today impute a general neoliberalism to his entire oeuvre. “Do not ask me who I am,” he declared in The Archaeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language (1969), “do not ask me to stay the same.”
Dean and Zamora thus contend, “Foucault’s anti-communism and his experimental attitude are lenses through which to view his relation to neoliberalism.” They are quite clear that Foucault was not “a partisan of neoliberalism,” as they wrote in a 2018 essay, but rather that there were certain ways in which neoliberalism influenced his later thought. There are undoubted affinities between it and his project of liberating the individual from power—of, in his words, convincing “people that they are much freer than they think.”
Why should we care, though? What relevance does it have for you or me that a long-dead French thinker believed neoliberalism offered a possible escape hatch from the particular problems of normative power? That question is, to some extent, a fundamental one in intellectual history. Ironically, it is thinkers like Foucault that offer the greatest agency to thought, whereas materialist philosophy, to put it simplistically, holds discourse to be superstructure, an expression of economic conditions.
It is ironic, because Dean and Zamora, in spite of their left-leaning critique of Foucault, ultimately attribute the kind of agency to his thought that a Hegelian dialectician might well recognize, arguing that his ideas “have perhaps contributed to our intellectual predicament and the political mess that those societies once called ‘liberal democracies’ find themselves in.” In brief, they contend that leftists adopted Foucault’s idiosyncratic merger of identity politics and neoliberalism. In their view, this move hollowed out the left, causing it to “retreat from collective action” and forsake class-based politics for “the politics of the transformation of subjectivity in new lifestyles.”
These contentions largely rehash the class versus identity politics quarrels that have played out repeatedly since the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Public figures from Columbia University professor Mark Lilla to Senator Bernie Sanders blamed Hillary Clinton’s loss on the Democratic Party’s rhetorical emphasis on marginalized identity groups and, at the same time, the absence of class-based political appeals. Many even contended, as do Dean and Zamora, that such politics provided a convenient front for the party’s adoption of neoliberal economics, combining, in philosopher Nancy Fraser’s words, “an expropriative, plutocratic economic program with a liberal-meritocratic politics of recognition.” Dean and Zamora’s contributions to this debate are, to my mind, underdeveloped and under-supported; they often ignore the complex histories of antiracist, decolonial, feminist, environmentalist and LGBTQ movements and their relationships to state and economic institutions. For our purposes, though, what’s more notable is how little the addition of Foucault clarifies any of these debates.
If we do continue to care about Foucault today, it must be, at least in part, because his work remains generative and important to thinkers and activists on the left, including to many who wish to criticize the norms and institutions that have bolstered neoliberal policies. Carceral studies, for instance, which critically examines the union of mass imprisonment and neoliberalism in the United States, draws heavily on Foucauldian thought. Dean and Zamora are overstating their case, at best, when they assert, “If [Foucault’s] thought maintains a relevance today it is for what it fails to observe.”
But Dean and Zamora, by placing Foucault in the context of the post-’68 French left, do underscore one important lacuna in Foucault’s work, on which it is worth dwelling. Foucault was a profoundly “anti-statist” thinker, and, they argue, “we must recognize the extent to which those ways of thinking we have made our own have played their own small part in our pervasive and disabling contemporary anti-statism.” That is, Foucault’s antipathy toward the state not only robbed progressive politics of what political theorist Michael Walzer called the “directing center,” but it has also made it more difficult for us to conceptualize the state in productive ways. Indeed, Foucault never developed a coherent theory of the state—that is, a theory that could help us tell the difference between a legitimate use of state power and an illegitimate one. While his philosophy reinterpreted state institutions from the police to the hospital to the prison as sites of power, he advocated for a political theory that would “cut off the head of the king”—as he memorably put it in The History of Sexuality.
This absence in Foucauldian theory is related to Dean and Zamora’s argument about Foucault and neoliberalism, but this hardly seems like the most pressing thing to say about it. Much more importantly for those of us brought up in and educated with Foucauldian thought, the gap is symptomatic of a more general difficulty in thinking constructively about state power. The Foucauldian inheritance is unable, for instance, to say much about democracy, or about what distinguishes democratic from authoritarian states. It is unable to tell us, even, what might make democracy a good thing. In the Foucauldian perspective, power is power whether in a dictatorship or a democracy.
Largely for this reason, the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the limitations of biopolitics as a framework of critique. Yes, modern states developed new categories and institutions framed around their concern for a healthy population. And yes, these techniques were often horrifying. But any theory of power that does not also account for how modern medicine has made life immeasurably better for most humans would seem to have lost the plot. When it comes to COVID, most of us likely to read this article probably agree that mask mandates and lockdowns appeared to slow the spread of the virus, even if they were indisputable exercises of biopower that limited individual freedom. Similarly, many of us favor at least some kinds of vaccine mandates. We want to reach herd immunity so that our lives can go back to normal (whatever that may be). Simply put, whereas the pandemic has made us remember that we need the state, Foucault’s works tell us nothing about how, when or why we do.
Foucauldian thought is thus unable to distinguish between justified and abusive exercises of coercive power (in fact, Foucault might have objected that there is no such distinction to be made). Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, whose work draws heavily on Foucault’s, unintentionally highlighted this gap in the Foucauldian oeuvre by criticizing measures designed to slow COVID’s spread as “techno-medical despotism.” Most of us, I think, would agree that he is wrong. But it is conspicuous that, as Geoff Shullenberger recently pointed out, Agamben’s comments represent one of the only intrusions of Foucauldian thought into the debates of the last fourteen months. Only occasionally has the philosopher been invoked, and then often by skeptics of state-directed preventative measures.
In 2019, legal theorists Paisley Currah and Aeyal Gross discussed the relationship between queerness and the state, highlighting how queer activists dealt with this same tension between the kind of critique that Foucault helped pioneer and the need to work with state institutions. During that conversation, Gross was asked to sketch out a “queer theory of the state.” He replied that while queer politics demands certain things from the state, “We should also think beyond the state. This means turning to the state for recognition pragmatically, but without accepting that its policies constitute our relationships, or our lives.” Such an approach might be able to offer a functionalist account of when to rely on the state, but it still seems unable to offer a compelling explanation of why or by what right. That is, while Gross highlighted the conceptual thicket into which Foucauldian thought has led us, his explanation does not seem like a genuinely “queer theory of the state.”
This is the real problem that I think Dean and Zamora have uncovered, and it poses a much more urgent challenge for today’s progressive thinkers than the possible connections that can be drawn between Foucauldian theory and neoliberalism. It is a problem that plagues the way scholars and activists alike think about their work and its relationship to power. We have indeed cut off the head of the king and, not satisfied with this, have also dismembered the body. It is not yet clear how the state can be reconstituted for the purposes of the left that is to come, that is for a progressive politics that acknowledges both the inherently insidious violence of power and the need to exercise such power in order to realize a society that is not only just but also equitable. Dean and Zamora have convincingly shown that Foucault can no longer be, as Dean wrote in a 2015 article, “the ‘unsurpassable horizon’ of critical thought.” What will appear on that horizon—what queer theory of the state equal to the task of building a new society from the rubble of neoliberalism—still waits to be born.