On the Limitations of Michel Foucault’s Genealogy of Neoliberalism

Journal of French and Francophone Philosophy 31 (1/2):24-45 (2023)
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This essay highlights a methodological weakness in Foucault’s genealogy of neoliberalism often mistaken for a biographical shift in his philosophy. Naissance de la biopolitique is sometimes interpreted as evidence for Foucault’s conversion to neoliberalism, whereas its lack of critical acuity stems rather from its methodological limitations. Through a discussion of the “neoliberal conversion”-thesis, I highlight those limitations. Though Foucault’s appreciative tone in his neoliberalism lectures is surprising, his aim is mainly to defamiliarize readers from the dominant mode of neoliberal rationality so that they can affirm the creative potential to foster new conducts, new identities, and new rationalities. Foucault did not convert to neoliberalism, but sought to destabilise it by revealing its historical contingency. However, as Foucault’s surprisingly positive tone shows, this strategy is insufficient for combatting neoliberalism. There is an elective affinity between Foucault’s own politics of creative self-reinvention and neoliberalism’s promise of a non-invasive, post-disciplinary government by indirect economic incentives alone. Foucault’s libertine stance toward subjectivity hence seems easily integrated into a neoliberal conduct of conducts. I propose to supplement Foucault’s genealogical method as he deploys it in Naissance de la biopolitique with an immanent critique of neoliberalism from the perspective of the governed. Rather than investigating neoliberal rationality as a promising endeavour for the future, we can study the real-life implementations of neoliberalism and their effects on subjective conducts. Neoliberal rationality is involved in a permanent struggle to shape the conduct of conducts along entrepreneurial and competitive lines, but subjects are refractory living beings whose conducts are not so simply transformed. Neoliberalism has had to give up its post-disciplinary aspirations and turn to the power of discipline and abandonment to enforce neoliberal norms of conduct. Neoliberalism has transformed into a negative biopolitics that sacrifices the lives of unproductive subjects as collateral damage to the overall welfare of the population. Immanent critique thereby reveals how subjects are pushed beyond their limits until neoliberal norms of conduct become unbearable. This intolerability of neoliberalism cannot be directly deduced from the writings of Becker, Friedman, or Hayek.111 It becomes manifest in the confrontation between neoliberal rationality and the material living bodies of finite human beings unable to be stretched in the ways neoliberalism requires.

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Tim Christiaens
Tilburg University


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