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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  09 November 2009

Department of History, Appalachian State University E-mail:


This article challenges conventional readings of Michel Foucault by examining his fascination with neoliberalism in the late 1970s. Foucault did not critique neoliberalism during this period; rather, he strategically endorsed it. The necessary cause for this approval lies in the broader rehabilitation of economic liberalism in France during the 1970s. The sufficient cause lies in Foucault's own intellectual development: drawing on his long-standing critique of the state as a model for conceptualizing power, Foucault concluded, during the 1970s, that economic liberalism, rather than “discipline,” was modernity's paradigmatic power form. Moreover, this article seeks to clarify the relationship between Foucault's philosophical antihumanism and his assessment of liberalism. Rather than arguing (as others have) that Foucault's antihumanism precluded a positive appraisal of liberalism, or that the apparent reorientation of his politics in a more liberal direction in the late 1970s entailed a partial retreat from antihumanism, this article contends that Foucault's brief, strategic, and contingent endorsement of liberalism was possible precisely because he saw no incompatibility between antihumanism and liberalism—but only liberalism of the economic variety. Economic liberalism alone, and not its political iteration, was compatible with the philosophical antihumanism that is the hallmark of Foucault's thought.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2009

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1 See Sawicki, J., Disciplining Foucault: Feminism, Power, and the Body (New York, 1991)Google Scholar; McLaren, M. A., Feminism, Foucault, and Embodied Subjectivity (Albany, NY, 2002)Google Scholar; and McNay, L., Foucault and Feminism: Power, Gender, and the Self (Boston, MA, 1993)Google Scholar.

2 Halperin, D. M., Saint Foucault: Towards a Gay Hagiography (New York, 1995), 120Google Scholar. On Foucault and queer theory see also Butler, J., Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York, 1990)Google Scholar; and Spargo, T., Foucault and Queer Theory (Duxford and New York, 1999)Google Scholar.

3 Stoler, A. L., Race and the Education of Desire: Foucault's History of Sexuality and the Colonial Order of Things (Durham, 1995), 1Google Scholar. See also Said, E., Orientalism (New York, 1978)Google Scholar; and Guha, R. and Spivak, G. C., eds., Selected Subaltern Studies (New York, 1988)Google Scholar, especially the section entitled “Developing Foucault.”

4 See O'Brien, P., “Michel Foucault's History of Culture”, in Hunt, L., ed., The New Cultural History (Berkeley, CA, 1989), 2546Google Scholar; and Goldstein, J., ed., Foucault and the Writing of History (Oxford and Cambridge, MA, 1994)Google Scholar.

5 The foundational text of “governmentality studies” is Burchell, G., Gordon, C., and Miller, P., eds., The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality (Chicago, 1991)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

6 The History of the Present, edited by P. Rabinow of the University of California at Berkeley, appeared between 1985 and 1988. The online journal Foucault Studies, founded in 2004, is available at

7 Paglia, C., “Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders: Academe in the Hour of the Wolf”, in idem, Sex, Art, and American Culture (New York, 1992), 224Google Scholar.

8 Foucault, M., “Qu'est-ce que la Critique? (Critique et Auflklärung)”, Bulletin de la société française de philosophie 84/2 (1990), 38Google Scholar.

9 Habermas, J., “Modernity versus Postmodernity”, trans. Ben-Habib, S., New German Critique 22 (1981), 13Google Scholar.

10 Sartre, J.-P., “Jean-Paul Sartre répond”, L'Arc 30 (1966), 88Google Scholar.

11 Christofferson, M. S., French Intellectuals against the Left: The Anti-Totalitarian Moment of the 1970s (New York, 2004)Google Scholar. See also Bourg, J., From Revolution to Ethics: May 1968 and Contemporary French Thought (Montreal and Ithaca, 2007)Google Scholar; and Jainchill, A. and Moyn, S., “French Democracy between Totalitarianism and Solidarity: Pierre Rosanvallon and Revisionist Historiography”, Journal of Modern History 76 (2004), 107–54CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

12 By “economic liberalism” I mean the school of thought that holds the free market to be the most efficient of economic systems. Though in practice they are often related, I distinguish it from “political liberalism,” understood as the philosophy that advocates representative governments grounded in law and guaranteeing fundamental human rights. “Neoliberalism” will refer, as it does for Foucault, to the twentieth-century forms of economic liberalism associated with German Ordoliberalism and the Chicago School.

13 Foucault, “Entretien avec Madeleine Chapsal”, in idem, Dits et écrits, vol. 1, 1954–1969, ed. D. Defert, F. Ewald, and J. Lagrange (Paris, 1994), 516.

14 Foucault, “Foucault répond à Sartre” (interview with J.-P. Elkabbach), in ibid., 664.

15 M. Walzer, “The Politics of Michel Foucault”, Dissent 30 (Fall 1983), 490.

16 Wolin, R., “From the ‘Death of Man’ to Human Rights: The Paradigm Change in French Intellectual Life, 1968–1986”, in idem, The Frankfurt School Revisited, and Other Essays on Politics and Society (New York, 2006), 180Google Scholar. For a similar argument see F. Dosse, Histoire du structuralisme, vol. 2, Le Chant du cygne. 1967 à nos jours (Paris, 1992), 392–4.

17 Paras, E., Foucault 2.0: Beyond Power and Knowledge (New York, 2006), 97Google Scholar.

18 Rorty, R., “Moral Identity and Private Autonomy: the Case of Foucault”, in idem, Essays on Heidegger and Others (Cambridge and New York, 1991)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

19 Rajchman, J., Michel Foucault: The Freedom of Philosophy (New York, 1985), 123Google Scholar.

20 Colombel, J., Michel Foucault: La Clarté de la mort (Paris, 1994), 210Google Scholar.

21 F. Lebaron, “De la Critique de l'économie à l'action syndicale”, in D. Eribon, ed., L'infréquentable Michel Foucault. Renouveaux de la pensée critique. Actes du colloque Centre Georges-Pompidou, 21–22 juin 2000 (Paris, 2001), 163.

22 Revel, J., Expériences de la pensée: Michel Foucault (Paris, 2005)Google Scholar. Revel maintains (unpersuasively, in my view) that Foucault distinguished between “biopower,” the political technology associated with economic liberalism, and “biopolitics,” the means through which biopower is resisted.

23 Foucault, La Volonté de savoir (Paris, 1977), 117.

24 Those who would see Foucault's interest in liberalism and his turn, in the early 1980s, to subjectivity as qualifications or even rejections of his earlier antihumanism overlook the fact that Foucault considered both projects to be examinations of “governmentality,” a concept by which he endeavored to replace the juridical model of power and its humanist underpinnings with a conception of power as a practice and as a relationship through which subjects are constituted. Thus in 1981 Foucault claimed that his “history of subjectivity” was part and parcel of the “question of ‘governmentality,’” insofar as the “government of the self by oneself” raises the issue of its “articulation in relation to others.” Foucault, “Subjectivité et vérité”, in idem, Dits et écrits, vol. 4, 1980–1988, ed. D. Defert, F. Ewald, and J. Lagrange (Paris, 1994), 214.

25 It is, however, worth recalling that Foucault had studied the works of Adam Smith and David Ricardo in The Order of Things, albeit from an epistemological rather than a political perspective.

26 Foucault, “Entretien avec Michel Foucault” (interview with D. Trombadori conducted in 1978), in idem, Dits et écrits, vol. 4, 1980–1988, 80, 81.

27 Quoted in Macey, D., The Lives of Michel Foucault (New York, 1993), 348Google Scholar.

28 See Foucault, “La grande Colère des faits” (a review of A. Glucksmann's Les Maîtres penseurs), Dits et écrits, vol. 3, 1976–1979, ed. D. Defert, F. Ewald, and J. Lagrange (Paris, 1994), 277–81.

29 Frieden, J. A., Global Capitalism: Its Fall and Rise in the Twentieth Century (New York, 2006), 359Google Scholar.

30 See, for instance, Parodi, M., L'Economie et la société française depuis 1945 (Paris, 1981), 1261Google Scholar.

31 Fourastié, J., Les Trente glorieuses, ou la révolution invisible de 1946 à 1975 (Paris, 1979)Google Scholar.

32 See Becker, J.-J. and Ory, P., Crises et alternances (1974–2000) (Paris, 2002), 63–74Google Scholar.

33 J. Fourastié, “La Fin des temps faciles”, Le Figaro, 20 Dec. 1973, 1, 26.

34 J. Rueff, “La Fin de l'ère keynésienne”, in Oeuvres complètes de Jacques Rueff, vol. 3, Politique économique I (Paris, 1979), 178. This article, originally a lecture delivered to the Mont Pèlerin Society, appeared in Le Monde on 19 and 20–21 Feb. 1976.

35 Hayek, F. A., Scientisme et sciences sociales: Essai sur le mauvais usage de la raison, trans. Barre, R. (Paris, 1953)Google Scholar.

36 Becker and Ory, Crises et alternances, 78–81.

37 Fourçans, A., “France. La Politique du gouvernement Barre et le néo-libéralisme,” in Universalia 1979: Les Evénements, les hommes, les problèmes en 1978 (Paris, 1979), 279Google Scholar.

38 Smith, T. B., France in Crisis: Welfare, Inequality, and Globalization since 1980 (Cambridge and New York, 2004), 91–4CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

39 See, respectively, Fourcade-Gourinchas, M. and Babb, S. L., “The Rebirth of the Liberal Creed: Paths to Neoliberalism in Four Countries,” American Journal of Sociology 108/3 (2002), 562–8CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Prasad, M., “Why Is France so French? Culture, Institutions, and Neoliberalism, 1974–1981,” American Journal of Sociology 111/2 (2005), 366, 370CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

40 Fourcade-Gourinchas and Babb, “Rebirth of the Liberal Creed”, 564.

41 Prasad, “Why Is France so French?”, 366.

42 P. Drouin, “La France est-elle libérale?”, Le Monde, 7 Oct. 1978, 32.

43 For instance, the Walter Lippmann Colloquium, which met in Paris in 1938, has recently attracted the attention of scholars, who have identified it as a foundational moment of modern neoliberalism. See S. Audier, Le Colloque Lippmann. Aux Origines du néolibéralisme (Latresne, 2008); and Denord, F., “Aux Origines du néo-libéralisme en France: Louis Rougier et le Colloque Walter Lippmann de 1938,” Le Mouvement social 195 (2001), 934CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

44 Prasad, “Why Is France so French?”, 375.

45 J.-F. Kesler, quoted in ibid., 375. See the volume that Rosa coedited with Aftalion, F., L'Economique retrouvée: Vieilles Critiques et nouvelles analyses (Paris, 1977)Google Scholar.

46 Prasad, “Why Is France so French?”, 375.

47 See, for instance, Elgozy, G., Le bourgeois Socialiste, ou pour un post-libéralisme (Paris, 1977)Google Scholar; Malaud, P., La Révolution libérale (Paris, New York, Barcelona, and Milan, 1976)Google Scholar; and Sauvy, A., La Tragédie du pouvoir: Quel Avenir pour la France? (Paris, 1978)Google Scholar.

48 Hayek, F. A., Prix et production (Paris, 1975)Google Scholar; idem, Droit, législation et liberté: Une nouvelle Formulation des principes libéraux de justice et d'économie politique, trans. R. Audouin (Paris, 1980); idem, Le Mirage de la justice sociale, trans. R. Audouin (Paris, 1981); Friedman, M., Inflation et systèmes monétaires, revised edn, trans. Caroll, D. (Paris, 1977)Google Scholar; idem, Contre Galbraith (Paris, 1977); M. and R. Friedman, La Liberté du choix, trans. G. Casaril (Paris, 1980).

49 F. A. Hayek, “L'hygiène de la démocratie”, Liberté économique et progrès social. Périodique d'information et de liaison des libéraux 40 (1980–81), 20–37.

50 Foucault, Naissance de la biopolitique. Cours au Collège de France, 1978–1979 (Paris, 2004), 221.

51 On this issue see W. Gallois, “Against Capitalism? French Theory and the Economy after 1945,” in J. Bourg, ed., After the Deluge: New Perspectives on the Intellectual and Cultural History of Postwar France (Lanham, MD, 2004), 49–72. The present essay seeks to qualify Gallois's claim that Foucault partook in French theory's neglect of economic thought.

52 Lepage, H., Demain le capitalisme (Paris, 1978), 11Google Scholar.

53 Ibid., 13; original emphasis. A similar argument was made by F.-P. Bénoît in Démocratie libérale (Paris, 1978).

54 Lepage, Demain le capitalisme, 422.

55 Maire, E. and Julliard, J., La CFDT aujourd'hui (Paris, 1975), 185Google Scholar.

56 Rosanvallon, P., L'Age de l'autogestion (Paris, 1976), 45Google Scholar.

57 Lepage, Demain le capitalisme, 420–21.

58 Baechler, J., “Libéralisme et autogestion,” Commentaire 1 (1978), 32Google Scholar. Rosanvallon replied to Baechler's complaint, to which he was clearly sensitive, in “Formation et désintégration de la galaxie ‘auto’,” in P. Dumouchel and J.-P. Dupuy, eds., L'Auto-organisation: De la Physique au politique (Paris, 1983), 456–65. I am grateful to S. Moyn for sharing these references.

59 Rosanvallon, L'Age de l'autogestion, 41–5.

60 H. Lepage, Autogestion et capitalisme: Réponses à l'anti-économie (Paris, 1978).

61 Unpublished letter from Foucault to Rosanvallon, dated 17 Dec. 1977. This letter was kindly made available to me by S. Moyn. See also Rosanvallon, “Un Intellectuel en politique” (interview with S. Bourmeau), available at This interview originally appeared in Les Inrockuptibles 566 (3 Oct. 2006).

62 Foucault, “Une Mobilisation culturelle,” Le nouvel Observateur 670 (Sept. 1977), 49. Foucault would subsequently collaborate with the CFDT on a number of issues, including opposition to the repression of the Polish trade union Solidarity in 1981 and efforts to rethink the French social security system. For the latter, see R. Bono, B. Brunhes, M. Foucault, R. Lenoir, and P. Rosanvallon, Sécurité sociale: L'Enjeu (Paris, 1983). Foucault's archives testify to further projects. See notably a letter on CFDT stationary from A. Bihous, addressed, in addition to Foucault, to Pierre Bourdieu, Jacques Julliard, Claude Lefort, Kryztof Pomian, Pierre Rosanvallon, Paul Thibaud, Alain Touraine, and Patrick Viveret, entitled “Propositions de travail commun intellectuels—Conféderation française démocratique du travail”. Fonds Foucault, Institut mémoires de l'édition contemporaine (IMEC) (Saint-Germain-la-Blanche-Herbe, France), FCL 6.11.

63 P. Rosanvallon, “L'Etat en état d'urgence”, Le nouvel Observateur 670 (Sept. 1977), 49, 48.

64 Rosanvallon, La Crise de l'état-providence (Paris, 1992; first published 1981), 97.

65 Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. A. Sheridan (New York, 1977; first published 1975), 296. The original passage is in the interrogative form.

66 Ibid., 308. In his translation, Sheridan makes this footnote the book's final paragraph.

67 J. Miller points out, on D. Defert's testimony, that Foucault started writing what became the final chapter of the first volume of The History of Sexuality—“The Right of Death and Power over Life”—on the very day that he completed Discipline and Punish. This suggests that Foucault's reservations about the scope of the “disciplinary hypothesis” may date back as far as 1975. See J. Miller, The Passion of Michel Foucault (New York, 1993), 240–1.

68 Foucault, “Il faut défendre la Société.” Cours au Collège de France, 1975–1976 (Paris, 1997), 215.

70 Ibid., 216, 218–19.

71 Ibid., 220.

72 Ibid., 216.

73 Ibid., 223–4.

74 Foucault, Sécurité, territoire, population. Cours au Collège de France, 1977–1978 (Paris, 2004), 47.

75 Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 206.

76 Ibid., 202–3.

77 Foucault, Sécurité, territoire, population, 50.

78 See Miller's The Passion of Michel Foucault, as well as Seigel, J., The Idea of the Self: Thought and Experience in Western Europe since the Seventeenth Century (New York, 2005), 603–31CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

79 Foucault, Sécurité, territoire, population, 68.

80 Foucault, Naissance de la biopolitique, 23, 24. Foucault uses the term libéralisme, not “economic liberalism,” but clearly means the latter, and not liberalism's political form. In the opening lecture, for instance, he speaks in one breath of “liberalism, of the Physiocrats, of Adam Smith, of Bentham, of the British utilitarians” (ibid., 25). I use the term “economic liberalism” in the interest of clarity.

81 Ibid., 323.

82 Ibid., 325.

83 Ibid., 25.

84 Rosanvallon had close ties to Furet as well as to Foucault.

85 Foucault, Naissance de la biopolitique, 41.

86 Though Furet, too, was critical of many aspects of revolutionary politics, it was ultimately the Revolution's failure to ground political life in a solid legal framework, rather than its rootedness in such a tradition, that he condemned.

87 Foucault, Naissance de la biopolitique, 43.

88 Ibid., 324.

89 Quoted in Fourçans, “La Politique du gouvernement Barre”, 279.

90 For these reasons, M. Bonnafous-Boucher's argument is exactly wrong: Foucault does not embrace what she calls “liberalism without liberty,” but rather liberty without liberalism—at least insofar as the latter is understood in a more conventional (i.e. humanistic) sense. See Bonnafous-Boucher, M., Le Libéralisme dans la pensée de Michel Foucault: Un Libéralisme sans Liberté (Paris, 2001)Google Scholar.

91 Christofferson, French Intellectuals against the Left.

92 See François-Poncet, J., La Politique économique de l'Allemagne occidentale (Paris, 1970)Google Scholar; and Rieter, H. and Schmolz, M., “The Ideas of German Ordoliberalism, 1938–1945: Pointing the Way to a New Economic Order,” European Journal of the History of Economic Thought 1/1 (1993), 87114CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

93 Foucault, Naissance de la biopolitique, 114. Foucault's editors, however, find no evidence that Röpke ever makes precisely this claim. See 131, n. 39.

94 Ibid., 92.

95 Quoted in Moreau, J., “Le Congrès d'Epinay-sur-Seine du Parti socialiste,” Vingtième siècle 65 (2000), 95CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

96 Foucault, Naissance de la biopolitique, 93.

97 Foucault, “Mon Corps, ce papier, ce feu,” in idem, Dits et écrits, vol. 2, 1970–1975, ed. D. Defert, F. Ewald, and J. Lagrange (Paris, 1994), esp. 267–8.

98 Quoted in Moreau, “Le Congrès d'Epinay”, 95.

99 Eribon, D., Michel Foucault (Paris, 1991), 325–6Google Scholar.

100 Stoléru, L., Vaincre la Pauvreté dans les pays riches (Paris, 1974)Google Scholar.

101 Foucault, Naissance de la biopolitique, 210–11.

102 Ibid., 213.

103 Ibid., 264.

104 Ibid., 265.

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