Sunday, September 14, 2008

Behrent on Foucault

I have just finished reading a very interesting, and unpublished, article by Michael Behrent on Foucault and economic liberalism entitled, “Liberalism without Humanism: Michel Foucault and the Free-Market Creed, 1976-1979”. The article and its references will be very useful for me in thinking about Sorel’s context of reception in post-1968 France; in particular, the question of the meaning(s) of liberalism. Behrent does a wonderful job of situating Foucault and, it seems to me, of explaining what economic liberalism ‘did’ and meant for him. The highest praise: it made me want to run out and buy (perhaps I will tomorrow), the 1978 and 1979 Collège de France lectures on which the argument is based.

As much as I liked the piece, though, I find myself disagreeing with it on a fundamental level. I get the impression that Behrent more or less agrees with what he convincingly argues Foucault thought about economic liberalism. One reason I want to read these lectures is to see if Foucault does indeed seem to be endorsing the idea that the absence of explicit disciplinary practices in an ideal neoliberal regime necessarily means the absence of implicit, or hidden, disciplinary practices. Probably he is agnostic on the question, and is interested in possibility only.

But then again, to translate things into contemporary US politics, Foucault is not neoliberal in the sense in which I understand this word. It seems that the Foucault was in favor of various forms of social protection (the negative tax, for instance) that are, in the US context, liberal rather than neoliberal (if, and I think we can, we take the last two of Roosevelt’s four freedoms as much of what neoliberals have wanted, in the last decade, to roll back).

So, finally, what I want more of is Behrent’s own evaluation of how much of the ‘neoliberalism’ that interested Foucault was reflected less in the governing practices of various parties than it was present only in his own mind. Ordoliberals may have provided an example in Germany, and certainly Behrent is clear about the negative examples in France—perhaps the Second Left may also be cited as an example, but although certain French liberals may have seen allies there, it is a stretch, I think, to compare autogestation with the Chicago School.

At any rate, a very interesting piece. I am sorry to have missed the seminar at which it was presented, and I hope it is published soon so that I can cite from it.

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