Still Foucault

Image: Andrés Sandoval


Critical considerations on the book “Birth of Biopolitics”


Frequently cited, a permanent presence in bibliographies of academic courses, probably less read, Michel Foucault is still presented as an inspiring thought of a postmodernity whose mission would be to save us from the catastrophe of modernity.

“His behavior was one of eccentric radicalism, just as his works were those of a rebellious structuralist”, would say, provocatively, José Guilherme Merquior in his study of Foucault, in a chapter headed by an epigraph in which Foucault himself claims never to have been neither Freudian, nor Marxist, nor structuralist.[I] His work would be framed by the desire of modern philosophy to investigate the history of autonomous reason (which already disturbed Kant in his famous question about the Illustration) and which, since Weber and Habermas's "critical theory", has been approached as a problem of rationality Social.[ii]

Merquior analyzes in detail the complete work of Foucault and the first one he indicates, referring to the History of Madness (Perspective), is the incorrect handling of data. The problem begins –he says– “when Foucault highlights the medieval and Renaissance 'dialogue' with madness, in contrast to the attitude of segregation that prevails in modern times”.

An assertion that does not stand up to analysis of the data.[iii] His periodization is misguided, his "sinister chronicle" of overbearing medical tyranny "is in no way supported by actual data on therapy in the age of asylums," etc., claims Merquior.[iv]

Let us pause here on these references to Merquior's documented study of Foucault, translated from English to Portuguese, French, Spanish. A guide that is probably little known in Foucauldian circles, but which seems to me relevant for the study of the work of the French philosopher.

In his text “Government and veridiction”, introduction to a recent edition of a Spanish-language collection of Foucault's work entitled La Inquietud por la Truth (Siglo XXI editores), Edgardo Castro highlights the importance of editing the courses dictated by Foucault in the France secondary school in 1979. “The courses, to express it in some way, had only been disseminated orally in classes, where Foucault used to read his notes”, he says, before highlighting the impact that their publication had.[v] As is known, in these courses an enthusiastic crowd filled the classes to listen to him.

What we intend here is to analyze the concept of liberalism used by Foucault in his classes that year, edited in the volume birth of biopolitics (WMF Martins Fontes) and explore the extent to which it defends a vision of the world that supports the most conservative neoliberal policies.[vi]

As is well known, even though the 1979 lectures were supposed to be dedicated to biopolitics, Foucault only made reference to this theme. The theme was another, as he explained in the initial presentation of the course. The classes were dedicated almost exclusively to the study of liberalism, of “political economy as a principle of internal limitation of governmental reason”. A labyrinth which, as we shall see, he was never able to get out of during the twelve classes of this period.

Initial considerations

In the first place, it seems to me necessary to consider Foucault's warning in his final summary about the content of the course which, as we have already indicated, ended up being very different from what was initially announced, since he devoted it entirely to what should have been just an introduction .

“The theme selected was 'biopolitics'. I understood by such a thing the way in which, since the XNUMXth century, attempts have been made to rationalize the problems raised in governmental practice by the phenomena proper to a group of living beings organized as a population: health, hygiene, birth rates, longevity, races…” [vii]

Finally, these classes were dedicated entirely to the analysis of liberalism that Foucault defines - among several other definitions – as a new art of governing, developed from the XNUMXth century onwards, a reflection “on the best possible way of governing”. In other words –he said– it is the study of the rationalization of governmental practice in the exercise of political sovereignty.[viii]

Before approaching the content of Foucault's text, it seems to me essential, first of all, to discuss whether what is proposed there corresponds to the ideas he defends or if it is, on the contrary, an academic exposition on the different definitions of liberalism, either in its German formula (of ordoliberalism), or in its American formula; as well as several concepts used in the text, both of “liberalism”, as of “physiocracy”, “mercantilism”, “market” or “salary”.

It is essential to clarify this aspect. It is not the same thing to assume that what Foucault proposes in these classes is just an academic exposition of concepts that define different forms of liberalism, than to understand what is exposed there as part of his own thinking about the social order in which we live , and which he suggests as “the best way to govern”.

The theme had already been dealt with, among others, in the work coordinated by Daniel Zamora and published in 2014 with the title Critiquer Foucault: Les années 1980 et la tentation neoliberale.[ix]

The theme of the book, Zamora would say, is precisely “to break the too consensual image of Foucault as someone who was totally opposed to neoliberalism in the final years of his life”.[X] I myself –Zamora would say– was amazed by the indulgence that Foucault shows with neoliberalism when I submerged myself in the texts. Not only in his conferences in France secondary school, but also in numerous articles and interviews.

The debate is served. Zamora recalls that Geoffroy de Lagasnerie, in his book Michel Foucault's La dernière leçon suggests that he tries to use neoliberalism to “reinvent” the left. Certainly difficult task, or even impossible. Our perspective, says Zamora, is different: Foucault adopts the neoliberal vision to criticize the left.

This is – also in my opinion – the perspective suggested in the conferences of the France secondary school that we are going to analyze.

First, a brief comment. Foucaultists who read this article consider that I am not referring to the rest of Foucault's theoretical production on the subject. In fact, there is none more important on this subject than the conferences of 1978 and 79. They insist that Foucault originated a broad field of studies on governmentality, biopolitics and political power. Certainly, there is a vast production by Foucault on these themes. But they're not the ones I'm dealing with.

I limit myself here to the idea of ​​liberalism as an economic theory, as proposed in his 1979 conference. Nor do I analyze the production of liberal theorists of the XNUMXth, XNUMXth or XNUMXth centuries. All of this would take me too far from the more modest objectives of this work, which is to analyze Foucault's neoliberal vision developed in detail in the aforementioned lectures. Regarding a vision of liberalism, I can suggest reading the extraordinary work of Harold Laski, European liberalism.[xi]

Finally, before getting into the subject, I would also like to refer to a criticism of the style of this work. There are those who consider him “aggressive”, “clumsy, “not very academic”. It is striking that the Foucauldians dare to speak of style, knowing – as they must know – this very “clumsy” fact of the French philosopher.

Let's get into the matter. Let's go back to the conferences France secondary school, the subject of these reflections.

The story begins with an investigation into what Foucault calls “governmental reason”. Everything revolves, in this matter, around the idea of ​​“how not to govern too much”, on the liberal concern to avoid what they call “excessive government”.[xii] Foucault is talking, of course, about the liberal idea of ​​government that we will discuss later. But he doesn't say it. It is like a formula that appears out of nowhere in the XNUMXth century, without us knowing why, nor for what, nor to what interests it responds.

It suggests that it is the most “rational” liberal form of government possible. Formula contemplated in the liberal idea that the activity of the individual acting “freely”, seeking his greatest benefit, also results in the greatest benefit for society. As Adam Smith said, it is enough that we leave people to their own initiative so that, in pursuing their own interest, they will promote that of others.

Although something like that could be said in the XNUMXth century, today we are well aware of the consequences of this process and the perverse and unsustainable concentration of wealth to which humanity has led. Far more acutely than Foucault, Max Lerner warns us that Smith was "an unconscious mercenary in the service of Europe's burgeoning capitalist class." And he adds: – It is equally true that Smith's economic individualism is now used to oppress, where in former times it was used to liberate.[xiii]

All that Foucault suggests to us, in any case, is that a “form of calculation and rationality that allowed the self-limitation of a governmental reason as a de facto, general self-regulation, intrinsic to the very operations of government” emerges.[xiv] (General? Intrinsic?) This form of calculation is, according to Foucault, political economy. A political economy that “installs itself in the bosom of governmental reason”.[xv] It is this “political economy” – in reality, the economic interests of a nascent bourgeoisie (but Foucault does not say this) – that will impose the new “governmental reason”.

To illustrate his idea, he cites the response of the merchant Le Gendre to Louis XIV's minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, when the latter asks him: – What can I do for your lordships? And Le Gendre answers him – Let us do it! There it is – says Foucault, quoting Le Gendre – “the essential principle that every government must respect and follow in economic matters”.[xvi]

What does Foucault think about this system? Do you share the idea that this is the essential principle that every government must respect? Let them do? We don't know, he doesn't say so clearly. This lack of clarity – reiterated throughout the text – ends up turning into a lack of intellectual honesty.

A careful reading of his text, of what he says and what he hides, necessarily leads to the conclusion that Foucault not only exposes the main liberal concepts, according to the various authors treated, but offers us his own vision of a liberal social order that , in his opinion, imposes a governmental reason that leads us to the age of rationality. An era characterized by the fact that “an entire sector of governmental activity will pass to a new regime of truth”.[xvii] It is the realm of liberalism.

To arrive at this conclusion, we rely, first, on a general consideration. In almost 400 pages of his text, Foucault develops a detailed analysis of liberal society, including several theoretical formulations about liberalism, without criticizing these formulations, even the most extreme ones. On the contrary, he often expands on several of these considerations. He adds his own (rarely critical) comments to give strength and variety to the arguments on which this view of society is based.

I quote an example, which seems to me to illustrate well what I mean: “Another thesis I would like to propose is the following (in short, it is the reciprocal of what I have just said): what is under discussion today in our reality is not both the growth of the State and the reason of State but rather, and much more, its diminution”.[xviii]

Who proposes? Foucault? The cited authors: Hayek, Wilhelm Röpke (prestigious economist, one of the founders of the very conservative Mont Pelerin society)? [xx] The German ordoliberals you quote so widely in your classes? It doesn't say. And he adds: “I hasten to add that, in saying this, I try not to make value judgments. When I speak of liberal governmentality, I do not want, by the very use of the term “liberal”, to sacralize or value this type of governmentality from the beginning. Nor do I mean that it is not legitimate, if you like, to hate the State” (p. 225).

Valuing “from the beginning”, says Foucault. Can it be deduced that you intend to do it in the end? In fact, it seems to me that he endorses this “liberal governmentality” (whatever that is in his particularly imprecise and confused conception), and that he does so from the beginning as the text reveals.

Let us add one more example: Foucault's proposal to “rethink the problems of the Third World economy”, where he proposes: “starting from the problem of human capital, we can rethink the problems of the Third World economy. And as you know now, it is a matter of thinking about the lack of take-off of the third-world economy not so much in terms of blocking economic mechanisms, but in terms of insufficient investment in human capital.[xx]

Who proposes Foucault's new model for the “take-off of the Third World economy”? It seems obvious to me that it does. But what does he mean when he asks us to think about “the third-world economy's failure to take off”? Aborted take-off no longer due to the “blocking of economic mechanisms”, but due to insufficient investment in human capital? Does all this mean something? Does it make any sense?

This also explains the feeling of emptiness that Foucault's text leaves us with. It is the style used that creates this ambiguity and generates the discussion that we now try to clarify. It is impossible not to think that this is a carefully used style to avoid a clear separation between his opinions and those of the cited authors and to justify the lack of precision in the concepts. And also to avoid any precise treatment of any theme, hiding behind this “playful” language.

We have another example of this ambiguity in the discussion about the nature of wages (a concept we will return to later), or about human genetics. But the style is present throughout the text, as a reading (even the most superficial) makes clear.

 Conceptual considerations

Before analyzing his proposals on liberalism, it is necessary to review some concepts used by Foucault, so that we can approach these proposals with greater foundations. We will refer here to some concepts on which Foucault develops his analysis.

The first, due to its fundamental importance in the text, is that of “liberalism”. After his introductory lecture on January 10 (1979), Foucault dedicates the second lesson, a week later, “to liberalism and the implantation of a new art of governing in the eighteenth century”; to the specific characteristics of the liberal art of governing.[xxx]

Before, Foucault would define liberalism as a new type of rationality of this art of governing; as a “new type of calculation related to saying and having to say to the government: I accept all this, I want it, I project it, I calculate that we should not touch it”. Well, says Foucault, “I believe that, broadly speaking, this is what we call 'liberalism'”.[xxiii]

It is a first approach to the conception of liberalism that will soon expand. This is what he calls “a new art of governing”. But if we expected some better definition that would help to enrich the idea, we will be frustrated.

What does Foucault say about the subject? He says that “this new art of governing is essentially characterized by the introduction of internal, numerous, complex mechanisms, but whose function -in this aspect, if you want, a difference is marked in relation to the reason of State- does not consist so much in ensuring an increase in the strength, wealth and power of the State, [the] indefinite growth of the State, as in limiting from within the exercise of the power to govern[xxiii] (…) it is the reason of the smallest State within and as an organizing principle of reason of State itself, or: the reason of the smallest government as a principle of organization of reason of State”.[xxv] Finally, [T]he problem of government frugality is the problem of liberalism.[xxiv]

Liberalism would then consist in “limiting the exercise of the power to govern from within”. Or would it be “the reason for the smallest government as a principle of organization of the State”. Or again: “the problem of government frugality”.[xxv] Is it so?

Before looking for an answer, let us pause to analyze Foucault's proposal. He tells us about a new art of governing inspired by liberalism whose essence is characterized by the introduction of internal, numerous, complex mechanisms… What does that mean? Foucault explains it: it is no longer a matter of guaranteeing the indefinite growth of the State…

Complex, numerous, internal mechanisms…? Indefinite growth of the State? Limit the exercise of the power to govern from within?

There is no way to understand either this definition or this explanation. None of this makes sense, nor can this level of abstraction, lacking any analysis or historical support, contribute to explaining any social phenomenon.

We are left – once again – with the inevitable sensation of the apology of a movement that represented, in its origins, the emergence of a new class – the bourgeoisie – and that, 200 years later, transformed this domination into renewed tensions, no longer oriented to a revolution, but to a rapid and unimaginable concentration of wealth (and power), which Foucault tries to explain as the “frugality of government”. It is worth recalling Lerner's definition: Smith's economic individualism is now used to oppress, whereas in former times it was used to liberate”.[xxviii] Foucault, what do you use it for?

Let's look at the concept a little closer. For this, we suggest resorting to the text of the Englishman Harold Laski, European Liberalism.[xxviii] Laski talks about liberalism in the third chapter of his book, about the Century of Enlightenment. He reminds us that Restoration England was already moving towards liberal laissez-faire, a trend that accelerated in the XNUMXth century, when it became a movement. [xxix]

Analyzing the debate at the time about the role of the State, reproducing liberal arguments, Laski reminds us that a new society was struggling to be born: “The function of the State was to create security conditions for the owners. Individuals can take care of the rest.”[xxx] It is the age of reason and philosophers use the weapon of rational criticism to defend their freedom; State intervention is evil”.[xxxii]

He returns to the theme later on. He reminds us that “the great source of English political philosophy is Edmund Burke” (1729-1797), a contemporary of Adam Smith (1723-1790), for whom “the principal functions of justice are the protection of property”.[xxxi] Quoting Burke, Laski exposes the theory of this English liberal according to which “The State must limit itself to what corresponds to the State”. Although Burke “does not deny the need to help those who cannot 'claim anything according to the rules and principles of justice'”, he guarantees that, for him, none of this has to do with the State. In this matter – Burke will say – “the magistrate has absolutely nothing to do; his intervention is a violation of the property, the protection of which is his mission ”.[xxxii]

The right of property to govern was the "major premise" of all his thinking; it was not the State's task to provide for the needs of the people, nor could it do anything to remedy the plight of the working classes.[xxxv] In other words, safeguarding the property. This is the mission of this State that emerged from liberal thought!

Costa Rican Vicente Sáenz had already referred to the subject. In your Things and men of Europe[xxxiv] highlighted the fact that the world was in a moment of readjustment of all its values. This readjustment had to start by understanding that it was no longer possible to continue talking about freedom as the “liberal fetishes that have governed us” did: “Because classical liberalism, in its economic aspect, which is fundamental, leaves the hands of the powerful free , to the owners of the means of production and exchange, so that they continue to asphyxiate and throw the dispossessed masses against each other”…[xxxiv]

Liberalism is, in reality, the theory of the defense of property. But not just any property: the bourgeois property that then emerged and began to consolidate itself in the eighteenth century that faced a political order that was collapsing. And which, therefore, also began to be formulated with more precision on the theoretical level.

With Burke, we are very far from Foucault's proposal of “limiting the exercise of the power to govern from within”. In reality, none of this has anything to do with Foucault's definition of the fundamental characteristics of liberalism, repeated here: as a region of unlimited economic development with respect to a world market. This is what I called liberalism”. [xxxviii]

It is a fundamental difference to state that the problem of liberalism “is the frugality of the government”, without explaining that, in reality, it is about defending the property of a nascent bourgeoisie that was preparing to control the State and that did not want interference in the government. he considered his rights. None of this sees Foucault.

In any case, he had already warned us at the beginning of his classes that he was going to leave historical analysis aside. And also the “universals”, concepts such as sovereign, sovereignty, people, states, subjects, civil society.[xxxviii] Naturally, he set aside only a few, to rescue those that, in the end, served him to support his thesis on liberalism. In our opinion this is one of the biggest weaknesses of his analysis.

Only by concealing the nature of this “frugal” State could Foucault later develop his proposals on a liberal order and on the role of civil society in this order. With the concept of the bourgeoisie gone, of a social class interested in defending its form of property, Foucault and the liberals transformed the defense of these interests, of this form of property, into the defense of “freedom”. At this point, he opted for liberalism, which he later developed in the ambiguous style we have already referred to.

Before proceeding, let us review some other concepts used by Foucault. About mercantilism, he states: “On the other hand, I tried to show you that this plural specificity of the State embodied in a series of precise ways of governing and, at the same time, in institutions correlative to them. First, on the economic side, was mercantilism, that is, a form of government. Mercantilism is not an economic doctrine, it is much more and very different from an economic doctrine”.[xxxix]

Again, let's go back to Laski for a more accurate version of mercantilism: "we call the period between the Reformation and the French Revolution the epoch of mercantilism".[xl] A process described in detail by Smith when he explains how the commerce of the cities contributed to the progress of the rural districts.[xi]

Unlike Foucault, Laski points out that mercantilist doctrines “are the result of the confused and contradictory efforts of some men to persuade their governments to support one interest rather than another”.[xliii] Clearer, it seems to me, than Foucault's statement – ​​unsupported in reality, in my opinion, as Laski indicates – that mercantilism “is a form of government”.

The emerging bourgeoisie – says Laski – adapts to its interests, first, religion (with the Reformation), then culture (with the Renaissance); and finally, the state. But he warns us: this bourgeoisie “does not seek freedom as a universal end, but rather as a means to enjoy the wealth that arises before it”.[xiii] The bourgeois prepares for the state's final assault “only when the new order of things has firmly established its foundations”; for him this State is a “mere police agency”.[xiv]

Something similar occurs with the concept of physiocrats. The Physiocrats' aim was to transform society without a revolution; the idea of ​​freedom was its foundation. But, again, what liberty?: "let every man look after himself, for he knows better than any government what is best for his own convenience." As Turgot said, it was the age of science, "granted freedom, we may assume that in a natural way moral and intellectual progress will follow scientific progress".[xlv]

Foucault said something else: They (the physiocrats) came to the conclusion that political power “should be a power without external limitations, without external counterweights”.[xlv] Foucault's simplicity again contrasts with the richness of economic history.

Again, Laski: “the physiocrats, as we know, were the protagonists of enlightened despotism”. It offered, said Dupont de Nemours, "a definite and complete body of doctrine, clearly establishing the natural rights of man, the natural order of society, and the natural laws most advantageous to man grouped together in a society."[xlv] “It was born from the idea that mercantilism was leading to the ruin of a system that could be made to flourish without difficulty”.[xlviii] Their failure (that of the physiocrats) – concludes Laski – “was due to their inability to see what Adam Smith and Turgot had already perceived: feudalism was becoming capitalism, and economic theory, consequently, could not limit your attention to the earth”,[xlix] as the physiocrats wanted.

This criticism of the use of concepts by Foucault could be extended to practically all those he uses in his classes, such as the simplification of the concept of “work” in Marx, when he states: “Marx converts work into the main element, one of essential elements of your analysis. But what does he do when he analyzes the work? Shows that the worker sells what? Not your job, but your workforce.[l]

Just reading the first chapter of the The capital This comment on the concept of work in Marx would have avoided Foucault and, perhaps, avoided a simplification so extreme that it cannot be qualified as more than a falsification.[li] Or take the concept of “biopolitics”, so dear to Foucault. Although the subject was treated more extensively in other texts, among them in the classes of the previous year in the same France secondary school, Foucault mentions him in this one: “I thought I would give a course on biopolitics this year. I will try to show you that all the problems that I am currently trying to identify have as their central core, of course, this something we call population”.[liiii]

In other words, according to Foucault, the problems he tries to identify have as their central core what we call population! What does it mean? Does it make any sense? Is there a human problem that does not have the population as its core?

But let's not stop here. Let's end this chapter with a reference to ordoliberalism, to which he pays so much attention in his analysis of liberalism. The treatment given to the theme does not escape the form that, after this path, we can only describe as frivolous, as we will see.

Let us begin with a long quote from Foucault, speaking of the “economic institution” that gives rise to the State, or feeds it: “This economic institution, the economic freedom that this institution, from the beginning, has as its mission to secure and maintain, produces something more real, more concrete, even more immediate than legal legitimation. It produces a permanent consensus, a permanent consensus of all who may appear as agents in or within these economic processes. Agents in the capacity of investors, agents in the capacity of workers, agents in the capacity of employers, agents in the capacity of trade unions. All these economic partners, to the extent that they accept the economic game of freedom, produce a political consensus”.[iii]

As if by magic, workers, investors, employers, unions, all become “agents”. In the list they all go hand in hand. Its specificity in capitalist society disappears – not to mention the use of concepts such as “investors” and “employers” – whose difference, in this case, seems difficult to perceive. As in the tango “Cambalache”, “mezclao con Stravisky va Don Bosco y La Mignon, Don Chicho y Napoleón, Carnera y San Martín”.[book] All “partners” of an economy that produces a political consensus. This solves all the social conflicts that derive from the conflicting interests between businessmen and workers, which liberal theorists already pointed out precisely in the XNUMXth century!

The problem that, according to Foucault, the German ordoliberals (the postwar liberals) intended to solve was the following: “As you may remember, I tried to show you what the problem posed in the eighteenth century by the question of the market was. This problem, in fact, resided in the following: how was it possible within a given State, and whose legitimacy certainly could not be questioned –at least from this point of view–, to give room to a market freedom that was historically and also legally a novelty, insofar as, in the police state as it operated in the XNUMXth century, freedom was only defined as freedom from privileges, reserved freedom, freedom linked to a status, a trade, a concession of power, etc.? Market freedom as freedom to let things be done, how would that be possible, then, within a police state?”

The answer, for Foucault, was the theory of ordoliberalism, the theory that emerged in the Freiburg School, which he treats extensively. It was about “establishing the legitimacy of a State based on a space of freedom for economic partners”.[lv]

The real problem –he adds– “was not between capitalism and socialism; it was what existed between a liberal policy and any other form of economic interventionism”.[lv] It is necessary – he asserted – to propose the freedom of the market as an organizing principle of the State. A State under the surveillance of the market, not the market under the surveillance of the State.

Ordoliberalism and the Freiburg School are the basis of the theoretical foundations for the creation of the Social Market Economy in the post-war period. Its characteristics are analyzed in a work by Viktor Vanberg.[lviii] The common concern of the founders of the School, says Vanberg, "was the foundations of a free economy and society".[lviii] His fundamental concern was the order of the markets, the establishment of competition without privileges for anyone, the definition of the market economy in the constitutional order, a thought that he had in the economist Walter Euken (1891-1950) and in the jurists Franz Böhm and Hans Grobmann- Doerth its main defenders. The Freiburg School proposed a “strictly rule-oriented procedural” liberalism. It was a question of creating the conditions under which Adam Smith's "invisible hand" could work, of establishing the "constitutional foundations of a free economy and society."[lix]

The debate with other liberal views of society, as Vanberg points out, centered on the supposed “ethical” character of the norms that established the functioning of the market without privileges, which another view of liberalism considered that it was not an inherent condition of the market.

Another dilemma was whether the rules established by the economic groups themselves were sufficient to guarantee this competition. From this arises a reflection on monopolies, etc.

At the 1949 meeting of the Mount Pelerin Society in Switzerland, a very influential organization to this day among the most conservative and wealthy sectors of the world, Euken and Ludwig von Mises discussed the concepts of liberalism. There arose a debate about the proper way to deal, according to a liberal concept, with the monopoly problem and the role that both government and law should play in dealing with it. A problem that history has resolved to resolve, taking the power of what we now know as transnational corporations to unimaginable extremes.

Foucault speaks of monopoly and comes to the prosaic conclusion that “if monopoly can have a disturbing effect, it is because it acts on prices”.

I would like to suggest something different. This disturbing effect is not the result of action on prices, but on property, whose concentration process, as we have already indicated, reached unimaginable extremes.
In our criterion, it is clear, in any case, the simplistic handling that Foucault makes of the concepts on which he later structures his proposal on the liberal order of today's society.

And also his defense of a liberal view of the economy and society that leaves the inevitable feeling that this is the only possible game in the current scenario, as suggested by Linz and Stepan in their Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation.[lx] A proposal that, in my view, subsequent political and economic development makes it essential to review.

Fundamental considerations: liberalism in Foucault's text

Thus, we enter the last aspect of the analysis of Foucault's text, precisely on his vision of the liberal political order. It is about highlighting some conclusions about this order, about its way of functioning. First, a certain “harmonious” vision of this functioning that does not coincide with reality, despite the fact that, in his first lecture, Foucault announced that he wanted to start from “practice as it presents itself”.[lxi]

A first idea suggested by liberals is that, by satisfying individual interests, common interests were also satisfied. The essence of the liberal order, Mercier de la Rivière would say, quoted by Laski, “is that the particular interest should never admit of being separated from the common interest”,[lxii] an idea that prevails to this day. It is perhaps precisely the growing difficulty of making it credible, in the face of the increasingly evident contradiction between the enormous accumulation of wealth and social disparity, one of the keys to the current political debate.

In this regard, Foucault rescues another proposal, commenting on the position of the physiocrats and Smith: “…the legitimate game of natural competition, that is, of competition in a free state, can only result in a double benefit. The oscillation of price around value, that oscillation which, as I showed you last time, according to the physiocrats, according to Adam Smith, was guaranteed by the freedom of the market, finally sets in motion a mechanism of mutual enrichment. Maximum profit for the seller, minimum expense spent for the buyers”.[lxiii]

Natural competition? Competition in free state? Without an analysis of how markets work, a statement like this is nothing more than an expression of desires that reality does not confirm. Again, regardless of whether this is Foucault's opinion, or the mere exposition of others' theories, there is no critical commentary. On the contrary, he complements the reflection by adding: “We are entering an era of economic historicity that will be governed by enrichment, if not for an indefinite period, at least reciprocally due to the very game of competition”.[lxiv]

And he adds: “The analysis of the market proves, in short, that across the surface of the planet the multiplication of profits will be the product of the spontaneous synthesis of selfishness”.[lxv] We are, again, at the heart of eighteenth-century liberal arguments. Let's go back to Laski, to a very different view of liberalism: “It is easy for us to see its imperfections a century and a half away. Indeed, his conception of citizenship is more limited than one might think, since his postulates presuppose that the individual object of concern is a person of position in the country. The contractual freedom he praises does not allow for equality in the hiring force. This fusion of self-interest with the social good completely ignores the starting point of men, the price they must pay when occupying the lower layers”.[lxvi]

The promise that everyone would enjoy the benefits of the new society lacks support in reality. Everyone is told that if they become men of position they can share in the benefits of the state. But, warns Laski, those who promise it lack “…the imaginative acuity to realize that the class relations they have created make this adventure impossible. Its enclosures tear the peasant from the land; its commercial property rules leave the industrial worker nothing salable except his labor. Having made inequality an implicit article of his faith, he then invites freedom to those he denies the means to achieve it”.[lxv]

Naturally, this is not what Foucault sees, unable to do so from the beginning thanks to his methodological proposal: leaving aside historical analysis, “universals”, starting from practice “as it presents itself”. As Luce Giard recalls in her text on the Frankfurt School, referring to a phrase by Max Horkheimer: “the greater a work is, the more rooted it is in a concrete historical situation”.[lxviii] A phrase that would also have served Foucault.

The result of his vision is the proposal that we have entered a new era, “governed by an enrichment, if not indefinite, at least reciprocal thanks to the very game of competition”. Makes sense? Can we argue that it is not his proposal, his view of the world, but merely a summary of Smith's view of liberals? I do not consider it that way, as I have reiterated throughout this work. Certainly, say the liberals. But, again, does Foucault also speak? Any comments to guide the discussion, to defuse the confusion? It's useless to wait any longer.

The most he says, given the evidence that the XNUMXth century was a terrible time of wars, is that he does not intend “in any way to say that any other form of reflection disappears because of this”.[lxix] But it does not suggest any other.

Another idea that Foucault discusses is how to adapt the State to this market economy. “To be more precise, let's say that the problem posed by the simultaneous and correlative appearance of the problematic of the market, the price mechanism, the homo æconomicus, is the following: the art of governing must be exercised in a space of sovereignty – and this is said by the law itself, of the State-, but the inconvenience, the misfortune or the problem is that the space of sovereignty turns out to be inhabited and populated by economic subjects”.[lxx]

Faced with this challenge, so that "governability" can preserve the "totality of its sovereign space", a new reference domain is needed. That domain is “civil society”.[lxxi] A civil society that, “formally” will be, in Foucault's conception, “a vehicle of the economic bond”.[lxxiii] In any case, it turns out to be a harmonious society. No social classes, no class conflicts, a “civil society that, in a way, plays the spontaneous role of a social contract”.[lxxiii]

Finally, a last reflection, derived from the previous one, based on that social harmony of the liberal conception that Foucault expounds in so much detail in his classes at the Collège de France in 1979: his idea of ​​salary. What is a salary?, he asks. It is simply an “income”, he replies. And what is a rent, according to Foucault? “An income is simply the product or income of capital”, it is the “income of a capital”.[lxxiv]

The next step is, naturally, to analyze what is this “capital” from which the worker derives this “income”. And this is what Foucault does when he says that the worker is “an entrepreneur of himself”![lxxv] Understood in this way, wages are then nothing other than “the income corresponding to a certain amount of capital”, to a “human capital” that is the worker.[lxxvi] A fantasy that deserves no further comment.

Forty years before Foucault, Laski already said that it was easy to perceive the imperfections of these theories, a century and a half away. The contractual freedom advocated by those who defend this view does not consider the inequality in the contracting force. The identification of self-interest with social interest does not take into account the initial conditions of each one, nor the price paid by those who leave in inferior conditions.[lxxvii] Foucault sees none of this.

Final considerations

We will stop here, with the discovery of this worker-capitalist, who obtains his income from this “human capital” that he himself is, and whose “capitalization” Foucault explains in detail, as an inherited genetic capital or as received social capital, such as mother's milk or investment in your education![lxxviii]

The approach to Foucault's proposals led us to an inevitable analysis of some aspects of the theory he exposes (but which he also defends). This is precisely the first approach of this analysis: Foucault is more than a spokesman for an extremely conservative liberalism, whose development, since his classes in the late 1970s in France secondary school, contributed to accentuate an economic and social polarization with devastating effects on humanity.

Added to this is the frivolous handling of economic concepts, which makes Foucault's text practically useless for any economic, political or social analysis. The treatment of economic concepts, his idea of ​​liberalism, the market or salary would be extremely conservative if it were not, above all, lacking in any content that would reveal some knowledge on the subject.

Product of a world in decomposition, derived from the student movements of the late 1960s and the processes that culminated in the collapse of socialism in Eastern Europe, Foucault's work ends up being of surprising intellectual poverty.

Another conclusion, derived from the analysis of Foucault's text, is that, at the very least, it should return to the France secondary school the money received for these classes. Naturally, the benefit of inventory.

*Gilberto Lopes He holds a PhD in Society and Cultural Studies from the Universidad de Costa Rica (UCR).


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Laski, Harold (1988). European liberalism. Mexico: Breviarios FCE.

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[I] Merquior, Jose Guilherme (1985). Michel Foucault or chair nihilism. Ed. New Frontier, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. page 15

[ii] See Merquior, op. cit. page 20ss

[iii] Op. cit. page 36ss

[iv] Op. cit. page 38s

[v] Foucault, Michel (2013). La Inquietud por la Truth. Siglo XXI editors. Buenos Aires. It includes ten texts by Foucault, from The willingness to know, from 1976 until The use of placers e The restlessness of oneself, both from 1984, plus four interviews.

[vi] For this we use the text Foucault, Michel (2007). Birth of biopolitics. Course at the Collège de France (1978-1979). FCE, Argentina.

[vii] Op. cit. page 359

[viii] Op. cit. page 17

[ix] Zamora, Daniel, coordinator. (2014) Critiquer Foucault: Les années 1980 et la tentation neoliberale. Editios Aden. Brussels.

[X] See the cited interview.

[xi] Lasky, Harold (1992). European liberalism. Breviaries FCE. Mexico. Twelfth reprint. Political scientist, economist, Laski chaired the British Labor Party between 1945 and 1946, in the difficult post-war years. He is considered, along with fellow Briton John Stuart Mill, one of the few theorists of State Theory in the Anglo-Saxon world. He was Professor of Political Science at the London School of Economics until his death in 1950.

[xii] Page 29

[xiii] See Max Lerner's introduction to the Research on the nature and causes of the wealth of nations, by A. Smith (1958). 1st. ed. FCE, Mexico. page XXXVIII

[xiv] Page 30

[xv] Page 31

[xvi] Page 38

[xvii] Page 36

[xviii] Page 224

[xx] Information about the Mount Pelerin Society can be found at this address:

[xx] Page 273

[xxx] page 43ss

[xxiii] Page 39

[xxiii] Page 43

[xxv] Page 44

[xxiv] Page 45

[xxv] Pages 43ss

[xxviii] See Max Lerner's introduction to Research on the nature and causes of the wealth of nations, by A. Smith (1958). 1st. ed. FCE, Mexico. page XXXVIII

[xxviii] Laski, Harold (1992). European liberalism. See pages. 139ss.

[xxix] Op. cit. page 151

[xxx] Page 166

[xxxii] See op. cit. page 141

[xxxi] page 168ss

[xxxii] Page 174

[xxxv] page 171s

[xxxiv] Saenz, Vincent (1942). Things and men of Europe. Ediciones Liberación. Mexico DF Page. 125

[xxxiv] ID id.

[xxxviii] Page 81

[xxxviii] Page 17

[xxxix] Page 21

[xl] Op. cit. page 123

[xi] Op. cit. page 365ss

[xliii] ID page 124

[xiii] Page 125

[xiv] Op. cit. page 126

[xlv] Op. cit. page 164s

[xlv] Page 31

[xlv] Op. cit. page 159

[xlviii] ID page 162

[xlix] ID page 162

[l] Page 258

[li] See MARX, Karl. El Capital. FCE. 5th edition. Mexico, 1968, pages 3ss. This is the chapter on “Mercancía y dinero”.

[liiii] Page 40

[iii] Pages 106s

[book] Swap, tango by Enrique Santos Discépolo. The lyrics can be seen here:

[lv] Page 135

[lv] Page 142

[lviii] VANBERG, Viktor J. (2004). The Freiburg School: Walter Eucken and Ordoliberalism, Freiburg discussion papers on constitutional economics, At the. 04/11

[lviii] Op. cit. page 1

[lix] Op. cit. page 2

[lx] LINZ, Juan & STEPAN, Alfred. (1996). Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation: Southern Europe, South America, and Post-Communist Europe. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London.

[lxi] Page 18

[lxii] Op. cit. page 164

[lxiii] Page 72

[lxiv] ID ID

[lxv] Page 343

[lxvi] Op. cit. page 167

[lxv] Op. cit. page 135

[lxviii] GIARD, Luce. Le moment politique de la pensée. Magazine Mind. Paris, May 78. Pg. 46. ​​The original text, in French, says: “cette phrase that Horkheimer intended a la mémoire de Freud, on peut la lui retourner, a lui et a ses compagnons: « Plus une ouvre est grande, plus elle s'enracine dans une situation historique concrète” This phrase that Horkheimer from lost of thought and conferences transformed, the work of Foucault, into our opinions of the

[lxix] Page 78

[lxx] Page 334

[lxxi] Page 335

[lxxiii] Page 344

[lxxiii] Page 345

[lxxiv] Page 262

[lxxv] Page 264

[lxxvi] Page 266

[lxxvii] O. Cit. page 167

[lxxviii] Pages 267ss









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