After Foucault made his pact with the devil in 1975, he began teaching Austrian School Economics….
This got my attention, so I went looking (including asking a couple of people much more knowledgeable on this relationship than I am).
There are some hints at this relationship, for example by Nick Gillespie at Reason, who writes: “Foucault gave a generally appreciative series of Paris lectures on classical liberalism….” What I am coming to find is that those engaged in this conversation see an open border between Austrian Economics and liberal political thought; in other words, the two are almost treated as the same thing – clearly not correct, but understandable.
I am going to split this analysis into two posts. In this first one, I will examine the reasons, if any, for the common ground Foucault finds with Austrian and liberal thinkers. In the second, I will examine some comments that make clear that the culturally left see very clearly the value to their objectives of a liberalism without a traditional, objective, ethic (Christianity and natural law) undergirding it.
First, from an essay (with no obvious attribution):
…no one else has seriously engaged with the theories and literature that underpin the “neoliberal” tradition (which most people might identify as neoclassical economics), which is to say with people like Hayek, von Mises, Friedman, etc.
I am not sure what is meant by “no one else” and “seriously engaged.” What I do take away from this is that it is considered that Foucault did seriously engage with these theories.
Further, a piece published in Portuguese (but with an abstract in English), in the Mises: Interdisciplinary Journal of Philosophy, Law and Economics:
In this article, I offer a conceptual clarification regarding the place occupied by central Austrian Liberal authors, Mises and Hayek, in the thought of Michel Foucault, in what concerns the gestation of the (neo)liberal biopolitics and governmentality.
The issue at hand is a series of lectures given by Foucault, which were subsequently translated and offered in a book: The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1978--1979.
From the book description at Amazon:
The Birth of Biopolitics continues to pursue the themes of Foucault's lectures from Security, Territory, Population. Having shown how eighteenth-century political economy marks the birth of a new governmental rationality--seeking maximum effectiveness by governing less and in accordance with the naturalness of the phenomena to be governed--Michel Foucault undertakes a detailed analysis of the forms of this liberal governmentality. In a direct and conversational tone, this book raises questions of political philosophy and social policy that are at the heart of current debates about the role and status of neo-liberalism in twentieth century politics.
From this, we see that Foucault engages with what we know as the classical liberalism of the eighteenth century (“seeking maximum effectiveness by governing less”), and continuing his examination in the twentieth century of what is labeled “neo-liberalism” – the category in which he places Mises and Hayek.
For some further background, Mark Kelly would write of these Foucault lectures, noting that two of these were dedicated to an “Austrian-inspired American neoliberalism”:
Here it’s clear we are dealing with a different beast, an ideology not of the state administrators as in France and Germany, but of anti-state opposition. Rather than promising to use statecraft to support the fragile market mechanism, the American neoliberals apply the market as a grid of intelligibility for all human affairs, including politics. As has been said, they are indeed market fundamentalists.
But we still haven’t seen what, if any, connection or sympathy there is between Foucault and the liberal thought of Mises or Hayek.
I do not plan to buy the book, so I will make do with several secondary sources. I will emphasize: unless clearly indicated otherwise, anything I write of Mises or Hayek and their views on economics or liberalism is taken from the noted sources – I do not mean to suggest that these views are accurately portrayed. What I am after is what at least some people see connecting the thought of Foucault to that of Mises or Hayek – that they are right or wrong about the connection is a separate discussion.
To get at the connection, the relationship, I had to rely on the Jacobins:
Neoliberalism, being more open to pluralism, seems to offer a less constrictive framework for the proliferation of minoritarian experiments.
In the strictest sense, this is what liberalism offers. Value is subjective in economic markets, and value is subjective in ethics. Traditional or objective values have no defender in liberalism.
I would say, more than “complementing” Hayek and Friedman, the problem with Foucault is that he implicitly embraced their representation of the market: that of a less normative, less coercive, and more tolerant space for minoritarian experiments than the welfare state, subject as it is to majority rule.
While embracing Hayek and Friedman, Jacobin offers a “tsk, tsk.” They don’t see the market in this “less coercive” light. One can certainly understand this criticism in the crony capitalism of today (and in some of Friedman’s work); I don’t think it is true for Hayek – and certainly not for Mises to my understanding. Yet it is clear that many make this connection.
A further clue is offered in Michel Foucault, Political Economy, and Liberalism, by Jean-Yves Grenier and André Orléan:
Security, Territory, Population and The Birth of Biopolitics constitute a project that is continually in search of itself, and in which the author is led to undertake many rearrangements, to explore many false paths and even contradictions—all of which makes it difficult to achieve a coherent perception of the whole.
However, in The Birth of Biopolitics, Foucault goes further. On the occasion of this course he takes another step, in a certain sense an ultimate step, in his rejection of sovereignty. He does so on the basis of a thesis inspired in part by Hayek’s thought: “The market economy escapes any totalizing knowledge.”
The rejection of sovereignty, taken from the market and applied in all spheres (as the thinnest of liberalism does with the sovereignty of the individual). Here again is the idea of applying the individualization of the market to any idea of ethics.
Continuing: Liberalism without Humanism: Michel Foucault and the Free-Market Creed, 1976–1979, Michael C. Behrent:
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.
…this article contends that Foucault’s brief, strategic, and contingent endorsement of liberalism was possible precisely because he saw no incompatibility between anti-humanism and liberalism—but only liberalism of the economic variety. Economic liberalism alone, and not its political iteration, was compatible with the philosophical anti-humanism that is the hallmark of Foucault’s thought.
So, there may be different interpretation about what, exactly, Foucault was getting at.
Finally, from the abstract of Neoliberalism Through Foucault’s Eyes, by Serge Audier and Michael C. Behrent:
Michael Foucault's 1979 lectures at the Collège de France on the birth of biopolitics are increasingly read as the most lucid introduction to neoliberal policies. This article invites us to be cautious about such claims by exploring one rather obvious point: these lectures also—and perhaps most important—reflect Foucault's very distinctive and contemporary preoccupations.
Here we get some idea of what attracted Foucault to Austrian Economics, albeit it appears at least some people saw the connection more with liberal political theory or a mix of the two. Next, we will look at how well the left understands the value to their objectives of subjectivity in ethics.