In the first post on this topic, I examined what connection there might be in the thought of Michel Foucault and Austrian Economics. In this post, I will look at some reviews of Foucault’s work in this area that demonstrate the left’s understanding of the value of subjective value in ethics toward their project.
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.
I will repeat my caution: 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.
The author of this paper (for which, I regret to say, the author’s name is not included that I can find), appears to be offering a critique of Foucault’s work during these lectures. I am not so interested in the critique as I am in what this critique reveals in terms of explanatory context. The author seems to be after extending Foucault’s argument, developing it further along the lines first offered in the lectures.
Mises’s work on the effect of the impersonal market on colonial populations is touched on, as is his work on state-owned enterprises in places like Mexico.
One could go on, for the dossier is quite extensive, but the basic point should be clear: …the very same neoliberal thinkers about whom Foucault writes (Mises, Rüstow, Röpke, etc.) spent considerable time focusing on the question of how the apparatus of the market might be brought to bear on populations who were then emancipating themselves, or who in some cases already had emancipated themselves, from colonial rule.
What is meant by the term “neoliberalism”? The author offers:
According to its own self-understanding, the neoliberalism of the early and mid-twentieth century was an attempt to protect the rights of the person and property from the “totalitarianism” that, in the view of the neoliberals, was the inevitable result of “collectivism” and “big government.”
These neoliberals “proposed a revival of nineteenth-century liberalism, particularly its principles of “the market” and “the rule of law,” as the best way to establish limits on raison d’état from within.” Yet, it was not a repudiation of the state, only to limit state actions to the health, welfare, and safety of the subject population.
This is consistent with my understanding – more so with Hayek and Friedman, less so, I believe, with Mises. If some consider it less than perfect in the details, it is certainly close enough for discussion purposes.
Put simply, neoliberalism is a genealogical descendent of pastoral power.
Well…what is “pastoral power”?
… pastoral power understood its aims with reference to the figure of the shepherd whose specific skill was to care for his flock as it moves from place to place. … pastoral power sought “to constantly ensure, sustain, and improve the lives of each and every one.”
Whereas the state manages the people for the sake of the state – for example, to wage and win war, the neoliberal sees the people as an end unto themselves – with the state limited to the role of establishing higher living standards for all (pastoral), within a framework of property rights and the rule of law to protect each individual from both the state and his fellows.
I see this a little differently in the case of the Austrians: I don’t know that it is appropriate to say that the state’s objective is to establish higher living standards; instead, it is expected that the state establishes a framework where each individual is free to pursue his desired living standards within the disciplines and constraints of the market.
Most of all, neoliberalism systematically failed to think through the despotic, administrative apparatuses that were central to the very nineteenth-century liberal thinkers – such as J. S. Mill and A. V. Dicey – whose revival in the twentieth century was, in their view, supposed to liberate the West from the racist bureaucracies of the totalitarian regimes.
…neoliberalism was not, then, the antidote to repression it imagined itself to be…
Libertarian anarchists certainly understand this; history certainly supports this view. A minimal state is still a monopoly; with nothing to check its power, its growth is inevitable. The state has expanded beyond anything imaginable pre-Enlightenment.
Murray Rothbard would note this point, in For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto:
…the natural law provides the only sure ground for a continuing critique of governmental laws and decrees.
Absent an underlying cultural foundation that recognizes and respects natural law in the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition, there is nothing to check monopoly state power.
Returning to the subject paper, the author describes what, in his view, is a shortcoming of the neoliberal view: the limited administrative state would inherently turn into a police state. What is meant by “police state”?
It’s a state in which government infinitely obeys and infinitely gives expression to life’s infinite demand for security and health, its infinite demand for the secular equivalents of salvation. It’s a state in which the ad hoc administration of the processes internal to the lives of populations undoes the rule of law from within, converting the forms of liberal legality—publicity (through promulgation), consistency (through reference to precedent), impartiality (through principles of equality and liberty), predictability (where law’s coercion may be anticipated in advance)—into a formless, unpredictable, chaotic apparatus.
If this isn’t a perfect description of our condition today, right here and right now with the state reaction to coronavirus (let alone many prior episodes), I don’t know a better one.
Neoliberalism in Mises’s sense breaks with the mode of argumentation that characterized old liberalism: whereas the latter conceived liberty and equality to be basic rights granted to man by God or Nature, Mises denounced such conceptions as “illusory doctrines.” Unlike older liberalisms, Mises would argue, “we avoid, on principle, drawing God and Nature into a dispute over mundane questions.”
Rothbard would have something to say about this, also, in his essay On Mises's Ethical Relativism:
What I have been trying to say is that Mises's utilitarian, relativist approach to ethics is not nearly enough to establish a full case for liberty. It must be supplemented by an absolutist ethic — an ethic of liberty, as well as of other values needed for the health and development of the individual — grounded on natural law, i.e., discovery of the laws of man's nature.
Returning to the subject paper, the state is a secularized pastoral power; as such, Foucault does not loosely use the term “state” to describe all historical forms of government:
What we sometimes are in the sloppy habit of calling “the state” (and we should remember that, in Foucault’s thought, there is no simple or ahistorical concept of “the state”) came into being under conditions where, under the influence of new nonteleological natural sciences, pastoral power was obliged to translate its old objectives now into the language of calculative, mechanistic instrumental reason.
I read this as specifically pointing to the time when the Church lost formal authority, birthing the state. One can trace this from the time of the Reformation – albeit Christianity still held sway throughout Europe – but gaining full flower in the Enlightenment. And if I read this right, it could be here where Foucault’s name is entered in the class know as post-modern decontructionists.
Moving to another paper, Bernard E. Harcourt writes of Foucault’s path through these lectures:
…a four-part analysis that covers (1) eighteenth century English liberalism; (2) twentieth century German ordo-liberalism; (3) 1970s French Giscardian neoliberalism; and (4) American Chicago School neoliberalism—before concluding with a capstone lecture on the notion of “civil society.”
It is this fourth group in which we will find Mises and Hayek (yes, I know, they are not of the same cloth as Friedman and the Chicago School).
What drives the inquiry—exactly like the year before—is Foucault’s conviction that this new art of governing has set in motion a regime of truth that operates “today” … It is the link between these new forms of liberal economic rationality and the production of truth today that motivates the 1979 lectures.
But Harcourt doesn’t view that this means Foucault is in agreement with the thoughts of these neoliberals:
An intense debate has recently erupted over Foucault’s personal sympathies and political views on neoliberalism…As François Ewald suggests, Foucault was no more Machiavellian for studying raison d’État or Physiocrat for studying François Quesnay, than he was neoliberal for studying Gary Becker.
So, at least one person doesn’t find a sympathetic connection.
Harcourt closes with commentary similar to that found in the first paper: this neoliberalism, instead of checking government power, greatly expands it – and expands it precisely because of what it is.
In fact, [laissez-faire capitalism] supposes a legal regime that advances the interests of the entrepreneurial class, which at length is what evolved in America.
Now, I argue that such a law regime “that advances the interests of the entrepreneurial class” is most specifically not laissez-faire capitalism. But this is separate to the point. This neoliberalism leads, like day following night, to just such a law regime. We may disagree in theory, but cannot disagree in fact – the evidence of the last two centuries is overwhelmingly one-sided. Further, compared to a medieval law regime, the difference is almost incomprehensible.
I can understand the connection of Foucault to the Austrian thinkers: as subjective value liberates markets, applied to ethics it liberates from all constraints of ethics. Subjective ethics provides no check on the growth of state power.
Rothbard would note this problem, and wrote of this decades ago. Those who value liberty should take note.