IV (Neo-)liberal?

On Liberalism: Limits, the Market and the Subject

Frederic Gros

Between January and early April 1979, Foucault delivered a course entitled The Birth of Biopolitics at the College de France. Michel Senellart provided an accurate, rigorously annotated transcription for its publication in French in 2004 and in English in 2008.1 The course is part of a set covering 13 years of packed, creative teaching at the College de France from 1971 to 1984. Yet the lecture delivered in 1979 contains a number of features that distinguish it from the rest. On the one hand, it is the only one that refers directly and at length not only to historical sequences from the twentieth century, but also to burning issues of the day, since the “liberal” policy of President Valery Giscard d’Estaing and his Prime Minister Raymond Barre are evoked, as well as the 1974 Stoffaes report on “negative tax.” Such an explicit, structured incursion into the immediate present is unique in the history of Foucault’s lectures at the College de France. On the other hand, a certain discrepancy must be highlighted between course title (The Birth of Biopolitics) and content, as signaled by Michael Dillon among others.2 Indeed, Foucault states that he “thought [he] could do a course on biopolitics this year,”3 in the sense that he wanted to show how

F. Gros (*)

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a new style of government was articulated with an equally original object: population.4 However, biopolitics did not figure in it, and it dealt with liberalism in its classical and more contemporary versions. The two problems are certainly linked and Foucault himself remarks that what he calls liberal governmentality ultimately represents something like the “general regime” on the basis of which the biopolitics of populations makes sense and takes shape.5

Publication of the course occasioned some very intense debates in France and elsewhere, which soon assumed a caricatural form, in the media at any rate: did Foucault venture a severe critique or a captivated praise of neo-liberalism in 1979?6 For us the point is not to intervene in this debate, which, when cast in these terms at least, is skewed from the outset. On the one hand, Foucault’s course is situated in a historical and descriptive perspective that short-circuits any value judgments. Expressing an ideological choice for or against liberalism never arises. But we would be ill-advised to think that Foucault displays and defends an easy, rather a cowardly, neutrality throughout his lectures.

It must be acknowledged that liberalism is at one and the same time regarded as a tool critical of government “excesses,” as a call for the state to withdraw,7 and as a system of government involving the constant control of individuals and uncircumscribed legal interventionism in social relations.8 Above all, however, the debate over Foucault’s “(neo-) liberal temptation” is slanted by the fact that, while perceived by all as extremely fresh, the course was delivered half a century ago and in the interval the meaning of “neo-liberalism” has changed profoundly. Foucault gave his lectures before the arrival in power of Margaret Thatcher in Britain and Ronald Reagan in the United States, and prior to the implementation of the Washington Consensus, which imposed nonsensical budgetary austerity on many “developing” countries. To put it in a nutshell, when Foucault referred to neo-liberalism, he was not thinking directly of the dismantling of public services, challenges to social gains, the introduction of “corporate governance” into the management of public services—what would today be called the new public management—to economic relocation, or to the pressure of financial markets on state policy. Even so, in his analyses of a “new” German and American liberalism, he clearly describes secular fault lines whose identification is highly illuminating today, because it makes it possible for us, taking the long view, to get a better grasp of our differences vis-a-vis the late 1970s, when Foucault gave his lecture.

My intention here is therefore not to resolve the debate about whether Foucault was attracted by the critical virtues of neo-liberalism or whether, as early as 1979, he offered a theoretically grounded condemnation of it. Instead, I would like to fix upon some of the principal concepts employed by him as vectors of identity for what he calls “liberal governmentality,” as well as for their neo-liberal reconfiguration in our immediate present.

Roughly speaking, the structure of the course is as follows: initial definitions of liberalism in January; a characterization of “German” neo-liberalism in February and of “American” neo-liberalism in March; return to proto-liberalism in the last two sessions. However, this description is superficial, for it is in and through precise conceptualizations that differentiated styles of governmentality and liberalism are defined. In this course, then, “governmental- ity” is the most generic concept. Foucault generally defines it as a technique for conducting the conduct of human beings (see Bigo and Walters in this volume). Here it assumes the more specific sense of a technique, practiced by a sovereign power, for informing the conduct of its subjects and managing its objects.9 Liberal governmentality in the late eighteenth century was defined on the basis of three main conceptual expressions: the proposition of an “internal limitation” to governmentalities;10 the formation of the market as an instance of “veridiction”;11 and the invention of new modalities of subjectivation.12 Once I will have clarified these three notions, I shall show how neo-liberalism proposes transformed versions of them.

Foucault initially seeks to characterize liberalism by differentiating it (either through rupture or simple inflection) from raison d’etat. By the latter is meant a governmentality that endeavors to intensify the state, which creates more and more of it, exhausts itself enhancing its power (natural resources, population, material forces, etc.). This “classical” govern- mentality, whose most emblematic representative is doubtless Richelieu, encountered a so-called external principle of limitation that arrests political action. It takes the form, for example, of a number of “fundamental laws” of divine, natural, cosmic essence, or of “imprescriptible rights” attached to individuals, that represent external impediments to a state power whose extension partakes of a logic of perpetual, constant, infinite reinforcement.13 Such limitations were also bound up with the system of sovereign states as developed in the modern age and in so far as it operated as a historical, contingent system of limits within which each of its constitutive units (modern territorial states) operated as a limit on the others.14

For Foucault, liberal governmentality, by contrast, will be characterized by the introduction of principles of “an internal limitation of governmental rationality.”15 This entails the sovereign power declining to intervene in certain specific areas of reality, without this renunciation being attributable to it encountering external stumbling blocks: it is the result of a deliberate abandonment. Infringement of an external limitation by a state power was an illegitimate transgression. Infringement of an internal limitation represents a counter-productive error. The “internal” character of the limitation derives from the fact that what is at issue is allowing the unfolding of immanent natural entities in accordance with their own dynamic truth, rather than in conformity with some transcendent external order. If Foucault makes liberal government a governmen- tality that operates via systematic reference to “truth” and “nature,” such truth is obviously not that of revealed dogma; and the naturalness is not that of Creation. Liberalism builds on the spontaneity of processes in the face of which any state voluntarism proves at once pointless and harmful. The putative spontaneity of certain processes, such as the process of exchange, means that they are constituted as surfaces of objectivity (re- codifiable in true discourses) and networks of necessities (which grounds their naturalness). Once a number of domains of reality (of which the market is the paradigmatic example) are established as a “process,” specifically liberal governmentality is one which, in and through an internal critique, obliges itself not to intervene unduly. The transition from a gov- ernmentality of raison d’etat to a liberal governmentality is therefore one from prestige of the law as an expression of the sovereign will (the major question then being: upon what right is a political decision founded?) to recognition of immanent truth as the compass of any political decision (the major question then being: is the decision effective?).

In the secular history of governmentalities, liberalism therefore represents for Foucault the moment when the reference point for assessing the “good” conduct of the sovereign is no longer to be sought in an analysis of the Prince’s virtues (politico-pastoral governmentality), or in an estimate of the means employed to augment the power of the state (governmentality of raison d’etat), but in a critical assessment of the manner in which immanent processes are allowed to unfold properly, in accordance with their own truth. Following the reign of spiritual counselors and great strategic guides, liberalism promoted that of experts on naturalness.16 After the scandal of the vices of the corrupt monarch, or of abuses of power by an authoritarian state, liberalism introduces the scandal of incompetence.17 Liberal recognition of a process as a principle of self-limitation also operates internationally:18 the liberal promise is one of a possible regulation once the old Westphalian system of the mutual exteriority of states, defending incompatible interests, fades before the self-evident fact of the identity of Nations, recognizing one another as partners in a single market whose (putative) dynamic is one of collective enrichment. This enrichment, however, can only come from the conquest of markets external to Europe: the imperialism of conquest and exploitation is found at the heart of liberal logic19 (see Esteves and Fernandez in this volume). At bottom, this liberal practice merges with a third major idea of Europe. Foucault’s intuitions here can in fact be extended to indicate the three European projects, the three historical modalities in which Europe has been conceived as a unit. A mystical unit in a shared faith in the Middle Ages: for the last Emperor to reign, ushering in a thousand years of happiness and plenty, millenar- ian hopes require the disappearance of borders and the advent of a unified Christian republic. A political unit in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: sovereign states are ultimately sustained by means of constant adversity and an endless search for an equilibrium that has always to be recreated. Finally, a commercial unit: liberalism succeeds political realism, proposing to transform Europe into a single market that will regulate the relations between peoples in accord with a genuine harmony of interests, gradually bringing about the disappearance of national rivalries.

At bottom, whether externally or internally, it is by taking the “market” into account that liberalism ventures a form of governmentality qua the art of governing less—the replacement of the model of the law imposed on wills vertically by a model of immanent regulation reconfiguring interests horizontally. The market is at the heart of liberal governmentality, both as a mandatory interpretative framework and as a privileged content. Foucault formulates an important thesis, which nevertheless retains an esoteric aspect in his formulation. It consists in stating that the market is advanced by liberalism as an instance of “veridiction,” of the “formation of truth.”20 The idea is at once simple and fundamental. It involves saying that, as long as an absence of monopoly and transparency of information prevail, the price which emerges exclusively from the operation of supply and demand in an economic space of exchange is a true price, a “natural price”21 corresponding to the real value of the goods exchanged. The truth of prices therefore emerges from a deregulated market, a truth ideally benefiting everyone, ideally contributing to general prosperity. We are aware that this theme of “market efficiency” is a very powerful neo-liberal dogma today, facilitating an ideological synthesis between truth (understood as objective necessity) and justice (construed as optimal situation).

Prices are true if they are determined by the logic of a transparent market. They are just because they are true (the governmentality of raison d’etat argued from the converse deduction: it is true because it is just). Our age is marked—one might also say fissured or torn—by this opposition between a dogmatic justice of markets and a de facto social injustice, which can only figure in liberal discourse as derivative, inessential, temporary, with the dogma of market efficiency roughly playing the role of divine Providence, whose ways are inscrutable, and which cannot be challenged.

The point of emergence and the origin of this formation of the market as the site of veridiction are easily situated. It is the late eighteenth century, when the state fixed corn prices in authoritarian fashion and prohibited corn imports, and food shortages and famines occurred. If there is a shortage, claimed the economists, it is because excessive regulation is jamming the mechanisms that would allow supply to coincide harmoniously with demand. It is the state’s authoritarian price-fixing that distorts determination of the true price of corn.22 It should be added that the logic of the market as an instance of veridiction has since been extended to other types of goods, traditionally regarded as having to be fixed by a political will—for example, health, justice, security, education. These are so many “common goods” or “public services” that come under new kinds of so- called governance, that work by objectives and are applied indifferently to individuals, firms, the state or a group of states.23 It is therefore proposed to make hospitals compete to create a “genuine” health service or to make universities compete to obtain “genuine” research; and users of public services are regarded as “customers.” The extension of the market sphere to realities other than “produced” goods is at the heart of the liberal project (see Hibou in this volume).

Foucault’s reflections make it possible to denounce this commodification of the world and individuals in a way that differs from the Marxist manner of doing so, on the basis of a dialectic of labor and as a process of reification. It is a determinate governmental practice which, for all that it is self-limiting and rejects any dirigisme, makes the market the instance where the value of things and human beings is verified.

A second major thesis concerns subjectivity—what liberalism presupposes by way of subjective modality. Foucault centers his analysis on the ultimately highly ambiguous notion of “subject of interest.”24 Liberalism believes that the individuals making up society must be regarded and treated less as citizens than as subjects of interests. A type of governmentality is deduced that is obviously distinct from a republican governmentality requiring everyone to sacrifice themselves for the common good, or a politico-pastoral governmentality requiring everyone to submit to their Prince in that recognition of the sovereign’s authority is conducive to their salvation. Liberalism believes that political subjects are not dependent either on a sovereign, general will or on a transcendent, redemptive order. Subjects calculate their immanent interests and behave by guiding themselves toward their own preferences.

These things are well-known, but Foucault makes an important point that represents something like the structural ambivalence of liberal gov- ernmentality. In fact, we can basically venture two theses. First, we can say: the subject of interest is the subject of irreducible, non-transferable preferences.25 However, it is not a question of denouncing moral egotism, but of registering the fact that every subject actually and inevitably pursues his or her own interests, and that it is therefore pointless and counter-productive for government to seek to impose external political will on them (even if allegedly in the public interest). On the contrary, it must limit itself in its pretensions and ultimately simply assume the role of arbiter in the conflict of interests, thus confining itself to the function of Rechtsstaat (Etat de droit). Unlike in the republican model, however, it cannot claim to inform the will of its subjects, because the composition of a general interest cannot as such be aimed at by a political will—even if it is generated spontaneously—because the process is too opaque and we shall remain utterly blind to it (reinterpretation of Smith’s invisible hand in terms of blindness).26 But it can also be said that the subject of interest rationally calculates his or her preferences as so many profits, and such calculability of interests is precisely what a form of governmentality can rely on to incentivize, encourage, induce one form of behavior rather than another. After all, if the liberal subject is a subject of calculation, who adapts interests to reality, who chooses in accordance with what seems most profitable, it suffices to modify the environment in such a way as to stimulate one desire, to prompt one choice, rather than another.27 The whole problem, obviously, is whether what is meant by “interest” is an irreducible, ultimately irrational preference or a calculable profit. Hence the fact that an ambiguity unquestionably runs through the 1979 course, attaching to this notion of interest, which is liberalism’s identity card: liberal governmentality is successively (but never dialectically) presented in terms of either intrusion and total control or restraint and self-limitation.

On the basis of this initial conceptual elaboration, neo-liberalism in Foucault’s work is to be understood as a decisive inflection of the concept of market with German neo-liberalism and of the modality of subjectivation with American neo-liberalism. As regards German neo-liberalism, the most striking thesis revolves around the idea that the environment of economic competition (the market is perceived from the angle of competition as opposed to exchange) is not a spontaneous natural entity, but an artificial order of reality, which is ultimately fragile and unstable unless constantly supported politically (on the concept of environment, see Taylan in this volume). This neo-liberalism is therefore intent on countering a certain naivety about the postulate of a market as a site of veridic- tion, which consists in regarding market deregulation as reversion to its natural state: abolish artificial fetters, arbitrary impediments and you will set in motion profound mechanisms of spontaneous self-regulation! For Foucault the peculiarity of German ordo-l iberalism is that it appreciates that a useful, efficient space of economic competition, where prices can express their truth, is an artificial environment that needs to be maintained by rules and vigilance; it is a game that depends on introducing rules, a game that benefits all players provided continuous pressure is exerted to avoid the creation of monopolies or to control the undesirable social effects (impoverishment, unemployment, etc.) of overly fierce competition. The problem West Germany faced in the immediate post-war period was roughly as follows: to hit upon a principle of legitimacy and agreement, of consensus, for the new state, which did not have any political content, which did involve adherence to a national idea, to a desire for the union of the German people, for that was how Nazism had made itself the master of Germany’s fate with horrific consequences. Ordo-liberalism thus proposed establishing a consensus based on support for, and adherence to the market. We witness something very strange and paradoxical around this neo-liberalism: the state is the political instance that simply establishes, protects, demarcates, arbitrates a space of economic competition void of any public content, which at the same time makes it possible to save us from the monstrosity of the political.28 A complex arrangement, then, and a paradoxical one, because it involves saying simultaneously “the state is what saves us from politics by maintaining a competitive market” and “individuals’ consumption, investments and their participation in the market will count as direct support for the state and, ultimately, as legitimation of the latter.” Neo-liberalism therefore brings state and market into a relationship of dialectical neutralization/foundation, far removed from classical liberalism, where the market featured as the natural phenomenon [plage de naturalite] that imposed restraints on gov- ernmentality. With American neo-liberalism, a redefinition of subjectivity is at work in the works of the theoreticians of human capital (Thomas Schultz, Gary Becker, and others; see Paltrinieri in this volume). It is a question not so much of the market in itself as of the calculations that bring it into being in a subject—one might even say the ethical conditions of its development. The concept of human capital makes it possible to examine the neo-liberal construction of the relationship to oneself. The calculation (cost of investment divided by profits) partakes of the rationality of the entrepreneur, who projects it onto his enterprise. The enterprise becomes a mode of intelligibility that can be endlessly extended to human relationships (friendship, marriage, etc., are so many investment calculations) or to public action.29 Everyone is therefore enjoined to become an “entrepreneur of himself,”30 the manager of his or her existence; and the state must learn to re-model its public policy (Foucault takes the example of penal policy)31 through the filter of economic calculation, and replace investigation of the justice of its action by investigation of its profitability.

In his 1979 course, Foucault’s problem was therefore not deciding his own relationship to liberalism, but describing the way in which what he called liberal and neo-liberal governmentality effects a break with older governmentalities (pastorate and raison d’etat), and introducing the concept of an “internal limitation” of the market as “instance of veridiction,” and proposing modalities of subjectivation irreducible to the classical political subject.

I would like to conclude with a theme—one should even say a stress— that has been little noticed in the numerous readings of this course: the idea of “political life.” After all, is politics not also that—a set of public debates about too much or too little government, bad government or good government? On at least two occasions, in the first lecture and in his “Course Summary,” Foucault underscored what a certain idea of politics as critical debate owes to liberalism. Here we may offer two quotations in full: “political economy32 (...) establishes, in its most important features, not of course the reign of truth in politics, but the particular regime of truth which is a characteristic feature of what could be called the age of politics”;33 “The question of liberalism, understood as a question of ‘too much government,’ has been one of the constant dimensions of that European phenomenon which seems to have emerged first of all in England, namely: ‘political life.’ It is even one of its constituent elements, if it is true that political life exists when the possible excess of governmental practice is limited by the fact that it is the object of public debate regarding its ‘good or bad,’ its ‘too much or too little.’”34

The aim here is not to say that Foucault declared his support to liberalism, but that he affirmed his loyalty to an issue (one might say a suspicion) formulated by early liberalism35—that of “governing too much”—in so far as it can always be divided into the question of “why should it be necessary to govern?” Liberalism, by installing civil society and the state in a fractious relationship of exteriority, reverses the traditional front of political thought, since it starts out not from the issue of the state, in order to establish its right to govern subjects, but from society in as much as it questions the very fact of being governed.

Translated by Gregory Elliott


  • 1. Michel Foucault, Naissance de la biopolitique. Cours au College de France, 1978-79, ed. Michel Senellart (Paris: Hautes Etudes/Gallimard & Seuil, 2004); The Birth ofBiopolitics: Lectures at the College de France 1978-79, transl. Graham Burchell (Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).
  • 2. Michael Dillon, “Gouvernement, economie et biopolique,” Cultures & Conflits, no. 78 (2010): 11-37.
  • 3. Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics, p. 21.
  • 4. Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics, p. 21.
  • 5. Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics, p. 22.
  • 6. See, for example, the books by Christian Laval and Pierre Dardot, The New Way of the World: On Neoliberal Society, transl. Gregory Elliott (London and New York Verso, 2014) and, conversely, Geoffroy de Lagnaserie, La derniere legon de Michel Foucault sur le neoliberalisme, la theorie et la politique (Paris: Fayard, 2012). For a precise re-contextualization, Serge Audier’s Penser le neoliberalisme. Le moment neoliberal (Bordeaux: Le Bord de l’eau, 2015) may be read with profit.
  • 7. For example, Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics, pp. 20-21.
  • 8. Foucault, The Birth ofBiopolitics, pp. 66-7, 178-9.
  • 9. Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics, p. 2.
  • 10. Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics, p. 10.
  • 11. Foucault, The Birth ofBiopolitics, p. 32.
  • 12. The term itself does not figure, but the lectures of 14 and 28 March are precisely concerned with describing styles of subjectivity bound up with liberal governmentality.
  • 13. Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics, pp. 8-10.
  • 14. Readers are referred to the works of R.B.J. Walker—in particular, Inside/ Outside: International Relations as Political Theory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993) and After the Globe, Before the World (London and New York: Routledge, 2010). See also his contribution to this volume.
  • 15. Foucault, The Birth of Biopolities, p. 10; my emphasis.
  • 16. Foucault, The Birth of Biopolities, pp. 17-18.
  • 17. Foucault, The Birth of Biopolities, p. 16.
  • 18. See the entire course of 24 January.
  • 19. This important point only occurs in the manuscript: The Birth ofBiopolities,

p. 21.

  • 20. Foucault, The Birth ofBiopolities, pp. 30-34.
  • 21. Foucault, The Birth ofBiopolities, p. 32.
  • 22. This analysis was conducted in a course from the previous year, on 18 January 1978 (Seeurity, Territory, Population: Leetures at the College de Franee 1977-78, ed. Michel Senellart and transl. Graham Burchell (New York and London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), pp. 29-54. In the sphere of consumer goods, this schema remains credible. But the truth generated by a deregulated market becomes hallucinatory when it comes to speculative goods or goods liable to give rise to speculation.
  • 23. See Alain Supiot, La Gouvernanee par les nombres. Cours au College de Franee (2012-2014), (Paris: Fayard, 2015), pp. 215-44.
  • 24. See the lecture of 28 March, in The Birth ofBiopolities, pp. 267-89; and see The Birth of Biopolities, p. 46 for the theme of the “phenomenal republic of interests.”
  • 25. Foucault, The Birth of Biopolities, p. 272.
  • 26. Foucault, The Birth of Biopolities, p. 280.
  • 27. Foucault, The Birth of Biopolities, pp. 269-70.
  • 28. Foucault, The Birth of Biopolities, pp. 86-7.
  • 29. Foucault, The Birth ofBiopolities, pp. 226-33.
  • 30. Foucault, The Birth of Biopolities, p. 230; and see Dardot and Laval, The New Way of the World.
  • 31. Dardot and Laval, The New Way of the World, pp. 248-60.
  • 32. It is itself defined as the “form of rationality” of liberal governmentality: Dardot and Laval, The New Way of the World, p. 13.
  • 33. Dardot and Laval, The New Way of the World, pp. 17-18.
  • 34. Dardot and Laval, The New Way of the World, pp. 321-2.
  • 35. To the end, Foucault focuses his analysis on “economic” liberalism. At bottom, “political” liberalism (which he also calls a “revolutionary approach”: p. 39) starts out from the state to found liberty and individual rights, whereas liberalism in its more “radical” version starts from society and poses to government the question of its relevance and effectiveness.
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