Too-Late Liberalism: From Promised Prosperity to Permanent Austerity

Laurence McFalls and Marietta Pandolfi

In a celebrated scene of Luchino Visconti’s classic film set in the Risorgimento, The Leopard (1963), the protagonist, the Sicilian Prince of Salina, engages in a dialog with a Piedmontese functionary sent to recruit him for the Senate of the newly established liberal Kingdom of Italy. The dignified representative of the old aristocracy mockingly declines the invitation, ironically dismissing the bourgeois opportunism of the new order of “jackals and hyenas” that has replaced a world of “lions and leopards”: “I am utterly without illusions. What would the Senate do with an inexperienced legislator who lacks the faculty of self-deception, essential requisite for those who wish to guide others?” More than self-interested nostalgia, the prince’s melancholy inspires Gilles Deleuze’s concept of the “too- late,” a concept that describes, we contend, the impossibility of fulfilling the promise of political redemption.1 The prince recognizes not only that it is too late to save the old world but also, and more importantly, that it is always already too late for a new order to realize its self-deceiving emancipatory claims. Visconti’s and/or Deleuze’s political pessimism goes well beyond the classic interpretations of the Risorgimento and its discontents. It applies to liberalism as a whole.

L. McFalls (*) • M. Pandolfi

University of Montreal, Montreal, QC, Canada

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© The Author(s) 2017 219

P. Bonditti et al. (eds.), Foucault and the Modern International,

The Sciences Po Series in International Relations and Political Economy, DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-56153-4_13

As we shall argue here, liberalism proposes a politics of human freedom that comes too late, not historically but inherently. Inspired by Deleuze’s idea that “history [whether that of fascism, capitalism or childhood] always arrives too late dynamically,”2 we posit that it is already too late to speak of post-liberalism. To be sure, liberalism is temporally bounded: following Michel Foucault, one can construct a genealogy of its rise (as a critique of absolutist reason of state), of its renewal (through the neoliberal critique of its naturalist assumptions), and maybe even of its latter- day fall into what we have elsewhere theorized as post-liberal non-order. The prefix “post,” however, does not fit, not because it is premature but because liberalism’s eclipse had already happened even as it was articulated and implemented. Similarly, “neo”-liberalism merely describes a qualitative and temporal moment of the “programmation liberale”3 in which its aporias become particularly evident. In introducing the concept of too- late liberalism, we wish to expose the already-always present impasse of contemporary “democratic capitalist” societies and to show that liberalism’s truth claims as well as its practices and techniques have simultaneously realized and negated their premises, or whose limits have supplanted its promise.

In stepping back from the claim that we have already moved into a post-liberal era, we do not wish to deny that epochal changes in the relations between knowledge, truth, power, technology and subjectivity are underway or that understanding them requires new conceptual tools. Instead, with the “too-late” label, we want to argue that these changes mark less of a rupture than a realization of liberalism’s illiberal potential. To make this argument, we must go beyond the neoliberal dystopia that Foucault anticipated in Naissance de la biopolitique and that actually seemed to be emergent in the 1990s and 2000s but still draw on the genealogical method that Foucault deployed in his analysis of the liberal order to expose the re-assemblage of power relations under too-late liberalism. Foucault’s recognition of the inseparability of power and truth (regimes), moreover, compels us to examine how the fragile truths upon which (neo) liberal government rested have given way to even less certain truth criteria and to more arbitrary forms of knowledge-power and of diffuse subjectivity under the too-late moment of liberalism. Reason of state, as Foucault shows in Naissance de la biopolitique, overcame the problem of the uncertainty of knowledge by attributing to the law-giving sovereign the gift of abstract pure reason with its ability to deduce natural law. Liberalism, by contrast, confronted the crisis of knowledge through probabilistic empirical calculations and techniques of government that respectively either sought to prevent or to manage uncertainty/risk. We wish to pursue this foucauldian reflection and argue here that contemporary liberalism fully reveals liberalism’s too-late quality as its problematic relationship between power and knowledge becomes evident with the emergence of practices and techniques of government that rest on creative, plausibilistic, even illusory truth criteria. Under the dispositif of too-late liberalism, the uncertainty of crisis becomes not that which must be foreseen, prevented or even managed but that by which government itself occurs. The meaning of government by crisis, moreover, is not only epistemological but also economic and political: whereas liberalism and neoliberalism literally grew their way out of crisis both by “producing and consuming freedoms” and by producing and consuming ever greater quantities of goods in the futile quest for permanent prosperity, too-late liberalism governs both by producing and consuming uncertainty and fear,4 replacing liberalism’s promise of prosperity with the threat of permanent austerity.

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