Chronicles from an eternal present. A review of “Critiquer Foucault”, edited by Daniel Zamora (II)

Uses and abuses of historical contextualization in Critiquer Foucault. Les années 1980 et la tentation néolibérale, edited by Daniel Zamora. Part II.

* by Emanuele Leonardi

Foucault insults the police. Source: Progressive Geographies.
Foucault insults the police. Source: Picture by Elie Kagan, in Michel Foucault – Une journée particulière, posted on Progressive Geographies.

In a previous post I have reviewed some of the chapters which compose the controversial collection Critiquer Foucault. In concluding that post I pointed out how one of the problems posed by the book concerned more the debate sparkled in the Anglophone sphere by Daniel Zamora’s interview to Ballast and Jacobin than the book itself. In such interview, the main argument was that in the late 1970s Foucault did not only study neoliberalism, but was undoubtedly seduced by it. Although the point is not new – it had been raised by Multitudes even before the publication of the biopolitical lectures – it is significant that it still mobilizes visceral passions on both sides of the Atlantic. Such significance is due, I believe, to the fact that what is at stake is not only the ‘correct’ description of Foucault’s opinions in the second half of the 1970s; rather, it concerns whether or not it is possible to politically use the Foucaultian toolkit to understand/transform our present.

Once the stakes are openly posed, a few considerations can follow. Firstly, it is necessary to isolate in Zamora’s collection the fundamental axis backing up the hypothesis that the biopolitical Foucault is engaged in nothing less than an “apology of neoliberalism”, according to François Ewald’s definition. The two authors who develop such hypothesis are Zamora and American historian Michael Behrent. They elaborate equal and opposite perspectives since those converge on the diagnosis (Foucault is a more or less aware precursor of the neoliberal dismantling of Welfare State) but diverge on the prognosis (whereas the former suggests a return to the original Sécurité Sociale as a counterforce to inequality [i.e.: forget Foucault], the latter indicates Blair’s ‘third way’ the best option to govern complex societies in the XXI century [i.e. radicalize Foucault]). Thus, the terrain of struggle is contemporary neoliberal hegemony, while the two positions are revolutionary alterity (orthodox Marxist posture) and efficientist pragmatism (post-ideological attitude). Such co-presence of converging and diverging lines can be most clearly appreciated by confronting the authors’ reference to François Ewald – a Maoist in the early 1970s, Foucault’s assistant at the Collège de France in the following years, today a key intellectual of MEDEF (French business association). Although Zamora considers him a sort of class enemy and Behrent a philosophical mastermind, neither of them put into question the assumption according to which Foucault’s legacy can/should be exhausted in the conceptual path of one of his disciples.

Thus, even the few compelling issues raised by these two chapters must be situated against a very problematic background, namely a point of view which is built on an eternal present. All the criticisms addressed to Foucault take for granted not only the ‘victory’ of neoliberalism (which is unquestionable and yet traversed by tensions whose relevance should not be overlooked), but also and most importantly its ‘historical ineluctability’ (as if every critique of the Welfare State in the late 1970s would immediately translate into a neoliberal policy). Therefore, what is lacking in Behrent’s and Zamora’s reflections is not the effort to historically contextualize their analyses, but rather the crystallization of that context from the perspective of a contemporary, somehow necessitated outcome. Approximately, the line of reasoning is the following: given the successful rise of neoliberalism, its historical trajectory can be read through the interaction of just two actors – those who endorsed it and those who opposed it. Given that the polemical object of neoliberalism was the Welfare State brought about by class struggles, this line of reasoning implies that those who criticized it ipso facto actively supported the neoliberal march. In other words, the present is projected onto the past in such a way that the interpretation of the past stems from the endpoint to which it will eventually arrive. Let me note, in passing, that this methodology is the polar opposite of the Foucauldian genealogy.

It is possible to detect such analytical procedure both in what concerns Foucault’s alleged anti-Marxism and in relation to his proximity to the so-called Second Left [Deuxième Gauche], namely that post-’68 political culture which was strongly anchored in social struggles for emancipation, thus linked to practices of self-management/decentralization. As a consequence, such a political culture was extremely critical of the First Left statist and bureaucratic centralism – as represented in particular by the Communist and Socialist Parties. Concerning the first point, it is surprising that neither Zamora nor Behrent discuss Foucault’s distinction between Marx’s thought and Marxism, his undeniable admiration for the former – which is explicit at least until 1976 (Bahia conference The Meshes of Power) – as much as his manifest intolerance towards the latter. Such intolerance, however, should be analyzed considering a few crucial contextual elements: Foucault is perfectly aware that there is not only one Marxism, but rather a plurality of practices and discourses which relate to it. For example, Philip Barnard and Stephen Shapiro (2014) emphasize Foucault’s interest for a series of criticisms – very different amongst themselves – addressed to three instances of French Marxism between the 1960s and 1970s: the prophetic version of PCF, the structuralist one elaborated by Althusser, and the phenomenological envisioned by Merleau-Ponty. Similarly, Alberto Toscano (2015) suggests not to forget the spatial determinants of such an historical conjucture: the signifier ‘Marxism’, in fact, conveys very different signifieds when used in a conversation with Trotskyist Tunisian students or to interpret the Iranian revolution, to express solidarity to dissidents of the Warsaw Pact or to analyze Black Panthers’ struggles against the penal order of the American racist imperialism. In sum, in Behrent’s and Zamora’s eternal present all these historical and geographic nuances of Marxism melt into a compact monolith which can only be either entirely rejected or fully embraced.

Something analogous emerges in the context of the discussion about the Second Left: given that Pierre Rosanvallon – one of the major theoretician of this stream of thought – eventually assumed vaguely neoliberal positions, it comes that the project had been in itself destined to such an outcome from the very beginning. In this regard, it is instructive to examine the way in which Zamora engages with André Gorz’s book Adieu au proletariat [Farewell to the Working Class] (1980). According to Zamora, Gorz’s attempt to read social conflicts beyond the Fordist workers’ centrality is nothing else than an objective factor which weakened the official Left and – as such – a necessary propeller of the neoliberal counter-revolution, by then incipient and nowadays fully deployed. Thus, an explicit form of anti-communism – possibly unaware of its effects but nonetheless shared by post-’68 gauchiste thought, including Foucault. Actually, if the historical situation in which Gorz (and many others) operated his intervention were that imagined by Zamora (which is to say: either one defends work-based Welfare State or one objectively supports neoliberalism), then things would be as described above. However, the situation was very different from this quite caricatural rendition. Regardless of the validity of Gorz’s argument, what must be highlighted is that he addresses his critique towards a kind of Marxism which is unable to think political struggles – liberation, emancipation – beyond the wage-form. Gorz himself explained it in a 2005 interview:

Adieu au proletariat was not a critique of communism, quite the contrary. I was criticizing Maoists and their primitivist cult of a mythical proletariat, their pretentious idea of practicing the strategy of land conquest as invented by Mao for Chinese peasants in an industrialized and urbanized country. It was also an immature critique of capitalist social-democratization – to which vulgar Marxism was reduced – and of the glorification of waged labor. ‘Beyond Socialism’ – such was the book subtitle – there is communism which is its fulfillment. Alternatively – if there is no communism – we have our current, disgusting situation. But communism is neither full employment nor wage for all; it is the elimination of labor in the socially and historically specific form it assumes under capitalism, namely labor-employment, labor-commodity”.

In other words, theories as well as practices of self-management are critical of a certain Marxism exactly because it is perceived as an obstacle to social struggles. It is possible to conflate self-management onto free trade, as both Behrent and Zamora do, only under the condition of abstracting the former from its proper context to subsequently inscribe it on our present, marked as it is by the domination of the latter – a tangible proof of the defeat of a cycle of conflicts which was traversed also by self-managerial instances. A failure, however, does not erase a complex and articulated historical process: it is not only a matter of elaborating a correct analytical framework, but also of politically re-appropriating fragments of the past in order to reactivate them in our contemporaneity, to think and organize resistance against an unfettered neoliberalism. Gorz himself, in an essay titled Ecology and Freedom (1977), conceived of self-management a convergence point between conflicts for the liberation from hetero-directed labor and ecological movements. Given the elective affinities which link economic and environmental crises, my impression is that such a connection is all but irrelevant for the struggles we fight, here and now.

Emanuele Leonardi  is a Post-Doc Researcher at the Center for Social Studies of the University of Coimbra (CES/UC). His research interests include the intersection between the Foucauldian notion of biopolitics and the field of political ecology, the financialisation of the environmental crisis, carbon trading and climate justice movements, and job blackmail and working-class environmentalism. 

**The Italian version of this review has been published on the international journal Materiali Foucaultiani and is freely available online. Many thanks to Yari Lanci for revising the English translation.

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