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Can we criticize Foucault?


Michel Foucault

Lefty magazine Jacobin has translated an interview between the new French journal Ballast and Daniel Zamora, a sociologist who has recently published a book on Michel Foucault’s neoliberal political leanings in his twilight years. Here’s a snippet from the interview:

In his book Foucault, Sa Pensée, Sa Personne, Foucault’s friend Paul Veyne writes that he was unclassifiable, politically and philosophically: “He believed in neither Marx nor Freud, nor in the Revolution nor in Mao, in private he snickered at fine progressive sentiments, and I knew of no principled position of his on the vast problems of the Third World, consumerism, capitalism, American imperialism.”

You write that he was always “a step ahead of his contemporaries.” What do you mean by that?

It should be said that Foucault undeniably put the spotlight on themes that were very clearly ignored, even marginalized, by the dominant intellectuals of his era. Whether it was on psychiatry, the prison, or sexuality, his works clearly marked out a vast intellectual terrain. Of course he was part of an era, a much wider social context, and he wasn’t the first to work on these questions. These themes were popping up everywhere and became the objects of significant social and political movements.

In Italy, for example, the anti-psychiatry movement initiated by Franco Basaglia didn’t have to wait for Foucault to challenge the mental asylum to formulate stimulating political proposals of its own for replacing that institution. So obviously Foucault did not originate all these movements — he never claimed to — but he clearly opened the way for a very large number of historians and scholars working on new themes, new territories that had been little explored.

He taught us to always politically question things which at the time seemed “beyond” all suspicion. I still remember his famous discussion with Chomsky, where he declared that the real political task in his eyes was to criticize institutions that were “apparently neutral and independent” and to attack them “in such a way that the obscured political violence within them would be unmasked.”

I might have some doubts about the nature of his critiques — we’ll come back to that I’m sure — but it was nevertheless an extremely novel and stimulating project.

By making Foucault compatible with neoliberalism, your book could ruffle a lot of feathers.

I hope so. That’s sort of the point of the book. I wanted to clearly break with the far too consensual image of Foucault as being in total opposition to neoliberalism at the end of his life. From that point of view, I think the traditional interpretations of his late works are erroneous, or at least evade part of the issue. He’s become sort of an untouchable figure within part of the radical left. Critiques of him are timid, to say the least.

Read the entirety of the interview, translated to English by Seth Ackerman, on Jacobin’s website. The original French version is available via Ballast here.