Notes on Foucault’s 1979 Birth of Biopolitics Lectures




I decided that at some point in my research on the possibilities for a more public/social higher education I would have to take on the concept of “neoliberalism”. The most obvious place to start, and I think still the most interesting, is with Foucault’s 1979 lectures. This series of lectures were only published in English in 2008, and there has been much said about “neoliberalism” since 1979 without any knowledge of Foucault. Now I’m not really part of the Foucault fan-club, although I do think he is a very thought-provoking writer, but no one else has seriously engaged with the theories and literature that underpin the “neoliberal” tradition (which most people might identify as neoclassical economics), which is to say with people like Hayek, von Mises, Friedman, etc. So I embarked on a close reading of Foucault’s lectures which was well worthwhile, and have resulted in a talk that I will post later. Here are the notes from my close reading. All page references are to the 2008 Palgrave Edition.


Notes on Foucault’s Birth of Biopolitics

What follows is necessarily a strong reinterpretation of Foucault’s analysis in Birth of Biopolitics. Due to the nature of the lectures (always last minute), Foucault’s account isn’t that coherent, and in the last lecture in particular new elements are introduced that seem to suggest a reinterpretation of the lectures as a whole. I have therefore tried to extract what I believe to be a more useful and clear account of neo-liberalism according to Foucault.


  • Foucault’s summary of liberalism: ‘So I have tried to indicate three features: veridiction of the market, limitation by the calculation of governmental utility, and now the position of Europe as a region of unlimited economic development in relation to a world market.’ (60)
  • Post-colonial foreign economic policy: American independence will mean free trade between Europe and US with UK as mediator (very profitable position)
    • Vienna Congress: European equilibrium (MONETERISM) to free competition
      • Perpetual peace through an unlimited external market (imperialism, colonialism, post-colonialism – the new markets of which are dependent on previous imperialism/colonialism – Star Trek Victorianism).
      • Of course this is where theories of “so called primitive accumulation” (Marx), accumulation by dispossession and imperialism come in.
      • An example of agency sublimated in Foucault
    • Adam Smith: political control is not necessary for economic success (60)
  • Hidden Hand
    • unintended secondary benefits of self-interest
    • hidden hand epistemology: shouldn’t try to go beyond self-interest, no government can know the market, only rationality is self-interest, somehow manages to benefit all (but no explanation, mystical).
    • hidden hand ontology: only interests exist (leading to “enterprise society”) and competition between interests (as social relation between them)
  • Interests and utility (: don’t really understand how this works, but basically there is no liberal government at this stage in the history of liberalism, so liberalism is purely critical, and utility is the specific ideological weapon against the Raison d’Etat police state
    • Governments should govern frugally
    • Arbitrator of interests
  • Foucault tries to show that “liberalism” isn’t a political position or a philosophy, but rather a tool of criticism of government, or as F would say ‘a modern reflection on the art of government’
    • This links liberalism to the general enlightenment project, but sees it in its more political/activist form (but not as an expression of ideology of emerging ruling class)
  • Problem of civil society (see Ferguson) – civil society represents “community” and egoism undermines this community


  • Is ordoliberalism “laissez-faire”? Yes, in the sense that government action must be in social policy in order to maintain the autonomy and functioning of the market:
    • ‘To the same extent that government intervention must be light at the level of economic processes, so it must be heavy when it is a matter of this set of technical, scientific, legal, geographic, let’s say broadly social factors which now increasingly become the object of governmental intervention’ (141)
    • “positive liberalism” – the creation of a liberal-economic state in Germany (but the subsequent actual state had to make concessions to the left-socialist parties). Governing for the market, not because of it (121).
      • Röpke: ‘The free market requires an active and extremely vigilant policy’ (133)
      • Miksch: ‘In this liberal policy there may be as many economic interventions as in a policy of planning, but their nature is different’ (133)
    • Competition requires inequality – different from classical economics which requires free exchange between equal partners (120).
    • Laissez-faire is “naïve nationalism” competition must be constructed:
      • ‘Competition [is] an essential economic logic [that] will only appear and produce its effects under certain conditions which have to be carefully and artificially constructed.’ (120)
    • Critique of intervention/planning as leading to Nazism
      • Röpke published critique of Beveridge plan: ‘English Labour Party socialism will lead you to German style Nazism’
    • Regulation of prices by market is fragile therefore must be supported, managed and ordered by an internal policy of social intervention (319):
      • Price stability: not fixed prices but controlling inflation
      • Competition not natural, but a game: ‘the economic is not a mechanical or natural process that one can separate out, except by abstraction a posteriori, by means of a formalising abstraction. The economic can only ever be considered as a set of activities, which necessarily means regulated activities’
      • Anti-monopoly: monopolies result from intervention (state) unfair competition (rules of entry into game not functioning) – this is exactly the argument against public HE
      • “Rule of Law” (originally theorised in reaction to police state in 18th C) – purely formal, not rectifiable by reference to effects, fixed and cannot change so economic agents can make free decisions on the basis of it, rules out ‘universal subject of knowledge’ (neo-liberal epistemology). The economy must become a game in which no player has any advantage. The legal framework is the rules of the game. The state acts as the engineer of the perfect game (175).
      • Welfare: Necessary inequality: Röpke: ‘Inequality is the same for all’ (143). There can only be a “marginal transfer” (same as French “negative tax” (203)), from overproduction to underproduction, not average but minimum.
        • Röpke: ‘[An unemployed person] is not someone suffering from an economic disability; he is not a social victim. He is a worker in transit. He is a worker in transit between an unprofitable activity and a more profitable activity’ (Can see the beginnings of HCT?)
      • Risk: privatisation of consumption (not socialised as in socialism or Keynesianism, as in NHS and state provision of public goods). Risks covered by individual insurance. This also works to create individuals as enterprising units (discipline), as they become used to calculating risks and investments (enterprise) in all areas of life.
      • Anti-monopolies:
    • Integration – a concern for sociology (242), still worried about integration if competition is basis of society (like Weber, Durkheim, Frankfurt School,Sombart) – I personally think more to do with German tradition than UK, but see Foucault’s invocation of Ferguson and Civil Society above (the UK version of the Gesellschaft vs Gemeinschaft debate – a Western problem with industrialisation no doubt)
      • Therefore state must be above enterprises, ensuring community and cooperation
      • We can see Ordo-liberals as ‘of their time’, arriving on the back of German concerns for loss of community in capitalism
      • Rüstow (242) – need social and moral integration, not just “cold” competition
        • NOTE: Is this where the contemporary focus on localism comes from?
        • Ordo social policy – support craft and SMEs; avoid centralisation
        • Are we therefore seeing a return to a more Ordo version of neo-liberalism in the UK? Consequence for HE, the civic university (left and right arguing for same thing! Fear of state on both sides: Foucault: p. 188)
        • Has this got something to do with Civil Society problem, going back to Ferguson? (302)
        • Is US neoliberalism more focussed on individual liberty (hence HCT) and therefore ditched the community focus? Is localism a European problem? How does this link to Globalisation and Identity (Cohen and Kennedy 2013 Ch. 21)?
      • Not historically or culturally prepared to be as radical as US neo-liberalism – the US constitution is founded on liberalism, and liberalism is foundational discourse of the US public sphere, left (Democrats) or right (Republicans) – ‘liberalism is a way of life in America’ (218)
    • Enterprise society –Ordos move to found the Germanpost-WW2 state on liberal ontology, only enterprises exist and competition between them (but state remains as paternal regulator and activist to ensure this ontology).
      • Competition doesn’t exist naturally (ontology) but must be created by political activism
      • Emergence of social constructionism in neo-liberalism – this also points to the need to construct the subject (although this construction is then naturalised by HCT)
      • Decentralisation – the solution to “cold competition” and the statist/planning dangers of liberal governmentality. ‘A question of shifting governmental action downwards’ (148)
      • ‘Sociological liberalism’: ‘Not a supermarket society but an enterprise society. The homo economicus sought after is not the man of exchange or man the consumer; he is the man of enterprise and production’ (147)
      • Against “planning” first and foremost

US Neoliberalism

  • Emigration on Hayek, vov Mises, etc to America; political crisis (Johnson, Nixon, Carter); popular (liberal-critical) movement of opposition to statism.
  • Ultimate result of liberalism as critique of state: Seeks to extend rationality of market to non-economic domains (319)
    • Regulation of government by market
    • Judgement of efficiency and cost of government intervention (246)
    • Judgement of Public Higher Education (my example):
      • Failure to meet demand (elitism/feudalism, need for expanded HE for knowledge economy)
      • Inefficient way of meeting demand (which is increasing due to knowledge economy) and paying for increased demand (in austerity conditions)
      • Cost of public funding unacceptable (austerity justification again)
    • Liberalism as critique of everything (and therefore a substantive philosophy of society): Human Capital Theory (Schultz, Becker, Mincer 1950s – 1970s):
      • Individual as enterprise
        • Work: gap in classic liberal analyses of capitalism
        • Rejection of Marxist theory of value (and classical liberalism)
          • Abstract labour, i.e. alienation, comes from liberal economic theory, not reality.
        • Prosumer: rejection of “mass society” theories, as critiques of consumer society
          • consumption is an enterprise activity, the consumer produces his/her satisfaction’ (226)
        • Extreme version (Becker) discredited (269) and not generally followed
          • Too much like behaviourism
          • Also Bauman’s point about humans lying/conscious (+Weber?)
          • Tan 2014
        • Criticism from Me: Human Capital Theory as the full generalisation of capitalist world-view: ‘In every epoch the ideas of the ruling class are the ruling ideas’ (Marx)
        • HCT is solution to the problem of applying economic “grid” to people themselves – if economics is ‘the science of finding out the optimal allocation of scarce resources to alternative ends’ (Robbins definition in 1930s p. 222), then the place to analyse this should be at the individual level (rationality of choice between alternative ends considering resources)
        • HCT is solution to “problem of innovation” (i.e. primitive accumulation):
          • Innovation problem is also the problem of answering the Marxist falling rate of profit hypothesis
          • Marxist theory of primitive accumulation (Marx), Imperialism as innovation (Rosa Luxemburg) and accumulation by disposession (Harvey) is answer to why there wasn’t a fall in rate of profit like Marx predicted
          • HCT is the neo-liberal answer (232): investments in human capital account for this innovation:
            • Education, health, migration
            • But these should be personal investments, not state investments
          • There are also attempts to explain the origins of capitalism usingHCT, against Weber (who was against Marx anyway) – Becker (different Becker!) and Wößmann 2014
            • These were personal investments in self-education outside of state intervention
            • Points to danger in advocating self-education for left-wingers (remember US left-wingers are mostly liberals)
          • Sublimation of production in HCT and US neo-liberalism? (Like the “negative tax” that only deals with the effects of inequality (the underclass) rather than the causes (exploitation of labour as commodity and creation of surplus value) – HCT sublimates how abstract labour is necessary to commodity production and that it is this that creates alienation in capitalism (not theory! Production!)


  • There are general criticisms of “neo-liberalism” concept (see Boas & Gans-Morse), that it is too vague and dogmatic, which I completely agree with. Interestingly, Foucault raises this issue in terms of the problem of “inflationary critique”, which he coins in reference to the “state phobia” from both left and right after fascism and Stalinism.
  • However, Foucault claims to be following the genealogy of “liberalism” as a critical tool, not a coherent political position or program. And according to the typology of different types of criticism by Boas & Gans-Morse, the evolving practice of liberal critique covers all these types: policy, development and ideology. In Foucault’s work, there is a history of the development of liberal governmentality, not a critique of “neo-liberalism” as such.
  • Connections between Ordo and US neo-liberalism (78):
    • Against Keynes
    • Repulsion towards state planning of the economy
    • Austrian neo-marginalism
  • In fact I think it is more useful to use “neo-liberalism” as a Weberian “ideal type”, as it allows us to see differences in application, and it seems to me that Foucault is constructing a kind of ideal type from the theories of the various free-market economic schools. In this way Foucault shows the coherence and continuities in theory (how to ensure a free-market economy, how to prevent “coup d’Etat” (which they associate fascism and communism with) and how to govern the economic subject, i.e. what social policy for liberalism), but also allows for more clarity in seeing different implementations of this theory in political reality (and there is evidence that theory was put into action by politicians, activists and think-tanks).
  • Foucault’s method: ‘The point of all these investigations concerning madness, disease, delinquency, sexuality and what I am talking about now, is to show how the coupling of a set of practices and a regime of truth form an apparatus (dispositif) of knowledge-power that effectively marks out in reality that which does not exist and legitimately submits it o the division between false and true’ (19)
    • So basically theory (regime of truth) and practice (practices) create the object and also the methods of controlling what does and doesn’t count as the object
    • So the “economy” is constructed in liberal theory, and there is a continuous battle in the realm of theory+practice (Althusser) in order to define what does and doesn’t count as the “economy” (as well as the terms of judgement – freedom/totalitarian; efficiency of allocation of scarce resources, etc).
    • But: ‘When I spoke of the coupling carried out I the 18th C between a regime of truth and a new government reason, and the connection of this with political economy, in no way did I mean that there was the formation of a scientific and theoretical discourse of political economy on one side, and then on the other, those who governed who were either seduced by this political economy, or forced to take it into account by the pressure of this or that social group’ (32)
  • Foucault’s analysis is valuable as a better and more materialist analysis of ideology – not just the reflection/expression of class ideas, but ‘class struggle in the realm of theory’ (Althusser)
    • I never really bought the base/superstructure problem, which I think is an invention of orthodox marxism and plays into liberal theorists hand
  • Foucault sublimates agency in his attempt to dismiss Marxism – need “so-called primitive accumulation” (Marx + Harvey)
    • g. Who performs liberalism as critique? (“economic tribunal” 246) Not just philosophers and economists, but also semi-autonomous institutions, i.e. think-tanks (e.g. Adam Smith Institute in UK; American Enterprise Institute in US (246))
    • Foucault sublimated the role of colonialism and imperialism in the rise of liberal economic critique
      • Rise of the bourgeoisie as a class with interests
      • Government must then manage these interests, and is also profiting from these interests and enjoying the consumerism that results (Victorian society) (e.g. East India Company).
    • Nietzsche: ‘[Historical philosophy, i.e. Nietzsche’s genealogy, states that] there is, strictly speaking, neither unselfish conduct, nor a wholly disinterested point of view. Both are simplysublimations in which the basic element seems almost evaporated and betrays itspresents only to keenest observation’ (Ch. 1 Human all too Human).
      • Foucault is arguing against Marxism, and therefore sublimates the class struggle at the heart of Foucault’s own genealogy of liberalism as a weapon of critique – for whom?
      • Foucault’s genealogy is an enriching and concretising of the role of “ideology” in history – not just the reflection of class interests, but an element of power.
      • Like the idea of Althusser’s “class struggle in the realm of theory” – this isdefo how liberalism as praxis works.
        • ‘The new definition of philosophy can be resumed in three points: (1) philosophy ‘represents’ the class struggle in the realm of theory, hence philosophy is neither a science, nor a pure theory (Theory), but a political practice of intervention in the realm of theory; (2) philosophy ‘represents’ scientificity in the realm of political practice, hence philosophy is not the political practice, but a theoretical practice of intervention in the realm of politics; (3) philosophy is an original ‘instance’ (differing from the instances of science and poli-tics) that represents the one instance alongside (auprès de) the other, in the form of a specific intervention (political-theoretical). L. A.].’
      • Example: polygonal/polyhedral reason for rise of liberalism (33):
        • monetary situation of 18th C
        • new influx of gold
        • relative consistency of currencies
        • continuous economic and demographic growth
        • intensification of agricultural production
        • access to government of technicians
        • number of economic problems being given theoretical form
      • But what about the capitalists? The revolutions? The civil wars? What about colonialism? Land laws? Dispossession of the proletariat?
    • Need for class-historical explanation of single capitalism
      • Doesn’t piece the larger historical movement of capitalism together enough, unnecessary mystification as a result (easier to see an evolution of a single capitalism than F’s multiple capitalisms – see 164-5 on Foucault’s multiple capitalisms and the critique of base/superstructure theory)
      • Last chapter seems to support this, as Foucault finds the roots of US neo-liberalism (apply economics to everything + Rational Choice) in Adam Smith’s theory of the hidden hand – the world is irrational so no single subject can know it (against statism), only rationality is self-interest.
      • It is possible and I would argue desirable to reinterpret Foucault’s analysis of the history of liberalism (319) along the following lines (with agency re-emphasised):
        • Heroic stage: liberalism as the critique of Raison d’Etat (revolutionary capitalist middle-class trying to either overthrow or reform the feudal system)
        • Conservative stage 1: (Ordo) neo-liberalism as a reaction to Keynesian policy and fascism/totalitarianism, and also as a way to found the modern capitalist (minimal) state (in Germany, post WW2)
        • Conservative stage 2 + Consolidation: (US) neo-liberalism as a reaction to post-WW2 Keynesianism (Thatcher + Reagan) – but then with all alternatives discredited in 1990s we see a total consolidation of liberalism and neo-liberal government/policy, turbo-liberalism! With it we see a substantive theory of the subject and society to consolidate the capitalist world-view (Human Capital Theory + Rational Choice Theory).

Further research

  • Critique of neo-liberal ontology and epistemology (reification)
  • Why neoliberalism even though it is discredited? (Class)
  • No alternatives? Bullshit (Four Horseman + Germany)
  • Problem of expanded access and need for knowledge economy (neo-liberalism as thede-feudalisation of HE, so shouldn’t go “back” but go forward, but how?)
    • neo-liberalism against positionality as well: ‘The problem was how, within a given state whose legitimacy couldn’t be questioned, could you allow for a market freedom which was both historically and juridically new insofar as in the 18th C a kind of police state (raison d’Etat) freedom was only ever defined as the freedom of privilege, as a reserved freedom, as freedom linked to status, profession, or a concession of power and so on.’ (102)
  • Is Robbins definition of economics applicable to HE: ‘Economics is science of human behaviour as a relationship between ends and scarce means which have mutually exclusive uses’ (222)
    • Is learning a scarce means?
    • Is knowledge a scarce means (in internet age)?
    • Are they subject to te condition of the exclusivity of uses?
    • Problem of HE as public good, and MOOCs



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