Foucault and the neoliberal art of government

Posted on my site

The art of government … which has now become the program of most governments in capitalist countries, absolutely does not seek the constitution of … [a] standardizing, mass society of consumption and spectacle, etcetera… It involves, on the contrary, obtaining a society that is not orientated towards the commodity and the uniformity of the commodity, but towards the multiplicity and differentiation of enterprises… An enterprise society and a judicial society, a society orientated towards the enterprise and a society framed by a multiplicity of judicial institutions, are two faces of a single phenomenon.

Michel Foucault, (2008) The Birth of Biopolitics. Course at the Collège de France. 1978-1979 New York: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 149-50.

L’art de gouvernement … qui est devenu maintenant la programmation de la plupart des gouvernements en pays capitaliste [sic] … ce programmation ne cherche absolumment pas la constitution … [d’une] société uniformisante, de masse, de consommation, de spectacle etc… Il s’agit au contraire d’obtenir une société indexée non pas sur la marchandise et sur l’uniformité de la marchandise, mais sur la multiplicité et la différenciation des entreprises. … Société d’entreprise et société judiciaire, société encadrée par une multiplicité d’institutions judiciaires, ce sont les deux faces d’un même phénomène.

Michel Foucault, (2004) Naissance de la biopolitique. Cours au Collège de France. 1978-1979 Paris: Gallimard, Seuil, pp. 154-5.

Random thoughts in response
I have done a bit of chopping around of Foucault’s words here in the interests of succinctly summarising his argument. If the lecture (14 February 1979) these remarks come from is not amongst his best work and reads almost like a set of notes, or at least the first draft of empirical work to be worked over later, the enlightening insights and reversal of received ideas characteristic of most of his work are still in evidence. What I find fascinating about Foucault’s remarks here is how uncannily accurate they are (as was often the case in his work) in discerning emerging trends that some thirty years down the track we are now seeing in full flower – or perhaps in all their full horror.

Foucault takes to task standard – and usually Marxist – critiques of modern capitalist and liberal society which see it as a society of mass consumption. His argument is that we have moved beyond this into a governmental arrangement which incites the creation of multiple enterprises. With the existence of multiple enterprises and the inevitable friction between them, we also see the proliferation of endless forms of legal regulation to keep them all in balance.

As he says elsewhere in the same lecture, the homo Æconomicus that neo-liberal government is aiming to create is ‘not the man of exchange or man the consumer; he is the man of enterprise and production’. (p.152). There is now of course an enormous literature both inciting people to become entrepreneurs in every aspect of their existence – not just economic – and a perhaps less convincing literature criticising this goal. We are constantly invited to perform, to be ‘creative’, to ‘manage our own careers’, to be infinitely productive to the exclusion of both personal well-being and the well-being of others

Each one of us is also expected to be entirely responsible for administering the economic, health and other risks involved in our individual existences. As Foucault points out, according to this model, looking after members of the social body is not to be seen as a collective social endeavour, but as the personal responsibility of each individual. If for some reason you can’t acquire enough capital to take out the necessary insurance to guarantee your own survival, then you only have yourself to blame.

Neoliberal arts of government in the 21st century have engineered an unliveable society based on a combination of unending individual responsibility for ever increasing productivity and growth based on entrepreneurial principles, of individual responsibility for insurance against risk and an oppressive regulatory and legal apparatus which is necessary to manage the frictions between the ever increasing proliferation of individual enterprises. If one is not constantly creative, productive and entrepreneurial at both the economic and personal levels, one has no social visibility and no social value. This might go some way towards explaining the obsessive attachment to social networking technologies such as Facebook and Twitter where those involved are constantly producing and creating themselves in the most minute details of their daily existence and making that production of self visible to the rest of the social body.

For further discussion of this post see the Foucault blog

7 thoughts on “Foucault and the neoliberal art of government

  1. I’m glad I came across this post (which I found at Foucault Blog), as I’ve just started (finally) reading the biopolitics lectures. You touch on what are for me the two most annoying, and politically damaging, contentions and tendencies of leftist/Marxist critiques of neoliberalism: the focus on consumption/consumerism, and the idea that government has disappeared and left us at the mercy of capital. The abandonment of production, which is perhaps enabled because not as much of it takes place in the factory anymore, is just a strange turn for Marxists to take, and the disappearance of the state is empirically wrong.

    By the way, and since this blog writes about television, I touch on a lot of this stuff on an essay about The Wire and neoliberalism recently published in Rhizomes, if you are interested.


  2. Hi Eric, many thanks for your comments.

    Thank you also for alerting me to your extremely interesting and enlightening article. Your analysis really bears out the links Foucault makes between a society based on the simultaneous multiplication of enterprise and the mulitiplication of judicial forms. The formal illegality of the enterprises you describe in The Wire in no way subtracts them from mechanisms of regulation quite specific to their operation.

    Another relevant statement from Foucault here:

    The problem of neo-liberalism is … how the overall exercise of political power can be modeled on the principles of a market economy. So it is not a question of freeing an empty space, but of taking the formal principles of a market economy and referring and relating them to, of projecting them on to a general art of government. (p. 131)


  3. I’m curious about the term enterprise. I don’t know French so I can’t speculate about its meaning, and I haven’t read the lecture you’re referring to, so I don’t know if he gives the term more context, but what do you think he means by it? You seem to be using it to describe a spirit of enterprise, of entrepreneurialism, but when I first read the quote you posted, I read it as being about institutions (e.g. enterprises). Can you enlighten me or should I just go read it myself? 🙂


  4. Hi Laura, Foucault is talking about the interaction between strategies of government and economic models here. What he means by ‘enterprise’ is any competitive profit making venture – and the smaller and more diverse the better. He argues that neo-liberal strategies of governmentality seek to embed the notion of enterprise within the social fabric. Thus:

    In other words, what is involved is the generalization of forms of ‘enterprise’ by diffusing and multiplying them as much as possible, enterprises which must not be focused on the form of big national or international enterprises or the type of big enterprises of a state. I think this multiplication of the ‘enterprise’ form within the social body is what is at stake in neo-liberal policy. It is a matter of making the market, competition, and so the enterprise, into what could be calIed the formative power of society. (p. 148)


  5. I finally reached this blog! I am a phD student and I need Foucault’s work for my research but it’s not easy!!!
    I’ve been reading and struggling to understand Foucault for a while but finally started getting something. I realised some consistency/continuity of Foucault’s argument through his work, especially his later work. This blog greatly helped me get there (but not quite completely there yet..). I need more reading! Thank you for sharing your idea and I will be a regular of this blog!


  6. Hi Maho, Thank you for your kind comments. Hang in there with Foucault. It’s worth it for the insights you gain!


  7. I know Foucault often suggested the need for a “left art of government”. Does anyone here have an idea of exactly what he had in mind by this?


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