Foucault, Neoliberalism, and Equality

Critical Inquiry 48 (1):23-44 (2021)
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This article presents a new account of the relationship between Michel Foucault’s work and neoliberalism, aiming to show that the relationship is significantly more complicated than either Foucault’s critics or defenders have appreciated in the recent controversy. On the one hand, I argue that Foucault’s salutary response to some of Gary Becker’s ideas in the lecture course from 1979 should be read together with the argument of Discipline and Punish. By means of this contextualization I show that Foucault’s sympathetic response to Becker is limited to the domain of penal practices, specifically concerning the question of how to resist their rationality of normalization, and thus it involves no broader commitment to neoliberal economic theory or its political implications. On the other hand, however, I argue that there is a strategic allegiance between Foucault’s work and the ascendance of the neoliberal rationality of governing, although it has nothing to do with his sympathetic engagement with Becker’s work. Instead, I explain how Foucault’s focus on the political stakes of subjectivity has helped to congeal, in the posthumous neoliberal context, a conception of politics that leaves out the topic of economic equality. To explain how Foucault’s work has had this unintended yet lasting effect, I introduce the concept of topical exclusion. It designates a social mechanism of producing ignorance, which operates by directing attention instead of creating false consciousness. The strategic relationship between Foucault’s work and neoliberalism today illustrates that this type of explanation is essential in the analysis of power relations. Thus, my account motivates the adoption of topical exclusion as a conceptual supplement that equips the Foucaultian framework to study cases in which relations of power harness, produce, and sustain ignorance, not knowledge.

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Tuomo Tiisala
University of Helsinki