Wendy Brown’s new book Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution (Zone Books, 2015) carefully reframes Foucault’s 1978-9 account of neoliberalism published in The Birth of Biopolitics. Embracing Foucault’s astuteness without idolizing him, and critiquing his limitations without dismissing him, Brown calmly notes that our times are not his and thus our questions—particularly Brown’s questions about gender and about a robust political imaginary that seeds robust democratic practices—are not his questions. It is undoubtedly the case that Foucault needs to be updated for the intense financialization and marketization of twenty-first century neoliberalism, and much of what Brown offers provides this update with an enviable clarity and elegance. I submit, however, that methodology also drives a wedge between their different and useful accounts of neoliberalism.
Brown reminds us that, “neoliberalism was not full-blown or hegemonic but merely whispering its emergence in Foucault’s time” (54), and she contends that the emergent character of his object of study disrupts Foucault’s genealogical method and bends it to something more like “a history of the future.” I disagree (how could he know what neoliberalism would become? And is it not remarkable that he sensed that the intensification of post WW II economic rationalism merited careful attention?), but I do agree that Foucault’s approach to neoliberalism is starkly different from we who write in the wake of Agamben’s theorizations of “bare life”, and in the riptides of contemporary neoliberalism.
The difference arises through Brown’s discussion of the contours and drives of homo œconomicus, Foucault’s figuration of the neoliberal subject, which Brown carefully distinguishes and demarcates from a nearly extinct homo politicus, the subject that imagines and strives for robust democratic practices. For Brown, homo œconomicus develops within a society that aligns and calibrates every conceivable value and project to the market and thus can constitute itself as a viable subject only by molding itself into (merely) one more nodal point of (potential) value competing alongside other nodal points of value. As Brown updates it, homo œconomicus is required to market itself as a “responsibilized individual” with a marketable “portfolio” of skills and accomplishments, and (if the market so dictates) must be resigned to “sacrifice” itself to the larger needs of the market. This last point, especially, differs from Foucault’s account of homo œconomicus, which maintained the classically liberal attention to interest-driven subjects. Brown writes:
“[T]he notion of individuals naturally pursuing their interests has been replaced with the production through governance of responsibilized citizens who appropriately self-invest…. Put differently, rather than each individual pursuing his or her own interest and unwittingly generating collective benefit, today, it is the project of macroeconomic growth and credit enhancement to which NL individuals are tethered and with which their existence as human capital must align if they are to thrive. When individuals, firms, or industries constitute a drag on this good, rather than a contribution to it, they may be legitimately cast off or reconfigured—through downsizing, furloughs, outsourcing, benefits cuts, mandatory job shares, or offshore production relocation. A this point, the throne of interest has vanished and at the extreme is replaced with the throne of sacrifice” (84).
I could quibble about whether interest, today, has not simply itself been absorbed and aligned with market rationality. Consider, for instance, of the “tips” faculty give graduate students about how to land an academic job (particularly the nearly illusory golden ring of the tenure track position): these presentations function to discipline students to be interested in self-investing responsibilization. This is mere quibbling, however.
To me, the real difference between Foucault’s and Brown’s accounts arises from a stark divergence in the methodology. Foucault’s formal, nearly transcendental focus on rules, norms, and conditions is not Brown’s practical and relational focus on lived precarity. Thus, when Foucault defines NL as the “new programming of liberal governmentality” (cited in Brown, 117-118), this term ‘programming’ is the one part of that phrase that Brown does not scrutinize with her usual expertise. What does it mean to focus on the programming of neoliberal societies? Programming is precisely what computer users do not, cannot, and should not see. It structures the visible and practical possibilities, and generates arrays of variance or plasticity; but the specific bodies and practices devolving from this programming–as well as the tactics of accommodation and resistance to this programming–flow on different, more imminent and interactive social strata than do the form of political reasoning, the rules for governing self and other.
This separation of programming from political practice reminds me of another clivage that drove Foucault, that between the philosophy of experience, of sense, of the subject, which he attributes to Merleau-Ponty and Sartre [and now perhaps Brown]; and the philosophy of savoir, of rationality, and of the concept, which he attributes to Caveillès, Bachelard, Koyré, and Canguilhem [and Foucault] (Dits et écrits II, 1583).