New York, February 9, 2016—French philosopher Michael Foucault’s 1979 lectures on neoliberalism—posthumously published as The Birth of Biopolitics—were the subject of a lively debate last week featuring professors from Columbia Law School.
For 13 years before his untimely death in 1984, Foucault delivered a series of landmark public lectures as the Collège de France’s chair in “The History of Systems of Thought.” The wide-ranging and influential talks, long available only on tape, provide windows onto Foucault's thinking about government, the penal system, sovereignty, security, the administration of power and punishment, and other varied avenues of his research.
Today Foucault’s 1979 lectures on neoliberalism look prescient, as they came before the elections of Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom and Ronald Reagan in the United States brought a resurgence of ideas associated with laissez-faire economic liberalism. Neoliberalism holds that markets rather than the state provide a preferred way to resolve problems in a capitalist democracy. Foucault’s particular focus on the “American neo-liberalism” of Gary Becker and the Chicago school of economics—which would extend “the rationality of the market” to government and public policy—has sparked renewed interest and controversy in recent years, as neoliberalism’s emphasis on minimal state intervention has been frequently blamed for financial deregulation and the excesses that led to the global economic crisis as well as a growing gap between rich and poor.
(pictured left to right: Professors Bernard Harcourt, Richard Brooks, and Nancy Fraser)
The Jan. 28 discussion began with introductory remarks from Columbia University Professor Jesus R. Velasco (pictured below, right)
, chair of the Department of Latin American and Iberian Cultures. Featured speakers included:
A Q-and-A period attracted questions and comments from students and faculty of Columbia University, the New School for Social Research, the University of Pennsylvania, New York University, and the University of Minnesota’s Political Theory Colloquium, which participated online.
So did Foucault have sympathies with neoliberalism?
posted on the Foucault 13/13 blog, Foucault’s onetime assistant François Ewald expressed “astonishment” at the idea.
“For me this question makes absolutely no sense,” Ewald said. “I remember these lectures, as I was naturally in the room at the Collège de France when Foucault delivered them, and there were absolutely no indications that he shared any of the ideas of Gary Becker or anyone else from that school of thought. The real question, in fact, is not the connection between Foucault and neoliberalism, but why some people wish to pose this question now.”
Foucault 13/13 offers live streaming video of the seminars, and participants have fielded questions from email ([email protected]
) and Twitter (#Foucault1313).
The next seminar
will convene on Feb. 11 to discuss the ninth grouping of Foucault’s Collège de France lectures, “The Government of the Living (1979-1980).” It will be simulcast in the Paris nightclub Silencio, which was “conceived” and designed by movie director David Lynch.
The remaining seminars in the series—held on Thursday evenings from 6:15 to 8:15—are open to students and faculty from Columbia and other New York universities. A schedule of events, videos, and blog posts by the various participants can be viewed on the website
for Foucault 13/13.
A video of the Jan. 28 event can be viewed here
and check back for additional photos.