Paul-Michel Foucault: Prophet and Paradox

  • Bradley BowdenEmail author
Living reference work entry


Paul-Michel Foucault, better known simply as Michel Foucault, is arguably the dominant intellectual influence in Western academia, if not Western society more generally. A prophet to many, Foucault’s life and work were characterized by an almost endless series of paradoxes. Claiming to speak on behalf of the marginalized and excluded members of the society, Foucault boasted a privileged existence. Graduating from France’s most prestigious high school, the Lycée Henri-IV, Foucault spent almost his entire life within France’s elite cultural and educational institutions. A long-time disciple of Nietzsche, Foucault nevertheless emphasized the conditions that constrain freedom rather the capacity of the will to overcome obstacles. A historian by inclination and practice, Foucault became, as Hayden White observed, “an anti-historical historian,” a scholar who argued that the “will to truth” was a source of oppression. In exploring the paradoxes of Foucault’s life and work, this chapter traces the development of Foucault’s ideas from his entry into the Lycée Henri-IV in 1945 until his death from AIDS in 1984.


Foucault Derrida Postmodernism Hayden White Sartre Camus Existentialism Neo-liberalism 


Paul-Michel Foucault, better known simply as Michel Foucault, is arguably the dominant intellectual influence in Western academia, if not Western society more generally.

Foucault’s core understandings – that knowledge is socially constructed, that oppressive power “is exercised from innumerable points” (Foucault 1976/1978: 94), that power is exercised culturally through “procedures of exclusion” (Foucault 1970/1981: 52), that social order is primarily maintained by the “fundamental codes of a culture” (Foucault 1966/1994: xx), and that “it is discourse that power and knowledge are joined together” (Foucault 1976/1978: 100) – have a deep resonance, influencing the understandings of power and personal identity of countless millions. In the discipline of management history, Cummings et al. (2017: 36–40, 333) declare that by utilizing Foucault’s ideas we can create “a new, deeper history of management” and a “history that promotes big questions … new thinking and liberating actions.” Elsewhere we read that Foucault’s work is key to understanding “the disciplinary mode of domination … built into the heart, the essence of contemporary society” (Burrell 1998: 21).

A prophet to many, Foucault’s life and work were characterized by an almost endless series of paradoxes. Claiming to speak on behalf of the marginalized and excluded members of society, Foucault boasted a privileged existence. A member from birth of France’s haute bourgeoisie and the son of a prominent surgeon, Foucault followed an educational path to which few French citizens could aspire. After studying at the elite Lycée Henri-IV adjacent to the Pantheon in 1945, Foucault immediately progressed to the nation’s most prestigious higher educational institution school, the École Normale Supérieure. Yet, despite this privileged French education experience, Foucault constantly advised his friends that he felt uncomfortable living in France (Rabinow 2015: 8). A product of elite educational institutions, Foucault’s ideas also fitted into the milieu of his times. However, despite emerging from the idealist and existentialist philosophical climate of postwar Paris – and sharing a lifelong fascination with the German philosophic idealism of Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, and, above all, Friedrich Nietzsche – Foucault rejected the humanist premises of Jean-Paul Sartre. Whereas Sartre (1943/1956: 30) argued in his Being and Nothingness that “the essence of [a] human being is suspended” in their “freedom” and that “freedom is impossible to distinguish from the being of ‘human reality’,” Foucault depicted the human condition as one of constant subjugation (Poster 1975: 334–335). Widely seen as central to an emergent “postmodernist” intellectual tradition, Foucault regarded others in this tradition with ill-disguised contempt. Of Jacques Derrida, Foucault (1972a/2006: 573) said that he was “the most decisive representative, in its waning light” of a discredited “pedagogy” built around “the invention of voices behind the text.” As a historian, Foucault (1976/1978: 13) argued at times in “starting from historical facts that serve as guidelines for research.” More frequently, Foucault advocated a Nietzschean view of history, calling for the dismantling of accepted understandings in order to bring about the “liberation of man” (Foucault 1971/1984: 88). As Hayden White (1973: 26) expressed it, Foucault was “an anti-historical historian” who wrote his version of “‘history’ in order to destroy it, as a discipline, as a mode of consciousness.”

Like Nietzsche before him, Foucault (1966/1994: 328) rejected the idea of a guiding moral code, declaring that “For modern thought, no morality is possible.” On meeting Foucault for the first time in 1971, the American linguist and social activist, Noam Chomsky, said of him, “I’d never met anyone who was so totally amoral …It’s as if he was from a different species” (cited, Miller 1993: 201, 203). Associating sexuality “with the mechanisms of power” (Foucault 1976/1978: 147), Foucault (1977/1988: 204) also advocated greater acceptance of sexual relationships between adults and children “who consent,” noting, “There are children who throw themselves at an adult at the age of ten.”

A contradictory and polarizing figure, Foucault’s line of reasoning, and his modes of research, frustrated even his ardent supporters. In reflecting on Foucault’s (1961/1965) Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason – an abridged version of his doctoral thesis and the first of Foucault’s studies to be translated into English – Hayden White (1973: 38) concluded that it was “a rambling discourse” constructed from “a very limited body of data.” In considering Foucault’s entire lifework, Peter Miller (1993) noted that “Foucault left behind no synoptic critique of society, no system of ethics, no comprehensive theory of power, not even (current impressions to the contrary) a generally useful historical method.” Among management historians, Michael Rowlinson and Chris Carter note Foucault’s universal tendency to ignore other viewpoints in his work. “Reading Foucault’s histories,” Rowlinson and Carter (2002: 534) recorded, “one could be forgiven for thinking that his is the only interpretation, since it pretends not [to] be an interpretation.”

If flaws in Foucault’s work were apparent even to his supporters, his many critics – opponents found among the ranks of both postmodernist and more traditional scholars – were even more willing to point to his flaws. In the opinion of the Marxist historian, Perry Anderson (1998: 120), Foucault’s intellectual frameworks hindered rather than advanced understandings of inequality by “overstretching” the concept of power to the point where it became almost meaningless. The result, Anderson (1998: 120) suggested, was “the banalization of power.” In terms of historical methodology, Richard Evans (1997: 200) argued that Foucault and his disciples legitimated an intrusion of the author into the historical text “to such a degree that in some cases their presence all but obliterates the historical subject.” Arguably the most devastating critique of Foucault’s work – and the one that caused him the greatest personal angst – was that levelled by Jacques Derrida in a Sorbonne conference paper, entitled “The Cogito and the History of Madness,” subsequently republished in Derrida’s Writing and Difference. In critiquing Foucault’s Madness and Civilization, Derrida (1967/2001: 49) accurately noted that:

… everything transpires as if Foucault knew what ‘madness’ means. Everything transpires as if … an assured and rigorous precomprehension of the concept of madness … were possible and assured … The same kind of questions could be posed concerning the truth that runs through the book.

Not content with these insightful comments, Derrida (1967/2001: 69–70) went on to advise Foucault that his approach posited “a totalitarian and historicist style which eludes meaning and the origin of meaning.”

It is certainly easy to find flaws in Foucault’s work. Foucault was himself critical of some of his own key work. Of the best-selling book that first brought him to public attention – The Order of Things – Foucault lamented that it was “the most difficult, the most tiresome book I ever wrote” (cited, Miller 1993: 158). When, after a long delay, Foucault (1972a/2006 and 1972b/2006) responded to Derrida’s criticism of Madness and Civilization, he largely skirted around the points that Derrida had made, engaging instead in a cutting attack of Derrida’s own work. There is, however, one commonly made charge against Foucault that is misplaced, namely, the accusation that Foucault was inconsistent in his thinking, and that he “refused to retain one position for longer than the period between his last book and the next” (Burrell 1998: 15.), and that his “work was characterised by constant shifts, reversals … and inconsistencies” (Grey 1994: 6; also see Caillat 2015: 16). In discussing Foucault’s work, there is thus an almost universal tendency to talk about Foucault’s “archaeological” approach or period (i.e., the ideas associated with The Order of Things), his “genealogical” approach or period (i.e., the ideas associated with The Archaeology of Knowledge), and his focus on “governmentality” (i.e., the lectures on governmentality given to the College of France) – as if each of these approaches or periods represented a fundamental rupture in Foucault’s thinking. While there is no doubt that Foucault – like most researchers – shifted the focus of his research across his career, the tendency to compartmentalize Foucault’s work does him a disservice, disguising rather than elucidating the fundamental cohesion of his work across the decades.

In one of the first and most insightful English language critiques of Foucault’s works, Hayden White (1973: 47–48) made the pertinent point that Foucault did “have both a system of explanation and a theory of the transformation of reason and science, or consciousness, whether he knows it or will admit it or not.” Like his existentialist and postmodernist contemporaries – Sartre, Albert Camus, Roland Barthes, Derrida – Foucault spent a significant part of his youth living under Nazi occupation, a time when much of the French population willingly through in their lot with the totalitarian Vichy regime. In responding to these experiences, Foucault – like his existentialist and postmodernist contemporaries – was primarily concerned with the essence of individual freedom and the conditions that restricted its free and untrammeled existence. Accordingly, the issues that concerned both classical economics (i.e., Adam Smith, David Ricardo, John Stuart Mill) and Marxism – the organization of production, the efficient managerial allocation of resources, the creation of wealth, and the global nature of capitalism – were secondary or inconsequential issues for Foucault, as they were for his existentialist and postmodernist contemporaries. In exploring the individual and physic essence of human freedom, Foucault – like his existentialist and postmodernist contemporaries – was primarily guided by German philosophical idealism. Like Sartre and Derrida, Foucault found inspiration in Martin Heidegger. Reflecting on his years as a student at the Lycée Henri-IV and the École Normale Supérieure, Foucault recalled that Heidegger was for him “the essential philosopher … My entire philosophical development was determined by my reading of Heidegger” (cited, Miller 1993: 46).

Sharing many commonalities with his existentialist contemporaries, Foucault differed from them in two important regards. First, after a summer reading the works of Nietzsche in 1953, Foucault became a lifelong Nietzschean, sharing Nietzsche’s belief that it is individual human will – what Nietzsche called the “will to power” – that is the decisive force in history and politics. Like Nietzsche, Foucault also came to believe that whatever empowered the individual will was good and whatever restrained it was bad. The second fundamental point where Foucault differed from Sartre and likeminded French existentialists was in seeing oppression, rather than freedom, as the common human experience; oppression enforced primarily through cultural norms and shared understandings of the past and present. As Foucault (1972c/2006: 544) explained it in an appendix to a revised edition of his study of madness, the human condition “does not begin with freedom, but with the limits and the line that cannot be crossed.” Over time, Foucault shifted his focus from one supposed manifestation of physic and personal oppression to another. In Madness and Civilization, Foucault (1961/1965: 293) argued that “Western culture” was fundamentally retrograde in repressing accounts of “the agony” of the Marquis de Sade’s victims. For, Foucault (1961/1965: 293) asks, “what desire can be contrary to nature” that “was given to man by nature itself?” Subsequently, Foucault focused on different manifestations of power and oppression – epistemes and the “fundamental codes of a culture” (Foucault 1966/1994: xx); “language” and “discourse” (Foucault 1976/1978: 94); the “disciplinary” society with its “infinitesimal surveillances, permanent controls, extremely meticulous orderings of space” (Foucault 1975/1991: 308); and “biopolitics” and the emergence of “a society ‘with a sexuality’” (Foucault 1976/1978: 147). Nevertheless, throughout this shifting research agenda, the fundamental premise remained the same: individual freedom is trapped within oppressive cultural and epistemological norms.

A constant advocate of revolt at every level, Foucault is the personification of “The Rebel,” as identified by arguably the greatest of the French existentialist thinkers, Albert Camus. Like Foucault, Camus (1951/1978: 18–19) associated rebellion with individual identity, with “the passionate affirmation” of the innermost “part” of one’s “being.” Where Camus differed from not only Foucault but virtually all of his existentialist contemporaries, however, was in seeing the inherent dangers of every act of rebellion, the manifest tendency of the rebel to become an intolerant exponent of their own views at their expense of others. Writing at a time when Foucault was only a recent graduate of the École Normale Supérieure, Camus was already concerned by the ascent of the perpetual rebel, the “nihilist” who claimed to oppose every form of power and oppression while remorselessly advancing their own agenda and interests. “Methods of thought which claim to give the lead to our world in the name of revolution have become, in reality,” Camus (1951/1978: 246–247) lamented, “ideologies of consent and not of rebellion … The contemporary revolution that claims to deny every value is already, in itself, a standard of judging values.” Camus (1951/1978: 177) also noted the unfortunate tendency of twentieth-century rebels to use the state as an instrument of their own interests, noting that “All modern revolutions have ended in a reinforcement of the power of the State.” Throughout his career, Foucault – like most of his subsequent disciples – showed a strange blindness to the authoritarian tendencies of the various rebel movements he supported. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, this blindness manifested itself in sympathy for Maoism and the Cultural Revolution, Foucault declaring in a television interview that the victory of “the proletariat” would “quite” possibly result in “a violent, dictatorial, and even bloody power. I can’t see what objection one could make to this” (cited, Miller 1993: 203). Nowhere, however, was Foucault’s foolhardy embrace of revolutionary movements more evident than in his attitude toward the Iranian Revolution of 1979, a revolt that Foucault covered for the Italian newspaper, Corriere della Sera. Where others soon identified the potential for a totalitarian Islamic state, Foucault (1979a/1988: 216, 218) perceived only “beauty,” “an expression of public right,” “of living the Islamic religion as a revolutionary force.”

The blindness of Foucault to the totalitarian tendencies of many of the rebel causes he espoused, points to the fundamental failing in Foucauldian thinking. By assuming that oppression, rather than freedom, is the universal human condition, Foucault – unlike Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Edmund Burke, Montesquieu, Sartre – paid little heed to the circumstances that support freedom and democracy. Yes, it is true that Foucault (1976/1978: 94) highlighted resistance to societal power, arguing that wherever “there is power, there is resistance.” But resistance is not freedom. Resistance to established forms of power can come, moreover, from murderous totalitarian forces as well as from well-meaning democrats: think of the Nazis in Germany during the 1920s and 1930s, the Bolsheviks in Russia in 1917, or the ayatollahs in Iran in 1978–1979. If we thus turn our minds from oppression to freedom, and the conditions of freedom, we can make a number of pertinent observations. The first, and the one most easily overlooked, is that there has never been an enduring democracy – based on the political and social freedom of all members of the society – in any pre-industrial economy. Yes, ancient Athens pioneered not only the idea but also the practice of democracy. However, as we (Bowden 2019) noted in our earlier chapter, “Management in Antiquity, Part 1 – The Binds of Geography,” Athens was also not only a slave society but an imperial tyranny. The wealth, education, and leisure that made the Athenian democracy possible rested the slave-operated silver mines at Laurion and the tribute forcibly exacted from the Delian League. If democracy and social participation are to be made available to all members of the society, it is necessary, therefore, that the society boasts sufficient wealth to allow the ordinary citizen the leisure, the education, and the informed capacity to engage in the political process, free of the tutelage of any slave master, feudal lord or authoritarian state. For, in the final analysis, democracy and social freedom are mass phenomena, only possible when the society possesses the capacity to liberate the mass of humanity from everyday drudgery. The second pertinent point to make in reflecting upon the preconditions for freedom is that no democracy has persisted in a noncapitalist society, devoid of both the wealth-producing effect of capitalism and the diffusion of wealth and power that is its inevitable handmaiden. This is not to say that all capitalist societies are democracies. Franco’s Spain, fascist Italy, and Nazi Germany were capitalist economies that were overtaken by totalitarianism. That capitalist societies can fall prey to totalitarianism points, however, to another failing in Foucault’s understanding of power: the need for a system of checks and balances. If we look to the most successful democratic societies – Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the United States, the Scandinavian countries, the Netherlands, and Belgium – it is interesting to note how many are constitutional monarchies, societies where elected politicians are denied presidential power. Indeed, of the countries I just listed, only the United States is a republic. To be truly effective, however, checks and balances need to extend beyond politics into the very fabric of the society in the form of market competition, legal protection of person and property, freedom of movement, and the freedom of workers to choose both their occupation and employer.

If we think of the underpinnings of freedom of which Foucault seemed blissfully unaware – competition, legal protection of person and property, freedom of movement, and the capacity to choose one’s employer – these are all attributes that I have constantly identified as defining characteristics of “modern management” throughout The Palgrave Handbook of Management History. For not only does modern management create the wealth that allows society’s humbler members the education and leisure to participate in the political process, it also differs from management systems in both pre-industrial and totalitarian societies in being premised on the principles of freedom and respect for the individual. Yes, it is true that “modern management” is hierarchical. But its scope is not unlimited, unlike the situation that prevailed in either Stalinist Russia or Nazi Germany. Moreover, it has to constantly recruit and motivate legally free workers as a condition of its very existence. In a modern, liberal democratic society, it is thus the case that “modern management” underpins freedom rather than the system of universal oppression that Foucault perceived.

Foucault (1945–1970)

The intellectual principles that came to define Foucault cannot be understood apart from the cultural and political milieu of wartime and postwar France. Unlike English-speaking nations, the French during the period of German occupation (May 1940–August 1944) suffered not only national humiliation but also a complex relationship with their occupier. While only a minority were active supporters of the pro-German Vichy regime, virtually all had to come to some sort of accommodation with the occupier. This produced among the French intellectuals who came of age during the war and its immediate aftermath a profound questioning of the nature of freedom and human existence, a questioning that occurred in an environment where things German were manifest on every front. In this environment of German totalitarianism, the intellectual embrace of German philosophical idealism seems paradoxical. Interest in the ideas of Martin Heidegger, the disgraced philosopher who had been one of the Third Reich’s most fervent intellectual supporters, appears particularly strange. There was, however, even before the war, an intellectual interest in the idealist philosophies of Husserl and Heidegger among French intellectuals opposed to fascist and totalitarian ideologies. In the late 1920s, for example, Emmanuel Levinas – a French intellectual of Jewish-Lithuanian extraction whose ideas were to profoundly influence Derrida – studied under both Husserl and Heidegger in Germany before completing his doctoral thesis on Husserl in 1930. Of this thesis, Derrida (1967/2001: 104) observed in a paper entitled, “Violence and Metaphysics: An Essay on the Thought of Emmanuel Levinas,” subsequently published in Writing and Difference, that its insights into the work of Husserl and Heidegger brought a transformative “light” to French philosophy.

Already a legitimate source of anti-totalitarian thought prior to World War II, the philosophy of Husserl and, more particularly, Heidegger found its fullest expression in Sartre’s wartime book, Being and Nothingness – a title which was a deliberate play on Heidegger’s principal work, Being and Time. Whereas Heidegger (1927/1962: 161, 2919) argued that the “existentialist” essence of being or Dasein was the “foundation for the primordial phenomenon of truth,” Sartre associated the essence of individual being with not only a search for truth but also a primordial struggle for freedom. As Sartre (1943/1956: 591) expressed it, outside of “the notions of freedom” any understandings of human existence “lose all meaning.”

Sartre’s humanist interpretation of Heidegger, with its emphasis on freedom and resistance as the essence of being, was clearly either an accidental or wilful misinterpretation of Heidegger’s more elemental views of what he referred to as Dasein or “Being-in-the-world,” a point that Heidegger made in repudiating Sartre’s interpretation (Miller 1993: 47). Nevertheless, Sartre’s work popularized not only “existentialism” but also the works of Heidegger for a whole generation whose ties to traditional beliefs were torn from their moorings by the war. As Mark Poster (1975: 73) observed, “Ex-Vichyites, youngsters from the bourgeoisie … the outcasts of society – these motley followers of existentialism found in the new doctrine justifications for their despair.”

In coming to study in 1945 at the prestigious Lycée Henri-IV – located in close vicinity to both the Pantheon and the Sorbonne – Foucault found himself at the epicenter of the Parisian fascination with existentialism and German philosophic idealism. The “unofficial world headquarters of existentialism” was also only a few hundred meters away at the Café de Flore on the Boulevard Saint-Germain. Among his teachers at the Lycée Henri-IV, the Hegelian philosopher, Jean Hyppolite, was a noted admirer of Heidegger (Miller 1993: 40). On graduating from the Lycée Henri-IV, Foucault also came under the influence of the Marxist, Louis Althusser, who began work as a tutor at the elite École Normale Supérieure in 1948. Becoming a lifelong friend of Althusser, Foucault was persuaded to join the French Communist Party in 1950, remaining a member until 1953. Although Foucault formally broke from communism in 1953, the influence of Althusser’s peculiar brand of “structural” Marxism can nevertheless be detected in Foucault’s subsequent work. Like the mature Foucault, Althusser was vehemently opposed to the humanist version of both existentialism and Marxism then popular in France, arguing that by the time Marx wrote Capital he had abandoned the Hegelian philosophy and humanism of his youth. Like the mature Foucault, Althusser (1968/2001) also came to believe that the authority of capitalism and the modern state was primarily maintained by ideology and culture and what he called the “Ideological State Apparatus” (i.e., schools, churches, cultural institutions). Like the mature Foucault (1966/1994: xxi), who argued in The Order of Things that “the existence of order” is maintained by “the ordering codes” of culture, knowledge, and grammar, Althusser (1968/2001: 125) similarly believed that ruling “ideologies” were “realized” not only in “institutions” but also in the “rituals and practices” which they established.

Although Foucault’s research was arguably always characterized by an underlay of Althusser’s structural Marxism – Derrida (1967/2001: 69) correctly pointing to the “structuralist” underpinnings of Foucault’s first significant work, Madness and Civilization – the masculine, proletarian world of French communism was inherently ill-suited to Foucault, a person who never hid his homosexuality. The bookish son of a well-to-do provincial surgeon from Poitiers, Foucault never spent much time in the mundane jobs that characterized the life of the typical French citizen during the 1950s. Instead, after graduating from the École Normale Supérieure, Foucault drifted between research and teaching posts before beginning his doctoral studies into mental illness, studying patients at the Hôpital de la Salpȇtrière.

Amid the turmoil and dislocation of France in the 1950s – a time when France found itself in savage colonial wars in Indochina and Algeria – it is perhaps unsurprising that Foucault would find his intellectual lodestar in another troubled and bookish soul, Friedrich Nietzsche. Where Marx had placed the proletariat and the impersonal forces of economics at the center of his analysis, Nietzsche, more than any author before or since, made individual identity and the power of the human will the center of concern. In Nietzsche’s (1889/1990: 97) opinion, it is delusion to think that “man” and mankind had any meaning outside “the individual.” It was not economics or political institutions that were important in understanding human affairs, Nietzsche (1883/1970: 62) stated in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, but rather the “self,” which “subdues, conquers, destroys.” To reach their full potential, to transcend their current ordinariness and become a totally new expression of individual will, “the Superman,” Nietzsche (1883/1970: 215; 1887/1989: 40–41) argued that the individual needed to embrace their primordial and irrational “inner core,” allowing “the animal,” “the beast of prey …to get out again.” When it came to the writing of history, Nietzsche (1874: 26, 12) expressed hostility in his On the Use and Abuse of History for Life to history as a fact, arguing that an uninspiring, fact-based account “cripples the active man.” Instead, Nietzsche (1874: 26) proclaimed, history only becomes a useful source of inspiration for the will to power when it was turned “into art work,” providing “a purely artistic picture” that arouses the primeval “instincts.” For, in the final analysis, Nietzsche (1874: 28) continued, “all great things … never succeed without some delusion.”

A lifelong convert to Nietzschean philosophy following a summer reading his work during an Italian holiday in 1953, Foucault’s (1966/1994: 322) admiration for Nietzsche was manifest in The Order of Things, where he recorded that “Nietzsche’s thought …has for us for us, such a disturbing power,” bringing with it “the Promise-Threat” that modern “man” – by an embrace of his primal instincts – could “be replaced by the superman.”

If a Nietzschean world view informed Foucault’s thinking from an early stage, his ideas were hidden from view during the 1950s. Instead, Foucault continued to follow an unsettled if privileged existence, moving between a series of diplomatic and teaching posts in Sweden, Poland, and Germany while working on his doctoral thesis on madness. Published in 1961 as Histoire de la Folie as part of the French doctoral submission process, Foucault’s study has typically been perceived as a study written from the point of the outcast, the marginalized, and the psychologically impaired, people whose eccentricities were no longer tolerated in what Foucault called Europe’s “classical Age” (i.e., c. 1400–c. 1750). Whereas Foucault (1961/1965: 10) claimed the “mad” had been an accepted part of medieval society, they now found themselves subject to what Althusser called the Ideological State Apparatus (i.e., hospitals, medical specialists, legal controls) as “madness” was constituted “as a mental illness.” In emphasizing this, the most obvious argument contained within Foucault’s doctoral thesis, José Barchilon (1961/1965: 7–8) advised the reader in the introduction to the abridged English translation of the thesis that Foucault had dispelled “the myth of mental illness,” re-establishing “folly and unreason in their rightful place as a complex, human – too human – phenomena.”

In truth, Foucault’s study of madness was built more around a concern for the plight of the “sane” than the “mad,” the work being underpinned by the Nietzschean belief that “modern man” had become a shadow of his former “self” in embracing rationality at the expense of irrationality, trading a trust in one’s primeval instincts in favor of a belief in science. As a result of “reason’s subjugation of non-reason,” Foucault (1961/1965: 9) argued, people have come to “communicate and recognize each other through the merciless language of non-madness,” suppressing “the lyricism of protest.” In doing so, Foucault (1961/1965: 12) added, humanity had lost powerful insights into “the secret powers of the world,” creating “a world without images, without positive character.” Also lost was an appreciation of “the strange contradiction of human appetites: the complicity of desire and murder, of cruelty and the longing to suffer, of sovereignty and slavery” (Foucault 1961/1965: 221). Whereas others had found in the writings of the Marquis de Sade – an incorrigible rapist and sadist – evidence of insanity, Foucault (1961/1965: 221) claimed that “Sadism …is a massive cultural fact” and that through de Sade’s “words of unreason …man discovers a truth he has forgotten.” Only by embracing the views and behaviors of those dismissed as mad, Foucault (1961/1965: 293) concluded, was humanity capable of “rediscovering the secret of unreason’s nothingness.”

Foucault (1972c/2006: 542), in writing an appendix to the second edition of his study of insanity, published as History of Madness, recorded that the key to understanding any society was found in “the relationship of the culture to the very thing that it excludes.” While societal prohibitions on “forbidden acts,” including acts of “madness,” were “familiar” to most, Foucault (1972c/2006: 544) continued, less “understood” were “the organization of prohibitions in language,” in the ways we both understand the world and communicate our understandings to others. It was to this supposed problem that Foucault devoted his attentions during the 1960s, his efforts finding expression in arguably his two most significant works, The Order of Things and The Archaeology of Knowledge. In pursuing these endeavors, Foucault boasted a more academically secure if still unstable personal situation. Commuting once a week from his Paris residence to a full-time position at the University of Clermont-Ferrand between 1960 and 1966, in 1966, Foucault accepted a position at the University of Tunis, returning to Paris when – in an act of inexplicable madness – the Gaullist government appointed him Head of the Department of Philosophy at an experimental campus at Vincennes. Even before the new campus formally opened its doors, in January 1969 Foucault joined an occupation of the rector’s office by Maoist-aligned students, throwing bricks at the police from a rooftop vantage point. Never destined to end well, the certifications for Foucault’s degree program were officially withdrawn after one of his staff, Judith Miller, began handing out degrees to passing strangers along with the observation that “the university is a figment of capitalist society” (cited, Miller 1993: 180).

In pursuing studies of language, Foucault was in part pursuing the latest Parisian intellectual fashion, where a revived interest in the “structural” analysis of the turn-of-the-century Swiss philologist, Ferdinand de Saussure (1915/1974), sparked a debate in which Claude Levi-Strauss, Derrida, and Roland Barthes were prominent. Through his study, Mythologies, Barthes, in particular, proved the “oracle of the hour” (Miller 1993: 133). Drawing on his experiences of Japanese society, where nonverbal cues are an important aspect of language, Barthes (1957/1972: 115) argued that in art and literature, in particular, the depiction of one concept or object often masks a far more fundamental understanding. Foucault, although boasting no formal training in linguistics, pursued the themes which Barthes had developed with a remorseless vigor in The Order of Things. By looking at the “vocabularies,” “syntaxes,” and the language “sounds” of various “civilizations and peoples,” rather than simply “the words they spoke,” Foucault (1966/1994: 87) suggested, we can “open up a whole historical field that had not existed in previous periods.” Moreover, Foucault (1966/1994: 86) famously argued, “Knowledge and language are rigorously interwoven. They share, in representation, the same origin and the same functional principle; they support one another; complement one another.” In “any given period,” Foucault (1966/1994: 158, xxi) continued, “the totality of experience” in any “field of knowledge” was delineated by “a priori” understandings shared within what Foucault referred to as the “episteme,” “the codes of language, perception, and practice” that act as both the foundation and constraint of all knowledge. Grandiosely, Foucault (1966/1994: xxi, xx) also claimed that by adopting his approach the reader would come to understand that the “codes of culture” that currently prevail “are perhaps not the only possible ones or the best ones.” In his subsequent, and more accessible study, The Archaeology of Knowledge, Foucault (1969/1972: 8–9) also expounded a more overtly Nietzschean perspective, arguing that historical accounts that depict patterns of order, “of convergence and culmination,” were merely a misleading “discourse” that denied a supposed human capacity to reshape the past as well as the present. Rather than depicting a pattern of order, Foucault (1969/1972: 8–9, 25) argued in favor of the “notion of discontinuity” as “both an instrument and an object of research,” a notion that would supposedly allow the history of the past to be “known, forgotten, transformed, utterly erased.”

To the typical lay reader, The Order of Things and The Archaeology of Knowledge appear primarily to be studies of language, knowledge, and the maintenance of cultural norms. As Jean-Paul Sartre and the rest of the French literary establishment well understood, however, behind this apparent focus was a full-throated attack on Sartre’s existential humanism. For, Foucault (1966/1994: 385–386) argued in The Order of Things, the current human condition – and the very concept of “man” – is entirely the creation of the “modern episteme” with its humanist values, “a recent invention” that is doomed to perish along with the episteme that created it. Although what would follow on from supposed “disappearance of man” is left hanging in Foucault’s (1966/1994: 386) account, the clear inference is that the humanist “man” will be replaced by the Nietzschean “Superman,” a person of remorseless energy, will, and irrational power. In an interview originally published in L’Arc in 1966, and subsequently republished in the English-language Telos, Sartre (1966/1971: 110) responded with a devastating attack on Foucault’s work, dismissing him as a populist chaser of linguistic fashion devoid of “true original thought.” Nowhere, Sartre (1966/1971: 110) accurately observed, did Foucault address the most important questions about knowledge and its creation, namely, the relationship between ideas and the material conditions of life and the ways in which humans progress from belief in one set of ideas to a diametrically different opinion. Instead, Sartre (1966/1971: 110) cynically noted, Foucault merely provided the populace “with a magic lantern” in which “movement” was more apparent than real, occurring as it did “by a succession of immobilities.”

As I (Bowden 2018: 149) have argued elsewhere, Foucault’s published studies in the 1960s also suffered from conclusions that went both too far and not far enough. Foucault (1966/1994: xxiii) goes too far by arguing that it is only through changes in language and knowledge that “man enters …for the first time, the field of Western knowledge,” assertions which ignore events such as the American War of Independence, the French Revolution, and the British Industrial Revolution. Conversely, Foucault goes not far enough by beginning his analysis with what he calls the “Classical Age.” As Derrida (1967/2001: 6, 12–13) accurately noted, any study that starts around 1500 ignores the previous “twenty centuries” of Western thought, traditions whose philosophical and philological foundations can be traced back to the ancient Greeks.

Foucault (1970–1978)

Contrary to a popular opinion, Foucault was the perpetual insider rather than the eternal outcast. Almost his entire life was spent within the comfortable milieu of the French cultural and political elite. From the time of his entry into the Lycée Henri-IV in 1945, his career involved a steady advancement through the corridors of some of the most prestigious French institutions. Even before the publication of his best-selling The Order of Things, he was already a senior academic, serving on an official commission appointed by the then Gaullist government into the reform of higher education. Even his 2-year sojourn to the University of Tunis was hardly unusual for French academia, where long-standing ties with North Africa were commonplace. Both Camus and Derrida, for example, were Algerian-born. In terms of career progression, Foucault’s appointment in 1970 to the prestigious College of France brought him to the pinnacle of success. Despite his impressive record of career advancement, however, Foucault was always an odd fit for many of the institutions that willingly opened their doors to him. Admitted to the École Normale Supérieure, he was detested by his fellow students. As an exponent of language and linguistics, he might have achieved popular success, but he was never going to compete with the likes of Sartre, Barthes, and Derrida in the salons and seminars of the Parisian literary and philosophical elite.

If Foucault’s life prior to 1968 was that of a somewhat uncomfortable insider, the student-worker uprising that shook the French nation to its core in May 1968 transformed Foucault’s place in the world. Spontaneous in nature, and driven by opposition rather than by objectives, the protests of ’68 embodied the Nietzschean angst and will to power which Foucault had proclaimed in The Order of Things. As a graduate of the French Communist Party, Foucault was, moreover, hardly a political novice, blind to the potential opportunities that the uprising offered for the Nietzschean dissident. Another profound shift in the Western political and cultural landscape – involving a shift from traditional class-based politics to one’s centered on personal identity and sexuality – was also heralded by the so-called Stonewall riots in New York in June–July 1969, a disturbance that followed on from a police raid on a gay bar in Greenwich Village. In the months and years that followed, across the United States and the wider Western world, an increasingly vocal gay rights movement wove a potent new strand into identity politics, a social movement already given substance by campaigns for women’s liberation and civil rights for racial minorities.

In the post-’68 environment, the logic of a pivot toward issues of identity, sexuality, and power could hardly have escaped Foucault. In his inaugural lecture to the College of France, delivered on 2 December 1970 and entitled “The Order of Discourse,” Foucault laid out a research agenda that linked his previous studies of knowledge and discourse with sexuality and politics. Building on his earlier research, Foucault (1970/1981: 55) advised his audience that power and wealth were grounded on “the three great systems of exclusion which forge discourse – the forbidden speech, the division of madness and the will to truth.” Arguing a Nietzschean position, Foucault (1970/1981: 54, 61) argued that the obsession with “truth” was a recent innovation and that what was defined as true was merely that which ascribed to “the rules of discursive ‘policing’” laid down by various academic disciplines. To break out these exclusionary constraints, Foucault postulated two historical methodologies that were to define not only his research but also that of the wider Foucauldian tradition that gained an ever-increasing academic following. First, Foucault (1970/1981: 70) informed his listeners of the benefits of a “critical approach” in which one begins with current “forms of exclusion,” tracing their origins and the interests which they served. Second, Foucault (1970/1981: 70) expounded on the merits of the “genealogical” approach that he had explored at length in The Archaeology of Knowledge, in which one traced how “discourses” came to be accepted as true, interweaving knowledge and power. Although told in a far more direct, succinct, and comprehensible form than was the Foucauldian norm, none of this was particularly new. What was new was his focus on sexuality, politics, and power, Foucault arguing that not only were the grids of cultural and linguistic control at their “tightest’ in these domains, it was also at these sites that resistance was most powerfully manifest (Foucault 1970/1981: 52).

Flagged in his December 1970 lecture to the College of France, Foucault’s newfound interest in biopolitics – on the ways in which sexuality, discourse, and disciplinary control are interwoven – found its fullest expression in two books published in the mid-1970s, Discipline and Punish and The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, the latter boasting a title markedly different to the French original: La Volonté de Savoir (The Will to Know).

Of all the concepts conveyed across his career, none was more powerful than that of the “Panopticon,” both (supposedly) as an actual 12-sided prison and a model for a “disciplinary society” where the individual is subject to perpetual surveillance and control. In reflecting on the state of management and organizational theory at the end of the twentieth century, McKinlay and Starkey (1998: 3, 5), for example, noted how the concept of the Panopticon and “disciplinary power” – which they declared to be “the central theme of Foucault’s work” – had transformed the field. No longer was it possible, McKinlay and Starkey (1998: 5) continued, to regard managerial systems as merely the product of necessity. Instead, we need to understand them as Foucault did, as a “complex of power/knowledge” that embody material and physic oppression. Having acted in the early 1970s as the spokesperson for the Prison Information Group – in reality a front for an ultraleft Maoist group, Gauche Proletarienne, to which Foucault’s long-term partner, Daniel Defert, secretly belonged (Miller 1993: 186–187) – Foucault and his close circle of friends also congratulated themselves on the impact of Discipline and Punish. As one, Arlette Farge (2015: 33) later recalled, “With Discipline and Punish, Foucault totally blew apart everything that had been said about prisons and the system of power.” Certainly the imagery that Foucault conveyed in Discipline and Punish was disquieting. Within the Panopticon – and by implication the “disciplinary society” that was its natural outcome – every person finds themselves powerless, “alone, perfectly individualized and constantly visible,” forced to modify their behavior in order to placate their all-seeing supervisors (Foucault 1975/1991: 5). The inevitable end result of a world modeled on the Panopticon, we are led to believe, is remorseless “normalizing power,” a society where the “judges” of normality “are present everywhere. We are in the society of the teacher-judge, the doctor-judge, the educator-judge” (Foucault 1975/1991: 304).

Foucault’s depiction of a society where everyone is exposed to supervision and control on every front was reinforced in his The History of Sexuality. The very condition of modernity, Foucault (1976/1978: 89, 94) proclaimed, rested on “new mechanisms of power” that “took charge” of every aspect of “existence,” including individuals “as living bodies,” exposing them to power “exercised from innumerable points.” Whereas the society had previously forbidden certain sexual activities – homosexuality, sadism, etc. – it now engaged in the “medicalization of the sexually peculiar” (Foucault 1976/1978: 44). Such normalizing forms of control, Foucault warned, were not incidental to modern society but instead revealed its true, remorseless totalitarian nature. For, Foucault (1976/1978: 140–141) continued, modern industrial capitalism marked “the beginning of an era of ‘bio-power’ … [that] was without question an indispensable element in the development of capitalism: the latter would not have been possible without the controlled insertion of bodies into the machinery of production.” This was achieved, Foucault (1976/1978: 145) concluded, by a system of micro-power that involved “infinitesimal surveillances” and “indeterminate medical or psychological examinations.” Accordingly, we have become:

… a society ‘with a sexuality’: the mechanisms of power are addressed to the body, to what cases us to proliferate, to what reinforces the species, its stamina, its ability to dominate, or its capacity for being used. (Foucault 1976/1978: 147)

There was no doubt that Discipline and Punish and The History of Sexuality captured the rebellious spirit of his times, appealing to a new literary market: the university-educated professional with career aspirations who was little concerned with the bread-and-butter concerns of the old blue-collar proletariat. Moving from a rebellious university existence to the humdrum of the office and the classroom – worlds dominated by older, more conservative workers and supervisors – this new professional class typically shared a generalized hostility to the exercise of power, perceiving evidence of discrimination on the basis of race, gender, and sexual orientation on every front. Education and increased prosperity also made the philosophically framed writings of Foucault and his ilk a “cultural produit deluxe,” a top-shelf literary product whose possession allowed one to demonstrate one’s educational superiority (Lamont 1987: 593–594). In crafting both Discipline and Punish and The History of Sexuality, Foucault and his supporters also constantly claimed that they were rooted in fact, in thorough archival research. In The History of Sexuality, for example, Foucault (1976/1978: 13) claimed that he was “starting from historical facts that serve as guidelines for research.” As for the writing of Discipline and Punish, his student and colleague, Arlette Farge (2015: 31) reported that “I often saw him in the archives, though historians criticized him for not having researched and interpreted archival material. His interest in the archives was greater than any other historian’s.” Across the years, others have made similar defenses of Foucault’s work, Rowlinson and Carter (2002: 530) lamenting that “few of Foucault’s acolytes in organization studies have followed him into the archives.”

Far from being based on thorough archival research and a deep understanding of his topics, Foucault’s Discipline and Punish and The History of Sexuality in fact followed a now well-established modus operandi: an opportunistic exploitation of a topic of popular interest, a willingness to enter into a field in which he had little in the way of either training or expertise, sweeping generalizations, clever literary imagery, a propensity to stretch evidence beyond its normal bounds, and an implicit claim to be an agent of resistance and transformative change. Of Discipline and Punish, Miller (1993: 235) observes, “Despite the apparent erudition of the work, it was based on a relatively small number of archival sources.” The Panopticon – the 12-sided penitentiary that Foucault declared was a model example of the new “disciplinary society”– never existed. Instead, the concept was derived from some obscure letters and reflections written by the English economist, Jeremy Bentham. Not only did Bentham never publicly campaign for his model prison, it was a project of which the world remained largely ignorant until Foucault made it the centerpiece of his analysis (Božovič 1995).

One of the features of Foucault’s work that most angered more conventional scholars was the paucity of references and sources that characterized his publications. A ploy that allowed him to circumvent the fact that he boasted little expertise in many of the fields in which he ventured (linguistics, prison reform, sexuality, etc.), the practice also no doubt added to the popular appeal of his studies, sparing the lay reader a mass of tiresome references. Foucault’s essay, “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,” is thus unusual in providing us with a well-referenced insight into the inspiration for Foucault’s work in the early 1970s. Of the 55 references to a literary source, 54 cite Nietzsche. Similarly, the “genealogical” approach to history which he advocates is pure Nietzsche, Foucault (1971/1984: 88) advising the reader that “History becomes ‘effective’ to the degree that it introduces discontinuity into our very being …It will uproot its traditional foundations and relentlessly disrupt its pretended continuity.” Like Nietzsche, Foucault argued that the purpose of historical writing is not one of recording a more-or-less accurate account of past events, but rather one of tracing how historical understandings have emerged from past accounts. Where such past accounts depict some pattern of order and explanation rooted in economics, political necessity, or underlying social trends – as is normally the case – than their intellectual foundations need to be destroyed at their “roots,” thereby allowing the “liberation of man by presenting him with other origins than those in which he prefers to see himself” (Foucault 1971/1984: 96).

A clear disciple of Nietzsche in 1971, Foucault subsequently sought to escape from Nietzsche’s shadow, desirous of portraying himself as a creative philosopher in his own right. Accordingly, in an interview in 1983, published in Telos, Foucault continually downplayed the influence of Nietzsche on his thinking. “The only rather extravagant homage I have rendered Nietzsche,” Foucault (1983/1988: 31–32) declared – apparently forgetful of his essay, “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History” – “was to call the first volume of my The History of Sexuality “The Will to Knowledge.” When pressed on the matter, Foucault (1983/1988: 33) coyly stated, “I do not want to get into this argument for the very simple reason that it is years since I have read Nietzsche.” Like Paul denying knowledge of Christ on three occasions on the eve of the crucifixion, Foucault’s denial of Nietzsche has an air of pathos to it. Yet there is also a sense that Foucault’s attempt to distance himself from Nietzsche reflects an awareness that his emphasis on a “disciplinary society,” and a world modeled on the Panopticon, made him in many ways a reverse Nietzschean, someone who paid greater heed to the controls that individuals are subjected to rather than their capacity for freedom. For what made Nietzsche’s work a call for individual freedom was his constant emphasis on the “Will to Power,” the belief that through an exercise of will every obstacle can be overcome. Yes, it is true that the mature Foucault’s work did continue to emphasize resistance to sources of power and authority. In his The History of Sexuality, for example, Foucault (1976/1978: 94) proclaimed that “Where there is power, there is resistance.” However, it is also true that the emphasis on social and cultural control, the power of the “disciplinary society,” became more rather than less pronounced in Foucault’s work during the 1970s. In part, the increasingly pessimistic tone of Foucault’s work no doubt reflects the fading promise of the student and worker rebellions that had characterized Western societies in the late 1960s. More fundamentally, however, it pointed to the fact that Foucault himself had no alternative social and economic model to offer his readers. As a result, by distancing himself from Nietzsche, Foucault also distanced himself from the emphasis on human will and freedom that was Nietzsche’s seminal contribution to Western philosophy.

Foucault (1978–1984)

The increasingly pessimistic overtones to the mature Foucault’s work were highlighted in 1978, when he abruptly announced in his College of France lectures that he would be shifting the focus of attention from “biopolitics” to “governmentality.” In explaining the rationale for this shift, Foucault (1979b/2008: 2) subsequently declared, “I wanted to study the art of governing, that is to say … I wanted to study government’s consciousness of itself” and how “governing was conceptualized both within and outside government.” Extending his discussions to what he referred to as “neo-liberalism,” Foucault’s ideas on “governmentality” were to profoundly influence disciplines such as management, organizational studies, and accounting. In assessing the transformative impact of Foucault’s ideas on the discipline of accounting between 1976 and 2015, Christine Cooper (2015: 15), for example, emphasized how his ideas on “neo-liberalism” had become central to disciplinary understanding of power, government, and the social effect of accounting (also see McKinlay and Starkey 1998; Armstrong 1994, 2015; Clark and Rowlinson 2004, for similar assessments). Influential as Foucault’s ideas on governmentality and “neo-liberalism” were, they were also arguably the source of more misunderstanding and confusion than any other area of Foucault’s work.

Of all Foucault’s writings, it is Foucault’s later writings on governmentality and “neo-liberalism” that provide the most apparent comfort for conservative thinkers. In articulating this opinion in the neoconservative journal, Jacobin, in December 2015, David Zamora (2015), for example, recorded:

Foucault was highly attracted to economic liberalism: he saw in it the possibility of a form of governmentality that was much less normative and authoritarian than the socialist and communist left, which he saw as totally obsolete. He especially saw in neoliberalism a “much less bureaucratic” and “much less disciplinarian” form of politics than that offered by the postwar welfare state.

Zamora’s analysis arguably understates Foucault’s concerns as to the power of the state, whose power he now placed at the center of his analysis. Like an invasive virus, it advances its interests for self-serving ends while constantly adapting itself to accord with the historical context within which it operated. Whereas other economic historians saw the “mercantilist” policies of eighteenth-century Europe as driven by commercial, fiscal, and trade imperatives, Foucault (1979b/2008: 5) perceived “the state” out to “enrich itself through monetary accumulation.” As Foucault himself well-realized, the inherent problem with this model of an all-powerful state was in explaining the autonomy of markets, market competition, and, hence, capitalism and the social classes associated with it. In other words, how does one explain the transformation of what Foucault (1979b/2008: 5, 46–47) called the mercantilist “police state” of the eighteenth century into a society of market “liberalism” in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries? To get around this quandary, Foucault (1979b/2008: 17) argued that the secret to the extension of state power – and the key to “the art of government” in the modern world – was found in the deliberate “self-limitation of governmental practice.” Although Foucault (1979c/2008: 44) claimed that the modern state was still only concerned with “its own growth, wealth, population, and power,” he also suggested that the process of “self-limitation” demanded “a complex interplay between individual and collective interests, between social utility and economic profit, between the equilibrium of the market and the regime of public authorities.” One would think that the realization that democratic societies are built around a plurality of interests would lead one to conclude that the end result was a weakening of the power of the state as its policies and directions were fought over by competing social forces. This is not, however, the conclusion that Foucault came to. Instead, he argued the exact opposite, claiming that it was “precisely” through the interplay of diverse interests with the state “that government can get a hold on everything that exists for it in the form of individuals, actions, words, wealth, resources, property, rights, and so forth” (Foucault 1979b/2008: 45).

It is arguable that Foucault’s peculiar understanding of markets, capitalism, and state power could only have emerged in societies such as France, where – as Fernand Braudel (1986/1991: 666) observed – capitalism “took a long time to penetrate French society … France was never consumed by the necessary passion for the capitalist modems, by that unbridled thirst for profits without which the capitalist engine cannot get started.” The factors behind the success of Britain’s Industrial Revolution – the ingenuity of the small entrepreneur, the willingness of the Lancashire mill owner to invest in revolutionary new steam technologies, a new found awareness of costs – are all beyond the explanatory capacity of Foucault’s ideas on the state and governmentality. For, as Joseph Schumpeter (1950/1975: 124) accurately observed, the key to “the Rise of Capitalism” was not state power but rather the reverse, the creation of “social space for a new class that stood upon individual achievement,” a class of people always distrustful of the state and its agencies. Even in France, however, the veracity of Foucault’s model is dubious in the extreme. If the French state had shown the “self-limiting” rationality which Foucault believed it possessed, it would have avoided the French Revolution. Indeed, far from limiting its regulatory footprint so as to allow “the equilibrium of the market,” the French state dramatically increased the number of “feudal” imposts during the eighteenth century, Braudel (1986/1991: 491) noting that in 1788 – the year before the Revolution – a load of timber transported across France would have been subject to 35 different tariffs and customs duties, imposed at 21 different locations. Rather than demonstrating proof of a supposed “new rationality” of “governmental practice” (Foucault 1979b/2008: 15), such suicidal economic behavior lends credence to the well-known maxim about the French Bourbons that they “learned nothing and forgot nothing.”

Confusion and misrepresentation of Foucault’s ideas are most evident in discussions of “neo-liberalism” by his erstwhile supporters. In discussing the utility of Foucault’s understanding of “neo-liberalism” to accounting research, Christine Cooper (2015: 15), for example, refers to it as “marketization,” a process associated with the victory of the market in which “All conduct is economic conduct.” Such views, associating Foucault’s understanding of “neo-liberalism” with the “neo-liberalism” of Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, and the neoclassical economics of the Anglosphere during the 1980s, are profoundly in error.

To comprehend Foucault’s ideas on “neo-liberalism,” we need to first understand the context within which they were written. In terms of Foucault’s enunciation of his views on “neo-liberalism,” these were principally outlined in a series of lectures to the College of France between late January 1979 and late March 1979. At the time of these lectures, which would have presumably been prepared in the preceding year, Margaret Thatcher was not yet elected; her term in office began in May 1979. Ronald Reagan’s election was more than 18 months away. Accordingly, the societal interest in “neo-liberalism” as we understand was hardly a matter of either political or philosophical concern in 1978–1979.

Constantly, in discussing “neo-liberalism,” Foucault informed his audience at the College of France that his concern was with the state and political power rather than markets. Thus, on 14 February 1979, Foucault (1979d/2008: 131–132) advised his listeners that:

Neo-liberalism is not Adam Smith; neo-liberalism is not market society … Neo-liberalism should not therefore be identified with laissez-faire, but rather with permanent vigilance, activity, and intervention.

Neo-liberalism was thus, in Foucault’s (1979d/2008: 133) estimation, the polar opposite of “contemporary American anarcho-capitalism,” involving as it did a “government [that] is active, vigilant, and intervening.”

Rather than identifying the emergence of “neo-liberalism” with the English-speaking world, Foucault associated its origins with postwar Germany. Declaring that modern societies are characterized by the “gradual, piecemeal, but continuous take-over by the state,” Foucault (1979e/2008: 76, 80) dated “neo-liberalism” from April 1948 when West Germany relaxed wartime controls in order to foster economic growth. In explaining the significance of this shift, Foucault (1979e/2008: 85–86, 83) argued that the actions of the German state were a classic example of a rational “self-limiting” state that builds its own power by allowing a substantial measure “of economic freedom,” thereby fostering economic growth that acts as “a legitimizing foundation of the state.” Arguing that “neo-liberalism” was rooted in “German Christian Democracy,” Foucault (1979f/2008: 185–186, 192) also suggested that the success of the German model – based on “economic freedom” within the confines of a supervisory state – saw it gradually adopted by other states, including those of France and the United States.

In referencing Foucault’s ideas on “neo-liberalism,” both neoconservatives and opponents of the Thatcherite-Reagan process of economic deregulation take too much solace from Foucault’s writings. “Neo-liberalism” as Foucault understood it was premised on a dominant state apparatus, powerful trade unions, joint oversight of firms by management-union works councils, and a Christian democratic emphasis on social welfare. Despite this, it is also nevertheless the case that neoconservatives can justly take more comfort in Foucault’s views in 1978–1980 than can proponents of socialism or even Keynesianism. In a lecture to the College of France on 31 January 1979, for example, Foucault (1979e/2008: 85–86) advised his audience that in “the practice of economic freedom” the modern state “rediscovers” its “real foundation.” Foucault (1979e/2008: 81) also informed his listeners that “a state which violates the basic freedoms, the essential rights of citizens, is no longer representative of its citizens.” This is a formula that closely resembles that outlined by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1762/1950: 58) in The Social Contract, where he argued that the state is legitimated through the fact it is an agent of “the general will.” If it fails to serve the needs of the “general will,” then it loses its legitimacy.

A significant shift in Foucault’s thinking is also heralded by what he came to regard as the essential precondition for economic success in modern societies, namely, an investment in “human capital.” Pointing to the extraordinary success of the Western and Japanese economies in the postwar period, Foucault (1979g/2008: 232) concluded that these achievements could not be ascribed to the “variables of classical analysis,” but were instead the result of “cultural and educational policies.” Conversely, the postcolonial “failure of Third World economies” was attributable, in Foucault’s (1979g/2008: 232) estimation, primarily to an “insufficient investment in human capital.” Foucault also famously associated “human capital” with a new manifestation of “homo economicus,” whereby the worker brings “his own capital” (i.e., his or her educational attributes, motivation, social skills, etc.) to the employment contract. In commenting on Foucault’s usage of this terminology, Cooper (2015: 15) associated it with yet another manifestation of “disciplinary” power, whereby the “neo-liberal conception” of “entrepreneurs of the self” caused humans to “lose their standing as being simply valuable as humans” [emphasis in original]. While there is a hint of this interpretation in Foucault’s wording, Cooper’s interpretation is nevertheless misguided. Far from associating “entrepreneurs of the self” with manifestations of oppression, Foucault was linking it to a more educationally rounded worker, one who had a far more dynamic and important role in the creation of wealth than did earlier generations of workers.

If we were to summarize Foucault’s understanding of governmentality, the state, and “neo-liberalism,” it is evident that his primary concern was still with oppressive manifestations of power, which in the late 1970s he increasingly associated with a “self-limiting” state. In the German form of “neo-liberalism,” however, he saw hopeful signs, associated with “economic freedom” and a greater enrichment of “human capital.”

The changed emphasis in Foucault’s discussions of the relationship between the state, the markets, and the individuals was no doubt a reflection of a number of things. Expert in detecting the winds of shifting intellectual fashion, Foucault’s more considered discussion of markets and economic growth reflected in part the climate of the times as the postwar economic boom lost steam during the 1970s amid recession and the so-called Middle Eastern “oil shock.” More fundamentally, we can detect in Foucault’s lectures an increasingly libertarian tone in which his liberal ideas on sexuality and personal identity are reflected in his ideas on economics. Constantly, in his lectures before the College of France, we see evidence of Foucault’s (1979c/2008: 42, 22; 1979b/2008: 22) interest in the relationship between “liberalism” and “freedom and of law”, and between “liberalism” and economic “liberty” and “freedoms.” It is hard not to associate this shift with the ever-increasing amounts of time that Foucault was spending not only as a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley but also as a patron of the gay bathhouses and sadomasochist bars of San Francisco’s Folsom Street. Reflecting on “the wide-open, almost giddy social whirl of the leather scene in San Francisco,” Foucault informed a colleague that the new “way of life” that he had discovered was “extraordinary” and “unbelievable. These men live for casual sex and drugs. Incredible! There are no such places in France” (cited, Miller 1993: 261). Nowhere on earth was there a more libertarian culture than that constantly inhabited by Foucault in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

For the discipline of management history, there are no more important topics than those touched on by Foucault in 1978–1979, issues relating to freedom, human capital, employee motivation, markets, and the role of the state in a liberal, capitalist society. By 1981, however, Foucault had lost interest in these seminal issues, focusing instead on “subjectivity and truth” and the ways in which a self-centered “care for oneself” had supposedly characterized antiquity during “the long summer of Hellenistic and Roman thought” (Foucault 1982a/2005: 2, 9). Given Foucault’s personal circumstances, which saw him constantly travelling between Paris and San Francisco’s gay bars and bathhouses, a renewed focus on personal identity and sexuality was hardly surprising. In addition to Foucault’s lectures to the College of France, his renewed interest in these themes also manifested itself in the completion in 1984 of two new volumes in his The History of Sexuality, namely, The Use of Pleasure: Volume 2 of the History of Sexuality and The Care of the Self: Volume 3 of the History of Sexuality (Foucault 1984a/1985, 1984b/1986). Increasingly, however, Foucault’s lectures were as much concerned with death as with life. In a lecture given on 24 March 1982, Foucault (1982b/2005: 478) solemnly advised his audience that “death is, of course, not just a possible event; it is a necessary event,” one that “many occur at any time, at any moment.” Rather than treating death “as the supreme misfortune,” Foucault (1982b/2005: 478) continued, we should embrace it, treating it as “a privileged exercise.” Tragically, such words suggested someone preparing for their own imminent demise. So it transpired, Foucault dying from AIDS on 25 June 1984 at Paris’s Hôpital de la Salpȇtrière, the very one in which he had studied mental illness as part of his doctoral studies (Miller 1993: 24).


From the ruins of war and German occupation, postwar France profoundly influenced not only Western philosophy but also the whole intellectual climate of the West through the work of Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Louis Althusser, Jean-Francois Lyotard, Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes, Paul-Michel Foucault, and countless others. For all their differences, the unifying thread to this body of work was a quest for freedom, circumstances that would allow individual being the fullest expression of its capabilities. Paradoxically, however, in the course of this quest, all of these French intellectuals – with the partial exception of Camus – sought inspiration in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century German thought. Althusser looked to Marx. Sartre’s work on existentialism was informed by Heidegger. Derrida derived many of his key ideas, directly or indirectly, from Husserl. Foucault, even though he downplayed the link late in his career, was a disciple of Nietzsche. In speaking to issues of human existence and freedom, the ideas of all these French intellectuals clearly found a global resonance. Yet, in exploring the nature of power, oppression, and freedom, all of these French thinkers spoke to a Western society that had never been freer or more prosperous, a world where not only democracy but also civil and social rights for women, gays, and people of color advanced at an unprecedented rate. This points to a circumstance where, for many, pondering over matters of personal identity were more important than the problems of subsistence and economic growth that had concerned previous generations.

Among France’s postwar intellectuals, Foucault was more successful than any other in speaking to the concerns of his time. In doing so, Foucault expounded an essentially Nietzschean world view, one little interested with the mechanics of production and economics but much concerned with the limits that the society placed on the individual. His doctoral thesis, published in the English-speaking world as Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, spoke not only to the plight of the eccentric, the outcast, and the marginalized. It also argued – as Nietzsche had done – that “reason’s subjugation of non-reason” in the modern world had resulted in a diminishment of human essence, which had supposedly thrived in the mysticism, violence, and irrationality of the pre-modern world (Foucault 1961/1965: 9, 221). Always able to adapt the focus of his research in accordance with shifts in intellectual fashion, in the mid-to-late 1960s Foucault (1966/1994: xx, 86–87) published on the importance of language and of the relationship between conformism, “the fundamental codes of a culture,” epistemes of knowledge, and the ways in which knowledge, language, and power “are rigorously interwoven.” In the mid-1970s, in Discipline and Punish and The History of Sexuality: An Introduction – Foucault took up themes that spoke to the fears and aspirations of a new, rebellious generation. Modern society, Foucault (1975/1991) warned in Discipline and Punish, was modeled on the Panopticon, a mythical 12-sided prison where the supervisory sources of power and authority were able to direct their “normalizing” gaze into every corner of existence. Similarly, in The History of Sexuality, Foucault (1976/1978: 140, 145) advised his readers that we have entered “an era of ‘bio-power’” that embraced “the entire political technology of life.” In writing about historical method in his essay, “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,” Foucault (1971/1984: 54, 61) suggested – as did Nietzsche – that what was held to be historically true was merely a social construct, one maintained by “the rules of discursive ‘policing’.” In the late 1970s, Foucault made the power of the state and “governmentality” the central focus of interest, identifying its power and oppressive authority with a new “regime of truth” in which the “liberal” state entrenched its power through an exercise “of governmental reason” that co-opted various social and economic interests (Foucault 1979b/2008: 1).

If Foucault’s research career was characterized by a measure of opportunism – Jean-Paul Sartre (1966/1971: 110) declaring that “Foucault gives the people what they needed” – there was nevertheless a fundamental consistency to his work. In Foucault’s estimation, power is exercised by obtaining the consent – or rather the “normalization” – of the individual, a process secured by the socialized acceptance of the “codes of culture,” and of the dominant and dominating epistemes and discourses. In the final analysis, this social, cultural, and linguistic mechanism of control is perceived to be historical in nature, supposedly built around an agreed understanding of how the society came to be constructed around values and beliefs which the society holds as “true.” Accordingly, for Foucault – as with Nietzsche – the path to freedom lies in overturning accepted understandings of history and substituting a new, liberating vision of the past, present, and future.

In assessing Foucault’s work, Sartre (1966/1971: 110) accurately noted that it was built around “the denial of history,” not only as it was recorded but also as it had historically transpired. This Nietzschean rejection of history confronts us with the same issues that transfixed France’s famed generation of postwar intellectuals: the nature of freedom, the truth, and the historical experience. These are complex problems that Foucault invariably solved in a Nietzschean fashion. For Foucault’s – as with Nietzsche – historical experience and historical discourse are one and the same thing. In other words, history is only as it is imagined to be. If we change our imaginings, we change history. This is a profoundly mistaken view. For history is manifest not only in written words and theoretical imaginings but also in an institutional inheritance: machines, managerial expertise, political institutions, institutionalized social relationships, and competing interests. We can change our imaginings of the past and still be trapped in the past’s institutional and material legacy. At the time of writing (early 2020), for example, the people of Hong Kong are engaged in a battle for political and economic freedom. This battle, in part, involves the Hong Kong people freeing themselves from concocted Chinese Communist Party imaginings of the past. However, to simply invent a new “liberating” history in a Nietzschean/Foucauldian fashion does everyone a disservice. For Hong Kong, even if it was free of communism, would still face many perils, all of them rooted in the historical experience: a conservative Confucian intellectual tradition, a political tradition of Western legal rights constructed without the democratic institutions and practices that underpin these rights elsewhere, an economy heavily dependent upon their powerful neighbor/ruler. None of these problems can be imagined away. Rather they need to be fully understood if they are to be transcended.

If the Foucauldian intellectual tradition is a hindrance rather than a help in overcoming the legacies of the past, it manifests even bigger problems in its understandings of freedom. Libertarian in ethos, Foucault’s body of work – like that of Nietzsche – opposed authority on every front. But, as Albert Camus (1951/1978: 159) asked in considering the nature of individual freedom, “is a world without laws a free world?” In Camus’s (1951/1978: 287) considered opinion, the experience of history reveals the answer to this fundamental question, namely, that “Absolute freedom is the right of the strongest to dominate.” The greatness of Nietzsche’s work is found in the fact that he never shied away from this obvious conclusion, identifying absolute freedom with the “superman,” a remorseless and amoral individual free of all restraints. Inevitably, this is the end that the Nietzschean and Foucauldian dreams and imaginings lead toward.



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© The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Griffith Business SchoolGriffith UniversityNathanAustralia

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