Gabriel Rockhill talks to Dag Eivind Undheim Larsen: Foucault “a Faux Radical”
22 DECEMBER 2020
Gabriel Rockhill is considered one of the leading interpreters of French ‘critical philosophy’ in the United States. Earlier this autumn, he published an essay entitled “Foucault: The Faux Radical” in which he opposes the notion that Michel Foucault was a radical thinker. Dag Eivind Undheim Larsen in this interview investigates the historical juncture from out of which Foucault’s relation to the neo-liberal project was formed.
Plaque of the square Michel-Foucault, Paris, 5th arrondissement; Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
Foucault Called “a Faux Radical”
ecently, the Norwegian journal Klassekampen has published several articles about the French historian and theorist Michel Foucault, who for decades has had a great influence on academics and intellectuals all over the world. Foucault is a controversial figure, and some have referred to him as both a ‘charlatan’ and an ‘intellectual impostor.’ According to many, his analyses of neoliberalism lack substance. Klassekampen interviewed French-American philosopher Gabriel Rockhill, who added that “Michel Foucault turned a deaf ear to the negative aspects of neoliberalism.”
The French-American philosopher Gabriel Rockhill has for many years worked on philosophical and historical issues, and in the United States he is considered one of the leading interpreters of French ‘critical philosophy.’ Earlier this autumn, he published an essay entitled “Foucault: The Faux Radical” (1) in which he takes a strong stance against the notion that Michel Foucault was a radical thinker.
Rockhill’s remarks about Foucault and liberalism signal a new wave in critical thought and especially in Foucault studies, a wave that views Foucault’s thinking in the context of the rising ideology of neoliberalism. Recently, the magazine Agora also published an issue that takes a closer look at Foucault's relationship to neoliberalism – a way of thinking that roughly means that society should be organized according to the principles of the market economy. Yet for others, Foucault remains a pioneering theorist who, through his distinctive conceptual apparatus, where the word ‘discourse’ is the most prominent, supplied original analyses of historical phenomena.
Useful to read Foucault
Last week, the sociologist Geir O. Rønning said that if we are to understand the development of Western societies over the last decades, we must read Foucault. The philosopher Arne Johan Vetlesen, on the other hand, doubted that Foucault's analyses of neoliberalism were particularly useful today. Among other things, Vetlesen pointed out that the French theorist is among those who have contributed to weakening the legitimacy of state institutions.
Like the philosopher Arne Johan Vetlesen, Rockhill believes Foucault has little to offer those seeking to formulate a critique of neoliberal thought.
- The problem with Foucault is that he is blind to key features of global capitalism. He completely ignores elements such as imperialism and colonialism, gender differences and class struggle, says Rockhill.
Preoccupied with history
Foucault was best known for immersing himself in historical issues, but in 1979 he made an exception and gave a series of lectures at the prestigious Collège de France on the contemporary phenomenon of neoliberalism. These lectures have later been read and interpreted by academics around the world. Rockhill is not terribly impressed by the level of precision in Foucault’s analyses:
- These lectures are complex, but Foucault is obviously fascinated by the neoliberal ideas and attributes value to them. Among other things, he suggests that these ideas can facilitate a dynamic society that to a large extent tolerates individual differences, says Rockhill, and he adds:
- Here we see the weakness of Foucault dwelling only on the ideological elements of neoliberalism.
Foucault was one of these theorists who spearheaded the development of a kind of ‘linguistic pyrotechnics.’ And in the extension of this jargon filled with intricate concepts, the lord of fog (tåkefyrste) is created. Seemingly radical, but without substance.
Michel Foucault; Image credit: Klassekampen.no
At the same time, it is important to keep in mind that Foucault gave his lectures in 1979, the same year that the conservative politician Margaret Thatcher came to power in Britain and two years before Ronald Reagan became president of the United States. These are also heads of state known to have introduced neoliberal reforms in their respective countries – reforms that led to fundamental changes in these societies. Therefore, many believe that Foucault showed great foresight in his lectures. Is it not likely that Foucault primarily concentrated on the neoliberal ideas, since their consequences were not yet evident?
- This view is very naive. The point is that Foucault had a number of empirical examples at hand where he could have studied neoliberalism as it was unfolding in practice, says Rockhill, for example referring to the military coup in Chile that took place on September 11, 1973.
Chilean President Salvador Allende was overthrown, and General Augusto Pinochet seized power. In the wake of the coup, Chile's economic policy was fundamentally changed and developed in line with the neoliberal principles of the Chicago School, led by the economist Milton Friedman. Furthermore, a large-scale privatization project of the public sector was institutionalized in Chile during the 1970s, but Foucault does not see this. This shows that he lacks an eye for international affairs and that he does not understand the economic and political dynamics in practice.
According to Rockhill, Foucault lacks a basic understanding of historical and material conditions. The French theorist also does not understand Marxist analyses, Rockhill believes.
Not just a theorist
Nevertheless, it is a fact that Foucault supported striking workers and Vietnamese boat people. It seems that we do not get around the fact that Foucault was a political activist.
- This is how he is often described among intellectuals in the Western world. Foucault with the megaphone has in many ways become the very symbol of the real radical. However, if we take a closer look at what he has actually written and what his biography can tell about him, a completely different picture emerges.
After a radical period in the late 1960s, Foucault moved towards the political right again, Rockhill believes. He further believes that Foucault was at the forefront of a generation that was involved in transforming what were basically radical thoughts into vague theories that were acceptable to the establishment in Western societies.
- Foucault was one of these theorists who spearheaded the development of a kind of ‘linguistic pyrotechnics.’ And in the extension of this jargon filled with intricate concepts, the lord of fog (“tåkefyrste”) is created. Seemingly radical, but without substance.
He goes on to talk about how this tradition has become entrenched in American universities and mentions theorists such as Judith Butler and Wendy Brown as examples of academics who have followed in Foucault's footsteps. And although there are many other well-known theorists in the French intellectual tradition that Rockhill is critical of, such as Jacques Derrida and Jean-François Lyotard, there is no doubt who his primary enemy is.
- As I see it, Foucault is more dangerous than the others. Since he has been promoted as a radical thinker, it is more difficult to see his reactionary sides.
Translated by ANDERS M. GULLESTAD
1. Gabriel Rockhill: “Foucault: The Faux Radical.” Los Angeles Review of Books, “The Philosophical Salon” (12 October 2020).