Neoliberal Dogma? Revisiting Foucault on Social Security, Healthcare, and Autonomy (Pt. I of II)

by guest contributor Luca Provenzano

Was Michel Foucault “seduced” by neoliberalism? Daniel Zamora and other scholars voice this allegation in Critiquer Foucault: Les années 1980 et la tentation néolibérale (English translation forthcoming). Last month, an interview with Zamora (translated from the French) and a later essay resonated among Foucault readers (See post by Stuart Elden). A vibrant debate also reignited last week at An und für sich (usefully curated here).

In my take, the accusations (often hyperinflated online, most strikingly here) disclose more about the production of knowledge under neoliberal conditions than they reveal about Foucault. To set up this argument for my forthcoming second post, I look to a 1983 interview about French Sécurité sociale and healthcare rights (the speakers were Michel Foucault and Robert Bono, the general secretary of the CFDT French trade union). The interview is “Un système fini face à une démande infinie” in Foucault, Dits et écrits IV (English translations are my own). For two reasons, this seems as good place as any to criticize the seduction claims: first, its brevity; second, the essentially “normative” mode pursued by Foucault. I consider only whether Foucault’s discussion of social security substantially reproduced “neoliberal” dogma about the dependent poor or the negative economic effects of social provisions. Far from serving as an active contributor to the destruction of social security, I believe Foucault attempted to re-envision it so as to reduce its limitations. (NB: French Sécurité sociale has a more extensive meaning than our “social security” and denotes the ensemble of social provisions for workers).

Let’s work through the interview. Foucault concluded his first statements about social security thus:

Finally, Sécurité sociale, whatever its positive effects, has also had ‘perverse effects’: the growing rigidity of some mechanisms and situations of dependency. This is inherent to the functional mechanisms of the institution [dispositif]: on the one hand, we give people greater security and, on the other, we increase their dependency. Rather, we should be able to expect our social security to grant each person their autonomy in relation to dangers and situations that would subordinate or subject them (Foucault, 368).

Foucault later qualified this statement:

There really is a positive demand for a [social] security that opens the route to richer, more numerous, more diverse and more supple relations to the self and to its milieu, all the same assuring to everyone a real autonomy. This is a new fact that should weigh upon contemporary conceptions when it comes to social protection (Foucault, ibid).

From the start, Foucault bracketed but acknowledged the positive effects of French social security. His inquiry concerned the more ambiguous effects of the contemporary system on personal autonomy, but Foucault apparently thought that social security and autonomy were potentially compatible. In my interpretation, he implicitly denied the claim that situations of mounting dependency were necessities of any social security; rather dependency inhered in the “functional mechanisms” of the contemporary system. Foucault further prodded his interlocutors to consider a renovation of these structures: “Shouldn’t we rather try to conceive of a system of social coverage that would take into account the demand for autonomy that we are talking about in such a fashion that these famous effects of placement into dependency [mise en dependence] would almost totally disappear?” (ibid., 370)

Notably, Foucault categorized the two sorts of “dependency” reinforced or produced by post-war French welfarism as “placement into dependency through integration” and “placement into dependency through marginalization or exclusion” (ibid., 369). “Dependency through integration” originated in the distribution of social aid through certain “normal” institutions like the family, the workplace, or the geographic region. “Dependency through marginalization” originated in exclusion from aid or marginalization from aid by the same administrative mechanisms. “Our systems of social coverage impose a determinate mode of life to which it subjects individuals and any person or any group,” he wrote, “that, for one reason or another, does not want or cannot integrate to this mode of life finds himself marginalized by the very play of the institutions” (ibid., 372). This is a critique of contemporary conditions of access to social provisions.

In my view, it was not a “neoliberal” critique in the sense that it was not at all about the purported negative macroeconomic effects of socialized coverage or how social provisions supposedly encouraged unproductive behavior among recipient populations. Foucault also took seriously the notion that non-access to coverage could be a source of “dependency” or heteronomy. His comments complimented the CFDT proposal to renounce “the absurd juridicism” of a French social aid system that discriminated against “marginals” through a bureaucratic firewall and to decentralize social welfare institutions in order to make them more accessible. Foucault envisioned not the destruction of social security but the move towards a system that would prove more agnostic towards the modes of life of its recipients: “the objective of an optimal social coverage conjugated to a maximum of independence is very clear” (ibid).

In short, Foucault asked: “what are the limits to autonomy posed by the way our social democracy administers and adjudicates claims to aid?” The critique of the mechanisms of access to social security fit Foucault’s contemporary philosophical inquiries into how systems enforced professions of identity; he wanted to investigate how the state validated dominant identities and modes of life via the distribution of aid and how to limit that effect. Foucault thought that the state should establish new forms of access to Sécurité sociale that were less contingent on the adherence of aid recipients to “normal” social categories insofar as these procedures tended to force individuals to identify as “X,” and in turn reinforced dominant institutions. The problem of social security reform for Foucault was “how to act so that the person would no longer be a ‘subject’ in the sense of l’assujettissement…” (ibid., 373) – a subject subjected to prevailing societal norms. In my view, the link to neoliberalism is at best a retrospective illusion.

Luca Provenzano is a second year doctoral student at Columbia University. He is currently working on Louis Althusser, May 1968, and the concept of ideology.


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