In her contribution to recent the Vatter/Lemm-edited collection of essays on biopolitics, Melinda Cooper argues that Foucault’s work on neoliberalism needs to be read in the context of his interest in the Iranian revolution. If she’s right, this stands current complaints about Foucault’s engagement with neoliberalism on its head. The standard complaint about the work on biopolitics is that Foucault ends up supporting (deliberately or otherwise) neoliberalism. The merits of that claim have been debated ad nauseam, particularly in light of the Zamora book last year, and I have no interest in revisiting them here (plus, Vatter’s paper in the same book does a great job on the topic, and I think he ups the bar considerably for future discussions). Cooper’s paper is of interest because she makes what is essentially the opposite claim: Foucault was so disturbed by the general diffusion of the oikos into the polis that defines neoliberalism (and really classical liberalism, too) that he found the Iranian revolution interesting precisely because it focused on restoring some sort of classic oikonomia. There’s thus two main steps to the argument in its most condensed form: (a) The Iranian revolution was premised on getting women out of the public sphere after Shah Pahlevi introduced a number of reforms that greatly expanded their integration into the full economy; and (b) Foucault thought that it would be a good thing if there was some sort of restoration of the law of the household as a bulwark against neoliberalism.
Cooper summarizes the first point as follows: “through the imposition of laws governing the circulation of money and women in public space, through the limitation that is of unproductive (impure) surplus, the Islamic Republic sought to restrain the economy within the moral limits of domestic consumption. This is accomplished not through the literal return of women to the household, but through the minute resegregation of public space, a delineation of borders that was played out on the bodies of women” (55-6).
The second point she summarizes as follows. I’ll quote two passages; the first ends a paragraph, and the second starts the next paragraph (in other words, they are contiguous in the text):
“The revival of neoliberal thought is associated with the return of the idea that the economic future is, in fact, unknowable. Neoliberalism renews the liberal critique of sovereign, patriarchal power, but does so on the very terrain opened up by the welfare state – the normative administration of everyday life in the household. The ‘new household economics’ of Gary Becker offers the clearest illustration of this move” (57).
“Foucault responds to this new configuration of powers with what can only be described as a highly conservative maneuver. Relocating his analysis of power beyond the biopolitics of the welfare state, in the realm of the ‘new household economics,’ he seeks to fashion a new moral economy of pleasure and a new law of the household. In this, he comes close to the later Schmitt, who also looked to the oikonomia as a form of sovereignty more foundational than even that of the modern state” (57).
Before I express my reservations, I should note that one of the merits of Cooper’s argument is that it explains why Foucault would spend so much time on Becker (as opposed to the more prominent figures like Hayek or Friedman): Becker was the theorist who pressed the logic of neoliberalism furthest into family and other kinship structures. The other overall point to be made is that, if Cooper is right, feminist critiques of Foucault suddenly look a lot more persuasive (I’ll return to this point in a moment)
In any case, Foucault recognizes the reconfiguration of oikos into economics in the STP lectures quite clearly:
“The essential issue of government will be the introduction of economy into political practice. And if this is the case in the sixteenth century, it remains so in the eighteenth …. To govern a state will thus mean the application of economy, the establishment of an economy, at the level of the state as a whole, that is to say, [exercising] supervision and control over its inhabitants, wealth, and the conduct of all and each, as attentive as that of a father’s over his household and goods” (STP 95)
The family, then, exports its law of governance to the state, which then reconfigures it as management of population, which then causes governance of actual families to recede in importance, with the primary exception of sexuality, which retains its importance because sex is one of the ways a population regenerates itself. Hence we see the sudden importance of a contractual understanding of marriage as a mechanism of economic efficiency. Why get married? “Well, [for someone like Becker] it is that this long term contract between spouses enables them to avoid constantly renegotiating at every moment the unnumerable contracts which would have to be made in order for domestic life to function. Pass me the salt; I will give you the pepper” (Birth of Biopolitics [BB], 245). For Foucault, this represents a change from the early 1800s:
“In fact, the married life of a peasant couple at the beginning of the nineteenth century was endlessly forged and woven by a whole series of transactions. I will work on your field, the many says to the woman, but on condition that I can make love with you. And the woman says: You will not make love with me so long as you have not fed my chickens. In a process like this we see a sort of endless transaction emerging, in relation to which the marriage contract was supposed to constitute a form of general economy to avoid having to renegotiate at every moment” (BB 245-6).
In other words, the neoliberal understanding of marriage presupposes that marriage is not a status contract (an older form, where contractual relations are not individually negotiated, but define social roles), but an economic one, and that this economically understood contract is framed by notions of efficiency and the reduction of transaction costs. But that transformation from “I will have sex with you only if you have fed the chickens” to “I’ll always pass the salt and you’ll always pass the pepper” can only happen if those entering the marriage contract view it as a transaction-cost-reducing contract, and that certainly wasn’t the original view of marriage.
I think Cooper is right about modern liberalism. But modern neoliberalism seems to me to tell a somewhat different story: it is designed to reduce (not capitulate to) the notion of chance in a population (this is something that Maria Muhle, in her contribution to the anthology, emphasizes; I've said it too). To that extent, it is all about imposing law on the family, ensuring that the reconfigured understanding of oikos is adopted by actual families, thereby reducing the risk of population-level aleatory events.
Foucault is clear that neoliberalism needs to be viewed at least partly as a strategy of subjectification: of shaping people into certain kinds of subjects. In this case, that subject is homo economicus, the always-rationally-risk-assessing subject for whom return on investment is a primary value. This, however, is precisely the imposition of law on the family. In addition to structuring the understanding of marriage (and allowing notions like no-fault divorce), it encourages the consideration of children as investments, and becomes central to White Supremacy in that the law intervenes much more heavily on black families than white (I am talking about the family welfare system, not the carceral. But they work in tandem, as the linked paper makes crystal clear). It encourages individuals to take risky jobs that require their constant attention with allegories about “Rich Dad, Poor Dad.” It generates hyperwork (Robin James and I have an exchange on the topic here, addressing the feminization of cognitive labor as a constitutive aspect of hyperwork), and bullshit work (the latter no doubt a consequence of the former: it’s hard to fill every waking moment with things that actually need to be done). It generates the practice of scheduling employees – in particular low-level ones – to be on-call all the time, but never scheduled in advance. The effects of all this on families and children are enormous (and let’s not even get started on the neoliberal educational system), and mostly serve to induce a tremendous amount of precarity on what had been the Fordist model of the family.
Second, however, to the extent that Cooper is right, Foucault’s own analysis completely ignores the status of women. “Please pass the salt” is not quite of the same order as “I will have sex with you if you feed the chickens.” It is women who suffer the loss of opportunity in Iran, and it is women who are kept indoors in Xenophon’s household (that Foucault analyzes in Uses of Pleasure) and out of the agora more generally in ancient Greek thought. That conclusion about Foucault doesn’t sound right: the hysterization of women is something he pretty clearly condemns in History of Sexuality I, for example. And Foucault says that “you can’t find the solution of a problem in the solution of another problem raised at another time by other people” (Foucault Reader, 342), which means that we need to be careful in how we apply his researches. And he defines critique as “the art of not being governed quite so much” (Politics of Truth, 45), which is a test that the Iranian revolution pretty clearly fails. After all, it was precisely designed to bring about more government, and Foucault lost interest in it as its reality became more clear.
Still, neoliberalism, at the end of the day and its own rhetoric to the contrary, also seems to fail this test, if more subtly. Certainly there is more freedom here than Iran. But that doesn’t mean that daily life here isn’t pretty thoroughly governed. In The Sexual Contract, Carole Pateman notes that the move to modern liberalism and social contract theory manages to leave the social subordination of women completely intact, even as it emancipates men as public figures. It’s hard not to have the lingering fear after Cooper’s paper that (subconscious, I think) traces of this dynamic remain in Foucault’s writing of the early 1980s.