Was Foucault a Libertarian? Nick Gillespie Explains Why Philosopher’s Greatest Protégé Was the Free Market  

Nick Gillespie digs Michel Foucault. Photo by Outlaws Media for Paradox.

“Michel Foucault” and “libertarian” appear an unlikely pairing.

The French philosopher interrogated power structures, establishing the postmodern tradition treating truth as the product and weapon of ideological regimes. Capitalism, one could argue, is the ultimate super-structure, which libertarians understand as the best system for structuring society.

But there are many important links, says Reason Editor Nick Gillespie.

As the Godfather of contemporary Libertarianism—”to libertarianism what Lou Reed is to rock ‘n’ roll,” per The New York TimesGillespie has influenced the direction of the political party with his writings for Reason. A frequent guest on Bill Maher’s ‘Real Time,’ the libertarian writer takes a nuanced perspective toward news cycles: Balancing alarmist takes of fellow pundits like Ann Coulter and Rachel Maddow with principled arguments on civil liberties.

At the core of Gillespie’s ideological and theoretical grounding is a love for Foucault, and a worldview treating the state’s monopoly on truth (with a capital T, as he emphasizes) as inherently more dangerous than when claimed by private companies. While the libertarian link to Foucault is easy to trace to a later-in-life embrace of free-market economists like Friedrich Hayek, which has recently been reframed as a post-1968 shift by writers Mitchell Dean and Daniel Zamora in The Last Man Takes LSD: Foucault and the End of Revolution, Gillespie says Foucault’s entire body of work holds lessons, beginning as far back as his earlier writings on insane asylums.

In a wide-ranging interview, Paradox spoke with the Reason editor on Foucault’s surgical dissection of history, surveillance at Blink Fitness, and environmental agencies going through Americans’ garbage.

Why does Foucault resonate with you? 

What I like about Foucault, who I first encountered going to grad school for literary and cultural studies in the late 80s, was his focus on power as an organizing principle around social discourse and knowledge. And also his way of looking at, what he called, the genealogies of things— figuring out why different types of science, economics, and history look the way they do. They always present themselves as a natural kind of progression of knowledge that seems to be disinterested, or tries to be disinterested. And I was like, “Wow, that is really fascinating.” Foucault argued that most forms of knowledge are a form of power, and it’s almost always interested in some particular outcome and masks itself in helper language or appeals to truth with a capital T. And that comports very well with certain strands of libertarian thinking.

In the late 80s, James Miller wrote a biography of Foucault which had this really interesting piece — and by this time I was reading a lot of Austrian economics— where Foucault told his students to read the works of Ludwig Von Mises and Friedrich Hayek, and the way they discussed liberalism, classical liberalism, and limited government. 

Even before I was working at Reason, I had been interested in questions about mental illness, and definitions of madness, that went beyond just saying, “Well, doctors figured out in the 19th century that certain people were crazy.” When Madness and Civilization and Birth of the Clinic were published in the early 60s, Foucault understood that the history of medicine is not this move away from darkness and superstition to scientific knowledge, but a medical discourse as a means of social control and power. 

When you say these people with mental illness, these marginalized people are removed from society, who is doing the removing? 

In the 50s, and through the early 60s, it was people who ran mental institutions and insane asylums, and obviously, it goes back longer than that. Foucault, in various works, talks about how, particularly in the 19th century– what we would recognize as the roots of contemporary medical practice– it was common practice to institutionalize people who were different. One of the things that Reason has talked a lot about was the widespread use of lobotomies in post-war America, particularly in the 50s. It was a total pseudoscience, but presented as a cutting-edge therapeutic technique that helped the patient. 

What is the thread between having a different perspective towards these systems, which produced the normalization of lobotomies, and libertarianism? Why would libertarianism inherently be against the system which produces that as an outcome?

It has to do with the individual. The reason why libertarians are against stuff like that is because that kind of medical practice robs people of their agency and is really a form of torture. Libertarians care very much when an individual is robbed of life, liberty, property and the pursuit of happiness— and a lot of the medical interventions were very much like that where people were involuntarily committed and operated on. That’s a radical incursion on someone’s free will.  

Foucault speaks a lot to that, especially these large narratives that get told about science and progress and history, as if we have arrived at the end point of the teleology of truth with a capital T. And Foucault’s argument is, “Yeah, most of that is a kind of self-interested storytelling that sometimes, literally or figuratively, gets enforced with a gun.” 

Libertarians are generally suspicious of narratives, particularly narratives that appeal to the idea that certain things are for the “good of all” and should have no real debate. There’s a particular school of libertarian economic thought called “public choice economics,” which applies motives in the private sector to the public sector. So when the FDA, or the DEA or any body affiliated with the government, says “We are doing this in the name of the public good,” they check on it. And a lot of the time, what is “in the name of the public good”  actually boils down to major corporate lobbyists or the ideological predispositions of individuals within the government. It reveals a much more motivated set of reasoning and policies where power is masked by making an appeal to the common good.  

With Foucault’s later-in-life transition you touched on earlier, where he gravitated toward Hayek and Freeman and all but endorsed free markets and neoliberalism, what do you think was the problem that Foucault viewed economic liberalism as the solution for? 

It’s complicated. Every couple years, Foucault — both subtly and not so subtly — radically changed what he was talking about. In the same decade where he was speaking positively of certain social security reforms pushed by Giscard d’Estaing’s center-right administration in France, he also briefly embraced the Iranian Revolution. So he’s not always that clear on all this stuff. But I think part of what he was talking about in the kind of neoliberalism, or the economic liberalism, that somebody like Hayek represented was that by giving people more freedom to choose, you are actually keeping them from being punished or subjugated by powerful forces represented by the state. Obviously that’s more pronounced in Europe than in the United States. 

What neoliberalism, which I would just call liberalism, represented was taking off some of these controls over everyday life, in terms of business regulations and lifestyle. That created more freedom— an obviously dubious category to Foucault. But it pushed back on the state and these corporations with major sources of power, giving the individual more freedom to choose. That’s a countervailing force. 

But the corporate structures you are mentioning, aren’t those an inevitability of capitalism in which you do get this confluence of centralized vested interests, some of which become these behemoth entities that take on their own narratives and ideology? 

I’ll take it back even further. There’s a great book called “War, Wine and Taxes” by John Nye, the economic historian at George Mason. And he pushes back on the traditional idea among Anglo-American libertarian types who portray England as the great free market power, as opposed to France as this kind of evil Empire. Nye points out that in the 17th and 18th century, and through a good chunk of the 19th, France was much more Laissez-Faire in terms of economics than England. He talks about how the French, who were a major economic force in that part of the world, were exporting high-end wine and liquor to England, but also cheap wine that poor people drank. 

And this gets to that point of different kinds of government structures capitalism creates. Nye talks about how British brewers went to the crown and said, “If you protect us from cheap wine, which is taking down your business, we will collect taxes for you that you can use basically, to create an empire.”  Which is what the crown under Elizabeth became. 

And that to you isn’t capitalism? 

In the early modern period, when capitalism as we know it was really being created, Nye is saying that at the beginning of big government — a country that can levy taxes and create an Empire– there is at the root a coalition with big business who are getting something out of it. England was also masking all this with language about free enterprise and entrepreneurship. But the early roots of it were based in protectionism. No libertarian in the 21st century is going to say that protectionism is good economic policy: It fucks with peoples’ economic liberty. 

It’s not like there was capitalism and free enterprise, and then the government muscles in and takes it over like the mafia. In the beginning, early capitalism was this uncomfortable coalition between business interests and government. This is one of the things that I find interesting about Foucault: you never get out of systems of power. There’s no such thing as freedom in the conventional sense, a framework that some libertarian thinkers believe allows you to escape the reach of the government or even corporate power– Foucault is less sanguine about that. He does recognize that when you’re in a network, power doesn’t just roll down a hill. You can reverse power. You can escape it by moving into a different space and pressuring other people. I think he recognized that a liberal economic and political system is one that affords more avenues for escaping certain types of situations. Even if it’s ultimately not a utopian freedom that Marxists dream of, I think it’s a libertarian’s dream.  

You mentioned the different intellectual periods of Foucault– his early writings on insane asylums, his activist years in Tehran. A lot of what we’re discussing is this later period in his life where, based on what happened in France’s political system, he started to adopt this free-market fascination. Are you concerned you’re romanticizing one period of his career and applying it retroactively to his larger body of work? 

My interest in Foucault is not really to understand his work in total and then apply it or explicate it. I think this is what he did with his own work; that has a place, but he used history very surgically. He would go to the past and take certain elements out and then transpose them into contemporary debates. When Foucault developed his concept of biopolitics — the way in which the state, primarily, and also religion and society and business regulate our physicality and our ability to do one thing or another – this is a hallmark of later Foucault. That is an area I’m more interested in probably than his earlier stuff. 

It is interesting to think about him as someone who went into print a decade before the ‘68 revolutions in France. It wasn’t the beginning of post-colonialism, but it was a flash point. The ‘68 generation was able to get rid of earlier people like Sartre; people had been radical before, but in ‘68 people really got mad and started saying “Look at these fucking old men who have nothing to say.” Something similar happened in the United States, and really globally. And I think Foucault rose to prominence out of that. And then, within a few years, he realized this wasn’t a radical break with how society functions, but just replacing the people at the top. I think he was always looking for that way of changing the system so it worked on a fundamentally different principle of progress.

I think about this in context with feminism. With second-wave feminism in the early 70s, there was a struggle within it between saying, “Do we want to overturn the patriarchy? Or do we merely want to have more than equal representation with that power structure in place?” As we saw, it was less about the former, and more about taking over existing power structures. To put a really dumb label on it, “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” 

It’s a bit of a paradox. With all of Foucault’s work on systems, institutions, and superstructures, he tends to omit market forces — which play just as big of a role in creating environments. He’s trying to avoid the trappings of previous theoretical frameworks, mainly Marxism, and he seems averse to Marx even despite his activism within some Marxist circles, but he does seem to ignore the greatest superstructure of them all. 

Yeah, that’s a really good question. And let me say a couple of things. One is that you can’t underestimate the lack of general familiarity, particularly among French cultural critics of capitalism in the 60s and 70s. They grew up in a world of a much more managed economy. “Laissez-Faire” is a French term, as is “Entrepreneur,” and the French economy of the early modern period really gave rise to what we know, but it had become so managed throughout the 20th century, that they didn’t learn economics the same way that people in the United States do. 

One of the critiques that Foucault leveled was that everything is about power. There’s a sense that all power is the same. And what I’d argue, and I think this comes through in Foucault’s work, as an American born into a late capitalist period, I think of market forces as a power, but a different power than government or religious power— partly because to the extent of which companies flourish or die, it’s rare when they are able to pressure the government to force everybody to buy their stuff. The reason why Amazon is so big is that it keeps offering people more stuff at lower prices. You can, maybe, say that they exert more power than the government, but their power is ultimately based on persuasion and providing more stuff. That’s fundamentally different from a government, particularly a more authoritarian government, saying that you cannot leave. 

Ideally, capitalism in most of its forms is about sweet talk in the way where you get away from the old pattern of corporations and monopolies like the East India Company– the way businesses make money, and the system works by offering people something that they want, or teaching them how to want it at a price they’re willing to pay. This explains in part why Foucault may not have viewed market forces as the same as state biopolitics or religious stuff. 

I recognize the limitations to our discussion, in that we’re using a pretty broad term, “market forces,” which Foucault I’m sure would not agree with.  

Capitalism is a term that comes out of Marxism. It’s like “Okay, capitalists. Is Jeff Bezos the same as the guy who runs a bagel cart on 14th street?” But yes, we can always be refining what we’re talking about. 

What you mentioned with the softer persuasion of a company like Amazon, versus a forceful coercion from an authoritarian government….  

Not a firm owned by the state, but a private company that has a monopoly where they both get rid of competitors, and also brutalize workers.

In his critiques of government, a very big theme of Foucault’s is surveillance. Most capitalist enterprises today do seem defined by surveillance practices. I go to the gym and my entrance and exit is logged; my interactions with staff are logged. All these different organizations collect files on their customers and potential customers. There is this level of auditing and surveillance within free market vehicles that seem to mimic the concerns Foucault had with the state. 

We’re kind of living in a panopticon, right? And sometimes it’s operated by the state and most of the time it’s operated by private enterprises. One way to think about it is that surveillance is everywhere; and that’s partly a function of technology. I’m wearing this knockoff Fitbit, which tracks how many steps I take, how much I sleep, my weight, even if I’m having a good day. All that’s recorded somewhere and I’m surveilling myself in a weird way. All that is somewhere up in the Cloud. People worry about TikTok and every day there seems to be a new story about how the Chinese Communist Party, which of course doesn’t own TikTok, but knows more about what our kids are doing. They’re getting vast troves of data on our children, and are weaponizing this data.

We’re in an era marked by mass surveillance in a way that writers like Orwell couldn’t conceive, as well as fears and anxieties about it. One type of surveillance done by various environmentalist agencies at the state level actually audits people’s garbage to make sure they’re recycling properly. But there is a difference between going to a gym where there are video cameras and a record of every time I sign in, and where I have access to this data, and a government that is going through my garbage and levying fines against me. That’s a different type of surveillance than a Blink Fitness sales rep emailing me about how I can make better use of my membership. I can cut ties with that, and that difference is why Foucault was looking at private markets and liberal philosophy as a way of expanding the realm of individuals being able to exercise power. 

The Panopticon. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

We should both be happy that Blink Fitness can’t incarcerate us. 

There is the whole concept of Shoshana Zuboff’s Surveillance Capitalism. It’s important to look at all the ways in which data is collected, and used. But it’s also important to recognize that not all surveillance is the same. Not all data is the same. In communist China and capitalist America, the ability to track people is growing at the same time. 

So some of this stuff is independent of whatever the economic base is – the superstructure of surveillance keeps growing because the technology has just become ubiquitous.

There is a quote from Foucault’s essay “The Subject and Power” on individualism–a central component of modern capitalist ideology.  “Maybe the target nowadays is not to discover what we are but to refuse what we are. We have to imagine and to build up what we could be to get rid of this kind of political “double bind,” which is the simultaneous individualization and totalization of modern power structures. The conclusion would be that the political, ethical, social, philosophical problem of our days is not to try to liberate the individual from the state and from the state’s institutions but to liberate us both from the state and from the type of individualization which is linked to the state. We have to promote new forms of subjectivity through the refusal of this kind of individuality which has been imposed on us for several centuries.” 

The first book of Friedrich Hayek, “The Counter Revolution of Science,” was a study of the French Enlightenment. He talked about how in the late 18th century, there was a shift where the early gains of the Enlightenment— basic ideas and physics, biology, and chemistry– led a number of people to say, “Okay, we figured out the natural laws of the universe, and clearly humans follow similar laws. We can now accelerate progress.” It created this sense of human society as essentially like a physics problem; we can just manipulate variables and get the outcomes that we want. Hayek followed an idea informed by Karl Popper, who is not a libertarian, that when you look at human societies, the atom is the focus of study. I think oftentimes that gets misinterpreted that individuals are like John Wayne where the only way to freedom is by getting rid of collective structures. 

I think that’s a misunderstanding, not just of Hayek, but of most libertarian thinkers. Libertarians focus on individual rights, but they are more often than not talking about creating the communities and societies that they want. So I think there is a collectivism at the very heart of libertarian thought that I think often is missed– even Ayn Rand, who lived by herself, was creating groups and communities. 

To get to what Foucault is talking about in the quote you brought up, I think that’s a point that libertarians especially should be interested in: Understanding that certain economic or cultural structures, certain political structures, create certain types of people. Right? It really influences them because it creates an incentive structure to act in a particular way. And if you want to really think about radical reform or change, you’ve got to get outside of just thinking, “If I can return more power and choice making to the individual, everything else will take care of itself.” So I like that quote a lot because it is a real challenge. 

And I do think one of the problems in a kind of broad libertarian thinking is that it sometimes only focuses on the state as a source of coercive power. Governments have monopolies on force and have a different type of coercion at their availability that company does. But corporate structures, economic structures, religious structures, and other types of organizations exert a huge amount of power. And we need to think about all of that in concert, if we want to get to a place where we’re talking about more freedom, whatever that is.