Criticism: “The Last Man Takes LSD”, Foucault’s Neoliberalism
On the bookshelf
The last man takes LSD: Foucault and the end of the revolution
By Mitchell Dean and Daniel Zamora
Back: 256 pages, $ 27
If you purchase related books from our site, The Times may earn a commission of Bookshop.org, whose fees support independent bookstores.
In 1978 and 1979, French philosopher Michel Foucault gave a series of lectures on neoliberalism, the body of economic doctrines focused on free market enterprise, limited government and individual autonomy. Foucault was not interested in the details of actual governance. “I have not studied and I do not want to study”, he announced during the first conference, “the development of a real government practice”. He was more interested in “the art of government”.
A book based on these lectures, “The Birth of Biopolitics”, would not be published in English until 2008, in the midst of a historic financial crisis clearly caused by neoliberalism. It was, for his legacy, an unfortunate moment. Foucault’s alliance with the mainstream ideology called into question his holy academic reputation, and numerous articles attempted to defend him against his own late transformation. But the consequences were clear no matter what small role he played: Shortly after his lectures Thatcher and Reagan unleashed neoliberalism on the world, and we’re still digging through the rubble today. .
It all goes back, strangely, to a trip the French thinker took to left-wing California – and a trip he took once he arrived. Mitchell Dean and Daniel Zamora’s new book, “The Last Man Takes LSD”, focuses on Foucault’s last decade, from 1975, when he first took the hallucinogen in California, until his death in 1984 from complications from AIDS. During this period, Foucault moved from the leftist politics of the 1960s to a more centrist position, a drift hardly rare for his generation under the Cold War. As Dean and Zamora put it, “Foucault and many other post-68 intellectuals participated in the process of thinking about a left that was not socialist, a left that would erase the legacy of post-war socialism. .
From this perspective, a government given too much power by its citizens would invariably lead to totalitarianism. Socialism was considered “crypto-totalitarian”. For Foucault, such regimes not only controlled their population, they defined them. Just as he advocated the “death of the author” of Roland Barthes in the interpretation of texts, Foucault wanted to strip the state of its power to determine the meaning of its citizens. A radical new conception of individuality was needed, one that would replace earlier ideas of political resistance. To invent oneself was, for Foucault, the new form of revolution.
Ironically, it was Foucault’s experience with LSD at Zabriskie Point in Death Valley, a location well known for its counter-cultural associations (notably in Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1970 film “Zabriskie Point”) that ‘pointed to the right. The California of the 1960s and 1970s was a hotbed of leftist activism – from the Berkeley protests to the Merry Pranksters and the Black Panthers. Foucault, meanwhile, discovered another kind of radicalism. His trip to LSD reinforced his opposition to “hermeneutics of the self”, that is, to interpreting the self as if there was a fundamental and fixed truth of its identity.
On the contrary, Foucault believed in the notion of “test, “The ordeal, a technique that creates inner truth rather than discovering it. The identity of a person, according to Foucault, must be built through personal trials not tainted by external interference, including and especially that of a State. Foucault delved into the heart of American individualism and anti-establishmentism, but his later accomplishments showed how thin the line is between autonomy and selfishness.
Neoliberalism has rapidly evolved from a set of economic practices that promote individual freedom into what writer George Monbiot describes as “a selfish racket”, enriching rich and codifying systemic inequality. As early as the 1970s, write Dean and Zamora, neoliberalism “had proved not only to be fully compatible with authoritarian and dictatorial regimes at the national level but, in many cases, to demand them.” What started out as a reaction to “crypto-totalitarian” socialism turned into the type of restrictive ideology it claimed to be fighting. Friedrich Hayek, the author of the proto-neoliberal screed “The Road to Serfdom”, once said in an interview that he would prefer a “liberal dictator” to a “democracy devoid of liberalism”.
For the authors, Foucault’s exploration of neoliberalism (in addition to his strangely enthusiastic reporting on the Iranian revolution) “reveals the poverty of key themes” of his legacy. First, “the Foucault framework appears to have compromised its ability to address issues of inequality.” Second, he did not foresee how a philosophy of “self-management” could create a culture of privilege disguised as meritocracy. Economic competition suggests that the winners and losers deserve their respective places. In the rhetoric of Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton in the 90s, low-income citizens simply needed to take “their personal responsibilities” as the government withdrew from its civic obligations.
“The last man takes LSD” isn’t as narrative as its title and premise suggest – it’s not “Fear and Loathing in Postmodernity.” But Dean, professor of politics, and Zamora, co-author of “Foucault and Neoliberalism”, do an excellent job of contextualizing Foucault’s research and ideas in his later years. They methodically trace the nuances of the pungent political climate of the time, creating a sympathetic portrayal of Foucault’s promotion of a destructive philosophical turn and – for a thinker who has fruitfully explored power and exploitation – self-destructive. However, they do not hesitate to condemn his intellectual disabilities during this period. The practices he touted in his lectures, Dean and Zamora conclude, have “contributed to the increase in inequality, austerity and public debt, accelerated the corrosion of public services, the civil service and the economy. public confidence, and reduces the ability of existing democracies to solve problems. economy, health, safety and environment they face. “
While Foucault’s trip to LSD was not the sole cause of his nascent neoliberal tendencies, it serves as useful symbolism. Psychedelics can foster revelations that enrich the mind, but implementing new government policies requires much more than abstract consideration. Foucault was known for his involvement in political activism (described by Colin Gordon as a “man of action in a world of thought”), but his late myopia lies in his reluctance to explore its practical consequences. An idea that nourishes the mind can still damage the body or corrupt the soul. The problem with an idea like neoliberalism is that it sounded so good in theory.
Clark is the author of “An Oasis of Horror in a Desert of Boredom” and the upcoming “Skateboard”.