Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Daniele Lorenzini reviews State Phobia and Civil Society

Mitchell Dean and Kaspar VilladsenState Phobia and Civil Society: The Political Legacy of Michel Foucault. Stanford, Calif.:  Stanford University Press, 2016.  196 pp.

Review by Daniele Lorenzini

What is the political legacy of Michel Foucault, more than thirty years after his death?  There is no simple answer to this question because Foucault’s work is increasingly (well) quoted and used by scholars and critical thinkers who belong to different and sometimes even opposed political fields.  Mitchell Dean and Kaspar Villadsen offer a most welcome discussion of this issue, taking as a vantage point the classical problem of the relationship between state and civil society.  Indeed, from management and organizational studies to governmentality studies, and from supporters of neoliberalism to neo-Marxist critics of capitalism, contemporary references to Foucault share a common attempt to decenter and deconstruct the state, either theoretically (as a misleading concept that we should get rid of) or practically (as an oppressive order that we must fight).

State Phobia and Civil Society successfully manages to show that this theoretical and practical critique of the state, as well as the corresponding praise of a civil-society politics over a state-based one, can be found in Foucault’s works of the 1970s only at the price of a banalization of his analyses and positions.  It thus represents a salutary reminder of both Foucault’s famous critique of the juridical-political theory of sovereignty and his less well known but crucial warning against (and rejection of) “state phobia,” that is, the exaggeration of the state’s negative role and the eschatological vision according to which it should dissolve and merge with civil society (see pp. 1–5).

Given the overall accuracy of the authors’ interpretation of Foucault’s work, the lack of a serious confrontation with Foucault’s peculiar notion and use of history[1] in their discussion of his genealogy of the arts of government might seem striking (see pp. 133–44).  Similarly, whilst the authors succeed in doing justice to the complexity of Foucault’s ideas without falling into the most common (over)simplifications, they tend to be too indulgent with the widespread picture of Foucault offering an “apology” of neoliberalism (see pp. 145–64).  Indeed, according to them, his vision of the subject as self-creation necessarily implies a normative preference for a power leaving maximum space to it (see p. 8).  This is why Dean and Villadsen considerably downplay the consequences of one of the central thesis in Foucault’s lectures on The Birth of Biopolitics, namely that neoliberalism is a specific art of governing people and the neoliberal subject someone who is “eminently governable” (through her or his very field of freedoms and through accurate interventions on her or his “environment”).[2]  Therefore, it seems always possible, legitimate, and even necessary to raise about neoliberalism the critical question of its acceptability: is it acceptable to be governed like that and at that cost?[3]

However, State Phobia and Civil Society does not (only) aim at offering an interpretation of Foucault’s work and a critical discussion of its legacy in contemporary political thought.  It is also (although often implicitly) traversed by a substantial normative vision that reveals the authors’ clear-cut position vis-à-vis a fundamental problem: Dean and Villadsen suggest that we should get rid of the common analytical fear of the state and the widespread disdain of political projects aimed at contending for state power.  According to them, in fact, the state still constitutes a crucial political enjeu: it is not only something to be fought but also the essential condition of the order and security as well as of the development of individual and collective capacities—including critical ones (see p. 19).  Hence, their main objective is to show the danger inscribed (ambiguously) in Foucault’s thought and (more clearly) in his followers and interpreters’ positions, namely the danger to refigure the state as “a mere play among diverse technical rationalities” (p. 103) and resistance as a series of struggles fought by nonstate movements and activists within the space of civil society (see pp. 3, 48).

This is why State Phobia and Civil Society will speak not only to students and scholars interested in Foucault’s work but also and more generally to all those interested or participating in the (always topical) debate on the role state and civil society respectively should play in political theory and practice.

[1] On this point, see Judith Revel, Foucault avec Merleau-Ponty: Ontologie politique, présentisme et histoire (Paris, 2015), pp. 21–109.

[2] See Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1978–1979, trans. Graham Burchell (New York, 2008), pp. 270–71.

[3] See Foucault, “What Is Critique?” trans. Lysa Hochroth, in The Politics of Truth, trans. Hochroth et al., ed. Sylvère Lotringer (Los Angeles, 2007), pp. 41–81, esp. 45.