Review of Dean, Mitchell & Zamora, Daniel, The Last Man Takes LSD: Foucault and the End of the Revolution (Verso, 2021)

In the wake of the belated publication of Foucault’s 1978-1979 Collège de France lectures in English in 2008, under the title of “The Birth of Biopolitics,” an ever-expanding group of historians, philosophers, and economists have tackled Foucault’s complicated relationship to neoliberalism. Contributors to his debate include Jurgen Habermas, François Ewald, Serge Audier, Gary Becker, Michael C. Behrent, Mitchell Dean, and Daniel Zamora. The last two have combined their recent scholarship into an excellent new intellectual biography, The Last Man Takes LSD. The book is written in the same spirit as James Miller’s classic (although controversial) biography The Passion of Michel Foucault (1993). Both books offer the private life of Foucault as a skeleton key to understanding his philosophy, although Dean & Zamora do not reach into psychobiography to the same degree as Miller. Instead, they highlight some marginal and neglected biographical and political events, such as Foucault’s 1975 LSD trip in Death Valley, California (the subject of a recent autobiographical book by Simeon Wade), and the “liberalizing” French presidency of Giscard d’Estaing (1974-1981), as pivotal moments that influenced, shaped, and help to explain (although not necessarily explain away) his theoretical preoccupations and political judgments, including his interest in neoliberalism and, by extension, liberal-adjacent forays into anti-statist leftism.

In the final decade of his life, Foucault made frequent trips to California, during which he was exposed to the countercultural spirit and alternative lifestyles in the New World. During one of his many trips to California, in 1975, Foucault drops acid at Zabriskie Point, described by Foucault as “a great experience, one of the most important in my life.” (p. 2) Dean & Zamora argue that “after his California experiences, and exposure to the ‘California cult of the self,’ (…) Foucault’s subject becomes a free one, an active agent capable of making itself through spiritual and physical exercises (….), and with the potential for radical self-transformation through extreme experiences.” (p. 5) If the authors are correct, this not only shaped his subsequent interest in neoliberal “entrepreneurial self” and “techniques of the self,” which led to his theoretical engagement with Gary Becker, but also made him rewrite his History of Sexuality with the “care of the self” in mind (pp. 3-4). Even if this account is slightly exaggerated (although backed by ample textual and contextual evidence), it adds one more compelling piece to the puzzle.

Although socio-cultural explanations resonate with Foucault’s antihumanism, they come at the expense of scholarly interpretations that emphasize the autonomous influence of ideas and thinkers. Philosophers may scoff at how little the book emphasises Foucault’s well-documented encounters with diverse “experimental” thinkers like Nietzsche, Bataille, Heidegger, Kojève, and Althusser who shaped his career-long interests in the experimental method, as well as his interest in diverse forms of subjectivity, power, and knowledge. That said, it would be bizarre to claim that any of these thinkers – ranging mostly from socialist to conservative – could explain his interest in neoliberalism. Both textual and contextual approaches are needed for a comprehensive and plausible account. Thinking about the New Left, Giscard d’Estaing, and Californian experiences with LSD and BDSM gay clubs can help to round out the story. The book’s central argument, although a bit overstated, is impeccably well researched and grippingly narrated. It successfully illuminates the contextual details that help to make sense of his life and career. The result is Foucault reimagined as a complex scholar full of possibilities and surprises.

The book chapters were originally published as independent articles. This could have been a problem. Thankfully, the chapters are ordered thematically in a way that makes all-encompassing logical sense. Highlights, for me, include Chapter 2, “Search for a Left Governmentality,” (pp. 38-72) which painstakingly explores the historical, sociological, and intellectual context for Foucault’s interest in neoliberalism. This chapter is teeming with fascinating biographical and historical details. I was also really impressed by chapter 4, “Ordeals: Personal and Political,” (pp. 105-138) which contains arguably the most important theoretical contribution of the book. The authors draw a plausible connection between Foucault’s notion of “épreuve”, translated as “test” or “ordeal,” and the epistemic foundations of neoliberal governmentality, as a testing ground for new forms of “truth-telling” or “veridiction.” The rest of the chapters are equally informative. They manage to beautifully bring together diverse themes, from the “death of the author” (chapter 3) to revolutionary politics (chapter 5), all in the service of the bigger narrative about Foucault’s political development. The topics are diverse without feeling disconnected from the main thread. Although some academic familiarity is required, the book is written in an engaging style that makes it eminently suitable for “mid-brow” consumption. Good writing is another thing that Dean & Zamora’s book shares with Miller’s suave biography.

Dean & Zamora do a tremendous job making the case that Foucault’s engagement with neoliberalism in the late 1970s, although it did not amount to self-identification or endorsement, was profound. It “offered him a means to rethink resistance” – a “utopian focus” – in the pursuit of “an intellectual framework that could create a space for minority practices” under new, less disciplinary forms of governmentality. (p. 40) To that end, Foucault strategically “deployed neoliberalism as a framework within which to invent left governmentality that would create a less normative way of exercising power.” (p. 12) Here, let me quote Foucault himself:

“[W]hat appears on the horizon of this kind of analysis is not at all the ideal or project of an exhaustively disciplinary society (…). Nor is it a society in which a mechanism of general normalization and the exclusion of those who cannot be normalized is needed. On the horizon of this analysis we see instead (…) a society in which there is an optimization of systems of difference, in which the field is left open to fluctuating processes, in which minority individuals and practices are tolerated, in which action is brought to bear on the rules of the game rather than on the players, and finally in which there is an environmental type of intervention instead of the internal subjugation of individuals.”

As a statement of liberal thought, Foucault’s analysis appears uncannily astute, even by today’s standards. Aside from the idiosyncratic terminology, the above quote could have been written by a member of the Mont Pèlerin Society. It shows that Foucault was one of the earliest and most astute readers of neoliberalism in philosophy. This also explains why Gary Becker, upon reading Foucault’s lectures, did not find much to disagree with. Curiously, largely absent from Foucault’s analysis was any deep engagement with Friedrich Hayek, whose “epistemic” version of neoliberalism might have been even more closely aligned with Foucault’s theoretical concerns about decentralized “power-knowledge” than the Ordoliberal and Chicago variants of liberalism. One can only speculate, had Foucault seriously engaged with Hayek, about the resulting synergies. In this regard, Mark Pennington’s upcoming book on the subject should be an illuminating read.

Another fascinating part of the story is the relationship between Foucault’s persistent anti-communism and the rise of the so-called French “Second Left” (la deuxième gauche) in the 1970s. (pp. 38-72) Associated with figures like Michel Rocard and Pierre Rosanvallon, and mostly operating through the Parti socialiste unifié (PSU), the Second Left was, on one level, simply a continuation of the libertarian elements of the traditional French left, going back, at least, to the Paris Commune of 1871. At the same time, the Second Left was also explicitly inspired by, and in dialogue with, the theories and practices of neoliberalism. Indeed, “Foucault credited Rosanvallon with the discovery of liberalism as a critique of government that deploys the market as a site of truth production or veridiction.” (p. 30) The Second Left provided an appealing alternative to the bureaucratic, authoritarian, and statist elements of the left, exemplified by the doctrinaire Parti communiste français (PCF). Although Foucault had briefly been a member of PCF in 1950, he soon quit the party, never to return. Indeed, he seems to have exhibited permanent hostility to the sclerotic Communist parties in Europe. Such sociological facts, put masterfully into context by Dean & Zamora, help to explain the background to Foucault’s interest in liberalism as a potential ally, or “fellow traveller,” of the Second Left. Among Western leftist intellectuals, the 1960s and 1970s were a time of an intellectual “ordeal” as the failures of State Communism (and not merely Stalinism) became an unavoidable topic of conversation. Foucault came to see the traditional left as devoid of its own “autonomous socialist governmentality” and, for that reason, always in danger of lapsing onto the logic of the “police state.” (p. 30) This debate was triggered by a series of political events, such as Khrushchev’s condemnation of Stalinism in 1956, the Prague Spring of 1968, and the French publication of the Gulag Archipelago in 1974. This anti-totalitarian moment also launched the careers of les nouveaux philosophes, like Bernard-Henri Lévy and André Glucksmann. In contrast to the mostly dismissive reactions from leftist philosophers like Sartre, Badiou, and Deleuze, Foucault’s attitude was more positive. Dean & Zamora even describe his review of Glucksmann’s Master Thinkers as an “unqualified endorsement.” (pp. 32) In sum, especially in the wake of the (often ignored) “liberalizing” presidency of Giscard d’Estaing (1974-1981), neoliberalism appears on the horizon, and not just to Foucault, as one way (although not the only way) to think differently about the future of emancipation and the possibility of a more tolerant, less authoritarian “left governmentality” that, in some ways, pre-figures the “Third Way” politics of the 1990s and early 2000s. (pp. 62-70)

Although I am in general agreement with their analysis, it seems to me that in their effort to paint Foucault as a sympathetic reader of neoliberalism, they downplay some crucial passages in The Birth of Biopolitics where Foucault provides powerful weapons to critics of neoliberalism. For example, Foucault emphasizes that neoliberalism is an “active” form of statecraft that requires, in his phrasing, “permanent vigilance, activity, and intervention.” This not only brings into focus the idea of the “strong state” (which is especially crucial to German Ordoliberalism) but also suggests that the neoliberal state cannot fully escape the logic of the “Panopticon” (“permanent vigilance”) nor the logic of the disciplinary state (“permanent intervention”) – even if it transforms both. Although Foucault thinks that the neoliberal state constitutes a major break with the disciplinary society, this break is imperfect and fragile. Foucault was also one of the first to emphasize the way in which neoliberal competition contributes to new forms of risk and precarity: “The motto of liberalism is: (…) ‘Live dangerously,’ that is to say, individuals are constantly exposed to danger [and] conditioned to experience their situation, their life, their present, and their future as containing danger.” Of course, the mere fact that Foucault highlights the risks and dangers associated with neoliberalism does not mean that he thought that those risks and dangers were not, in the end, worth tolerating. But it shows that Foucault offered a nuanced, critical assessment of the complex ways in which neoliberalism reshapes the possibilities for human subjects to conceive themselves and their situation in life. Foucault not only recognized the emancipatory potential of neoliberal governmentality but also combined it with a piercing, strident exposition of its dangers, downsides, and contradictions. Indeed, his analysis is inherently ambivalent, even if Foucault, as a Nietzschean experimentalist, was often predisposed to embracing risks, danger, and even madness.

Regardless of the presence of subtle criticisms of neoliberalism in Foucault’s analysis, it is undeniable that it he does not offer a full-blown “critique.” His avoidance of normative judgment is perfectly in line with his general approach to scholarship. He rarely published open criticisms of Marxism either, even if he was, in some sense, anti-Marxist. However, from the point of view of socialist theory, there is something deeply suspicious about the way in which class consciousness and class struggle are absent from his analysis. If socioeconomic class analysis, or an analysis of income and wealth inequalities, should be given top priority, as they think, the fact that Foucault has surprisingly little to say about either is disappointing. This might reduce the relevance of Foucault for certain forms of egalitarian politics. Whether this signals an “end” to Foucault’s radicalism is less clear to me, however. For what it’s worth, I tend to see the radical possibilities opened up by the Foucauldian method during his “neoliberal” period as tantalizing and energizing. Revolutionary politics unconstrained by Marxist dogma remains a tempting possibility. For both the left and the right, Foucault offers new ways of thinking about governance from the point of view of dispersed power and knowledge. For neoliberals, he opens up possibilities for a self-critique. His analysis highlights the potentially problematic effects of the types of dispersed subjectification, power, and “mass endangerment” generated by liberal institutions. For progressive and socialist readers, in particular, Foucault can offer ways of conceiving of social emancipation as something achievable through liberalization, anti-statist action, and various forms of “polycentric” (Ostrom) or “interstitial” (Wright) experimentation. Leveraging the decentralized power of markets and civil society as sites of minority practices and experimental governance is amenable not only to conservative outcomes but also radical or revolutionary ones. Just look at the (r)evolution of LGBT rights. Rather than signalling the end of the revolution, the turn to self-cultivation, liberalism, and local experiments in living might mark an opportunity to rethink of the meaning and strategies of revolution.

In general, the book is presented in a descriptive, value-neutral style. This helps the story come to life and appear more credible to an ideologically diverse audience. The concluding chapter, however, strikes a more assertive tone. It bemoans “the poverty of key themes in the Foucauldian legacy.” (p. 188) Its individualistic and neoliberal flavours, according to the authors, “are not only out of touch with the concerns of today but have perhaps contributed to our intellectual predicament and the political mess” of today’s liberal democracies. (p. 188) Dean & Zamora effectively blame Foucault and the other anti-statist leftists for unwittingly facilitating the “economic ‘neutralization’ of the political left.” (p. 222) In their estimate, the incorporation of neoliberal ideas and individualistic concerns into centre-left politics, including the widespread acceptance of the logic of the market, supported by the cultivation of the “entrepreneurial self” and lifestyle diversity, have diluted the appeal of large-scale collective action through the labour movement, thereby also contributing to the rise of reactionary populism.  They even blame Foucault for the fact that the left has become infatuated with “diversity and ‘politically correct’ identity politics disconnected from fundamental concerns around economic exploitation, widening inequality, narrowing life chances and falling life expectancy.” (p. 223) In what is probably the least persuasive moment in the book, the authors even try to connect Foucault as a precursor to the “White Fragility” discourse of corporate diversity consultants like Robin DiAngelo. (p. 224) This is odd, given that Foucault was always sceptical towards confessional tribunals that prosecute the “truth” of one’s identity as a reservoir of “secrets.” It is a bit too convenient to blame neoliberalism for various contemporary ideologies like identity politics and right-wing populism. Furthermore, having successfully avoided the commonplace use of the word “neoliberal” as an expansive term of abuse thus far, it is sad to see the authors fall back on it in the end, although only briefly. More importantly, regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with their overall negative assessment of Foucault’s neoliberal “flirtations,” the stark tonal shift in the last chapter seems a bit out of place. Although the argument itself is worth making (if not wholly convincing), I was left disappointed at how quickly the commentary becomes speculative, sweeping, and lacking in nuance. I also disagree with the authors’ pessimistic conclusion that Foucault’s integration of “neoliberal” and individualistic concerns into the heart of the emancipatory struggles of the centre-left was a mistake that contributed to the downfall of radical politics – hence, “the end of the revolution.” On the contrary, I think such “liberalization” was exactly what needed to be done and still needs to be continued and expanded in order to discover greater potentialities for living differently. But I still find the descriptive story of how and why this happened – which is what the book is mostly about – essentially correct, immensely informative, and quite entertaining.

How should we evaluate the place of The Last Man Takes LSD amidst the flurry of intellectual biographies? In recent years, we have witnessed the rising popularity of iconoclastic, “critical” biographies that seek to question, complicate, and sometimes fatally undermine the legacy of beloved philosophers. Heidegger’s legacy, for example, has been undermined by a cavalcade of accusatory books by, e.g., Victor Farías, Hugo Ott, and Emmanuel Faye, that have exposed his deep affinities with National Socialism and the cruel depravity of his anti-Semitism. Even the existentialist hero Sartre’s political judgment has come under fire (e.g., in Gary Cox’s 2019 biography) for his tasteless, inelegant, and protracted apologetics for Communist dictatorships under Stalin and Mao. In each case, with each new revelation comes another blow to hagiography. Dean & Zamora’s book, in my estimation, is a fine representative of this category. In this laudable genre, complicating the image of the public intellectual is not merely an exercise in private moral judgement but a well-choreographed – and sometimes well-deserved – public spectacle. Even though the practice of iconoclasm can be taken too far, it should be generally welcomed in philosophy. Only court historians and sycophants should treat biographies as hagiographic devices that brush off inconvenient facts in order to elevate a person into the worshipful pantheon of wrinkle-free greatness. Given that Foucault is the author of titillating and scandalous books like The History of Sexuality and Madness and Civilization, many people find it impossible not to wonder whether there are some equally scandalous and titillating “truths” about Foucault’s private life. He frequently urged his readers, to no avail, to ignore his subjectivity: “Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same: leave it to our bureaucrats and our police to see that our papers are in order.” Ignoring this advice (probably wisely), scholars continue to seek to interpret Foucault-the-man in order to ascertain new truths, or secrets, about Foucault-the-philosopher. Conservatives have sought to uncover a dark, demonic, chthonic pulse to his postmodern project, embodied in his nocturnal escapades in seedy Californian gay clubs and bathhouses as much as in his ceaseless churning of subversive scholarly tomes during the day. And now socialists and (neo)liberals can argue about the extent, importance, and implications of Foucault’s neoliberalism. So be it! Intellectual biographies, too, can be experimental ordeals, or “épreuves”, of truth-speaking, or “veridiction.”

Foucault is unlikely to go away soon or get “cancelled” for being too neoliberal – anymore than for being too libertine, immoral, obscurantist, or epistemically relativistic. None of these descriptions exhausts his philosophy. Despite the vast cottage industry of cliched, substandard, and rote uses of Foucault in the social sciences, there is still much untapped potential in his output for serious intellectual engagement. The publication of the Collège de France transcripts has opened up a treasure trove of many new “Foucaults” (in the plural). The neoliberalism controversy is only the tip of the iceberg. Indeed, I hope that ideological debate does not overshadow his theoretical work. But Dean & Zamora’s gripping narrative demonstrates that Foucault’s rather brief theoretical encounters with neoliberalism had deep and long-lasting connections to his anti-totalitarian and emancipatory normative commitments. It also demonstrates the fluidity of his political alignments, united only by a common concern for reimagining and reinventing relations of power and knowledge in ways that leave more room for minority practices, experimentalism, and “limit experiences.” After books like this, it is no longer possible, without qualification, to characterize him as a “man of the left,” although it would be equally wrong to describe him as a “conservative” or “neoliberal” either. To the extent that he partook in the project of the “Second Left” and other manifestations of post-60s radicalism, he was part of the “neoliberal-curious” segment(s) of the libertarian left. As such, he was interested in expanding the repertoire of 20th century “left governmentality” in ways that can break away from the dogmatic, statist, and totalitarian tendencies underlying the Marxist dreams of a perfected revolution. This explains his protean interest in Greco-Roman sexual practices, anti-colonial struggles, dissident rights in Eastern Europe, Chicago neoliberalism, and even the religious fervour of the 1979 Iranian Revolution. He shared the neoliberal criticism, not only of authoritarian Communism, but also of the disciplinary and confessional institutions of the welfare state. Curiously enough, although Foucault never wrote a full-on critique of the welfare state, his student and protégé François Ewald eventually did – in a rather neoliberal fashion. (p. 188)

“Very well… But was Foucault a neoliberal?” This book may not settle the debate, but it marks a pivotal moment in scholarship. Situating Foucault in the liberalizing, anti-statist, and anti-Communist moments in European and U.S. history, and placing him on the French “Second Left,” opens up new horizons of thought. It forces progressives and socialists to tackle with the complex legacy of Foucault. They can either go along with Foucault to critically explore the productive and emancipatory side of neoliberalism or else bemoan his (however incomplete) “neoliberal turn.” I tend to believe in the virtue of following the former path. At the same time, there are unexplored avenues for classical liberal, neoliberal, and even conservative readings of Foucault. Scholars should pursue further synergistic connections between the Foucauldian and neoliberal analyses of emancipation, experimentalism, decentralized “power-knowledge,” and agential self-creation. And new questions should be asked: “Are our old conceptual tools and ideological categories ill-equipped to tackle the novel challenges of 21st century emancipatory politics? What does it mean to rethink social emancipation, beyond the hegemonic left-right mapping, after Foucault?” Dean & Zamora’s book, aside from being an informative, provocative, and fun read, prompts many questions and challenges us – in one of Foucault’s favourite phrases – to think and act differently.

Otto Lehto

Postdoctoral Researcher, New York University (Classical Liberal Institute)