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'Justifications of Power': Neoliberalism and the Role of Empire

[Anti-WEF grafitti in Lausanne, Switzerland, after the 2004 WEF in Evian (France). The writting reads: [Anti-WEF grafitti in Lausanne, Switzerland, after the 2004 WEF in Evian (France). The writting reads: "La croissance est une folie !" ("Growth is madness"). Image by Rama/Wikimedia Commons.]

[This article is the second in a three-part Jadaliyya series that looks at Foucault's work in relationship to the legacy of French colonialism in North Africa. Read the first installment here: "The Dangers of Liberalism: Foucault and Postcoloniality in France" by Diren Valayden]

“I am like the crawfish and advance sideways.”[1] So Foucault warns us in the Birth of Biopolitics. And indeed, one would need to be an extremely nimble, if not heroic, crawfish to claim that Foucault espoused a serious reflection on French colonialism in North Africa. Point taken. What is irrefutable, however, is that his writings have had an enormous impact on historians working on colonialism in the Maghreb (and elsewhere). Foucault’s relative silence on colonialism (despite a few references to Algeria in interviews) is even more curious given the fact that the Algerian war was considered a decisive event for a generation of French intellectuals

One might be tempted to explain this silence by his general distrust of the conventional objects of historical inquiry. Foucault insisted that the genealogy of the “Other” was more expansive than its narrowly colonial guise. Indeed, in explaining the inability of history to come to terms with a “general theory of discontinuity” he postulates it was “[a]s if we were afraid to conceive of the Other in the time of our own thought.”[2] The long-standing units of analysis held little interest for Foucault who maintained, “As soon as one questions that unity, it loses its self-evidence.”[3] Moreover, the definition of colonialism has been the subject of a long debate in Algeria, both in current-day politics as well as in its historical study.[4] It is thus easier to see how colonial practices intersect with the history of madness, disciplinary power, governmentality, and neoliberalism than to identify what Foucault “had to say” about colonialism itself. 

Here, I am going to use Foucault’s analysis of the economy to reflect on the writing of Algerian history, proceeding sideways. Firstly, his description of neoliberalism helps us reflect on how the term is currently bandied about, and it also helps us think about its colonial articulations. Secondly, Foucault’s reading of the economy as something that justifies (rather than reflects) power means that the economy is not a domain that exists objectively and has an obvious singular logic (as it does for Marxists). Instead, he insists that the economy is related to certain forms of truth-claims and the exercise of power. This insight helps shed light on a current polemic in France: the economic history of French Algeria. Foucault may not have had much to say on colonialism, but his writings help us to explain the role of empire in current debates on economic history.

The Highest Stage of Capitalism? Toward a Postcolonial Reading of Neoliberalism

Of all the buzzwords associated with Foucault, neoliberalism is perhaps the most fashionable. On Jadaliyya itself, a search for neoliberal (no dash) offers 387 hits at the time this article was written (ninety-eight hits if the dash is included). In one article, neoliberalism is associated with “spatial polarization,” “luxury consumer lifestyle,” and “the marginalization of a large underclass.” In other articles, it has to do with a set of “work skills” and a transition to the “global market.” Even more common, neoliberalism is assumed to be a kind of “neocolonialism” in disguise, the assumption being that economic liberalism is what engendered colonialism in the first (and last) instance. 

It is certainly not my intention to enter into the seemingly never-ending discussion regarding the definition of neoliberalism. But Foucault’s understanding of the term cues us into the uses of political economy in his work. Against those who see political and economic goals as forming a single logic tied to the ambitions of the imperial state, Foucault argues that the economy “produces political signs that enable justifications of power to function.”[5] Given his refusal to outline a theory of the state, the emergence of neoliberalism cannot be the “pure and simple or direct projection of these crises of capitalism in the political sphere.”[6] Unlike the commentators who use “neoliberal” as a blanket insult—a close cousin of calling someone an “orientalist”—Foucault is adamant that neoliberalism is not “just a way of establishing strictly market relations in society.” Instead, it is identified with “permanent vigilance, activity, and intervention.”[7]

This vision of the economy allows us to complicate the image that neoliberalism is something that Europe (or the “West”) did to the Global South through the Washington Consensus starting in the 1980s. Indeed, there is a colonial genealogy of neoliberalism that we can tease out from The Birth of Biopolitics. We might start with the fact that a number of figures Foucault cites as precursors to neoliberalism—such as Raymond Barré and Jean-Marcel Jeanneney—participated in the industrialization of Algeria under the Constantine Plan. Not limited to the colonial period, these initiatives had an indelible economic and sociological influence on the Algerian nation-state. Or, we might highlight that in Algeria, economic liberalism, which Foucault defines as “the total, unrestricted integration of the French economy in an internal, European, and world market”[8], was inseparable from the logic that governed decolonization. France’s vision of European integration was not a divorce from empire, but an attempt to reconcile its historical role as a colonial power with its future in an economically liberal Europe.

Yet, following Foucault’s method, it would be misguided to give these historical facts a purely economistic reading. Indeed, the attempt to make the Algerian economy consistent with the dictates of the emerging European Union also involved the transformation of “homo islamicus” into “homo economicus.”[9] This exemplifies Foucault’s insights that with neoliberalism “there is an attempt to rethink the third world failure not as one of blockage of economic mechanisms but insufficient investment in human capital.”[10] In reading the economy as a site of power, the French developmental discourse placed the dictates of Islam as something that was inherently resistant to economic productivity. Race thus appears as something that is intimately linked to the critique of Keynesian economic intervention that Foucault discusses in the Birth of Biopolitics. Indeed, the French articulation of the post-racial emerged from this complex history of colonial commitments and Metropolitan priorities after 1962.

History Wars and the Economics of Empire: Lefeuvre on Algeria 

The question of France’s economic power in Algeria has featured prominently in a recent historiographical debate between two well-known French historians: Daniel Lefeuvre and Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch. Daniel Lefeuvre was a well-known historian of Algeria at Paris 8 before his untimely death earlier this year. Following the work of his mentor, Jacques Marseilles, his 1997 manuscript Chère Algérie argues that Algeria was an economic burden rather than a boon to France after the Second World War. In and of itself, this view is hardly revolutionary; it echoes the doctrine of “Cartierism” French journalist Raymond Cartier espoused in the 1950s. The fact that this work was followed by a polemical tract in 2006, entitled, Pour en finir avec la repentance coloniale (Putting an End to Colonial Repentance), is much more significant. 

This latter book largely relies on his former economic studies to argue that France’s activities in Algeria are being wrongly stigmatized by a younger generation of historians who depict colonization as a “capital sin” (le péché capital). Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch published a critique of Lefeuvre on the website of the Comité de vigilance face aux usages publics de l’histoire, an organization that was created in reaction to the famous vote of 23 February 2005, which insisted on the “positive effects of colonization.” In a series of critiques and counter-critiques, Lefeuvre had accused her of displaying a “contempt of positivism” (un mépris pour le positivisme), which was linked to her Third-Worldist commitments. In her response, she insisted that while the criticisms of Lefeuvre were sometimes warranted, they did not change her interpretation of colonial history. The debate centered on a series of economic facts: to what extent did Algerian labor help the growth of the French economy after the Second World War? Was it the state or the interests of the patronat that encouraged this immigration? Did Algeria offer “immense profits” for Metropolitan interests? How many Algerians died during the war of independence?

How does Foucault fit into this debate? Reading like a crawfish, we might conclude that this debate exemplifies Foucault’s claim that “the economy always signifies.” In this case, a positivist reading of political economy is wedded to a reductive approach to history. If bringing Foucault into this historiograpahical tumble still seems far-fetched, take Lefeuvre’s two main criticisms of the colonial “apologists:” 1) They fundamentally misunderstand the discipline of history (“Leur Histoire n’est pas une histoire de la colonisation, mais un simple florilège de discours tenus sur la colonisation”), and 2) They essentialize the colonial state (“…les Repentants entendent révéler la « nature » de l’État colonial”).[11] If one needs more convincing that Foucault haunts this polemic about French Algeria, chapter twelve of the book is entitled “surveiller et punir?” (the original French title of Foucault’s Discipline and Punish). In it, Lefeuvre claims that these “apologist” historians tend to see Foucault everywhere:Mosquée de Paris? Contrôle religieux. Les services de la rue Lecompte? Contrôle administrative. L’hôpital franco-musulman de Bobigny? Contrôle sanitaire.”[12]

In 2012, Lefeuvre’s book was assigned as mandatory reading to students entering the prestigious Sciences Po in Grenoble. Objectors wrote that in the context of the rise of the far-right Front National and a generalized climate of xenophobia in France, an explanatory note to “contextualize” Lefeuvre’s polemical intervention should have accompanied this choice. Yet the link between colonial history and contemporary racism is far from clear: certainly there is a reason to decry the readiness to see colonialism as the “origin” of every contemporary phenomenon. Yet Lefeuvre makes an even more insidious point. He argues that the stigmatization of North Africans in France largely follows the patterns of integration that other European migrants were subjected to in the nineteenth-century. Thus, the logical conclusion is that we cannot speak of a properly “colonial” racism. Indeed, for Lefeuvre, we may not be able to speak of the existence of racism in France at all. This is, of course, the defining characteristic of post-racial France, which now stakes its claim on the history of French Algeria. If in the United States the post-racial confidently declares that we have atoned for our racist sins, in France these sins are denied tout court. As David Theo Goldberg has noted, Europe has rendered race unspeakable if not in response to the Holocaust.[13] Indeed, during the presidential elections in France last spring, French president (then Socialist candidate) François Hollande pledged to take the word “race” out of the constitution.

Lefeuvre made waves again in 2007 when two hundred intellectuals published a letter in the French newspaper Libération denouncing the name given to the Ministry of Immigration, Integration, National Identity and United Development (le ministère de l’immigration, de l’intégration, de l’identité nationale et du développement solidaire). They claimed that national identity was not singular and that its definition should not fall to a governmental ministry. Lefeuvre’s response was perhaps to be expected. For him, these intellectuals, partisans of “anti-colonialism,” were denying something to the French that had been permitted for the homosexuals, Arabs, and Blacks of France: the right to be proud of their identity. 

How did an economic historian of Algeria use a study of the colonial economy to defend assimilation and a singular French identity? When Foucault wrote that “in our time, history is that which transforms documents into monuments,”[13] he could have hardly imagined that Lefeuvre would literally reconstruct a moment dedicated Muslims who died serving the Metropole during World War I after discovering its traces in the National Archives in Aix (a project in part funded by the Ministry of Immigration and National Identity partly funds, no less).

Was this act the resurrection of a monument or the confession of a colonial sin? Following Diren Valayden’s article last week, we might suggest it is one of vigilance. Which would explain the need for Lefeuvre to alert us to the “dangers” of writing Algerian history (“Comment ne pas s’inquiéter des dangers dont cette conception de l’histoire est porteuse?”).  Historiography, a certain “economy of power” also highlights the power of the economy. After all, in writing the economic history of French Algeria, Lefeuvre has transformed the positivist calculation of colonial exploitation (or the lack thereof) into the defense of France’s singular identity. If economic history was once relegated to dry debates on the “modes of production,” it has now become an unwitting tool in the battle for a post-racial France.


[1] Michel Foucault. Translated by Graham Burchell. The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008, 78.

[2]. Michel Foucault. Translated by Sheridan Smith. The Archeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Langauge. New York : Pantheon Books, 1972, 12.

[3] Foucault, Archeology, 23.

[4] See Pervillé, Guy. “Qu’est-ce que la colonisation?” Revue d’histoire moderne et contemporaine, XXII (1974): 321-368.

6] Foucault, Birth of Biopolitics, 70.

[7] Foucault, Birth of Biopolitics, 143.

[8] Foucault, Birth of Biopolitics, 196.

[9] Muriam Haleh Davis, “Restaging Mise en Valeur: “Postwar Imperialism” and the Plan de Constantine.” Review of Middle Eastern Studies. 44:2, 176 – 187, Winter 2010.

[10] Foucault, Birth of Biopolitics, 232.

[11] Daniel Lefeuvre, Pour en finir avec la repentance coloniale. Paris: Éditions Flammarion, 2008 [2006], 13.

[12] Lefeuvre, 185.

[13] David Theo Goldberg, The Threat of Race: Reflections on Racial Neoliberalism. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2009. See Chapter 5 on “Racial Europeanization.”

[14] Foucault, Archaeology, 7.

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