Video School

Bernard Harcourt, François Ewald, and Gary Becker: “American Neoliberalism: Michel Foucault’s Birth of Biopolitics Lectures”

This video documents an unprecedented gathering of thinkers representing schools of thought that rarely meet: French philosophy and American economic theory. In this 2012 discussion at the University of Chicago, American economist Gary Becker (1930–2014) and French historian and philosopher François Ewald—who in the 1970s was assistant to Michel Foucault at the Collège de France—meet with critical theorist Bernard Harcourt, Isidor and Seville Sulzbacher Professor of Law and Director, Columbia Center for Contemporary Critical Thought at Columbia Law School. Nobel laureate Becker was an important figure in the Chicago School of economists, whose theories fuelled the neoliberal reforms that began with Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s and that have been expanding since then. Privatization is one of neoliberalism’s watchwords, and Becker was responsible (with Jacob Mincer) for inventing and promoting the concept of “human capital,” a notion that implies neoliberalism’s privatization of the self. Becker’s 1964 book Human Capital became a key reference work in the discipline of neoclassical economics.

In this discussion, Becker responds gamely, and for the first time ever, to The Birth of Biopolitics, a series of lectures Foucault delivered in 1979 at the Collège de France in which, as part of his critique of American neoliberalism, he analyzed Becker’s work on human capital as well as on crime and punishment. Ewald discusses Foucault’s writings on Becker, and Harcourt interprets Foucault’s views on neoliberalism. As Harcourt notes here, Foucault articulates a sharp critique of the idea of human capital in his ninth lecture, pointing out that it is inherently discriminatory, entailing distinguishing between people who are more worthy and less worthy of investment. Yet questions about Foucault’s views of neoliberalism have persisted. As the abstract to the transcript of this discussion puts it: “Apology or critique—that is the motivating question in this rich encounter between contemporary French philosophy and American economic theory.”

Kate Steinmann’s Video School program explores various perspectives on the neoliberal subject.