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Neoliberalism & Social Control

Arianna Marchetti looks at how the Continental philosophers Michel Foucault and Byung-Chul Han view free-market politics.

Neoliberalism’ is a catch-all term that refers to the promotion of free-market capitalism, the supremacy of market value, and privatization. Its opponents say it results in the exploitation of labour and widening income inequality, among other things. However, a simple and clear-cut definition of neoliberalism does not exist since there is still much disagreement about its meaning. In A Brief History of Neoliberalism (2005), the Marxist thinker David Harvey defines neoliberalism as “a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade.” According to Harvey, neoliberalism strives to promote wealth accumulation and economic elites through a discourse of liberty. In neoliberal thinking, Hegel’s famous ‘master and slave’ dialectic becomes a little blurred, since individuals are not exploited downtrodden workers but entrepreneurs in control of their means of production. The worker is free to do as she wishes.


One of the first philosophers who tried to understand neoliberalism not only in terms of economics but as a philosophy of human subjects and society was the French philosopher Michel Foucault (1926-84). In a series of lectures at the Collège de France at the end of the 1970s, Foucault presented a new political-economic analysis of the then emerging free-market trend. He introduced two concepts, namely, the idea of the subject as an entrepreneurial self, and the idea that the market can be a validator of truth. According to Foucault, the establishment of the neoliberal way of looking at economic relationships coincides with a new mode of exploitation of peoples’ activities, which he calls governmentality.

Foucault’s ‘governmentality’ is a form of social control which relies on disciplinary institutions – police, law courts, schools, and so on – and the creation of a type of knowledge which promotes the internalisation of certain discourses or ways of thinking, through which individuals govern themselves according to the thinking of these institutions.

Throughout Foucault’s writings – and widely used in political philosophy ever since – is woven the notion of biopolitics. It usefully designates the entanglement between life, politics, and history. Simply put, biopolitics denotes a form of politics that aims at controlling the population through medicine (see Foucault’s The History of Madness, 1961) and the regulation of sexuality. Biopolitics is a type of power that aims on the one hand to maintain life at its optimal state, of health, and on the other hand, at creating habits that guarantee the stability of the system of production, the extant social hierarchy, and its thinking. And governmentality is an art of government which utilises techniques ranging from the self-control of the individual to biopolitical control of the population. In this way, the concept of governmentality has broadened our understanding of power to include a form of control exercised beyond traditional political means (such as force, or the control of material resources) and which can manifest itself in more subtle ways.

Foucault argued that the internalisation of discourses of control (for instance, when someone exploited agrees in their own mind that neoliberal policies are just and right) is an important aspect of neoliberal domination. Interestingly though, he maintained a positive attitude towards self-optimization within this system, that is, of making the most of oneself and one’s possibilities. With the introduction of the term ‘technology of the self’ in a seminar of the same name in 1982, Foucault started talking about the voluntary practices and behaviours people perform to transform themselves. He argued that what people do to try to reach happiness, wisdom, perfection, and so on, are expressions of self-determination and independence even within neoliberal cultures. According to Foucault such efforts provide the individual with autonomy in so far as they involve a project of self-determination which makes the individual less dependent on external circumstances. They also serve to create ways of thinking about oneself that are a source of pleasure.

But can self-optimization be an expression of self-determination in neoliberal societies? After all, self-optimization is anchored in the need to acquire legitimisation within a society: it becomes real only when recognised by others. In this way what one takes to be the optimization of one’s life will be strongly influenced by norms established by the powerful. We look at them and feel that we too should strive for wealth, fame, or popularity. In this sense, rather than being an opportunity for self-affirmation and self-determination, self-optimization seems to be another instance of normalisation we impose on ourselves: it is a subtle and efficient form of control.

Michel Foucault
Michel Foucault by Woodrow Cowher
Image © Woodrow Cowher 2020. Please visit woodrawspictures.com


In his book Psychopolitics: Neoliberalism and New Technologies of Power (2017), the Korean-German philosopher Byung-Chul Han put forward another new concept to analyse forms of domination in neoliberal societies: psychopolitics. The term refers to the type of control that societies exercise through the use of personal information. According to Han, the web, social media, and big data are core tools of modern neoliberalism, since they enable a more efficient and stable form of control. This control is exercised in a very different way from traditional authoritarian or totalitarian means of control, since instead of limiting communication, it stimulates it: “The society of digital control makes massive use of freedom: it is possible only thanks to voluntary self-exposure, self-denudation… the disclosure of data does not take place coercively but responds to an inner need” (p.18). In this form of neoliberalism, “The smartphone is not only an effective means of surveillance… it is also a mobile confessional. Facebook is the church” (p.22).

By willingly sharing our information, we make surveillance easier. Big data for example is an extremely powerful psychopolitical tool which allows insights into the dynamics of social communication and the patterns of human behaviour, and consequently the development of techniques of control or influence. For instance, by having access to our online thoughts and desires, the technologies of control have the ability to study our emotional responses and exploit them. Instead of being dominated through discipline and violence, individuals are dominated by sensual or emotional appeal and addiction.

The neoliberal system benefits from mobilising emotions because emotions give rise to quick reactions; they facilitate fast change; and they open up new needs and fields of consumption. Emotions can be triggered easily and can create fast responses. Through emotional stimulation, ideas also find their way into our memories more easily. Not only that, but emotions trigger instinctual reactions which we are not able to consciously control or even understand. We are not conscious of the reasons behind much of what we do or choose, but we accept and fully trust our emotions to guide our reactions. As Han writes:

“Emotions are performative in the sense that they evoke certain actions: like inclinations, they represent the energetic and sensory foundation to action… They constitute the pre-reflexive, semi-conscious, bodily-instinctive place of action, of which one is often not properly aware. Neoliberal psychopolitics takes possession of the emotion, so as to influence the actions on the pre-reflexive level. Through emotion, it insinuates itself deeply into the person and consequently represents an extremely efficient medium of the individual’s psychopolitical control” (Psychopolitics, p.59).

Applied psychopolitics also invents new forms of control, such as a myriad workshops training our self-management, and various other activities which are supposed to augment our efficiency. According to Han, neoliberal domination doesn’t only take advantage of the individual during his working hours, but tries to dominate his entire life, in order to sacrifice it to the attainment of an ever-more-productive workforce. And citizens voluntarily self-optimize, trying to constantly upgrade their functioning within society. Every weakness needs to be eliminated, that is, healed. Healing in the neoliberal society means to successfully deal with exhaustion and to avoid burnouts that come from the constant self-exploitation of one’s body and psyche, in order to be productive. This healing process is itself seen as something meant to increment productivity; it is not primarily seen in terms of a good life. The improvement of performance is the main objective.

Within this system, positive thinking drives self-optimization, and in a sense facilitates the illusion that if you work hard enough you’re guaranteed to achieve a satisfying life. To put this assumption into question is dangerous, since it may annihilate the self-optimization imperative, or in other words, the duty of achieving ever-greater performance. The neoliberal ideology of self-optimization represents almost a new kind of religion:

“The infinite work on the ego resembles self-observation and self- examination in the Protestant religion, and they, in turn, represent a technique of subjectivation and domination. Instead of looking for sins, now negative thoughts are the ones to be sought, the ego struggles with itself as against an enemy” (Psychopolitics, p.41).

This new psychopolitical form of power is more efficient than the traditional means of control because it makes rebellion almost impossible. Those who fail in the neoliberal system live their failure as their own responsibility, and in the best case, direct their frustration at increasing their productivity (‘auto-correction’). In the worst case, their frustration at their failure to create for themselves wealth or fame makes individuals depressed and self-destructive – but not critical towards the system that has fostered this depression and self-destructiveness.

Psychopolitics is founded on the principle of freedom, and that’s what makes it so efficient. Modern neoliberalism exploits everything that is utilised within the exercise of freedom, such as emotions, play, and communication. In the neoliberal system, freedoms, which by definition should be freedoms from constrictions, generate constrictions. The tragedy of psychopolitics is precisely that it deceives the subject into making a slave of himself.

© Arianna Marchetti 2020

Arianna Marchetti is a graduate of Cultural and European Studies. Her main interest is political philosophy, in particular the ethics of migration. She’s a translator and a painter.

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