Foucault: Neoliberalism Redefined Homo Economicus

Michel Foucault at a lecture at the Collège de France, March 1979:

“The characteristic feature of the classical conception of homo economicus is the partner of exchange and the theory of utility based on a problematic of needs.
In neo-liberalism — and it does not hide this; it proclaims it — there is also a theory of homo economicus, but he is not at all a partner of exchange. Homo economicus is an entrepreneur, an entrepreneur of himself. This is true to the extent that, in practice, the stake in all neo-liberal analyses is the replacement every time of homo economicus as partner of exchange with a homo economicus as entrepreneur of himself, being for himself his own capital, being for himself his own producer, being for himself the source of [his] earnings. (p. 225-6)
[Gary] Becker, for example — the most radical of the American neoliberals, if you like — says that it is still not sufficient, that the object of economic analysis can be extended even beyond rational conduct as defined and understood…, and that economic laws and economic analysis can perfectly well be applied to non-rational conduct, that is to say, to conduct which does not seek at all, or, at any rate, not only to optimize the allocation of scarce resources to a determinate end. Becker says: Basically, economic analysis can perfectly well find its points of anchorage and effectiveness if an individual’s conduct answers to the single clause that the conduct in question reacts to reality in a nonrandom way. That is to say, any conduct which responds systematically to modifications in the variables of the environment, in other words, any conduct, as Beeker says, which “accepts reality,” must be susceptible to economic analysis. (p. 269)
In Becker’s definition which I have just given, homo economicus, that is to say, the person who accepts reality or who responds systematically to modifications in the variables of the environment, appears precisely as someone manageable, someone who responds systematically to systematic modifications artificially introduced into the environment. Homo economicus is someone who is eminently governable. From being the intangible partner of laissez-faire, homo economicus now becomes the correlate of a governmentality which will act on the environment and systematically modify its variables. (Foucault 2008: 270-1).”

Foucault, Michel. 2008. The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1978–1979. Palgrave Macmillan.

Foucault The Birth of Biopolitics Neoliberalism

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    • Thanks for the link to the film! I wasn’t aware of it.
      Regarding the relation of the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences and Neoliberalism — you’re generally right. Various scholars and commentators tackled this issue and demonstrated various aspects of this relation. I recommend to read Philip Mirowski works on this topic, such as his chapter in this new very interesting volume “Nine Lives of Neoliberalism” (2020)

  1. The redefinition of neoliberalism around the concept of homo economicus as, in Foucault’s words, an “entrepreneur of himself” is especially useful. This is due to the fact because it enables us to treat neoliberalism as an abstract doctrine or policy, but as an embodied practice. The entrepreneur of him- (or her-) self incorporates economic analysis into their own practices. Thus, neoliberalism is visible empirically anytime a subject calculates their practices in terms of cost-benefits or a logic of investment-costs-profits.

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