State Phobia and Civil Society
The Political Legacy of Michel Foucault
Mitchell Dean and Kaspar Villadsen



“Whoever that woman in my dream is, it is not my mother,” said Slavoj Žižek, when he humorously characterized the academic Left’s relationship to the state, social class, and conventional political questions (2008, 338). Imagine, if you will, the modern poststructuralist prostrate on the psychoanalyst’s couch, avoiding at all costs confrontation with particularly traumatic issues: state, class, politics, fundamental social conflicts . . .

This book is inspired by a similar experience, which its authors found they shared. In recent years the state has become a kind of “no-go” zone for those who work within a Foucauldian or wider poststructuralist perspective. According to its protagonists, the state is decentered, deconstructed, and displaced, both as an oppressive order and as a misleading concept. It is somewhat surprising, then, to discover that in his recently published lectures Foucault himself used the concept “state phobia” to criticize and warn against political ideologies that exaggerate the state’s negative role in society and in human history. We take seriously his rejection of normative “state phobia.” It is in part a response to ultra-leftism and in part a critique of tendencies in his own thought. Paradoxically, it is often precisely this state-phobic imagery that Foucault uses to delineate his own theoretical and analytical position. He rejects the Manichean image of the state as “the coldest of all cold monsters” (monstre froid), an impressionistic nineteenth-century image he found in Nietzsche. He presents what he calls the “juridical-political theory of sovereignty,” and its key terms State, Sovereign and Law (often capitalized), as a foil for his analytics of power, first taking the form of a microphysics of power and later an analysis of what he called “governmentality.” In rejecting this juridical-political theory, he rejects the key vocabulary for the analysis of the state, including that of legitimacy and authority and questions of law and legality. His rejection of this vocabulary also deprives Foucault of an extended analysis of democracy. Moreover, his very definition of sovereignty as a “right of death” suggests an omnipotent state that in itself is fundamentally dangerous. It is hard to read his repeated injunction to “cut off the king’s head in political theory” as anything but fundamentally antistatist, at least theoretically and analytically.

The challenge to state phobia is issued in Foucault’s “governmentality” lectures of 1978 and 1979, which would not be published, however, for another quarter of a century. Nevertheless, in the 1990s certain authors would base their studies on little more than fragments of this work and offer diagnoses of “neoliberal” or “advanced liberal government” and concomitant transformations of the welfare state and the emergence of new technologies of government (Burchell, Gordon, and Miller 1991; Rose and Miller 1992; Barry, Osborne, and Rose 1996; Dean and Hindess 1998; Dean 1999; Rose 1999). As Foucault did in the 1970s, these “governmentality writers” in the United Kingdom and Australia refused to consider the state as the center of control by political agents or classes and the exercise of power, legitimate or otherwise. Instead, they focused on the programs and rationalities of government that work across multiple alliances between different actors—including those of the public sector, communities and community organizations, businesses and firms, and citizens themselves—and that enjoin these agents to take on certain forms of self-government and responsibility. Their analyses undoubtedly provided different critical perspectives on the exercise of political power at the end of the twentieth century. They avoided the contemporary knee-jerk denunciation of public policies and their implementation as either “neoliberal” or as functional to capitalism. But the question remains whether they—and indeed we, the current authors—went too far in the evacuation of the form of the state in political analyses and displacement of sovereignty.

Much of this literature undertook a “diagnostics of the present” that explicitly rejected normative theory or explicit value positions. However, when post-Foucauldians were inevitably forced to move beyond this merely diagnostic and analytical position and offer a more normative idea of the potential in the present, they often appeared to favor some form of “identity politics.” This politics is defined by a series of demands for respect for cultural, sexual, and lifestyle minorities and the desire to create room for individuals and collectives to generate their own identity by devising differentiated cultural, social, and legal policies. Common to Foucault’s various followers and successors is a value-orientation toward nonstate movements, as well as grassroots and unconventional forms of political activism and resistance and a devaluation of more conventional party and trade-union forms of political organization. It is ironic, perhaps, that Foucault’s inheritors should end up favoring a type of civil-society politics over a state-based one—not least because, as we suggest here, Foucault himself was often suspicious of political action based on civil society.

In this book we take Foucault’s lecture series delivered in the academic years 1975–76, 1977–78, and 1978–79, as a key to his political perspective and its development. It is noteworthy but little remarked upon that in final lectures of each of these years Foucault takes considerable time to address images of civil society as a body comprising vital forces and virtuous ethics and serving as a site of truth production. In each of these lectures he directs critical comments to those who dream that one day the state will dissolve and merge with civil society. It is a dream that can be found in certain forms of thought associated with the French and American Revolutions and in the Marxist-Leninist precept of the “withering away of the state.” It reappears in the wake of the collapse of Soviet socialism in Eastern Europe. In the current decade we find it in the Tea Party faction of the Republican Party in the United States. It is a dream that occurs across the political spectrum from radical Maoists after May ’68, feminist critiques of patriarchy, democratic rejections of bureaucracy, to today’s libertarians and those whom we will call, consonant with Foucault, “neoliberals.” It is a dream that appears in proponents of globalization and advocates of cosmopolitanism.

We want to emphasize that Foucault, to his enduring credit, did not succumb to the seduction of this Siren song of civil society. He sought to problematize political ideologies that operate with the idea of a “people,” “a mass of vital forces,” or “omnipresent market forces” that will become society’s primary driving force and obviate the need for the “steering” functions of the state. These are ideologies that dream of the dissolution of the state in terms of its ethical, vital, or economic externality or that reduce it to a series of techniques or mechanisms. We are concerned, however, that Foucault’s own analysis and theoretical perspectives have not proved secure enough to prevent contemporary social and political thought inspired by him from humming these Sirens’ melodies. In this respect we should be prepared to consider that Foucault’s theoretical and analytical antistatism might have contributed to contemporary critical thought and political practice losing its way.

The theme of civil society has long been associated with that of theology and religion, as Dominique Colas (1997) has shown. So is the case with Foucault. From his journalistic pieces on the Iranian Revolution to his analysis of the role of the Christian pastorate in the history of governmentality, Foucault enters the terrain of political theology and secularization, which had been strongly debated in Germany in the 1960s (Löwith 1949; Blumenberg 1985; Schmitt 2008). He is keen to emphasize both the secular rationalization involved in modern or liberal government and the dangers that that same governmental rationality poses in terms of its retheologization. One example of this is the kind of “counterconducts” he finds can be made on the basis of the notion of civil society. For Foucault, governing through civil society has certain “eschatological” features, portending an end of and an end to history. They imply a linear, teleological understanding of history in which history progresses toward the final fulfillment of divine intentions and goals. Christian eschatology foresees the triumphant Second Coming of Christ often after an age when the Spirit comes to dwell in the hearts of all humans or, at least, of the faithful. Similarly, the notion of civil society as a sphere of virtue and instructive solutions to human problems seems often to replicate the age of the Holy Spirit that promises a final victory of good over evil and an end to suffering, conflict, and death. We ask here whether the forms of power and governance Foucault himself viewed as characteristic of the present, in which power comes to be immanent to the self-governing capacities of individuals, do not evince a similar theological character.

One peril of political eschatologies is that they promise that domination and illegitimate social differences will cease when society learns to be at one with itself—when, for example, “the people” finally unite to take state power, “the nation” rules itself, or the “market” is finally allowed to work freely and unhindered. Moreover, while notions of “global civil society” often appear as the harbingers of a universal peace and cosmopolitan society, they rarely escape the political in the strong sense of the friend-enemy relationship. They cannot, or appear not to be able to, escape the identification of a group, of a force, or an institution, as the enemy, an alien body, which is held responsible for the deformed and incomplete nature of society. They see, to continue the eschatological imagery, an Antichrist appearing to mislead the faithful in the Final Days. Any philosophy or politics that champions the idea of the final coming of a universal civil society can, therefore, easily descend into a kind of confessional conflict, or just war, against those forces deemed to be standing in the way of this inevitability. Today, unfortunately, those forces are often identified with either the state or its enemies.

On the one hand, then, Foucault’s perspective mixes a theoretical and analytical antistatism with a critique of state phobia. On the other hand, poststructuralist political thought returns to an idea of civil society found in its multiple proxies—the multitude, molecular and minor politics, grassroots movements, or vital politics and “ethopolitics.” It is the feedback loop between the two that we explore in this book. This loop is linked to a skeptical attitude toward the state found in what has been long identified as a kind of critical, independent, or even “Second Left” position and in “Third Way” social democratic politics. A legacy of those movements arose in the great cultural and political watershed of the 1960s and their long-term trajectory. It is contrary to a more conventional Left position that endorses social rights, welfare, public education, and health care and to the fundamental task of establishing and securing a political order essential for a civilized society, which had been a key concern for liberal and conservative thought. How did the “young Foucauldians” come to adopt such “state-phobic” positions, which involved their going to great lengths to avoid dealing with the state’s role, analytically as well as normatively? Down which long and winding theoretical roads did they meander to reach an explicit or implicit negative position on the state, and what are the political consequences of this today? What authority did they claim from Foucault’s work to do so? For our own part, given our long commitment to a broadly Foucauldian style of analysis and diagnostic of the present, we think it is time to confront the problem of the actual and potential political effects of this critique in the current situation.

The post-Foucauldian tendency toward state phobia coincides with two other discernible trends in contemporary society. First, in recent decades the governments of many liberal-democratic and welfare states have sought to limit the state’s role in the provision of what were previously considered public services. These governments wish to stimulate actors, movements, energies, and subcultures outside of the state, but, at the same time, they fear that their political strategies and programs risk stifling those very energies. This governmental anxiety is visible in the embrace of local communities, nongovernmental organizations, private contractors, and civil society itself, permeating not only social policy but also public policy more broadly. Regardless of whether civil society and its agents act as “partners,” “unfulfilled potential,” and “zones or sources of inspiration” in state policy or as private agencies delivering services, these policies are nurtured by the hope that civil society contains the solutions, innovations, and ethics, as well as the entrepreneurship and efficiency, to deliver flexible, customer-centered public services. This applies not simply to the old problems of the burgeoning demands presented by the welfare state but also to what were previously considered the core functions of sovereignty in the military and security sectors. The emergence of this political-administrative rationality gives a renewed relevance to the genealogy of “state phobia.”

Second, during the same period the social and political sciences adopted a skeptical approach to the state. Various theorists assert that national welfare states are waning as the loci of political attention and control relative to diverse, nonstate, and often transnational organizations and networks. They claim that the nation-state has been “hollowed out” and that systems of mobile governing networks have emerged, which are eclipsing the nation-state’s increasingly superfluous institutions and structures. They write of “governance without government” and “the stateless state.” They argue that the state, under pressure from both internal and external forces, is losing its legal and political sovereignty and therefore its capacity to effectively regulate that which used to be referred to as the national economy.

Such currents of thought often direct attention toward the newly discovered diversity that exists outside of both the individual state and the system of nation-states. This extrastate domain is epitomized by creativity, value-based discussion, and new forms of political activity located in either domestic or transnational civil society. As a result of this dual process, civil society, which was originally one of critical social theory’s key concepts, has in recent years been increasingly rediscovered and instrumentalized in politics and governmental programs. This process poses serious challenges to any form of analytics that wishes to raise the future of the welfare state, political regulation, social integration, and even the relationship between the state and civil society.

All of this is at some distance from Foucault himself and the ever-expanding vectors and circles of impact and influence of his work. It is an understatement to say that Foucault has in recent years become increasingly well cited, even by those positions on governance or in management theory and organizational studies that were first opposed to his thought or believed themselves its very target. Yet our focus in this book is on neither these broad academic diagnoses nor the emergence of new political-administrative programs for the mobilization of civil society. Rather, we address certain prominent intellectual positions that have sought to question and straddle the state/civil society binary. These successors of Foucault claim to have overcome this duality, which they consider an analytical dead end because it does not allow us to understand the complex ways in which governing is practiced in contemporary societies, locally and globally.

We therefore start with two influential approaches, both of which draw on Foucault: Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s rather grand diagnosis of contemporary society in terms of Empire and the multitude, and the self-styled “humble” analytics represented by Nikolas Rose and his collaborators. We will focus closely on how each position dissolves the state as a central analytical object—which they do, first and foremost, by claiming to overcome the opposition between state and civil society. We show common elements of the metaphysics of vitalism in both of these positions. This is covered in Chapters 1 through 3.

We then examine Foucault’s own comments on the themes of state and civil society. Here we follow the trajectory of Foucault’s political thought in the 1970s. We suppose that, while his thought rejects the construction of a theoretical system, it possesses an intelligibility that is revealed only through its unfolding. In Chapter 4 we investigate the case for an understanding of Foucault as a “saint,” that is, as an advocate of diverse political movements of civil society outside the state. In an excursus we draw out nevertheless anti–civil society themes in Foucault’s work in the early 1970s. In Chapter 5 we follow the route by which Foucault would deny the universality of the state, which is a key to political liberalism and the idea of a law-governed constitutional order, by recourse to a model of battle and war. While Foucault would decide to reject the model of war, his decentering of the state would continue in the work and lectures that followed. Thus, in Chapter 6 we reconstruct his analysis of technologies or dispositifs and find a kind of immanent and administrative-technical decentering of the state. Of particular note is Gilles Deleuze’s reading of this becoming immanent of power and state in terms of “diagrams” and “virtuality.” The latter is the focus of Chapter 7. In Chapter 8 we examine Foucault’s more skeptical relation to civil society and his understanding of its relation to political eschatology in thought and practice. Chapter 9 profiles his genealogy of governmentality and the pastorate against the discussion on secularization and political theology, and more broadly, economic theology, and discovers a “point of indistinction” of his own narrative to the latter. Finally, in Chapter 10 we turn to the question of Foucault’s relationship—and that of his most loyal assistant, François Ewald—to neoliberalism as a way of contextualizing our analysis much more deeply in concrete political positions. We are interested in the interpretation of Foucault by those closest to him and the intellectual trajectory they undergo. Both his assistants and supervisees, Ewald and Blandine Kriegel, find their way to liberalism through him but by diametrically opposed paths—the latter through the 1976 lectures and the notion of the state and its sovereignty, the former through the analysis of liberalism in the 1978 and 1979 lectures. One path revalues absolutism’s authoritarian liberalism and its legacy; the other revalues the neoliberalism of the contemporary United States.

The wash-up of radicalism after the May ’68 uprisings, and the various forms of extraparliamentary militancy in France, Italy, and Germany, which included terrorist action, certainly shaped aspects of the political orientation of Foucault and his associates during the 1970s. It should not surprise us that Foucault and his closest associates would shift toward more conservative, if not mainstream, traditions of political thought during that decade. What is surprising is that these shifts maintained, at least for Foucault, a fundamental set of continuities. These included an analytical and theoretical antistatism, a rejection of a humanist form of political liberalism, a focus on the creation of subjectivity and identity as the central political stakes, and a denial to the state of its constitutive claim to transcendence. In his search for an immanent analysis that would dissolve the state, Foucault would look toward the field of battle and tactics, the microphysics of power, the rationalities of government, administrative technique, and the plane of civil society. Where his political thought came to rest, at least provisionally and not without reservations, was close to the vision of the subject as self-creation and of a kind of power that left the maximum space for that self-creation and tolerated, worked through, and facilitated difference. This was a model he encountered in the utopias of economic liberalism. Foucault can truly be said to anticipate our present in one crucial respect: a desire to deny the claim to transcendence, constitutive of the innovation that is the modern state—that is, the claim to supreme authority in a particular domain.

One of Foucault’s students, Pasquale Pasquino, noted long ago (Pasquino 1993, 84) that while Foucault “affected each one of us very deeply, he kept those closest to him from remaining faithful.” Today, those of us who try to be students of Foucault should keep ourselves from being faithful and learn to be unfaithful in our own way. In this spirit we are prepared to be cast out as heretics. So be it!