The dialectics of freedom: Foucault, the Frankfurt School and the constitution of neoliberal subjectivity

Eduardo Altheman Camargo Santos


The objective of the paper is to discuss the formation of neoliberal subjectivity regarding the dialectics of production and destruction of freedom, autonomy and individual action that surrounds it. In order to do so, I resort to Foucault’s Birth of Biopolitics and his notion of neoliberal homo oeconomicus, as well as to Marcuse’s idea of one-dimensional Man.
The question Foucault is to trying to pursue and that made him shift away from his earlier work about the Disciplinary Society, especially in Discipline and Punish is: how are we to understand the individual and collective freedom in contemporary Neoliberalism? For, if it also true that it cannot be regarded as a mere illusion, one cannot state that it is a complete and irresolute freedom. Freedom, quite on the contrary, appears in Foucault’s lectures, as a counterpart, a necessary mechanism to the administration and conduction of people’s lives in neoliberal governmentality.
But that is also precisely what Marcuse is trying to understand since the 1950s when he speaks of a society which administers and manages social conflicts as scientific and technological issues. He writes, for instance, in One-Dimensional Man:
"Under the rule of a repressive whole, liberty can be made into a powerful instrument of domination. The range of choice open to the individual is not the decisive factor in determining the degree of human freedom, but what can be chosen and what is chosen by the individual".
Marcuse’s Bildung in Hegel, Marx and dialectics allow him to understand perhaps easier than Foucault could admit, that the Advanced Industrial Society is contradictory in its own basis and is, a whole that liberates us from hard and dirty work, from exhaustive journeys of labor, and brings people immediate and instinctive satisfaction and euphoria and at the same time prolongs our necessity for heteronymous needs, for the immediate acceptance of what is provided by the Establishment, for “sublimated enslavement” and for both psychic and social suffering.
Foucault, on the other hand, perhaps especially for not being an economist, understood better than many the functioning and the modus operandi of Neoliberalism not only as an economical doctrine, but rather as an individual ethos, as a management of entire populations and as a rationality that seeks to govern and direct people’s lives through very specific methods, allowing them to create spaces of freedom for themselves which contradictorily are also spaces of constraints and limitations to the possibilities of the self.
By doing so, Foucault approximates his analytics to Marcuse’s theory of one-dimensionality, which allow us, as it is written in Marcuse’s tombstone in Berlin, to “weiter machen”, that is, to continue to criticize the forms that our lives take in contemporary capitalism. The objective of this paper is to try and combine these two thinkers in order to produce such critique.

marcuse - foucault - neoliberalism - subjectivity - freedom