If not mass consumption, then what?

Clare O’Farrell picks up on an interesting suggestion in Foucault’s Birth of Biopolitics that the aim of (the) government is not to create a society of mass consumption. On the face of it this is a laughable claim, especially more so now than when Foucault originally made it 30 years ago. It also contradicts the Frankfurt School’s typical analysis, eg Adorno’s critique of mass consumption and its deadening effects.

If there is anything that marks modern society it is that we are constantly seeking new means of consumption, and of providing those means. What else marked the current financial crisis but the production of more consumption for people unable to afford homes? (Where homes are what is being “consumed”.) Isn’t that why the the sub-prime mortgage market was created and the subsequent practice of credit default swaps?

But I think Foucault is not saying that there is no mass consumption, but that it is a mistake to use that as an analysis of what he calls the art of government.


Foucault takes to task standard – and usually Marxist – critiques of modern capitalist and liberal society which see it as a society of mass consumption. His argument is that we have moved beyond this into a governmental arrangement which incites the creation of multiple enterprises. With the existence of multiple enterprises and the inevitable friction between them, we also see the proliferation of endless forms of legal regulation to keep them all in balance.

As he says elsewhere in the same lecture, the homo Æconomicus that neo-liberal government is aiming to create is ‘not the man of exchange or man the consumer; he is the man of enterprise and production’. (p.152).

What government is interested in is a kind of circulation, an aleatory one (a favorite Foucault word in these lectures) that can nevertheless be known through the usual technologies (statistics, cartography, public health, etc.).

I expect any day now to find a journal or at least conferences and papers on “circulation studies” if in fact it hasn’t already happened…

6 Responses

  1. Thanks for these comments Jeremy. There is a lot of really interesting fodder for discussion in the lecture I mentioned.

    On the subject precisely of housing – rather than casting it simply in terms of consumption, I noticed with interest that Foucault observes in a discussion of the German economist (?) Rustöw: ‘what is private property if not an enterprise? What is a house if not an enterprise?’ (p. 148). In buying houses, people were (and are) being invited to be entrepreneurs and speculators – to invest so as to make more money – to speculate on the property market and get rich which is a process which is something beyond mere consumption.

    It is precisely this risky kind of ‘entrepreneurship’ undertaken by those who are not in a position to absorb the costs of this kind of speculation that has led to the unravelling of the global economy.

    • Yes that is what I was trying to get at by raising the somewhat strawmannish point about the housing market. But I’m not sure that Foucault’s language here of “enterprise” is the most evocative or suggestive (for me).

      On a different note I love the cartoon you! Where did you get it from?

      • For me operating in the Australian context, I find Foucault’s notion of ‘enterprise’ really works. I know there are significant differences between American forms of liberalism and neo-liberalism and those operational in Europe and Australia and this could be a factor in my interest in this.

        There is an absolute national obsession in Australia with buying houses and it has been couched for the last few years in terms of ‘investment’ and making lots of money and the idea is that anyone can (and should) do it (which of course in reality they can’t). I have been watching this process with fascination for a few years.

        The university here has also become completely focused on this idea of producing oneself as a kind of mini entrepreneurial academic who brings in lots of money to the institution through grants and consultancies.

        Re the cartoon me, putting it together was fun! I found the tools to do this on the official site for the TV series Madmen. http://www.amctv.com/originals/madmen/madmenyourself/ Incidentally one could probably say quite a bit about the forms of neo-liberalism that emerge in this particular TV series …

  2. […] further discussion of this post see the Foucault blog Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)New criminology paper uses FoucaultBlogs, […]

  3. I did not surmise at all from The Birth of Biopolitics that the neo-liberal seeks a society of mass consumption. Surely the argument is (at least as far as Chicago neo-liberalism is concerned) is that the metaphor of consumption is to be extended as far as possible, due to the subjectivist, egoistic notion of value that underpins neo-classical economics. The metaphor is employed to drive out other accounts of social interaction, especially within the state towards which the neo-liberals guns are chiefly aimed. But analysing (say) parenting or law using the idea of the rational consumer is very differrent from saying that one wants to replace them with actual consumption.

    As for German neo-liberalism, Foucault’s analysis shows that it has very little to do with neo-liberalism, and everything to do with a priori conditions of economic freedom.

  4. Ecological and ethical considerations could bring another element in consumer subjectivity and the question is also how they could rearrange the consumerist model. For another seemingly almost Foucauldian analysis, see also Yannick Rumpala, “Sustainable consumption” as a new phase in a governmentalization of consumption, Theory and Society, 2011.

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