Announcements of neoliberalism’s demise have been legion since 2008. Yet critical scholarship on the subject has demonstrated remarkable vitality in revising accounts forged in neoliberalism’s bullish ascendancy to incorporate its more embattled present. The philosopher Pierre Dardot and the sociologist Christian Laval are best known for taking their cue from Foucault’s much-discussed lectures of the late 1970s on governmentality and biopolitics to craft an unapologetically leftist critical history of neoliberal reason. In this new book, co-authored with two younger scholars, Haud Guéguen and Pierre Sauvêtre, Dardot and Laval have responded to the changing fortunes of neoliberal rule by revisiting its history, now seen as one in which coercion ultimately trumps consent, and the production of docile subjects—the centre of The New Way of the World (2009), their best-known work—is but a moment in an encompassing strategy of ‘civil war’.
Dardot and Laval began their fecund collaboration in the mid-2000s with a book-length critique of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire (Sauver Marx?, co-authored with the economist El-Mouhoub Mouhoud). They placed their enterprise (and the research seminar whence it emerged) under the aegis of what they termed ‘the Marx Question’ (la Question Marx), namely the comprehensive interrogation of the notion that capital breeds its own gravediggers, that its end is immanent, if not necessarily imminent. They called for a strategic bifurcation, liberating anti-capitalism from its philosophy of history, that is, from Marxism.
Teenagers at the time of May 1968, Dardot (born 1952) and Laval (born 1953), first met as militants of the Trotskyist Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (lcr) at the University of Nanterre. Laval, who started out as a literature student before moving on to economics and social sciences, was on the board of Scription Rouge, an lcr-affiliated journal that tried to splice revolutionary Marxism with the theoretical advances of Lacanian psychoanalysis and Derridean deconstruction. In 1977, having first encountered Foucault at a meeting of the anti-Stalinist left with Eastern Bloc dissidents, Laval was among the editors of the cultural pages of the lcr paper Rouge who interviewed the author of the History of Sexuality (the interview was spiked by the lcr leadership, and only published in 2011).
Dardot was associated with a group practising entryism into the lcr from the more orthodox Organisation Communiste Internationale—the oci, its members known as lambertistes after its historical leader Pierre Boussel, nom de guerre ‘Lambert’—which counted among its cadre the historian Pierre Broué, as well as Lionel Jospin and Jean-Luc Mélenchon. At the end of the 1970s, Dardot left the lcr to join the oci, where he worked with the historian of Algeria Benjamin Stora as an organizer of the student movement, one of the oci’s chief areas of influence. In 1986, Dardot, Stora and Jean-Christophe Cambadélis (later secretary of the Parti Socialiste) took 400 oci militants with them into the grouping Convergence(s) Socialiste(s), aiming to enter the ps with the goal of ultimately (and improbably) transforming it into a workers’ party of the whole left. Dardot would christen this strategy a ‘reverse Tours Congress’, a reference to the historic split of the pcf from the sfio in 1921. He was the principal theorist of the brief-lived experience of Convergence(s), writing texts against lambertisme’s economic determinism and calling for a new emphasis on democracy and equality (some of these would be published in a book under Cambadélis’s signature, minting cultural capital for the latter that was quickly invested in a political career). Dardot also drafted a Charte pour l’égalité des droits published by the group in Le Monde. Notwithstanding his key role in this exodus from orthodox Trotskyism into the ps, he would not actually join the Socialists.
Dardot and Laval’s years of militancy account for their relatively belated entry into academic life. Dardot obtained his agrégation in philosophy in 1980 and completed a dissertation on the beginning of science in Hegel and Marx in 1988 under the philosopher Jacques Bidet, co-founder of the review Actuel Marx. Laval, who became a researcher for the education trade union Fédération Syndicale Unitaire (fsu) and a member of the altermondialiste group attac, is an agregé in sociology and completed a dissertation in 2000 supervised by the founder of the Revue de mauss Alain Caillé, on utilitarianism and classical social theory. He took a special interest in Bentham’s theory of language and fictions (first encountered via Lacan), producing critical editions of the utilitarian philosopher’s writings on the panopticon and homosexuality. Laval also penned a heterodox history of social theory (L’ambition sociologique, 2002), a genealogy of neoliberalism pivoting on the figure of the homo oeconomicus (L’Homme économique, 2007), and more recently a parallel examination of the critical anatomies of neoliberal rationality forged by Foucault and Bourdieu (Foucault, Bourdieu et la question néoliberale, 2018). He is also the author of several studies in the critical sociology of education, with a focus on the neoliberal mutations imposed on schooling in France which he experienced first-hand as a high-school teacher and trade-union activist.
Dardot and Laval followed their first collaboration, Sauver Marx?, with their most compelling and influential book, The New Way of the World (revised English translation 2014), a historical reconstruction of neoliberalism as an intellectual strategy and social practice that fleshed out many of the lines of inquiry sketched by Foucault in his courses of the late 1970s at the Collège de France. In 2012, they published Marx, prénom: Karl, a tome that aimed to confront the Marx question head-on by traversing the whole oeuvre of the German thinker along the structuring fault-line between a (necessitarian) logic of capitalist development and a (contingent) dynamic of class conflict. The book sought to double as a critique of the Marxian concept of communism—recently revived in philosophical quarters—understood as an illusory overcoming of the contradictory frames animating Marxian thought. Two years after their Marx, Dardot and Laval turned to another leitmotiv of contemporary theoretical debate on the left, the commons. Published in English in 2019, Common weaves together the critique of Hardt and Negri, the theme of Marx against Marx and a reappraised Proudhon (Negri quipped the book should have been called Proudhon, prénom: Pierre-Joseph). There are strong resonances with the writings of Cornelius Castoriadis, whose own theoretical and political trajectory from Trotskyism to anti-communism anticipated important aspects of Dardot and Laval’s. In 2020, the pair turned to the task of thinking beyond dominium altogether, in a vast critical history of the political philosophy of sovereignty: Dominer. Enquête sur la souveraineté de l’État en Occident.
A Foucauldian genealogy of neoliberal reason, a detotalization of Marx, a vision of the common as the terrain of 21st-century revolutionary praxis, a critique of sovereignty as the linchpin of the Western state—this quartet of interlinked projects, clocking in at over 2,500 pages, testifies to Dardot and Laval’s ambitions. Like any such project, it comes with a considerable polemical charge, not only against the power elites but against the supposed ideological sclerosis of a left still clinging to statist and centralist nostrums, a theme revisited in their anti-Leninist essay on the centenary of the Russian revolution defending ‘February against October’ on Menshevik-anarchisant grounds, L’ombre d’Octobre. La Révolution russe et le spectre des soviets.