This essay is an examination of one of the first instances of a public intellectual engagement with the phenomenon of neoliberalism in France: the conference on the nouvel ordre intérieur (“new internal order”) held at the University of Vincennes in March 1979. Though the conference had little immediate impact, its participants were prescient in recognizing and analyzing the demise of postwar social arrangements and the onset of a new political and economic paradigm. The essay examines the conference’s broader context: the 1973 economic crisis and the policies it triggered, anxiety about the Trilateral Commission’s report on democracy, the pushback against the anti-Marxist politics of the nouveaux philosophes, and the controversy surrounding the future of the experimental University of Vincennes. The essay then considers the analyses of some of the conference’s key participants (including Noam Chomsky, Michel Foucault, and Henri Lefebvre), as well as the tensions that emerged in their efforts to conceptualize what they called neoliberalism’s “soft way” (i.e., its combination of capitalist hegemony and social and cultural liberalism).
Michael Behrent is an associate professor in the History Department at Appalachian State University (Boone, NC). His work has appeared in the Journal of the History of Ideas, Modern Intellectual History, the Journal of Modern History, and the Revue d’histoire moderne et contemporaine. He has, in particular, explored the relationship between Michel Foucault’s thought and neoliberalism. He is currently writing a book on the “young Foucault.”