Michel Foucault has been presented as a unequivocal defender of civil society. He was particularly sensitive to diversity and marginality, aligned with local activism and bottom-up politics. This article re-assesses this view by demonstrating that despite his political militancy, Foucault never viewed civil society as an inherently progressive force. It traces Foucault’s struggle against his own enthusiasm for anti-institutional and anti-rationalist political movements. Inventing the notion of ‘transactional reality’, Foucault escaped the choice between naturalism and ideology critique, presenting civil society as a ‘reality that does not exist’ but still has real effects. This new reality holds contradictory potentials. When articulated by political eschatology, civil society supports prophecies of the end of politics in a final accord where contradictions dissolve and the community absorbs the state. Neoliberal notions of civil society promise, on Foucault’s account, a more open-ended milieu of subject formation.
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