In The Birth of Biopolitics Foucault turns to the child and childhood as his exemplar in diagramming the specific features of American neoliberalism. What distinguishes American neoliberalism, according to Foucault, is its theory of human capital, a theory which permits “the extension of economic analysis into a previously unexplored domain,” the social and its immaterial dimensions of the body (219). American neoliberalism reproaches classical liberal political economy for ignoring the centrality of labor and the worker to economics, but unlike Marx, it makes labor into capital: “Broken down into economic terms, from the worker’s point of view labor comprises a capital, that is to say, it [is] an ability, a skill…And on the other side it is an income, a wage, or rather, a set of wages, as they say: an earnings stream” (224). Human capital makes homo oeconomicus into an entrepreneur of the self, taking the self as his capital, a capacity that projects itself into the future as returns through wages. This enterprising self, then, is a neoliberal theory of not labor-power, but what Foucault calls, in one of his Deleuzian flourishes, “capital-ability” (225).
Human capital engenders a whole regime of scientific measures for indicating innate capacities for future returns, including especially genetics, on which Foucault spends some time dilating. However, he argues that more insistent than the measure of “innate” human capital is the fixation on “acquired” human capital, that which becomes an investment in the body, the social, and the affective capacities of future workers, and it is here that he turns his attention to the child. Foucault points to the valuation and measure of the time the mother spends with the child, in extra-educational modes of affection and pedagogy, as exemplary of this new investment in human capital. Through “the inversion of the relationships of the social to the economic” (240) in arrangements like child-rearing and pedagogy, “We thus arrive at a whole environmental analysis, as the Americans say, of the child’s life which it will be possible to calculate, and to a certain extent quantify, or at any rate measure, in terms of the possibilities of investment in human capital” (230). Innovation, optimization, and the extension of the duration of human capital’s viability: such become the parameters of neoliberal childhood, no longer an idealized shelter from the labor market through disciplinary education.
The future return on investment in the child as human capital, as Foucault indicates quite clearly, is “the child’s salary when he or she becomes an adult” (260). Thirty-five years after this set of lectures at the Collège de France, however, as the financialization of capital and the establishment of a total debt economy have revised the definition of American neoliberalism, the future salary of the child is no longer bound to the time when she or he becomes an adult. Rather, the intervention of investment into the risk of the arrival of the future is made much more continuously and is closely bound to childhood, more than ever a productive phase of the teleology of human development. Childhood is today, as I have speculated, a form of futures trading because children are already generating revenue streams during childhood, particularly through a digital, affective economy of social media and mobile phones that decomposes the child into data aggregates of likes, consumer interests, and tastes or attitudes.