How surprising the events of May 1968 must have seemed to Michel Foucault is suggested by a remark made to his life-long partner Daniel Defert in January of that year, following his nomination for a faculty position at the University of Paris Nanterre. “Strange how these students speak of their relations with profs in terms of class war.”1 Interpretations of this remark will reveal a lot about one’s received image of the late philosopher. Among figures of the New Left he had earned a reputation as an anti-Marxist for disparaging public comments about Jean-Paul Sartre, and the apparent heresies of Les mots et les choses (1966).2 A younger generation of left-leaning intellectuals, activists, and agitators, exposed only to later portraits of the radical philosopher – the author of Discipline and Punish (1974), megaphone in hand, rubbing shoulders with Sartre and other ultra-gauchistes at protests in the streets of Paris – will probably find the confession disconcerting. Is it possible that he was taken off guard by the political sparks that would set alight le mouvement du 22 mars? He did, after all, arrive in Paris post festum, participating in some of the final rallies at the Sorbonne in late June.
I prefer to read the remark as a knowing reflection on the peculiarity of privileged Nanterre students, representing themselves as some revolutionary proletarian subject, locked in a battle with their professors as though the latter owned the means of production. As if to draw out the consequences of this contradiction, by 1969 Foucault began using the language of class struggle in political discussions, and publicly declaring the “retour à Marx” as the spirit of his age.3 Foucault’s political makeover occurred among a group of Trotskyist students at the University of Tunis where he was teaching philosophy in 1968. The young Tunisians inspired him to brush up on the classics of historical materialism from Marx’s own work to Rosa Luxemburg, in addition to popular figures of the New Left, including Che Guevara and the Black Panthers.4 Reflecting back on this year of strikes, course suspensions, occupations, arrests, imprisonments and torture in Tunisia, Foucault admired the moral energy and existential charge of his students’ Marxist identification more than its rigor or precision. Reversing his earlier position on the historical obsolescence of Marx, he had been convinced “that myth was necessary. A political ideology or a political perception of the world, of human relations and situations was absolutely necessary to begin the struggle.”5
These remarks immediately recall Sorel, rather than Marx; however, is it going too far to suggest that Foucault sought to capture the political imaginary of his day by spinning a new myth, an alternate “political perception of the world” with his conceptual unfolding of the term “power?”6 After all, Foucault’s key insight in this regard – power is productive rather than repressive; individuality is itself the product of a historical organization of power – is not some world-weary warning about the ruse of history. It is not to say that “power always wins.” In fact, it is a research agenda: try to historically validate the hypothesis according to which everywhere power has crushed someone in its gears, or menaced people with guns and overseers, it has done so precisely because that individual or group presented some essential threat to the exercise of that power. The oppressed, Foucault argues, also make use of an immense “network of power.” They are not passive victims of a historical process; in fact, power is historically contingent. The resistance of the oppressed has shaped the present organization of power. Revolution, according to this view, is a rare bird indeed.7
Such political reflections may be cynical, but they are not altogether foreign from the Marxist political tradition of thought. For instance, some of the above formulations are remarkably similar to the lessons Benjamin gleans from the history of the oppressed, including his idea of the “weak messianic power” of revolutionary possibility.2 Throughout Foucault’s career, he was attentive to the voices of the oppressed. His written work and its bibliographic sources are scandalous precisely to the extent that he gives less space to master thinkers – Bentham, Marx, Freud, Decartes, Smith, Machiavelli, Rousseau – than to long-forgotten voices unearthed from voluminous time spent in libraries. These were also Marx and Benjamin’s preferred methods. Foucault fondly referred to it as the “warm freemasonry of useless erudition.” Although he immersed himself in the heights of Western thought, he was far more likely to write a book about a late-19th century hermaphrodite like Herculine Barbin, than some more explicit exposition or commentary on the thought which constituted his ground. Detecting his intellectual influences demands careful reading.
Given that Foucault’s particularstar rose at the start of the mass media age, during France’s trente glorieuses, it is possible that he crafted ambivalent concepts and catchphrases with precisely this vastly expanded power of media outlets in mind. It would be a mistake to assume that he did not foresee the difficulties of philosophizing with a word that invokes the stuff of superstition. In stark contrast to the Frankfurt School and Situationist International, Foucault refrained from criticizing mass media technologies and considered them as mostly neutral instruments, which broadened the field of discursive possibilities. This was probably due to the fact that he was able to navigate and manipulate this media apparatus so deftly as a public intellectual, foreshadowing the rise of the much-loathed, television-ready nouveau philosophe. However, this too is a principled stance. Foucault’s methodology resists divisions between “high” and “low” cultural forms: Bentham is just as likely to betray his era’s paradigm of punishment as the plan for a Quaker prison in Pennsylvania or the mundane daily routine from a prison in the French provinces. With Machiavelli in mind, Foucault calls this “the local cynicism of power.”9
Foucault’s thought about power must first be situated within his conjuncture and our own if we want to articulate his conceptual problems and grasp their stakes. These contextual moves will help us unlearn the way his thought was received and reconstructed. To uncover the rational kernel of his sweeping historical argument will require de-emphasizing his descriptive language, which was often quite beautiful but has a tendency to distract. He often rhetorically distanced himself from his own neologisms, treating them as indexical placeholders for a thought rather than as rigorous theorizations. As a cipher for unlocking this admittedly particular reading of Foucault, I offer a translation of “Les mailles de pouvoir” – “The Mesh of Power” – which for reasons that still remain obscure is absent from all English-language editions of Foucault’s “collected works.”
Originally delivered in two installments at the Federal University of Bahia in 1976, Foucault’s words were recorded on cassette tapes, transcribed and published as a text, first appearing in Portugese, and translated back into French for publication in Dits et écrits– now delivered to you in English, via the Internet. The “mesh” of a net of power, the size or gauge of its holes, is a particularly apt metaphor in the Internet age, resonating with these new kinds of capture and slippage.10 The transmission of this purloined letter to you is itself the result of the development of technologies that have made it easier to circulate what Foucault once termed discours veridique, parrhesia, or truthful speech. Indeed, Foucault’s work from the late 1970s reaches us like a ticking time bomb from some forgotten past, threatening to explode a whole set of assumptions about the unity and disunity of his thought, revealing new insights and limitations.
Situating Foucault’s Intellectual Crisis and “The Mesh of Power”
The “political turn” of 1969 and the late “ethical turn” towards the “care of the self” are widely cited episodes in the intellectual history of Foucault. This periodization provides a neat tripartite division of his work into early, middle and late. In the secondary literature, these turns are noted, but their causes remain obscure. Few have attempted a reasoned and well-argued reconstruction of their significance, and most studies of the subject compensate for such lacunae with gossip and speculation.
These difficulties have only been compounded by problems of reception. French historian François Cusset considers the “American adventure with French Theory” to be a paradox of comparative intellectual history; although “Derrida, Foucault and Deleuze & co.” were embraced on this side of the Atlantic and packaged together “for what was seen as their anti-Marxism… they were banned from their home country under the charges of a perverse collusion with the worst of leftist Marxism.”11
For various reasons, the American reception of Foucault emerged as the hegemonic one, and his concepts have crystallized into so many political ontologies – “normativity” in queer theory, “biopolitics” and war in the works of Giorgio Agamben, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri – but none of these ontologies responds to our political-economic horizon of low or no-growth capitalism and its implications for state power, social institutions, and resistance struggles. Indeed, the period characterized by bubblenomics, ostensible erosions of state sovereignty and the diffuse resistance offered by alter-globo and anti-war multitudes, which once gave these Foucauldian assessments of the conjuncture a certain bite in the late 1990s and early 2000s, has now capsized into a situation of economic meltdown, consolidations of old-fashioned class power, sovereign debt crises, uneven reassertions of Euro-American military might and emergent struggles over austerity measures in the US and Europe alongside popular rebellions against authoritarian regimes in the Middle East.
The American heyday of French Theory now appears like a blip on the radar between the economic downturn, debt crisis, youth unemployment and Mideast uprisings of the 1970s, which was Foucault’s conjuncture, and the economic chain reaction set off by the American banks in 2008, political upheavals,youth unemployment and Arab Spring which constitutes our own. His political thought from this earlier period of economic crisis – especially his thought concerning neoliberalism as an emergent art of government for managing the crisis tendencies of capital – merit a careful reappraisal in light of the present conjuncture.
Most crucially for a reassessment of Foucault’s thought, all of his public lectures at the Collège de France have now been published.These lessons, which had previously circulated on bootleg cassettes within a limited milieu of connoisseurs, have now become a public record of Foucault’s intellectual trajectory from 1971 to his death in 1984. Although his will stipulated that there were to be “no posthumous publications” and Foucault admitted to being “allergic” to the recording devices cluttering his lectern, he understood their importance: “word always gets out,” he affirms in a lecture from 1976.12 Indeed, with these publications, his lessons are no longer subject to the demagoguery and occultation that so frequently accompanies arcana. The candid form of the lectures reveals a remarkable transitional period from 1976 to 1979 in which Foucault experienced a profound intellectual crisis and began a project of self-criticism, before turning to the more ethical concerns that would characterize his late period.
We may now be in the position to evaluate the intellectual significance of this moment, and venture a guess as to why the ever-prolific Foucault stopped publishing from 1976 to 1983.13 Does the thought that emerges from this period of intellectual crisis and self-criticism bring into focus the insights and limitations of Foucault’s earlier attempts to theorize power?Does his emphasis upon problems of statecraft, historical consciousness, and political economy during this period represent a departure from or a culmination of his earlier studies of the internal physiognomy of institutions such as the military, prisons, medicine and psychiatry?
No matter how many college freshmen have their minds blown by a virginal voyage through Foucault’s work, his problematic and its familiar constellation of sexy neologisms, “biopolitics,” “panopticism,” and “governmentality,” not to mention the dark atmospherics of a finely-meshed “network of power” in which “there is no outside,” have been in circulation for nearly thirty-five years.These terms have accreted a meaning that cannot be found in the original copy. This language and its many political valances – liberal, anarchist, radical – has gone in and out of fashion. The vintage of most “Theory people” can be ascertained from their preferred (or loathed) Foucauldian jargon. Perhaps with some distance from this period, we are now in a position to evaluate his remarkable and oscillating attempts to think politics without recourse to bourgeois conceptualizations of the state, law or rights.His old enemies – psychiatry, universities, prisons, humanism, rights discourse, and the remorseless compulsion to give an account of one’s sexuality – have continued to proliferate and expand alongside the growing popularity of his analyses of them.This paradoxical situation arouses the suspicion that these institutions of power are not threatened by the attempt to reawaken the historical memory of their entry into the world, dripping with blood and dirt.In the absence of the social movements that once contested these institutions, Foucault’s historical presentation up through the mid 1970s risks becoming a confessed critique, an advanced kind of agitation and propaganda for a struggle that experienced defeat and pyrrhic victories.
This conclusion may be premature, but Foucault admitted as much around the time that he delivered “Mesh of Power” to radical students in Brazil. While editing the final proofs of History of Sexuality, volume 1, Foucault publicly professed to his auditors, as students are called at the Collège de France, that he was suffering something of an intellectual crisis. In his first lecture of 1976, Foucault begins the course by questioning both the relevance and coherence of his intellectual project. He worries that his research agenda “had no continuity” and was “always falling into the same rut, the same themes, the same concepts,” ultimately fearing that “it’s all leading us nowhere.” Characterizing his genealogical method as an “insurrection of knowledges” against “scientific discourse embodied in the University” – and here the attack on his old mentor, Louis Althusser, is barely concealed – Foucault confronts the historicity of his own thought and the shifting cultural status of both the University and Marxism in France. He states that his work “was quite in keeping with a certain period; with the very limited period we have been living through for the last ten or fifteen years.” A certain number of “changes in the conjuncture” suggest to him that “perhaps the battle no longer looks quite the same.”14
Such sober assessments give one pause. Discipline and Punish had just been published the previous year to great acclaim following an intense period of activism around prisons in France. The activities of the Prison Information Group (Groupe d’information sur les prisons, GIP) brought about successful reforms of France’s sentencing practices and penal system by fomenting an unprecedented wave of prison strikes, forcing the apparatus to become more open and transparent. In autumn of 1971, twenty prisons across France simultaneously exploded into open revolt against their cages and masters.
The success of the GIP was due in large part to the fact that many of its agitators had themselves been imprisoned for political activities – thus the criminalization of revolutionary activity by the French state wound up politicizing crime.15 In a curiously Maoist adaptation of the tradition of worker’s inquiries, the GIP smuggled surveys to prisoners to discover weak points in the system and find out what demands they would make for their reform or abolition. Prisoners forced analogous reforms in the US, due to the resistance and litigation of members of the Nation of Islam who established an unprecedented jurisprudence pertaining to prisoner’s rights in the 1970s.16 During this era, French prisons permitted no visitors, unlike American prisons, and remained something of an information black hole. Foucault first visited a prison while in the US; he toured the Attica Correctional Facility following its uprising and repression.
Due to his growing popularity, Foucault’s public lectures had become so uncomfortable and over-crowded as to permit little exchange or contact with students.Politically, the heady days of post-68 French ultra-gauchisme and “new social movements” had begun to wane. The milieu with whom Foucault had organized and demonstrated in the early seventies began to dissolve. Some of these Maoist comrades became the nouveaux philosophes, celebrity academics preoccupied with totalitarianism or theological concerns, citing Foucault himself as their inspiration. The Stalinized Marxism of the French Communist Party (Partie communiste française, PCF) had also begun to decompose. The PCF had entered an alliance with François Mitterand’s new Socialist Party, (Partie socialiste, PS), signing a common programme in 1973. The PCF abandoned all references to the “dictatorship of the proletariat” and was forced to reevaluate the legacy of Lenin during the 1976 firestorm surrounding the French publication of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, which detailed the abuses of the Soviet Union’s forced labor system.The alliance between the PCF and PS would propel Mitterrand into the presidency in 1981.All of this amounted to a tectonic shift in the intellectual and political terrain of the post-68 Left in France.
The conjuncture coming to a close in the mid-1970s had opened with the Algerian War of Independence in 1954, which did more to negate than construct a field of politics and intellectual activity in France – Sartre, de Beauvoir and Les temps modernes were exceptions in this regard. Reports of the brutality and torture of the gendarmes were a major blow to the tradition of la République and its supposedly universal values.17 Following the 1957 Battle of Algiers, 1958 coup d’etat and military junta in Algeria, the collapse of the Fourth Republic, and Charles de Gaulle’s return to the head of a much strengthened executive power, the non-Communist left was arguing that the Communist and Socialist parties had failed to use their moral and political high ground following the resistance to Nazi occupation to establish a clear direction and program. According to this view, they no longer represented the historical interests or consciousness of the French working class. Citing the astonishingly low union membership in France and the wildcat strikes of ‘53 and ‘55, André Giacometti writes that “[t]he bulk of the workers is unorganized, and the real life of the working-class takes place outside of their scope.”18 Spontaneity was, in keeping with long-standing political legacy of French radicalism, still the nation’s only revolutionary hope. Sartre and other members of the non-Communist left saw the party’s support of the Soviet Union’s intervention in Hungary and the party’s tacit endorsement of the Algerian War as evidence of either a conservative turn in the traditional French working class or a reformist and integrationist turn of its official political organs, or both. Many intellectuals of the non-Communist left no longer considered “the Party” to be a revolutionary subject. In this regard, Althusser was the exception.
The rapid expansion of the university system during the postwar economic and demographic boom, along with opposition to the Vietnam War, had established a new political actor that would become essential to the struggle in 1968: youth in general, and students in particular. An increasingly educated population created an historically unprecedented market for cultural journalism, which lent non-party intellectuals greater power and influence.The non-party Marxist tradition in France, as represented by the work of Socialisme ou Barbarie and the Situationist International, had reached the conclusion that revolutionary agitation would have to outflank established unions and parties if it was to galvanize the population.
Decolonization struggles and political breakthroughs in the Third World, above all China and Cuba, led to significant revisions of the theory of revolution.Regis Debray published Revolution in the Revolution in 1967, proposing foquismo– a viral theory of how an armed revolutionary vanguard could distribute hotbeds of discontent throughout a population, fomenting a general fever of insurrection – based on the Che Guevara’s experience of guerrilla warfare during the 1959 Cuban Revolution. Beneath the banner of a “revolution in everyday life” and a renewed emphasis upon the concept of alienation, Marxism became a theoretical home for new social movements. The events of May 1968 dovetailed these already existing political currents.
After May-June 1968, the revolution was no longer considered a matter of contesting the ownership of the means of production alone. State-managed capitalism was not a solution to the social problems identified by the new revolutionaries. The division of labor, and especially the authority structure of managers, union bosses, inspectors, and functionaries in place to keep workers in line had to be contested.
In the pages of Les temps modernes, Andre Gorz interpreted May ‘68 as demonstrating the revolutionary horizon in Western Europe, and blamed its failure on the PCF and CGT. Les temps modernes undertook an explicit critique of Leninism from 1969 to 1971 and attacked institutions from a radical democratic perspective, exhorting its readers to “destroy the University” as part of the struggle against the division of labor. Not only the abode of production, but also those superstructural apparatuses that reproduce racial and class divisions, create divisions of labor, support traditional roles for women, and prop up citizen/non-citizen distinctions had to be assaulted.19
The extra-parliamentary politics of the extreme Left of this period were announced by the 1969 text Vers la guerre civile (Towards Civil War), by individuals who would later found the Gauche prolétarienne. May ‘68 had, according to this view, “placed revolution and class struggle at the center of every strategy. Without playing the role of prophet: Revolution is France’s horizon from ‘70 to ’72”; the conditions of possibility for such a struggle were identified as the “the proletarianization of the mass movement.”20 Vers la guerre civile emphasizes the exemplary use of illegal direct action, the revolutionary potential of the lumpenproletariat, and the strategic importance of the division of labor for the maintenance of discipline and hierarchy. Armed struggle is invoked as the radical legacy of the French working class’s resistance to Nazi occupation.21
The text provided a programme for the Gauche prolétarienne (Proletarian Left, 1968-1973) which was considered “a greater threat to state security than any other left-wing group” by the head of the renseignements généraux (General Intelligence).22 With groupuscules scattered throughout France, theirs was a politics that combined voluntarism, radical democracy and spontaneity. The new figures of this revolution were the immigrant worker, ouvrier spécialisé, and prison inmate. Imprisonment, state repression, and union bureaucracies were the forces that had, in the terminology of this grouping, “proletarianized” the mass movement. The French state banned the sale of Gauche prolétarienne’s broadsheets in public spaces, which led to an engagement with intellectuals of the non-communist left. Daniel Defert joined and invited Foucault to participate in this group’s activities. Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Foucault and other public intellectuals were asked to continue distribution of the broadsheets on the assumption that the Republic would not arrest its lumières. Indeed, distribution continued unmolested. Foucault’s collaboration with Gauche prolétarienne eventually resulted in the founding of the Prison Information Group.
As history would have it, the warm afterglow of May ’68 in France turned out to be “a stillborn revolution – what should have been the turning point of its modern history that, as in 1848, failed to turn.”23 Reflecting on this period with his characteristic wit, Foucault’s 1976 course hinges on an inversion of Clauswitz’s famous aphorism that war is politics continued through other means, by tracing the genealogy of the view that “politics is a continuation of war by other means.”Although the theme immediately recalls the prevailing political language of a period of extreme left militancy, Foucault has deeper philosophical and historical problems in mind. In the discourses of the 17th and 18th century aristocracy and revolutionary bourgeoisie, he attempts to track the entry of race and class war into historical reflection, articulating the central paradox of the “theory of right” within which modern political struggles from the French Revolution to contemporary human rights discourse become intelligible. Rights talk always appeals to an imaginary history of ancient privileges which, Foucault suggests, erect a whole series of distinctively modern political oppositions between the individual and society.
Historical thought is thus politically useful to struggles over governmental priorities and reciprocal obligations only to the extent that it emphasizes one of two discursive paradigms. On the one hand, the conceptualization of politics as war privileges the moment of struggle, the moment of domination: “what is being put forward as a principle for the interpretation of society and its visible order is the confusion of violence, passions, hatreds, rages, resentments, and bitterness.”24 On the other hand, one may privilege the moment of universality and peace, the founding of cities and laws, according to which all history would be nothing other than praise of Rome. Foucault considers these to be the reactionary and liberal discourses of history – here “reactionary” in the strict sense of reaction to an ascendant bourgeois liberalism – reaching their highest philosophical articulations in Hegel and Kant respectively, a struggle for recognition or perpetual peace.25 This dilemma and its bloody 20th century history of national conflict and state racism is, according to Foucault, the reef upon which the concept of power as domination, repression, and war comes to grief.
Thus, Foucault returns to pre-Marxist theorists of class struggle – the Diggers, Henri de Boullainvilliers and Abbé Siyès – to show that the rhetoric of class war has certain genealogical affinities with pre-scientific and aristocratic theories of race. The later crystallization of scientific theories of race also have, as their immediate antecedent, certain 19th century pseudo-scientific racializations of lower classes.26 Instead of a “war-repression schema” Foucault calls for a theory of political power as essentially “productive,” that is as a set of techniques for regulating human populations and making bodily comportment more efficient. The lectures from 1976 culminate in an analysis of the concentration camps of Nazi Germany and the forced labor system of the USSR as productive deployments of the power to manage populations. It is an attempt to demonstrate the continuity of these politics with those of the Enlightenment project: what establishes their common ground and provides a grid of intelligibility for this history is not, as in the Frankfurt School, the “rational irrationality” of capitalism; it is rather the phenomenon of population, as the living substratum of capital accumulation and modern political power.
After a year-long sabbatical in 1977, during which time Bernard-HenriLévy and Andre Glucksmann take to the airwaves and television screens promoting their books La barbarie à visage humain (Barbarism with a Human Face, 1977) and Les maîtres penseurs (The Master Thinkers, 1977) with totalitarianism-mongering, Foucault’s lectures change course. This is also the year of Foucault’s reportage on the Iranian Revolution. He becomes increasingly circumspect regarding his earlier descriptive language. He explicitly abandons his claim that ours is a “disciplinary society” in 1978, arguing that power now operates through more subtle liberal techniques promoting freedom of various kinds.27 He abandons the words “biopolitics” and “biopower” after the 1979 course, and concludes that they were nothing other than an attempt to grasp “‘liberalism’… as a principle and method of the rationalization of the exercise of government, a rationalization which obeys – and this is what is specific about it – the internal rule of maximum economy.”28 Perhaps after cultural revolution and de-industrialization, the factory discipline no longer provided the blueprint for power in advanced capitalist societies.
Future French editions of Discipline and Punish will quietly remove the phrase “carceral archipelago,” no doubt because Foucault wished to distance himself from the gulagism of Glucksmann and Lévy. His lectures turn to an account of the historical emergence of the concept of raison d’état and political economic thought as practical and reflective schemas for the “art of government” in the 17th and 18th centuries. He returns to the classics of political economy in order to make a remarkable analysis of Quesnay’s Tableau économique, the transition from feudalism to capitalism, and the birth of neoliberalism. At times he seems to address himself directly to the nouveaux philosophes, confronting a caricature of his own thought on “security”: he criticizes right- and left-wing “state phobia” as eliding, “thanks to some play on words,” the difference between social security and concentration camps; “the requisite specificity of analysis is diluted.”29 The lectures then veer into an analysis of the various regimes of truth-telling among the early Christian desert fathers and conclude with an analysis of the practice of Parrhesia among the ancient Greeks, before Foucault’s project and life are suddenly cut short by AIDS in 1984. The above intellectual history suggests that, following his intellectual crisis and the closure of certain political horizons in France, Foucault refused to provide a unified political philosophy and turned to more explicitly “Marxist” themes when Marxism was being equated with barbarism and had became unfashionable for public intellectuals.
Foucault’s Concept of Power and its Relation to Marx
In the wake of the May ’68 uprising, the French ultra-left attempted to circumvent the Communist Party as the vehicle for the transformation of society, and sought to displace the state-capital nexus of classical political theory by proposing a radically expansive revolutionary subject. Foucault’s thought from the early 1970s attempts to capture these disparate and contradictory political currents with a concept of pouvoir, or “power,” which he claims to have developed out of the work of Bentham and Marx. This “power” posits the biological and social phenomenon of population and the physical movements of the human body not only as the economic substrate of production, but also the political ground of contention and neutralization. These kinds of knowledge, or general intellect – interventions in the collective social and biological metabolism, a Newtonian analytics of bodily comportment, movement and habitus – make possible wholly unprecedented kinds of political intervention, new forms of social engineering and control, that create a productive machine out of human multiplicity, a multiplicity previously wasted by political power.30 Foucault is trying to think about how a modern political field, different from absolutism, forms, takes shape, and allows for capital accumulation to take place, while undercutting worker militancy by providing the proletariat with “security” (Polizewissenschaft) – i.e., modest reforms that increase life expectancy, encourage family life, and so on. This thought implies that Marx abandoned the classical political economists’ formulations of the problem of population, only to rediscover the phenomenon of population as class struggle and labor-power.Although this political-economic conceptualization of “power” responds to Foucault’s particular conjuncture of renewed interest in Marx, and the demand made by new social movements for a more expansive model of the revolutionary subject, it is not reducible to such.
By conceiving of a properly capitalist political modernity in terms of the productive management of human populations and bodies, Foucault strategically returns to Marx in order to short circuit the tendency of bourgeois thought – and of many Marxists, for that matter! – to reify the “state apparatus” by conceiving of power in vulgar terms of property ownership, seizure of property and alienation.This is, according to Foucault, a profoundly anthropomorphic conceptualization of the political field. Political power ultimately appears as a conspiracy of interests which receive representation in the state apparatus; whereas power actually resides in the coordination, circulation, and productive employment of a multiplicity of forces without any “master plan” or inventor.The government of these forces is not provided by some central committee of the ruling class; it is provided by a non-subjective intentionality or abstract compulsion – the principle of “maximum economy,” the compulsion to work for someone else to reproduce your life – which provides the political field with a formal unity and principal of intelligibility.
Foucault also returns to Marx in order to neutralize the tendency of many fellow travelers on the Left to conceive of power in terms of suppression, which Foucault considered the political paradigm of an early modern transition to capitalism. He held that both tendencies of thought – power as ownership, power as suppression – ultimately affirmed the liberal model of society according to which “society is represented as a contractual association of isolated juridical subjects.” To claim such positions for Marx is to abandon his critique of classical political economy and merely “re-subscribes us to the bourgeois theory of power.” In the polemical judgement pronounced in “Mesh of Power,” these alternate conceptions of power “Rousseauify Marx,” as if the social form of capitalism were some contract-based free-association of individuals air-dropped from the heavens, forever abolishing man’s more perfect natural state.According to Foucault: “The individual is no doubt the fictitious atom of an ‘ideological’ representation of society; but he is also a reality fabricated by this specific technology of power that I have called ‘discipline.’”31
The above passage immediately recalls Marx’s language from the introduction to Grundrisse.32 Foucault is attempting to trace the genealogy of a social form in which commodity relations predominate by grasping the historical specificity of the isolated individuals of exchange. This transformation is not the inevitable outcome of the technological development of the forces of production. Instead, the moment of transition has to be understood as a contingent outcome of a new form of politics, which Foucault calls, again following Marx, “discipline.” The relevant passages in Discipline and Punish explicitly cite Marx’s discussion of “cooperation” in Capital, volume 1, and his exchanges with Engels about the origins of factory discipline in military discipline. Foucault asks how a tributary sovereign power to levy a tax – on produce, blood, trade, etc. – transitions to a productive economic power generative of surplus. The thread of this thought about the origins of capitalism proper – rather than the origins of mere market exchange – and its careful play on Marxist language can be followed through all of Foucault’s published works, though his citations and insinuations are rarely as obvious as they appear in “Mesh of Power” or Discipline and Punish.
Presented very schematically, consider:
1. His analyses of the confinement of paupers and the mad in the same workhouses inMadness and Civilization (1961).
2.His concern for the passage from an analysis of wealth to political economy in The Order of Things.
3. His analysis of the importance of discipline in the development of the forces of production in Discipline and Punish.33
4. His assertion that human life is the real material substrate of an expanding and productive deployment of political power in The History of Sexuality(1976).
5. His very explicit analyses of Physiocratic thought and the transition from feudalism to capitalism in Security, Territory, Population (1978).
6. Finally, his presentation of the problem of the political subject of neoliberalism, versus that of classical political economy in The Birth of Biopolitics (1979).
These are not merely incidental passages or asides. They are in fact quite crucial to understanding Foucault’s central historical claims; each of them returns us to Marx.
Perhaps generous minds will grant that Foucault was a careful reader of Marx, a scholar who appreciated the latter’s enormously significant historical account of the capitalist mode of production. But what would it mean to argue that Foucault’s thought expresses some essential underlying political and intellectual affinity for Marx’s project – one possibly even deserving of the moniker “Marxist”? There are many dangers to this kind of interpretation. It must be attentive to Foucault’s strong political cynicism. It requires a full reconstruction of Marx’s thought as well as Foucault’s, and there is no space for that discussion here. But this reading strategy faces other objections as well, considering his well known critique of the author-function. Wouldn’t calling his thought “Marxist,” even granting a bit of ironical distance from such a claim, be to engage in what Jacques Lacan termed “University Discourse,” the use of proper nouns, a chain of signifiers in place of actual thought or truth?34
Such an operation may be justifiable in Foucault’s own terms. Foucault makes the case in “What is an Author?” that certain founders of discourse, such as Marx and Freud, open up entirely new fields of inquiry, exploding the limits of what is sayable. Foucault considers their thought to be infinitely productive. New applications and transformations of such thought have the quality of “reactivations,” for the philosopher avails himself of a new zeitgeist only in order to clear the cobwebs away from old problems.35 Such claims are close to Sartre’s argument in the introduction to Critique of Dialectical Reason that Marx is the untranscendable horizon of our thought.
The wager of the following is that it is precisely in the spirit of a reactivation of Marx – rather than a faithful recitation of a dead letter, or some more thorough critical reconstruction – that Foucault pursued his historical analyses of power. Foucault’s resulting body of work is a testament to just how fruitful or fruitless such an approach may be. Ultimately, we must admit the possibility that his glib dismissals of Marx were facetious. To admit this possibility is to suggest that, by misunderstanding or rejecting Foucault, self-professed Marxists are taking the bait. They risk demonstrating that they haven’t understood something essential in their master’s discourse.
Although Foucault was under no illusion that he had supplanted Marx, he may have considered himself an inheritor of Marx’s project. I quote his words on the subject from a 1978 interview with a Japanese Marxist at length and without comment:
So long as we consider Marxism to be a unity [ensemble] of the forms of appearance of power connected, in one way or another, to the words of Marx [la parole de Marx], then to systematically examine each and every one of these forms of appearance is the least that a man living in the second half of the 20th century could do. Even today we are passively, scornfully, fearfully and interestedly submitting to this power, whereas it’s necessary to completely liberate ourselves from it. This must be systematically examined with the genuine sentiment that we are completely free in relation to Marx. Of course, to be free with regards to Marxism does not imply returning again to the source to show what Marx actually said, grasping his words [sa parole] in their purest state, and treating them like the one and only law. It certainly doesn’t mean demonstrating, for example, with the Althusserian method, how the gospel [la véritable parole] of the prophet Marx has been misinterpreted. These formal questions are unimportant. However, reconfirming the functional unity of the forms of appearance of power, which are connected to Marx’s own statements [la parole de Marx lui-même], strikes me as a worthy endeavor.36
Three crucial questions are raised by “Mesh of Power.” The first concerns Foucault’s curious claim that he derives his theory of power, at least in part, from the second volume of Capital. The second concerns “the problem of population” as the concept which gives Foucault’s disparate historical studies a thematic unity, despite his protests to the contrary;the problem of population returns us to the question of the transition from feudalism to capitalism and that of any uncertain contemporary transition out of capitalism.The third concerns his response to the question raised at the very end of the lecture by a female auditor, which will return us to the themes of Foucault’s historical conjuncture and the problem of his reception.
1. The question of Capital. Marx’s theory of the expanded reproduction of capital is important because he is attempting to describe the unity of disparate social processes. Although market society has anarchic qualities, there is a unity to the social form of production. Marx avoided the deadlocks of classical political economy with the concept of labor-power. Labour, as such, does not circulate on the market. The potential for labor –la force de travail, Arbeitskraft – is what circulates. Labor as force, as potential, as power is exchangeable according to abstract equivalence regardless of its particular uses because the market establishes a concrete minimum standard for its value: the labor necessary to reproduce labor as human life. Hence, “living labour.”
Although it is important to maintain a distinction between the two, Foucault unfolds “power,” as a category of thought, in a way analogous to Marx’s unfolding of the category of “capital” in his theory of expanded reproduction.“Capital” is invested in means of production, infrastructure, and the built environment just as “capital” is invested in living labour. Without either circuit, or department, “capital” cannot realize the value crystalized in commodities. This double movement is what differentiates capitalism from mere rent extraction; it is what historically and categorically distinguishes “relative” from “absolute” surplus value extraction. It is the source of capital’s periodic, and perhaps terminal, crisis tendencies.
For Foucault, “power” is a unity of both power and resistance. “Power” sustains and guarantees the life of human populations just as “power” is invested in the organization of a factory, the plan for a prison, or the organization of city streets according to a grid.The productive organization of human bodies and populations is a technology, he argues, just as important to the mode of production as the machines whose smooth operation it allows. He gave this term “power” a political significance outside the abode of production, as an alternative to representational theories of political power, but locates the origins of this “power” in the abode of production and in certain early modern military innovations. Accordingly, the divisions set up by the “power” Foucault describes are not reducible to those of class. In the lectures from ‘78 he argues that political technology of security distinguishes between “essential” and “non-essential” levels of the population in order to determine acceptable levels of risk. That is, Physiocratic reforms pertaining to grain shortages were not attempts to eliminate starvation. They were attempts to use market mechanisms to distribute scarcity within isolated pockets of the population, attempts to protect against mass hunger and scarcity which threatened political instability. The political transformations he isolates – pertaining to sanitation, housing, epidemic disease, insurance, mass immigration, welfare, and so on – emerge quite late in the 19th century, as a result of political reforms and exigencies that had only just begun in Marx’s time.
2. The question of population. Genealogy’s ability to juxtapose radically different conjunctures enables a thought about the transition from feudalism to capitalism which sheds light on the present moment in a way that other histories cannot. Theorizing the problem of population caused Foucault to revise his earlier claims about power; the concept of “security” represents a return to political economy and a more careful periodization of “discipline” as internal to a transition to a capitalist mode of production, after which discipline is in the service of more liberal arts of government. Foucault locates the epistemic and political break of modernity in the thought of the Physiocrats and their historical role within the French absolutist state. In an attempt to think the radically incommensurable, Foucault poses the following problem: within a largely backwards and populous region of Europe, in which a set of class relations particular to the French absolutist state forestalled the full transition to capitalism until the 19th century, a properly modern political economic theory of agricultural productivity emerges in the 18th century due to a succession of demographic crises which directly threatened monarchical power and created a remarkably polarized political field. However, this new art of economic government ‘remained imprisoned…within the forms of the administrative monarchy.’37 The population, according to Foucault, provides a unifying – if not entirely unified – field of practice for the transition from an analysis of wealth to political economy, from natural history to biology, from general grammar to philology.38
I would like to suggest that Foucault calls this new organization of power “security” because he is historically situated at the moment in which the rising post-war demand for housing credit in the United States required the structured financing of mortgage pools in the 1970s: the securitization of debt. Such developments enabled Foucault to venture the hypothesis that the utopian programme of neo-liberalism is not “a super market society, but an enterprise society. “Thus, he conceived of this new phase of capitalist development, inaugurating our own late capitalist era, in terms of a transformation in the management of political danger and market risk.39 In Foucault’s final analysis, neo-liberalism is not a reactivation of the practice of laissez faire, for the state must “intervene on society so that competitive mechanisms can play a regulative role at every moment and every point in society and by intervening in this way its objective will become possible… a general regulation of society by the market.”40
However, what does Foucault allow us to see about the birth of neoliberalism that prevailing accounts of the crisis of the 1970s in terms of financialization, deindustrialization, and the consolidation of class power fail to bring into view?In unequivocal terms, Foucault asserts: “Neo-liberalism is not Adam Smith; neo-liberalism is not market society; neo-liberalism is not the Gulag on the insidious scale of capitalism.”41 For the Marxist tradition, it was the discussion of “commodity fetishism” in Book I of Capital, volume 1,and the infamous “tendency of the rate of profit to fall” from volume 3, which prevented them from grasping the significance of this new form of governmental power. In an analysis of the Frankfurt School, which could be mobilized to criticize contemporary theorists of the grim arcana of “biopower” today, Foucault argues that it was Max Weber’s influence that displaced Marx’s problematic of the contradictory logic of capital in 20th century Germany. The problem of “the irrational rationality of capitalist society” would – in the wake of Nazism, political exile and the destruction unleashed by the second world war – motivate the Marxists of the Frankfurt School and the ordoliberals of the Freiburg School to criticize the irrational excesses of capitalism, rather than analyzing its forward march through internal contradictions and crises. Foucault concludes that, for both schools, Nazism represented “the epistemological and political ‘Road to Damascus’… the field of adversity that they would have to define and cross in order to reach their objective.” As for the political outcome: “history had it that in 1968 the last disciples of the Frankfurt School clashed with the police of a government inspired by the Freiburg School, thus finding themselves on opposite sides of the barricades.”42 Neo-liberalism and its proponents seem to have emerged – from the barricades and occupations in Berkeley, Paris or Frankfurt – the victor of this historic clash of forces.
In Foucault’s view, actually existing socialism represented a hypertrophied rationalization of existing arts of government.It had proposed strong economic and historical paradigms but failed to provide a “reasonable and calculable measure of the extent, modes and objectives of governmental action.”In the absence of a governmental art of its own, Foucault argues, socialism was forced by its historical struggles to connect up with liberalism, on the one hand – as a “corrective and a palliative to internal dangers” – or to a large administrative apparatus and police state, as in the Soviet Union, on the other.43
3. The question of hysterical discourse. Foucault refused hysterical discourse.He said it was simplistic, used by reactionaries, demagogues, and racists, and obscured the important historical questions. In confronting a caricature of his own thought, Foucault had to appeal to Marx. This moment in “Mesh of Power” epitomizes Foucault’s intellectual trajectory after the crisis of 1976. Returning to Marx was far more crucial during a reactionary period than during one of revolutionary upheaval.
Like Engels at the close of the 19th century, Foucault spent his final years contemplating early Christian movements and their practices of free love.44 Foucault’s response to talk of bathhouse closures in New York, San Francisco, and Montréal was a principled stance rather than the hysterics that characterized the mainstream gay movement’s responses. In an interview with Gai pied (Gay Foot) from 1982, Foucault did not require a theory of “heteronormativity” to oppose gay bathhouse closures. It was simply a matter of opposing this extension of police power on principle:
it is necessary to be intransigent, we cannot make a compromise between tolerance and intolerance, we cannot but be on the side of tolerance. It isn’t a matter of searching for an equilibrium between the persecutor and persecuted. We cannot give ourselves the objective of winning millimeter by millimeter. On this issue of the relation between police and sexual pleasure, it’s necessary to go the distance and take principled positions.45
A Socialist Art of Government
Foucault appropriately considered the “utopian dream” of neoliberalism to be an “enterprise society,” a society which treats human life and its risks as income streams. It encourages ownership and guarantees a minimum social safety net in order to prevent the formation of a class in open rebellion against their technocratic masters. Where these soft touches do not work, police power is deployed. Foucault identifies the ideological basis of this political economic system as a “culture of danger,” a dark glamor in which the risks of this system provide occasion for a moralizing discourse. This is the stuff of the 24-hour news cycle and Andy Warhol’s “superstars.” We are now observing this utopian dream come to grief on its own conditions of possibility: the defeat of class struggles of the 1970s and deindustrialization of the West have created a population problem internal to advanced capitalist states analogous to that of the surplus humanity in developing countries.46 This is the political horizon of the Occupy movement, and its professed solidarity with events in Tunis and Egypt is not merely hubris. The Left is once again caught in a tactical stranglehold, forced to defend the most modest of social safety nets – public universities, welfare, pensions etc. – against neoliberal shock therapy.
By returning to Marx’s problematic of the population as a central contradiction of capital, Foucault provides insights into our political moment. What happens to power when human life becomes superfluous to the mode of production? The lessons Foucault derives from the experience of the 1970s suggest that such questions will be decided by a struggle, but we need more than just struggle to challenge neoliberalism. We need a new art of government. The conclusion to the above mentioned lecture from 1979 is a challenge to the historical materialist tradition: “the importance of the text in socialism is commensurate with the lacuna constituted by the absence of a socialist art of government.”Foucault then asks, “What governmentality is possible as a strictly, intrinsically, and autonomously socialist governmentality?” Doubting that a socialist art of government can be found in the history of socialism or its texts, Foucault concludes: “It must be invented.”47