Towards a socialist art of government: Michel Foucault’s “The mesh of power”

Submitted by Juan Conatz on October 28, 2013

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

Polit­i­cal Questions

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

  • 1Michel Fou­cault, “Chronol­ogy,” Dits et écrits I, 1954-1975, eds. Daniel Defert, François Ewald (Paris: Jacques Lagrange, 2001), 42. Trans­la­tions from French are mine unless oth­er­wise noted.
  • 2Wal­ter Ben­jamin, “On the Con­cept of His­tory,” (1940).


Juan Conatz

10 years 7 months ago

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Submitted by Juan Conatz on October 28, 2013

Ugh. Had this whole thing formatted except 2 footnotes, and my netbook crashed. That's never happened to me in the 5 years of putting stuff in the library.