Negri on Foucault

Submitted by Joseph Kay on September 10, 2006

In this interview Negri discusses the influence of Michel Foucault on his work, stating how as the radical Italian left drifted towards vanguardist armed struggle after 1968 “we understood that this military drift was something which the movements would not be concerned with; and that it was not only a humanly unbearable choice, but also a political suicide. Foucault, and with him Deleuze and Guattari, warned us against this drift” (4,000 words).

9th October 2004

Question 1: Are Foucault's analyses of actualité useful to understand the movement of societies? In which fields does it seem to you it that they should be renewed, readjusted, continued?

Answer 1: Foucault's work is a strange machine, it actually makes it impossible to think of history as other than present history. Probably, a great deal of what Foucault wrote (as Deleuze rightly underlined) should be rewritten today. What is astonishing - and concerning -, is that he never ceases to seek, he makes approximations, he deconstructs, he formulates hypotheses, he imagines, he makes analogies and tells fables, he launches concepts, withdraws them or modifies them… His is a thought of a formidable inventiveness. But this is not its essence: I believe that his method is fundamental, because it enables him to study and describe at the same time the movement from the past to the present and that from the present to the future. It is a method of transition where the present represents the center. Foucault is there, between the two, neither in the past where he does archaeology, nor in the future whose image he sometimes sketches - “comme à la limite de la mer un visage sur le sable” -. It is starting from the present that it is possible to distinguish other times. Foucault has often been reproached for the scientific legitimacy of his periodizations: we I can understand the historians, but at the same time, I would want to say that this is not a real problem: Foucault is where the questioning lies, which always originates in his own time.

Historical analysis, with Foucault, thus becomes an action, knowledge of the past becomes a genealogy, the future perspective becomes a dispositif. For those who come from the militant Marxism of the 1960s (but not from the dogmatic and caricatural traditions of the Second and Third International), Foucault's point of view is obviously perceived as absolutely legitimate: it corresponds to the perception of the event, of the struggles and of the joy of taking risks outside of all necessity and pre-established teleology. In Foucault's thought, Marxism is completely dismantled at the level of analysis of power relations and historical teleology, of the refusal of historicism or of a certain positivism; but at the same time, Marxism is also reinvented and remodelled on the perspective of the movements and struggles, i.e. actually on the reality of the subjects of these movements and struggles: because to know is to produce subjectivity.

But before going any further, I would like to go back for a moment. It is common to distinguish three 'Foucaults': up to the end of the Sixties, the study of the emergence of the discourse of the human sciences, i.e. that which he defines an archaeology of knowledge and of its economy in the last three centuries, and a great reading of Western modernity through the concept of épistème; then, in the Seventies, the researches on the relationship between knowledges and powers, on the emergence of disciplines, control and biopowers, the norm and biopolitics, which is both a general analytic of power and an attempt to trace the history of the development of the concept of sovereignty from its emergence in political theory until our days; and finally, in the Eighties, the analysis of the processes of subjectivation under the double perspective of the aesthetic relation to the oneself and of the political relation to others - but undoubtedly they are parts of one investigation: that on the crossing of the aesthetics of the self and of the political concern (care), which is what is also renowned as ethics.

Actually, I do not know if we can distinguish three Foucault’s, nor even two, since before the publication of Dits et Ecrits and the Courses at the Collège of France, the whole of the last Foucault was often not considered. It seems to me indeed that the three themes Foucault focussed on are perfectly continuous and coherent - coherent in so fare as they form a unitary and continuous theoretical production.

What changes is probably the specificity of the historical conditions and the political needs with which Foucault is confronted and which absolutely determine the fields of his interests. On this assumption, - and I tell you in my own words, in the hope that they could have been Foucault's words too - to assume the Foucauldian perspective also entails putting a style of thought, identified as the genealogy of the present and always open in so far as it deals with the production of subjectivity, in touch with a given historical situation. And this given historical situation is a historical reality of power relations. Foucault often repeats this, when he talks about his passion for archives, and about the fact that the emotion of reading them stems from what they tell us about fragments of existence: existence, whether past or present, delivered by yellowed papers or lived from day to day, is always an encounter with power - it is nothing but that, but that in itself is enormous.

When Foucault starts to work on the shift between the end of the XVIIIth and the beginning of the XIXth century, i.e. in Surveiller et Punir, he is confronted with a specific dimension of power relations, dispositifs and strategies related to it, in other words he is actually confronted with a kind of power relations that are completely articulated on the development of capitalism. The latter entails a total investment of life insofar as the constitution of a labor force, on the one hand, and the requirements for profitability of production of the other, require it. Power has become biopower. However it is true that even though Foucault uses thereafter the model of biopowers in his attempt to outline a critical ontology of the present, you will seek in vain analyses devoted to the development of capitalism and to the determination of the passage from the Welfarestate to its crisis, from the Fordist to the Post-Fordist organization of labour, from the Keynesian principles to those of neo-liberal macro-economic theory. But it is also true that in his simple definition of the shift from the regime of discipline to that of control at the beginning of the XIXth century, we can already understand that the post-modern does not represent a withdrawal of the State domination on social labour, but it is rather an improvement of its control over life.

Foucault develops this intuition everywhere, as if the analysis of the passage to the post-industrial era constituted the central element of his thought, even though he never speaks about it directly. Outside of the material determination of this present and of the transition that it embodied, we cannot conceive the project of a genealogy of the present, which entirely structures his relation to the past at the beginning of the Seventies, nor can we think of his idea of production of subjectivity which permits, from within power, to modify and weaken its functioning as much as to create new subjectivities. Foucault has; I believe, the extraordinary intuition of defining the shift from modern politics to post-modern biopolitics.

For Foucault, the concept of politics - and that of action in a biopolitical context - radically differs both from the conclusions of Max Weber and his epigones of the nineteenth century, and from modern conceptions of power (Kelsen, Schmitt, etc.). Foucault had probably been sensitive to their theses - but my impression is that in 1968 the framework changes radically, and Foucault cannot help taking it into account. For those like us, who keep using Foucault in spite of him and beyond him - and his gift to us was of an extraordinary generosity because Foucault had a generous thought, which is rather rare-, there is nothing to renew or correct in his theorizations: it is sufficient to prolong his intuitions on the production of subjectivity and on its implications.

For instance, when Foucault, Guattari and Deleuze support the struggles on the prison question in the Seventies, they build a new relationship between knowledge and power: this relation does not only relate to the situation in the prisons but also to the whole of the situations where it is possible to follow the same model to develop spaces of freedom, small strategies of torsion of power from within power, the recovery of one's own and of collective subjectivity, the invention of new forms of community of life and struggle - in short: what we call subversion. Foucault is not only great for accomplishing a remarkable analytic of power, for his methodological enlightening ideas, or for the new way in which he crossed philosophy and history with the concern for the present. He left us intuitions that we continue to find valid; in particular, he redefined the space of political and social struggles and the figure of the revolutionary subjects in relation to “classical” Marxism: the revolution, for Foucault, is not - or in any case not only - a prospect of liberation, it is a practice of freedom. It is the production of oneself with others in struggles, it is innovation, the invention of languages and networks, it is to produce and to reappropriate the value of living labour. It is to booby-trap capitalism from within (C’est piéger le capitalisme de l’intérieur?- tr.).

Question 2: Don't you think that there is a certain dismissal of Foucault in the majority of the currents that claim to wish to take up again social and political critique in France? What is it like in the rest of Europe (in Italy for example) and in the United States?

Answer 2: The academic milieu detests Foucault. I believe that he was pushed aside in the Sixties, when he was promoted to the Collège de France to isolate him better - and this is not only because the University does not forgive intellectuals for their success. Sociological positivism à la Bourdieu was certainly very fertile, but it was not capable of meeting Foucauldian thought and it denounced it as subjectivism. However there is obviously no subjectivism in Foucault. Bourdieu probably realized it in his later years.

What Foucault always refutes, in all of his work, is transcendentalism and the philosophies of history that fail to bring into play all the determinations of reality vis-a-vis the network and conflict of subjective powers. By transcendentalism, all in all, I understand all the notions of society which claim to be able to evaluate it or manipulate it from an external point of view, authoritatively. But it is impossible to do so. The only method which gives us access to the social is that of an absolute immanence, of a continuous invention of the production of meaning and of dispositifs of action. Like other important authors of his generation, Foucault regulates his accounts with all reminiscences of structuralism - i.e. with its prescription of the transcendental fixing of epistemological categories (today, this error is reproduced in a certain revival of naturalism at work in philosophy and the social sciences…).

Moreover, in France, Foucault is refuted because, from the point of view of critique, he does not fit into the mythologies of the republican tradition: no one is more distant than him from souverainism, however Jacobin; of from unilateral secularism, however egualitarian; or from the traditionalism of the notion of family and of patriotic demography, however integrationist, etc. But then isn't Foucault's methodology reducible to a relativistic and skeptical position, to the degradation of an idealistic conception of history? No, again no. Foucault's thought pursues the foundation of the possibility of subversion - the word is more mine than his; Foucault would speak about “resistance” - with a total distanting from to modern tradition of the nation-State and socialism. Such pursuit is not skeptic or relativist at all. On the contrary, it is funded on the exaltation of Aufklärung, on the reinvention of man and of his democratic potential, once all the illusions of progress and of common reconstruction have been betrayed by the totalitarian dialectics of modernity. All in all, Foucault could appropriate the sentence of the young Descartes: Larvatus prodeo, I advance masked.

Each one of us must, I believe, admit this: national-socialism is the pure product of the dialectic of modernity. To free ourselves from it we must go further. Aufklärung, as Foucault reminds us, is not the utopian exaltation of the enlightenment of reason; on the contrary, it is dis-Utopia, it is the daily struggle around the event, it is the construction of politics that starts from the problematization of “here, now”, from the issues of emancipation and freedom. Does Foucault's struggle on the question of prisons carried out with the GIP at the beginning of 1970s seem to you relativistic and skeptic? Or even the possition of support for Italian autonomists which he took at the most difficult time of repression and of historic compromise in Italy?

In France, Foucault was often the victim of the reading his friends, his pupils and his collaborators made of his work. Anticommunism played a crucial role in this respect. The methodological rupture with materialism and collectivism was presented as a reclaim of neo-liberal individualism. When he deconstructed the categories of dialectic materialism, Foucault was precious; but he also reconstructed those of the historical materialism, and that was not as acceptable. Furthermore, when the reading of dispositifs and the work on the critical ontology of the present refer to the freedom of the multitudes and to the construction of common goods, in contempt of neoliberalism, then the pupils withdraw completely. Perhaps Foucault died at a good time.

In Italy, in the United States, in Germany, in Spain, in Latin America, and at the moment increasingly in Great Britain, we did not come across this perverse Parisian game that was played to marginalize Foucault on the intellectual scene. Foucault does not go through the torturing riddle of the ideological quarrels of French intelligentsia: he is read according to what he said. The analogy with the tendencies of the revival of the Marxist thought at the end of the 1970s is thus often regarded as fundamental. This is not just a chronological coincidence: it is rather the feeling that Foucauldian thought is to be understood as part of a whole series of attempts - practical or theoretical - of emancipation and liberation, in a tangle of epistemological concerns and ethic-political perspectives which imply a violent criticism of parties, of a reading of history and subjects that one recognizes in him. I believe that European workerists and American feminists, for example, have found in Foucault many paths of research and, especially, the incentive to transform their meta-languages into a common language, perhaps universal, for the world to come - or in any case for the century to come.

Question 3: Michael Hardt and yourself write in Empire that “the biopolitical context of the new paradigm is central to our analysis” (French edition, p. 52). Can you explain the link - which is not immediately obvious - between the new forms of imperial power and “biopower”?

Question 4: Your debt to Michel Foucault to which you often testify is not exempt from some criticism. You write that he did not manage to comprehend “the real dynamics of production in biopolitical society”. What do you want to say by this? Should it be deduced from it that Foucauldian analyses would lead to a kind of political dead end?

Answer 3 and 4: On the basis of these two questions, I would like to try to clarify what, in Empire, Michael Hardt and I borrowed from Foucault, and what, on the contrary, raised some criticism. When we talked about empire, we not only sought to identify a new form of global sovereignty different from the form of the nation-State: we also sought to seize the material, political and economic causes of this development and, at the same time, to define new webs of contradictions which this form necessarily contains. For us, from a Marxian point of view, the development of capitalism (here understood in the extremely developed form of the world market) is rooted in the transformations, as in contradictions, of the exploitation of labour. Workers' struggles transform political institutions and the forms of power of capital. The process which led to the assertion of the hegemony of the imperial rule is not an exception: since 1968, since the great revolt of the salaried workers in the developed countries and that of the colonized people in the Third World, on the economic, financial, military and cultural domain, capital could no longer control and contain the flows of the labor power within the limits of the nation-State. The new world order corresponds to the need for a new order in the world of work. The response of capitalism takes form at various levels, but the level of the technological organization of the labouring processes is fundamental.

In fact, it is a question on the automation of the industry and the computerization of society: the political economy of capital and the organization of exploitation start to develop more and more through immaterial labour, the accumulation relates to the intellectual and cognitive dimensions of work, its spatial mobility and temporal flexibility. The whole of society and the life of men thus become the object of a new interest on behalf of power. Marx had rightly foreseen (in the Grundrisse and Capital) this development, which he called the “real subsumption of society under capital”. Foucault understood, I believe, this historical passage because he described, for his part, the genealogy of the investment of life - individual life as social life- by power. But the subsumption of society under capital (just as the emergence of biopower) is much more fragile than we believe - and in particular more fragile than capital itself believes, or than the objectivism of the Marxists epigones (as the Frankfurt School for example) is prepared to admit.
Actually, the real subsumption of the society (i.e. socialised labour) under capital generalizes the contradiction of the exploitation to all levels of society itself, just as the extension of biopowers is open to a biopolitical response of society: no longer power over life, but the power of life as a response to these powers; all in all, it is open to the insurrection and the proliferation of freedom, the production of subjectivity and the invention of new forms of struggle. When capital invests the whole of life, life appears as resistance. It is thus on this point that the Foucauldian analyses of the reversal of biopowers into biopolitics have influenced our analyses of the genesis of empire: this is to say, how new forms of labour and struggle, produced by the transformation of material labour into immaterial labour, present themselves as producing subjectivity.

Beyond this, I do not know if Foucault would completely agree with our analyses - but I hope so! -; because to produce subjectivity, for Michael Hardt and I, actually entails being part of a biopolitical metamorphosis which leads to Communism. In other words, I think that the new imperial condition under which we live (and socio-political conditions in which we build our work, our languages and thus ourselves) places at the center of the biopolitical context what we call the common: neither the private nor public, nor the individual or the social, but what, all together, we construct to grant man the possibility of producing and reproducing himself. In the common, nothing that makes us singularities is suspended or erased: singularities are only articulated together to obtain an “agencement” - the term is Deleuze's - where each power is demultiplied (démultipliée?-tr.) by that of others, and where each creation is immediately also that of others.

I believe there are many ways to link the creative revision of Marxism (to which we adhere) to revolutionary notions of biopolitics and of the production of subjectivity elaborated by Foucault.

Question 5: The last two works of Foucault on the modes of subjectivation seem to have drawn less of your attention. Is the construction of ethics and life styles foreign or resistant to biopower too far from what you propose (the figure of the militant communist)? Or are there possibilities for a deeper agreement that we did not perceive well?

Answer 5: The last works of Foucault had a great influence on me, I believe that what I have just told you about Empire demonstrates this. Allow me to tell you a memory, a weird one: in the middle of the 1970s, I wrote an article on Foucault in Italy - on what today is called the “first Foucault”, the Foucault of the archaeology of the human sciences. I tried to point out the limits of this type of investigation and hoped for a kind of step forward, a stronger insistence on the production of subjectivity. At the time, I was myself trying to exit a Marxism which, even if it were deeply innovative on the theoretical ground - since it wondered whether a “Marx beyond Marx” was possible -, still presented on the terrain of the militant practice, the risk of terrible errors.

I want to say by this that in the years of impassioned struggle that followed 1968, in the context of a ferocious repression that the right wing governments had exerted against the social protest movements, among many of us ran the danger of a terrorist drift, and some yielded to it. But, behind this extremism, there was always the conviction that power was one and only one, that biopower made the right and the left identical, that only the party could save us - and if it were not the party, then there were armed avant-gardes that were structured as the military version of small parties, in the great tradition of the “partisans” of the second world war. We understood that this military drift was something which the movements would not be concerned with; and that it was not only a humanly unbearable choice, but also a political suicide. Foucault, and with him Deleuze and Guattari, warned us against this drift. It was in this respect that they were true revolutionaries: when they criticized Stalinism or the practices of “real socialism”, they did not do it in a hypocritical and pharisienne manner, as the “new philosophers” of liberalism; they sought to find the means of affirming a new power of the proletariat against the biopower of capitalism.

Resistance to biopower and the construction of new life styles are thus not far from communist militancy, if one agrees to think that militancy is a common practice of freedom, and that Communism is the production of the common. As in Empire, the figure of the communist militant is not borrowed from an old model. On the contrary, it is presented as a new type of political subjectivity which is built starting from the production (ontological and subjective) of struggles for the liberation of labour and a more just society.

For us, but I think for the social movements of today too, the importance of the last works of Foucault is thus exceptional. Genealogy loses its speculative character and here becomes political - a critical ontology of ourselves -, epistemology is “constitutive”, ethics assumes “transformative” dimensions. After the death of God, we wait for the rebirth of man. But it is not a question of a new humanism; it is rather a question of reinventing man within a new ontology: it is on the ruins of modern teleology that we recover a materialist telos.

Translated from French by Arianna Bove and Dan Skinner