On Foucualt and Marx.

From the most excellent article by Christopher Chitty over at Viewpoint:

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 inThe 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.

Go read it.


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2 Responses to On Foucualt and Marx.

  1. Eric says:

    You might find this interview with Foucault (from 1978) interesting: cjas.dk/index.php/foucault-studies/article/download/3894/4239. Particularly the first bit:

    C.G.: A question that is often asked among your English-language readers is: What is your
    view of the relation or the absence of a relation between your current and recent work and
    what is understood as Marxism, or quite simply with Marx?

    M.F.: Do you mean to ask me what the relations are that I have myself established between my
    work and Marxism? I would tell you that I haven’t established any. I haven’t established any
    relations with Marxism since it seems to me that Marxism is a reality so complex, so tangled,
    that is made up of so many successive historical layers, that is equally taken up by so many
    political strategies, not to mention by so many small group strategies, that in the end it doesn’t
    interest me to know what Marxism there is in my work and what my relations are to Marxism.
    The relations between my work and Marx are an entirely different matter. If you like I would
    say very crudely, to put things in a caricatural manner: I situate my work in the lineage of the
    second book of Capital. I would say very roughly that there is a whole tradition of analysis
    and reflection on Book 1 of Capital, which is to say on the commodity, on the market, on the
    abstraction involved in the commodity-form and the abstraction of human existence that flows
    from it. There is a long tradition that one finds in France in the work of Lefebvre, one could
    say to a certain point that Marcuse too is still situated within this current of critique. As for
    myself, what interests me about Marx, at least what I can say has inspired me, is Book 2 of
    Capital; that is to say everything that concerns the analyses of the genesis of capitalism, and
    not of capital, that are first of all historically concrete, and secondly the analyses of the his-
    torical conditions of the development of capitalism particularly on the side of the establish-
    ment, of the development of structures of power and of the institutions of power. So if one
    recalls, once more very schematically, the first book [on] the genesis of capital, the second
    book [on] the history, the genealogy of capitalism, I would say that it is through Book 2, and
    for instance in what I wrote on discipline, that my work is all the same [Page 2] intrinsically
    linked to what Marx writes. I would quite simply add by way of parenthesis that I have been
    careful not to make any references that I could have made to Marx, because references to Marx
    in the intellectual and political climate of France today function not at all as indicators of
    origin but as marks of affiliation. It’s a way of saying, don’t touch me, you see that I am a real
    man of the left, that I am a Marxist, the proof is that I cite Marx. So I prefer secret citations of
    Marx, that the Marxists themselves are not able to recognize, rather than what a lot of people
    unfortunately do, namely to say things that have nothing to do with Marxism, but then add a
    little footnote citing Marx and then that’s it, the text has taken on a political meaning. I hate
    these signs of affiliation, I prefer to make fewer rather than more citations of Marx.

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