Foucault with Marx

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This abstract individual comes into the world needing no one and relies exclusively on her own wits and abilities to pursue her self-interest. To Marx, this is a highly specious claim: all individuals come into the world in historically and socially specific material conditions, which have an immense impact on their lives.


For instance, a poor woman born into the family of a Roman slave could expect a very different life to an upper middle class man born in Orange County circa Foucault was also critical of the methodological individualism characteristic of classical liberalism, but he approached the issue from a different angle. Foucault was partly reacting against the existential philosophy of figures like the Marxist Jean Paul Sartre, who tried to reconcile an individualism drawn from phenomenology and Heidegger with Marxism.

Sartrean thought stresses that, even under the most coercive conditions, we always enjoy the fundamental freedom to create ourselves.

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By contrast, Foucault insisted that our destiny as subjects is always shaped by power in ways we have barely begun to understand. Looking at the history of how different subjects emerged could help us recognize how power evolved and changed to shape us. But by far his biggest theoretical influence was the philosopher Georg Hegel, who developed an extremely complex theory of history.


Hegel argues that history consists of the gradual ascension of consciousness which he calls G eist or spirit towards higher levels of complexity and freedom. It achieves this through a dialectical process by which finite historical forces come into conflict with one another, leading to the emergence of newer and more liberated forms of existence. One simple example is his dialectic of the master and slave, whereby a single consciousness passes over into what Hegel calls self-consciousness. When two individuals confront one another at an early stage of history, the person who is more willing to risk his life for dominance can enslave the other, thus becoming the master.

This fills him with a tremendous sense of self-worth since he is able to dominate the behavior of another. But, Hegel points out, there is a problem. In effect, the master depends on her, rather than the other way round. The resolution to this conflict, according to Hegel, is the historical realization that we can only gain a sense of self-worth through being admired by an equal.

The racist slave-owner recognizes that his dominance is nothing but concealed weakness; the misogynistic male recognizes that being loved by a subordinate can never provide true satisfaction. The end result is that one becomes a self-conscious being, aware that each individual depends for his sense of self-worth on the equal status and freedom of others who value him.

Marx drew heavily on this Hegelian theorizing, while famously turning it upside down. He felt that Hegel was right that history consists of a movement towards greater self-consciousness and freedom. In The Communist Manifesto , he singles liberal capitalism out for praise as the highest kind of social form yet developed, since people are freer and more capable of self-development than ever before. Hegel, Marx argues, writes as though the French Revolution had singlehandedly sprung from the writings of Locke and Voltaire, or the end of slavery come about because individuals simply became more compassionate.

Marx claimed that material historical transformations helped bring about a liberal ideology and set of institutions. For instance, the invention of industrial technology in the late eighteenth century contributed to a change in property relations, as capitalists upended the old feudal order to generate workers who could sell their labor power in the factories of Manchester, rather than leading traditional agrarian lives in the English countryside. These changing property relations made it necessary to change the legal and political relations up top, leading to the end of aristocratic monarchies and the rise of the capitalist bourgeoisie.

For Marx this constituted a big improvement on the feudal era.

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The epoch of serfs laboring for a lord, or slaves who picked cotton for the landed gentry in their white picket houses, gave way to one in which each individual was legally considered free. She could nominally sell her labor as she wished, or even try to acquire enough capital to become a capitalist.

But, for Marx, this was also simply one historical movement among others, subject to its own contradictions. Under capitalism, for example, people come to define their freedom and sense of self through the consumption of consumer goods.

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Buying the latest iPhone or dressing in the latest fashion become how people reflect who they were. But this freedom is highly one dimensional , to invoke Marcuse, since our deeper yearning for higher forms of freedom is constrained by the capitalist system.

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But, politically, one is often faced with a choice between two or three virtually indistinguishable political parties, often more beholden to monied interests than to their purported constituents and not very interested in changing the status quo. For Marx and later Marxists, this limited society will eventually give way to a freer kind of human life. Though, as I have mentioned before , the form this will take has always remained annoyingly unspecified. He came of intellectual age in a period in which French academia was heavily influenced by existential and phenomenological philosophy.

His touchstones therefore include Sartre—but also Heidegger and, especially, Nietzsche. Foucault would pick up on these ideas and give them a cynical twist. Each takes a different approach to history, but all three have overlapping concerns and—I would argue—a depressingly totalizing approach to power and our limited capacity to resist it. He tried to show how what we consider true knowledge has profoundly changed over time. For instance, what we now consider madness was conceived of in the Middle Ages as a sacred association with higher powers.

By real subsumption Marx refers to the way in which capital not only takes over and manages an already existing labor process, but completely transforms its nature and, by extension, the laborers themselves Marx , , Another significant section of Capital is the famous chapter on the working day, in which Marx shows how the laborer is subjected to specific forms of discipline that reshape her body. The production process produces the worker herself, not only commodities.

This incessant reproduction, this perpetuation of the worker, is the absolutely necessary condition for capitalist production Marx , Foucault could thus be read as an early post-Marxist in the sense that his analyses of disciplinary subjectivation in Discipline and Punish would be an elaboration of the idea of real subsumption put forward by Marx.

Foucault continues the Marxist critique of liberalism by showing how the supposedly free political subject of liberalism was in fact materially constructed through the concrete and detailed disciplinary practices of production. He argues that the establishment of an explicit, coded and formally egalitarian juridical framework, made possible by the organization of a parliamentary, representative regime in the 18th century, was accompanied by the development and generalization of disciplinary mechanisms.

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They constituted the other, dark side of these processes of democratic progress Foucault , He then goes on to distinguish four crucial insights concerning productive power that he claims can be found in Capital. First, society is not a unitary body, in which only one kind of power is exercised, but an archipelago of different powers that maintain their specificity. Second, these different webs or forms of powers cannot be understood as the derivation or the consequence of some central and overriding sovereign power that would be primary. Third, these specific or regional powers do not have the function of prohibition.

Fourth, power should be theorized as historically specific techniques that were invented, developed and perfected. Foucault thus reads Marx himself as a post-Marxist, who already recognized the diffuse and heterogeneous nature of power as well the constitutive relationship it has to the subject. Foucault develops the idea of productive power radically further than what can be found in Marx, however.

He emphasizes repeatedly that the processes that constitute normalized subjects are not reducible to the disciplinary practices aiming to produce docile workers. Normation begins with the norm as a prescriptive ideal, an optimal that is constructed in terms of a certain desired result: discipline in factories breaks down individuals, places, times, movements, actions, and operations so that they can be coercively modified according to the objectives of capital such as greater efficiency and docility.

While normation can thus be understood to correspond relatively neatly with real subsumption, normalization introduces an aspect of subjectivation that is under-theorized in Marxist accounts and explained loosely with the notions of false consciousness and ideology. Hence, normalization or subjectivation is a process that also produces numerous others, intersecting forms of the subject besides laborers and involves large-scale techniques of governing operating on the basis of shifting and historically specific norms and rationalities.

Such complex forms of governmentality are furthermore always linked with games of truth and forms of scientific knowledge. The normal has become essentially a scientific measure. While in many Marxist accounts neoliberalism is understood simply as an intensification of capitalist exploitation, which is heightening the fundamental class antagonism between capitalists and laborers, from a Foucauldian perspective it must be understood as a new configuration of power relations that produces new forms of the subject.

We have to recognize the historically specific ways that the instability and the persistent crises of capitalism have been negotiated in recent decades through neoliberal forms of governmentality — new political technologies of power and social regulation. While it is important to acknowledge that in his lectures on neoliberalism, The Birth of Biopolitics , Foucault describes technologies and rationalities rather than their actual empirical outcomes, empirical and experiential evidence gives weight to the theoretical claim that the neoliberal reorganization of Western societies has resulted in new forms of the subject — a new understanding of ourselves.

Social volatility and economic risks have become increasingly central for profit making and the financialization of everyday life requires new kinds of subjects and social networks Floyd , Neoliberal governmentality has dramatically extended the reach of the markets and market rationality and thereby produced the corresponding subjects who are compelled to behave as market actors — consumers, individual investors and entrepreneurs — across several dimensions of their lives. Whether we focus on the reforms of pension plans and healthcare, revisions of copyright laws or the restructuring of universities, we are increasingly required to view ourselves as market-actors and to behave accordingly.

Michel Foucault on Karl Marx (Part 2)

They are essentially material, social and economic practices that are organized through neoliberal rationality and embedded in law and political institutions, but also in everyday social relationships. Hence, we are not confronted merely with ideological fiction that could be dispelled through the development of appropriate class-consciousness; we are confronted with a new kind of social reality. It is widely acknowledged by numerous socialist writers that the composition of the workforce has dramatically changed in the last decades due to the globalization and neoliberalization of our economies.

The industrial working class has been shrinking in all Western countries at a rapid rate, and has been largely replaced by post-industrial, service-sector workers, who are largely female and in part-time or precarious employment. Instead of social relations based on relatively stable forms of wage-labor, the growth of insecurity and negative flexibilization have come to increasingly characterize all work.

Moreover, the majority of the poorest and the most oppressed people in the world today are not wage-laborers. They are people who have to eke out a precarious existence in the informal economy because capitalism appears to have no use for them at all. In other words, the forms of exploitation have not only assumed radically new forms, but it has become increasingly unclear what the class relations are and how we are situated in their intersections. It is imperative to also theorize these new forms of the subject and the political potential they hold for radical social transformation.

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Eisenstein, Hester : Feminism Seduced. Boulder: Paradigm Publishers. Progressive Geographies. Floyd, Kevin : The Reification of Desire. Toward a Queer Marxism. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press. London: Penguin. Michel Senellart. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan. admin