Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Reanimating Dead Dogs: Foucault on Political Economy

It is perhaps true that every generation treats the revered thinkers of the previous generation as a “dead dog,” to quote Marx’s famous phrase. When I was in grad school I remember that Sartre in particular was dead to us, too tainted by humanism to be interesting. This was of course a shame. From a rather cursory observation of current conferences and publications it seems that a similar fate is befalling Derrida, Foucault, and Lyotard. This may just be another example of a generational shift, but it also may have to do with the revival of interest in Marx and Marxist thought. (The "dead dog" of their generation.) Thus, focusing on one of these figures in particular, namely Foucault, I offer the following two paragraphs, paragraphs edited out of a published piece, as something of a provocation.

Foucault’s courses of the late seventies, the course on security and biopolitics, address something largely absent from his published work: the relation between the formation of subjects and economic relations. Foucault always kept his distance from explicitly addressing this problem, a problem which in many ways would be a variant of the classical Marxist base/superstructure problem, but this distance took at least two different forms. At times, Foucault clearly stated that it was a matter of a difference of emphasis, arguing that while it is possible to study the relation between power relations constitutive of subjectivity and economic exploitation he prefers to study the relationship between power and truth. In such a case, the study of power and exploitation stand as simply two different approaches for understanding history and politics. At other times, however, Foucault sees the examination of power relations and economic analysis to be completely opposed, arguing against the reduction of the former by the latter. Foucault argues that the two political philosophies, liberalism and Marxism, which are generally considered to be opposed are united in what he terms an “economism of power.” Although what is meant by economism changes in each philosophy, as Foucault writes: “Broadly speaking, we have, if you like, in one case a political power which finds its formal model in the process of exchange, in the economy of the circulation of goods: and in the other case, political power finds its historical raison d’etre, the principle of its concrete form and of its actual workings in the economy.”

These vacillations at the level of programmatic theoretical statements are echoed in Foucault’s actual historical analyses. Discipline and Punish and History of Sexuality each begin with a rejection of a Marxist analysis, one cannot directly correlate punishment to the mode of production or comprehend sexuality based on the demand for productive labor, yet nonetheless each of these analysis ends up affirming a connection between the economy and power; the rise of disciplinary power and biopower cannot be separated from the transformation of society from feudalism to capitalism. While Foucault overtly distances himself from Marx, or explicitly criticizes the reduction of history to economic struggle, he continually cites elements of Marx’s analysis, without quotation marks, as he puts it. In addressing this vacillation my point is not to ultimately settle the relationship between the analysis of power and the critique of political economy, or Foucault and Marx, to take the proper names, especially since this relationship is thoroughly mired in the polemics and politics of another time and place, but rather to lay the groundwork for addressing the turn that characterizes not only Naissance de la biopolitique, but the previous year’s course, S√©curit√©, Territoire, Population, as well. In the lectures that make up these courses Foucault turns to the question of the relation between politics and economy, not in terms of the imposing figure of Marx, or the question of relation between base and superstructure, which is always a question of priority and hierarchy, of determination in the last instance, but in terms of governmentality, which situates politics and economics on the same level, that of the control of conducts, and the constitution of subjectivity.

As I have said, these a remnants of a longer piece, something that I will not be able to return to for a long time, I post them here as a provocation and a question. Perhaps someone can tell me where this is addressed, or would like to take up the provocation. 


  1. I personally don't think Foucault was right to so distance himself and his work from Marxism. Perhaps one could give a good biographical account of his animosity towards Marxism or his tendency to identify it with its crudest interpretation (economic determinism), I don't know. I'd certainly like to know why he rejects Althusser's interpretation, which as far as I'm concerned is not only compatible with Foucault's analyses, but requires something like them to flesh out the content of the concept 'ideological state apparatuses'. Althusser's interpretation makes clear that Marxism does not mean all social activities and institutions are straightforwardly determined by the mode of production, but that the latter is the overarching structure that both makes the former possible (in terms of furnishing the material conditions for them) and ultimately constrains what they can do, requiring them to offer minimal resistance and maximal assistance in the reproduction of productive relations.

    You already know this of course, but I just think it is remarkable how good a fit Foucault is with Marxism, especially of a vaguely Althusserian orientation, and consequently, find it perplexing why he was so resistant to it, and why he seemed to characterize Marxism the way he did.

  2. Curious what piece these passages were excised from? The one in the Binkley and Capetillo volume?

  3. They are from a longer unpublished essay, which dealt with the courses over two years. The piece in that volume is an edited, shorter version.

  4. I've been thinking about these links, too, lately. In a lecture titled “Meshes of Power” that Foucault delivered in Bahia, Brazil (amid the military dictatorship no less!), he lays out the importance of Marx in his thinking about disciplinary power and power viz. "population." The lecture is included in the collection Space Knowledge Power edited by Crampton and Elden (2007). The lecture was delivered around the same time as the Society Must be Defended lectures (just after the publishing of Discipline and Punish). This period is when Foucault really begins to lay out out his analytics of power, which would become Security Territory Population, and his ideas of power as dispersed, heterogenous, ascending, productive--all ideas he identifies in Marx's volumes of Capital.

    Foucault's use of Marx relies on the division of labor and the governance of the factory floor with the growing size of industry (Vol. I), the critique of bourgeois social “contract” theory, and the multiplicity of powers discussed in Volume II of Capital (the workshop, slave-ownership, the army, etc.). This helps draw out, as it does for Marx, a distinction between juridical power (the economism, commodity model of power) and more diffuse technologies of power.

    Foucault interestingly argues that privileging the state apparatus in an analysis of power falls into a bourgeois trap, which Marx saw very clearly, which only perpetuates the fiction of the social contract as the source of sovereign power—i.e. the way one supposedly individually deposits or invests one’s power in the state. Foucault calls out state-obsessed Marxists for not seeing this; he says they thereby “Rousseau-ize Marx.”

    Foucault closes by explaining how this form of power was coextensive with the expansion of capitalist expansion and population growth (“discipline” and “population”), which is why sex and sexual regulation become so important.

    I thought this was an incredibly important lecture that shows how once again Marx and Foucault are not as such odds as many think, including Foucault's own overstatements about these difference. Finally, it's interesting to note that by the end of the 1970s lectures in Birth of Biopolitics he ends up "discovering" a very Marxist critique of civil society (cf. Gramsci or Marx and Engels in Jewish Question and German Ideology).

  5. Yes, I agree the lecture, "Les mailles du pouvoir" that you refer to is very important, and I have drawn from it quite a bit. It develops a very different understanding of Marx than the one that Foucault is often credited with, as you point out. It is interesting that it was given in Brazil and not France. Perhaps demonstrating that it is difficult to extricate Foucault's statements about Marx from his own tactical engagement with discourse, his refusal to cite Marx by name and so on. What you say about The Birth of the Clinic is interesting, but I have not looked at that text in a long time.

  6. In his lectures at the College de France we listen/read his latest thought on the subject. In his interviews we hear/read his rethinking in response to the question or meditation on what he has just said previously. Foucault never stays the same. He was very close to Althusser before he broke with Marxist theory as it meshes with the grid of power/knowledge. His last lectures were on Fearless Speech - Parrehesia - and he was drawing closer to the Frankfurt School. Hope this helps someone as I have not studied this aspect in depth.