Sunday, May 01, 2022

Elites and Capital: or, Foucault and Marx Again

I wrote this review of Jacques Bidet's Foucault with Marx a few years ago for an online review called Contrivers (after having reviewed the French original here) I thought of it the other day as I was reading tweets about two perennial questions on that site, the relation of Marx and Foucault, and the relation of elites, cultural elites, to economic power. For Bidet these are in some sense the same question. Since the review is no longer available and all links to the site seem to be broken I thought that I would repost it here. 

Jacques Bidet’s represents yet another contribution to the eventual overcoming of an academic skirmish between advocates of Foucault and Marx, itself a smaller conflict in the larger battle of postmodernism versus Marxism. The perspective which saw Marx and Foucault as mutually opposed theoretical perspectives, and camps, has begun to fade thanks to both the publication of Foucault’s courses and lectures, perhaps most importantly the short essay on “The Mesh of Power,” and the publication of several texts, such as the monumental collection Marx & Foucault: Lectures, usages, confrontations in France. However, the dissipation of Team Foucault and Team Marx is only a first step, it remains to be seen how Foucault and Marx are related, how their different examinations into history, modernity, and society can be brought together through their points of connection and differences. 

Broadly speaking Bidet gives us two ways of thinking about the relation of Foucault and Marx, the first can be considered historical, the second theoretical. The first has to do with the historical transformation of capitalism in the one hundred plus years separating their writings. When Marx wrote Capital the ruling class was defined by one thing and one thing only, capital, or ownership of the means of production. The owner of the factory, Mr. Moneybags, was also the one that directly controlled production. In the years since Marx wrote Capital the factory owner and overseer has been replaced by the large enterprise with its cadre of managers. The creation of a class of managers has often made the Marxist perspective of a world split neatly into workers and capitalists, proletarians and bourgeoisie, seem hopelessly out of date. It seems with the reality of the middle manager, the university administration, and others that make up the day-to-day life of actually existing capitalism. This is precisely where Foucault comes in according to Bidet. Foucault’s object of analysis is, as it has often been noted, power-knowledge. While Foucault examinations of madness, the prison, and sexuality seem disconnected from capital, what they describe is a new, a different type of power, predicated less on the ownership of capital than capitalization of knowledge. It is knowledge, or knowledge power, that the class of managers claims. From Taylor’s scientific management to the latest psychological insights underlying human resources, the class of managers has claimed knowledge, or expertise as their power. Capitalist society is then divided between markets and organizations, the power of property and the power of knowledge. The transformation of institutions, of what Bidet calls organization, precedes and prefigures the shift in theoretical perspectives. 

Foucault’s analyses bring to light a new form of power, and a division within the ruling class, a division between those who control property and those who control knowledge, between the wealthy and elites. The consequence of this is that the ruling class is best thought of as tripartite structure; the ruling class divides into two, between owners of property, of capital and those who possess knowledge power in the form of expertise. Expertise is not limited to management, to control over workers, but includes the rule over the sick, mentally ill, prisons, etc. Bidet also suggest that Foucault can also help us make sense of the division between the people, the popular class, which is fractured between those included as workers, and those excluded. It is thus worth pointing out how much Foucault’s work focused on the different practices of exclusion, of the mad and the deviant as outsiders of a society that defined itself by work. This historical point of difference between Marx and Foucault expands into a theoretical difference, a difference of object. What Marx analyzes is the structure of capitalist society, a structure defined by the division between classes, between control over property, to which Foucault adds a different structure, that of control over knowledge, or organization. These two structures can be identified by their different dominant classes, the property controllers and the knowledge elite, or by their different mediations, namely the market and organization. They overlap in the factory, or workplace, which is subject to both control of property and knowledge. Rather than pick one tool of analysis, or one mediation, and make it the central point of analysis, seeing society as a society of markets or organizations, profit or power, Bidet suggests that both structures need to be utilized and combined in any understanding of the present. In doing so Bidet passes from a structural analysis, moving from structure as class struggle or apparatus of knowledge power, to a metastructural analysis. Recognizing the intersection between markets and organization, power and profits, makes it possible to not only bring together Marx and Foucault, but to make sense of contemporary conflicts and social realities. The conflict between the two ruling classes, the possessors of capital and the knowledge, makes it possible to map out the economic and political conflict of contemporary society. Politics, from the micropolitical to the macropolitical, can be understood as combinations and conflicts of knowledge and capital, elites and the ruling class. Of course the popular class is part of this conflict too, and subject to its own divisions between those who are exploited for their wage labor and those who are subject to its ruling ideas. (As Melissa Cooper has noted, the Trump wing of the Republican party, which is often equated with a working class image is best understood as that of small capitalists, business owners, many of which came to power without being subject to the college elites)  What matters for Bidet, and makes this analysis metastructural, is that the division relate back to the institutions of markets and organizations. Whereas other philosophers have seen the point of connection between Marx and Foucault in terms of their micro-politics, seeing the connection in terms of the way in which Foucault’s analysis of the power of the prison guard intersects with Marx’s examination of the power on the factory floor, Bidet turns in another direction, exploring their systemic critiques of the structures of society. 

These are in some sense the affinities, not so much the similarities of Marx and Foucault but their complementary aspects, the way they fit together as two puzzle pieces, or successive stages, as the twentieth century follows the nineteenth. What about their differences? Bidet charts one difference that has a fundamentally ambiguous nature. Foucault repeatedly rejected the concept of ideology. As Foucault writes, 

"As regards Marxism, I am not one of those who try to elicit the effects of power at the level of ideology. Indeed I wonder whether, before one poses the question of ideology, it wouldn’t be more materialist to study first the question of the body and the effects of power on it." 

Foucault turns his attention not just to bodies, but also to discourses. Discourses are not ideology, are not understood to be a mystification of power but statements of its actual functioning, the way power governs bodies and minds, ultimately producing a regime of truth. Despite the materiality of bodies and the positivity of discourses, Foucault’s texts constantly refer to a level of illusion integral to the functioning of society. This can be seen in Foucault’s famous dictums that the society “which invented the liberties also created the disciplines,” arguing that beneath the official language of inalienable rights that defined modern democratic states there was an unofficial discourse of discipline, of human beings grasped not in terms of their rights but their capacities to work and resist. This division between the actual functioning of power and its representation reaches its culmination in Foucault’s often cited statement that, “In political thought and analysis, we still have not cut off the head of the king,” that we still think of politics in terms of sovereignty and laws when the actual functioning of power is not only elsewhere but functions by different rules. Both statements, contrary to Foucault’s general claim about ideology suggest that contemporary politics functions on two levels, a concealed levels of norms, power, and surveillance, and an overt level of laws, sovereignty, and rights. These two layers more or less correspond with Marx’s division between the market, understood as the terrain of freedom, equality, and Bentham, and the hidden abode of production. In each case the first, the representation of power or society, serves to mask and obscure the second, or, as Foucault writes, “power is tolerable only on condition that it masks a substantial part of itself.” Thus, without mentioning the word, and in some sense repudiating it, Foucault has a theory of ideology, but now it does not just mask the exploitation at the center of the economy but the functioning of power throughout society. 

This brings us to another striking point of difference. Foucault described the disciplines as having as their goal both the increase of capacity and a decrease of subordination, making their subjects both docile and productive. The general figure of disciplinary power overlaps with what Marx saw as the fundamental problem of the exploitation of labor power. The worker’s capacities for production must be increased, while the potential for subversion must be decreased. Foucault extends this problem from the factory floor to barracks hospitals and mental health clinics, all of which can be situated at the intersection of an increase in productivity and a decrease of resistance. As Bidet writes, “He therefore remains at a general notion of production as the production of utility”(pg. 210). This generalization of the problem of power makes it possible to grasp a general diagram of power that exceeds the factory floor to pervade all of life. However, it also shifts the question of power from its historically specific basis to become a more general question, even a metaphysical question, of agency and determination. It is striking, even paradoxical, that Foucault who in some sense continued, and even radicalized Marx’s attempt to think in the conjuncture, to pose questions historically, has given rise to a series of questions about agency, resistance, and normative critique that are entirely ahistorical. “The Foucauldian discourse of ‘resistance’ refers notably to a conceptuality that is atemporal rather than historically defined” (pg.224). This maybe more of a product of his philosophical reception, which has always been much more comfortable situating Foucault with respect to Kant and Nietzsche than following him into the archive, more interested in philosophy than history. 

Finally, it is in terms of the direct encounter between Marx and Foucault in terms of the general intersection of philosophy and history that we see both their point of divergence and the possible basis of their convergence. Bidet argues that Foucault’s final lectures from the College de France on neoliberalism offer a theory of modernity comparable to Marx’s project of Capital. Up until this point, Foucault and Marx were separated by a difference of historical period or object, as much as Marx wrote about feudalism or pre-capitalist economic formations his real object was capitalism, was a history of the present starting with the development of capital in the nineteenth century. As much as Foucault claimed to do a history of the present, his historical works often stopped at or around the Napoleonic era. The lecture course on biopolitics bridges this lacunae, bringing Foucault into the twentieth century. As much as Foucault and Marx come closer temporally they differ even more theoretically. As Bidet argues Foucault’s perspective on neoliberalism dispenses with the divide between discipline and rights, the functioning of society and its official discourse on itself. Instead Foucault views neoliberalism as a particular form of governmentality, as both the way in which society functions and the way it represents that functioning to itself. “The social order, now examined through the filter of politics, has as its pivotal point the relation between governers and the governed.” Neoliberalism’s focus on the individual as utility maximizers, as acting through a matrix of costs and rewards, is both how they are seen and how they see themselves. Neoliberalism is not just an economic discourse, nor is it simply a political technique of rule, nor is it only a technology of the self; it is the point where all three converge. It is a technology of the self that is also a technology of rule, an economic discourse about investments and interests that also redefines political space. When Foucault writes “Homo economicus is an entrepreneur, an entrepreneur of himself” he describes a condition that is simultaneously, economic, political and subjective. Whereas Marx understands capitalism to be defined by an ever-sharpening divide between workers and capitalists, Foucault sees neoliberalism as flattening onto a terrain where everyone from worker, to capitalist, to nation state, is motivated by the same fundamental logic. In neoliberalism the gap between politics and economics, the image of power and its actuality, collapses. 

Here it might be useful to follow Bidet’s lead and historicize the division once again. If Foucault’s initial formulations of knowledge power as distinct from the power that stems from the ownership of the means of production had, as their necessary condition, the rise of the large-scale enterprise and with it the specialization of management as a new mode of power, then perhaps his last words on neoliberalism as governmentality have to be viewed in terms of their historical situation as well. It is not a matter of a theoretical choosing between class conflict and governmentality as two different ways of understanding society, but recognizing that neoliberalism has attenuated the conflict of capitalist society. Market and organization, power and its image, converge on creating a flexible yet thoroughly unified picture of society. It encompasses everything every, possible action or behavior because it reduces all of them to the same fundamental motivation, the same fundamental calculation. However, the question of ideology, about the representation of power returns. As much as neoliberalism governs particular practices, and is implanted throughout society by programs encouraging competitiveness and individuation, everything from student loans to charter schools, it remains a representation of society, and as all representations it does not adequately capture the entirety of the functioning of power, or its resistance. Market incentives are used for some of the population, but the state shows a much harsher face towards those who have failed to mobilize their human capital, or are otherwise deemed expendable. It is not just in the other side of the state, its repressive nature, which exceeds neoliberal modes of government, but the lives and resistance underlying its representation. What Bidet suggests is that combining Foucault and Marx is not just combining organization and market, knowledge power and the power of capital, but also discourse and ideology, the truths that function as part of society and the fictions that keep it functioning. As Bidet’s recently published Le Néolibéralisme: Un autre grande récit, a book that continues the Marx and Foucault synthesis, suggests by its very title, neoliberalism is another grand story, a story to make sense of the present. Just as it was once necessary to “cut off the head of the king,” to see what in politics and society exceeded sovereignty, it is perhaps necessary to cut of the head of the market as well, to see it not just as one part of the economic order, the organization being the other, but to recognize its permeation by different logics of powers. Underneath the incentive to maximize one’s human capital, to be an entrepreneur of oneself, there is also the more immediate and old fashioned imperative of working to survive, for every worker realizing their capacities there are others just trying to survive. If the Foucault/Marx synthesis means anything it must be able to synthesize the mesh of diverse forms of power, thinking their points of intersection and tension. That is the space of any future politics.

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