In Defence of Foucault: The Incessancy of Resistance

In a recent article, ‘Foucault and the Revolutionary Self-Castration of the Left’, Jérôme E. Roos argued that:

“Because it connects power with knowledge through discourse, and because it posits that knowledge and power are continually reproduced through both formal and informal institutions, there is ultimately no way for wilful agents to escape the choking grasp of their culture without reproducing the same forms of oppression they are trying to overcome. As a result, Foucault’s philosophy precludes the possibility for revolutionary action.”

I admire the noble activist intent of Roos’ article, and I thank him for sparking this vital debate on Left intellectual strategy and its varied implications for praxis. However, I fundamentally disagree with his interpretation of what is possible within the theory of Michel Foucault, and I will argue, in the most comradely spirit, that Foucault in fact provides priceless insights for resistance. Jérôme kindly published a short version of this response, available here.

A Word on Complexity

I will focus in this response upon the issue of Foucauldian resistance, mostly ignoring the (none too trifling) issue of language and vocabulary, except to say that yes, academic writing can become lost in its own high brow literary pretentions, which is particularly hypocritical from the Left wing perspective, but we must ask, ‘can complex ideas always be communicated in simple ways?’ Could Marx have written Das Kapital only in simple language and have had the same profound influence? Of course not – he was attempting, in David Harvey’s words, to create “a completely new framework of knowledge”, and so had to use highly original and often dense and difficult systems of writing in order to escape the limitations inherent in the established systems. Foucault was trying to bring into question the very social construction and interfusion of power and knowledge in the creation of the subject; of course he chose his words particularly carefully. Such grand projects are difficult and thus require difficulty, hence why comforting reductionist versions of Foucault, which may seem easy to refute, are commonplace. However I have found that they can usually be problematised by a more thorough reading of Foucault’s wide range of work, just like the most common criticisms of Marx. And yes, I consciously compare Foucault and Marx. In fact they are much closer than Foucault himself may ever have liked to admit.[1]

The Incessancy of Resistance

I would like to suggest another way to go further toward a new economy of power relations, a way which is more empirical, more directly related to our present situation, and which implies more relations between theory and practice. It consists of taking the forms of resistance against different forms of power as a starting point. (The opening lines of Foucault’s essay ‘The Subject and Power’)

I primarily wish to respond to the claim by Roos that “Foucault’s philosophy precludes the possibility for revolutionary action,” a claim that is incorrect, though admittedly hinges on a more careful definition of revolution. There is one particular passage in The History of Sexuality Volume 1, pages 95-96, that elucidates Foucault’s conception of resistance to power. It is available here or here.

Foucault’s attitude in The History of Sexuality is always activist. He constantly employs the language of association and opposition – ‘we must’, ‘ourselves’, etc., always set in offensive antagonism to the enemy, that which must be ‘thwarted’ – and resistance is regularly posed not just as possibility, but as inevitable and inherent to the system of power relations that he posits as a social relation per se.

Where there is power, there is resistance, and yet, or rather consequently, this resistance is never in a position of exteriority in relation to power. (The History of Sexuality Volume 1 p.95)

This question of exteriority lies at the core of our debate: is there an outside to power? Is there even any longer an outside to capital? If so, that is surely the position from which to launch our mutinous assaults and Foucault can be buried. However, as Foucault shows through his ‘archaeological’ uncovering of the social production and enforcement of knowledge (culminating in The Order of Things and Archaeology of Knowledge) and his ‘genealogical’ investigations into power (Discipline and Punish) and ethics (The History of Sexuality), all social relations inherently involve relations of what he came to refer to as the composite term ‘power-knowledge’, from gift exchange to education to medicine to law, etc. It is frankly deluded, or at very least obfuscatory, to indulge in the common anarchist rhetoric of ‘abolishing all forms of power’. The question that Foucault faces us with is in fact much clearer and more felicitous: ‘what forms of power do we want to live with and which forms do we wish to limit or prevent?’

The Ephemeral Revolution

Even more than this, revolution is always possible for Foucault. Power does not just react to resistance, nor is it merely preceded by it: resistive tensions constitute power and lie at its very centre. Roos even quotes Foucault to this effect: “resistance comes first, and resistance remains superior to the forces of the process; power relations are obliged to change with the resistance.” Because of the “strictly relational character” of power-knowledge, it demands at least its own opposite (“a multiplicity of points of resistance”), and in fact is at every stage left trying to catch up with the more nimble, creative, desperate and passionate action of resistance. This is what Antonio Negri calls “the revelation of the constituent power of working class struggles”. Negri, deeply committed to combining a Foucauldian understanding of power (which was already very similar to theories being developed before Foucault by the Italian Autonomists from whence Negri came) with a revolutionary analysis of class and capitalist economy in the post-industrial age, suggests that core elements of modern capitalism, such as the welfare state, are not just concessions, but should be seen as achievements of working class struggle. Certainly, the welfare state was not just formed as a knee jerk reaction, it was constituted by what came before it, such as (to take my own British context) the autonomous network of working class welfare organisations that constituted the mutualist movement – credit unions, building societies, friendly societies, hospital contributory schemes, etc. – and the demands of the chartists and the trades unions.

What is revolution for Foucault? It is contingent, slippery, hard to define, but never impossible. Although “more often one is dealing with mobile and transitory points of resistance”, there will be times when these nodes of revelatory force begin to grow, proliferate and interlink. In the same way that the state tries to pull together and consolidate its web of institutional tools in times of crisis, so too can “the strategic codification of these points of resistance” lead to “great radical ruptures, massive binary divisions” (ibid).

The main point here is this: “there is no single locus of great Refusal, no soul of revolt, or pure law of the revolutionary” (ibid). What Foucault makes clear, perhaps painfully so, is that to imagine utter liberation is as impossible as to imagine utter domination. As long as we retain the ability to think freedom, we have not been utterly dominated – if we were we would not have the perspective of freedom from which to express our ‘unfreedom’, to paraphrase Žižek. Similarly, liberation is always perversely constituted by authority and domination.

The Limits of Discourse

So Foucault does allow revolution, and indeed he encourages and emphasises resistance. The real question, if we wish to look critically at Foucault, is ‘what is he missing?’ I would suggest that one such lack in Foucault’s historiographical approach is that he focuses too much on what certain groups of powerful people say about themselves, and not as much as would be ideal on what they actually did. I am thinking here, by way of example, of his work on neoliberalism. Looking at the massive discrepancy between the professed ideologies and goals of neoliberalism (a global equilibrium of free and open markets) and its actual practices (intense economic protectionism for the core of capitalism, facilitating intensified exploitation of the periphery) is, I suggest, much more productive in analysing the situation. However this is not to say that analysing what neoliberals say about themselves is worthless by default as, at very least, such a thing is necessary in order to advance upon this discrepancy in the first place. Should we blame Foucault for merely choosing a field of study, a research proposal – that of power, knowledge and their role in subjectification? Of course not. Should we be careful how we use, or dismiss, the ideas we has offered us? Of course.

Foucault’s focus on discursive power thoroughly lent itself to the growth of ‘identity politics’ and the ‘new social movements’ – groups whose oppression may be linked to economic class divisions, but which clearly perpetuates itself through many non-economic structures, such as language, family, media and civil institutions (the latter of which, after the Macpherson Report into the murder of Stephen Lawrence, can now officially be ‘institutionally racist’; a surprising, if long overdue, mainstream recognition of this view of discursive power). Clearly identity politics cannot lead to a systematic anti-capitalist revolution, as Marxists like to remind us, and we must admit that the same is true of Foucauldian theory if taken, in complete contradiction to the Foucauldian methodology, as a totalising theory of society. But should we denounce the whole movement of identity politics, and also the theory that supports it, just for this reason? Movements based around race, gender, sexuality, ecology, etc, have done incredible things for society in general, from workplaces to left wing organisations, and they cannot be dismissed out of hand just as we should be careful to defend the importance of a scientific understanding of the capitalist mode of production.

Towards an Inclusive and Systematic Radicalism

What we need now (and the occupy movement is coming, in its rare best moments, tantalisingly close to this) is the unification of these approaches – the discursive and the economic – in a mutual embrace, an alliance which is imperative both strategically and ethically, which creates safe spaces free from discrimination and prejudice in both explicit and insidious forms, something that requires intense openness of awareness and conscience, but an alliance which must also tie this discursive sensibility to an understanding of systemic economic exploitation. Perhaps here I might risk a venture into the unFoucauldian and suggest the dialectic as an appropriate model (tactically if not philosophically) for this potential way ahead.

This idea is not just intensely possible with a Foucauldian base, as Antonio Negri is showing in his writing, it is even implicit in the fact that Foucault chooses to draw a division between ‘power’ and ‘resistance’ which would be arbitrary if not for his implicit recognition of a qualitative difference between the two, between the power of oppression and the power of freedom. Spectres of Marx abound in Foucault. I admit that perhaps this is an optimistic reading of Foucault, but that such a thing is possible is precisely my point.

Foucault is anti-essentialist and anti-utopian, but not anti-revolutionary. He merely redefines the realistic limits of revolution. This undermines self-proclaimed theorists of revolution, but I claim that this only does a service to the Left. The Foucauldian challenge is to ask how we are to use this more honest and rigorous account of power relations to inform emancipatory movements that are aware of both discursive and economic forms of oppression and that do not become corrupted, or even implode, under their own utopian denial of the persistence of antagonism.

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[1] See Hardt and Negri, Commonwealth p.31: “In our view, though, Foucault’s analyses of bodies and power in this phase of his work, following a line initiated by Merleau-Ponty, really make good on some of the intuitions that the young Marx could not completely grasp about the need to bring the critique of property, along with all the transcendental structures of capitalist society, back to the phenomenology of bodies.”


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