Marx and Foucault

Unemployed Negativity has a post up relating to how Foucault has much to say in light of the recent return to Marx:

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.”

I’m sorry for the longish quotation. But this actually took up quite a bit of my political philosophy course in the last month: the relation between Foucault (read through “Society Must Be Defended”–alas, not his 1978-9 course) and Marx. Since the theme of the course, broadly, was equality, my tact was to ask if equality was itself a remnant of juridical power and whether it makes sense to discuss it in Foucault, where discussions about the care of the self and freedom dominate—not equality.

Clearly, in Marx, equality is juridical, since it’s the loss of the state that finally brings about a form of equality, once the class structure disappears. In any event, Foucault in SMBD critiques Marxism for being its economism and for being a remnant of bi-national struggles within the state structures of early modernity. But clearly, this does not mean Foucault has nothing to say about economism, merely that Foucault is identifying multiple genealogies of power in the shadow of which Marx’s economism can’t help but look reductive. (It also seems he took glee in his lectures poking his students, many of whom were of the Marxian left.) In this light, reading Rancière’s Hatred of Democracy in the last week was particularly interesting–since he clearly borrows from Foucault at points, while pushing Marxism to move beyond Leninist structures that remain fearful of the masses.


  1. [quote]Clearly, in Marx, equality is juridical, since it’s the loss of the state that finally brings about a form of equality, once the class structure disappears.[/quote]

    I’m not aware that Marx has a notion of equality after the class structure disappears; the notion of equality is an artifact of the commodification of labor power.

  2. Maybe this is old-hat to some, but one thing I’ve recently discovered and found incredibly interesting is how Foucault actually compared his insights into power (ascending, productive, dispersed, heterogenous) to those of Marx. Check out the “Meshes of Power” lecture Foucault delivered in Bahia, Brazil (during military dictatorship no less!) just around the same time as the Society Must be Defended lectures. He discusses at quite some length sections from Volume II of Capital that discuss slavery and armies, riffing from Marx: “We cannot therefore speak of power, if we want to do an analysis of power, but we must speak of powers and try to localize them in their historical and geographical specificity” (p. 156 from Power, Knowledge, Space eds. Crampton and Elden 2007).

    One can also think of how both Marx and Foucault believed freedom was an inherent aspect of power if one compares it to how Marx conceived of the “double freedom” of laborers to sell their labor-power.

    Not saying there the sam–just sayin’.

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