In defense of Foucault: the incessancy of resistance

by Simon Thorpe on February 1, 2012

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Revolution is entirely possible within Foucault’s theory; our task is to take on the challenge posed by his more honest account of power-as-social-relation.

By Simon Thorpe

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)

In response to Jerome’s recent article, Foucault and the revolutionary self-castration of the Left, I primarily wish to address the claim made by Jerome 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 and his ‘genealogical’ investigations into power and ethics, 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. 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 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

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. 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 an alliance which is imperative both strategically and ethically, creating safe spaces free from discrimination and prejudice in both explicit and insidious forms, but an alliance which must also tie this discursive sensibility to an understanding of systemic economic exploitation.

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.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Tony Cochran February 1, 2012 at 23:28

Excellent rebuttal to the cited article. I think that Foucault, and I have read a great deal of Foucault, is completely compatible with the ‘class-based materialism’ of Marx. In fact, of all the ‘French soups’ of Continental philosophy, I find Foucault to be the clearest in his analysis of concrete institutions: the family, the prison, the town, the clinic, etc. He is one of the clearest ‘philosophers’ I have ever read, and the argument made in the cited article that he is ‘unintelligible’ seems unfounded at best, as he writes about the material structures and processes, and then follows those process along to see ‘where they go.’ For instance, his analysis of the panoptic system and its early invention in the prison is a great note of how ‘the castles of the medieval period have become the castles of our conscience.’ With this, Foucault demonstrates clearly how this techno-control mechanism – the internalization of the observers’ gaze – is used widely in the factory, and now more broadly and generally in capitalism. A concrete example of this ‘internalized gaze’ resulting from the technology of panoptics is a grocery store, where shoplifting is often prevented by cameras that aren’t even on – the shopper (or ‘thrift’ shopper) is unaware whether they are being watched, but the effect is a sense of ‘being watched’ by possibility – this is a feature of capitalism. And a real point of resistance.


Martin Paul Eve February 2, 2012 at 08:19

Thanks for this post; good stuff. I just wanted to add a few more citations/points of contact that may be of interest for further thinking on this.

Revolution may be possible for Foucault, but after his experience with the Iranian revolution [1], he radically tones down his optimism towards revolutionary success. In Foucault’s new against-the-grain later reading of Kant on revolution, “it is not the revolutionary process itself which is important” and “Never mind whether it succeed or fail, that is nothing to do with progress or a sign that there is no progress”. In Foucault’s re-working of Kant, “What matters in the Revolution is not the Revolution itself, it is what takes place in the heads of the people who do not make it or in any case are not its principle actors, it is the relation they themselves experience with this Revolution of which they are not themselves the active agents”. [2]

It’s also worth pointing out that Foucault also saw, in his introduction to Canguilhem’s The Normal and the Pathological, the notion of “hope” for a predestined “revolution” as a specific phase of Enlightenment, preceded by the coming-into-being of “scientific and technical rationality” as a component of “productive forces” and “political decisions”, followed by “a way to question the limits and powers it has abused. Reason – the despotic enlightenment”.[3]

Although it’s cliched, one does also have to ask “which Foucault?” when working on this. It’s probably also worth asking, “which Enlightenment?” This later stance tends towards seeing revolution as relevant only in its indirect effect upon the network of power relations. Whether that will swing for, or against, the aims of the revolutionary goal, as far as I know, though, is not specified by Foucault.

1. Colin Gordon, “Question, ethos, event: Foucault on Kant and Enlightenment,” in Foucault’s New Domains, ed. Mike Gane and Terry Johnson (London: Routledge, 1993), 22-23.
2. Michel Foucault, “Kant on Enlightenment and revolution,” in Foucault’s New Domains, ed. Mike Gane and Terry Johnson (London: Routledge, 1993), 15.
3. Michel Foucault, “Introduction,” in The Normal and the Pathological, by Georges Canguilhem, 4th ed. (New York: Zone Books, 1998), 10-11.


Mark Mc Hale February 2, 2012 at 11:56

Loved the article


Torn Halves February 2, 2012 at 12:14

This is nice: “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?’” But what you say later seems to contradict this. You/Foucault set freedom against domination, implying a binary opposition of freedom and power (if I am not mistaken), and you refer to “the utopian denial of the persistence of antagonism”. So a badly fragmented present gets projected into the future eternity and the idea of reconciliation is ruled out. If it is a choice between perpetual revolution and a lifetime of TV dinners, I am not sure I won’t choose the TV dinners. If we have no perspective on a reconciled order (however provisional it might be), we are (I suggest) lost. It is a bad theory if it tries to persuade us that our most heartfelt impulses are theoretically unfounded and must be denied.


Andrew Stergiou February 2, 2012 at 19:33

“hear hear” some said, but without being an anarchist, I would have to defend anarchists on this point against Foucault as he is is a bit of a deceptive dishonest twit, if you begin by premising what you premise based on compromise. those results can also be compromised and as such diluted, and then diluted again and again which in the case of anarchist premise will be a akin to the libertarianism of Ron Paul or Barry Goldwater another libertarian, if Anarchists begin by stating they wish in the tradition no god no master, a classless egalitarian society I can not argue with them about that where what is left is the means and ways. With that twit Foucault though he is brilliant he is a bit of a wanker speaking out of both sides of petty bourgeois mouth. Most of the anarchist advances that mirrored Foucault from the 60s 70s etc have been compromised because they forgot the basic principles outlined in “Revolucion dans le Revolucion, that such compromises with end goals don’t merely become compromised in theory alone but in the establishment of vested interest of what established as a proto-state e.g. a cooperative as in communes, kibbutzes, corporatism collectives where you have insiders and outsiders.

Where old farts are not desired by communes (Kibbutz) if those people are over the age of 25-32 or do not have the most desirable abilities (disbled-handicapped) . The capitalist adaptations of progressive ideas except by perverse capitalist interpretations merely confuses the issues when others then must distinguish themselves so as to maintain a sense of usefulness propriety and principle where anarchist have been found mostly as very bad administrative bureaucrats.

In all honesty for the most part the “new Left” which was created by those like Foucault has been an international disaster as it has little bearing on the working class and is more of a source for all sorts of divisiveness, discord and failure.


dave February 2, 2012 at 23:32

A point and a question:

First, the anarchist dictum about power is neither deluded nor obfuscatory nor certainly an indulgence, saying so is deluded, obfuscatory and a conceit. If one accepts the idea of the social revolution being a self-emancipation, that is the self-rule of those who know only what it is to be ruled, know power as something wielded against them, then the success of the revolution is dependent on the control of power, or perhaps better put–the control of power-over. The point of the revolution is the formation of a classless society. This idea is combustively incompatible with the relationship of ruler and ruled, leader and led, compeller and compelled. The question might be what institutions of power dilution are we willing to live with, or what brakes are we willing to put on administrative institutions, but it cannot ever be what forms of power are we willing to live with. The elimination of all forms of hierarchy and authority save those which are freely ceded, instantly revocable, and for the benefit of the ceders and not the person[s] to whom the responsibility is delegated, is the sina qua non of socialist revolution. Or as an anarchist [sorry but cant remember name] once put it: The revolution signals the end of the governance of men, and the beginning of the administration of things.

That to me is what the revolution IS.

How would the author and commentors like to put their theories to the tst? Rather than speculate about the veracity of F’s ideas, how about measuring them against the event which played a large part in forming those ideas? Read Kristin Ross’ brilliant MAY 1968, AND ITS AFTERLIVES. i think her arguments about what has happened in the aftermath sorts out a lot of what one reads above.


Simon Thorpe February 8, 2012 at 13:00

Martin, great extra evidence to get us further lost in the Foucauldian maze, thank you! The idea that “What matters in the Revolution is not the Revolution itself” actually suggests to me a rather optimistic position, not in relation to a stubbornly utopian belief in revolution, but in relation to actually existing revolution, which is yet to bring emancipation. I much prefer Foucault’s position to both defeatism (an understandable reaction when viewing the history of revolution) and utopianism (the unrealistic, almost anti-historical belief in the possibility of a sudden rupture with and away from power).

A predestined revolution?? Foucault-turned-Nostradamus? Foucault’s relationship to the Enlightenment, and humanism also, utterly fascinates me. I love that Foucault once said something like (I can’t find the source now – I hope I didn’t dream this!) ‘Habermas is much further from me than I am from Habermas.’ How can he still be considered antihumanist if he believes in such an Enlightened revolution of counter-rationality? Perhaps if we agreed to name his proposition ‘anti-rationality’, then yes fine, he is an antihumanist. But what you describe, Martin, and what I understand of late Foucault, suggests much more of a post-rationality, and thus a critical posthumanist position.

So much more work still to be done on this man!


Simon Thorpe February 8, 2012 at 13:07

Torn Halves, there is absolutely no reconciliation in the absolute, this is key, but we can still hold on to the idea of reconciliation, as a fluid process rather than utopia (sorry to keep overusing this word – it’s very useful in this context!). You are absolutely right to point out, though, the difficulty of the fact that Foucault both posits power as utterly pervasive social relation, and then makes the counterintuitively arbitrary divide between ‘power’ and ‘resistance’, domination and freedom. This is why I and many others claim Foucault is so much more compatible with Marx than some allow, Foucault himself amongst them. And this is also why I ask: “what forms of power do we want to live with and which forms do we wish to limit or prevent?” This seems the best way to articulate what Foucault seems, to me, to be trying to do with this division. The tiny snippet of his discussion with Chomsky that is available on Youtube, and is embedded in Jerome’s original article, is relevant here. Foucault tries to emphasise that discourse analysis is so important for revolution and for society because if you’re not aware of the way power infiltrates and infuses society through discourse, then you can hardly hope to avoid simply recreating the same institutional power structures you had before the revolution. Debates in feminism are, I think, some of the most powerful investigations, and proofs, of this. Socialism, though more predisposed to feminism than capitalism, would, without the important developments in feminist discourse analysis, inevitably continue to enforce some or many patriarchal forms of power without realising it, despite its best intentions and its moves towards economic equality. Women would still be treated as inferior and less capable through language, through the epithets used to describe them, through stereotyping gender-based jokes, advertising and policy. The same holds for society and power relations much more generally.


Simon Thorpe February 8, 2012 at 13:09

Dave, just like Torn Halves above, you address one of the key difficulties in
Foucault’s relationship with resistance. In many way this simply comes down to definitions of power, and which are more useful. My interpretation of your position (please correct me) is that it is more useful to call some social relations, all of which we think are bad and want to be rid of, ‘power’. To take a less polemical stance than in the article, I would say that this is not necessarily invalid. It seems to allow clear distinctions to be made and surely clear strategy and policy would then follow? However I see advantages to the Foucauldian position I attempt to describe in the article. You yourself seem to admit in your comment that what we are indeed talking about are different forms of ‘power’, some of which we want to be rid of and some we want to keep. You argue for “The elimination of all forms of hierarchy and authority SAVE THOSE which are freely ceded, instantly revocable, and for the benefit of the ceders and not the person[s] to whom the responsibility is delegated” [capitals added of course for emphasis]. So you do want to keep some forms of hierarchy and authority. I argue that to claim that we can somehow quarantine ‘power’ in its entirety is to whitewash the many power relations that will inevitably remain, and thus will not in fact allow the hoped for clear strategy and policy to emerge, rather this will be hindered. Instead, if we acknowledge power-as-social-relation, I believe this will allow us much more clearly to recognise when bad forms of power begin to creep in to our horizontal, reciprocal, associational forms of democratic, emancipatory self-power, or power-over-self.

Many thanks again for the debate!

In friendship.


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