Foucault’s lesson: guillotining the king once and for all

  • April 2, 2015

Capitalism & Crisis

The maturity of political thought does not consist in ‘leaping’ from the streets into the institutions, but in cultivating a new political imagination.

Translation of an essay that was originally published in Spanish on the eve of the thirtieth anniversary of Foucault’s death, translated by Richard McAleavey of Cunning Hired Knaves.

At the end of 1977, socialists and communists were arguing over the development of a ‘common program’ to be presented jointly in the French general elections of March 1978. The moment had come, some thought, to translate the May ’68 revolt into an electoral and institutional victory through the necessary ‘unity of the left’. It was time for  ‘politics with a capital P’, for seriousness, after self-management, direct democracy and self-organization had proven a shoddy means of transforming reality.


Photo: Michel Foucault insults the police (by Elie Kagan, 1972)

At the same time, two publications were organizing a meeting with people who were committed to interventions in specific social spheres such as education, health care, urban planning, the environment and labor. Michel Foucault, perhaps the brightest star in the intellectual firmament of the time, attended the meeting and signed up for the ‘neighborhood medicine’ workshop. Le Nouvel Observateur (no. 670) recorded his impressions at the end of the sessions in a short interview titled “A Cultural Mobilization.”

Among other things, Foucault said:

“I write and work for people like those who are in that workshop, new people who are posing new questions. The questions that ought to interest intellectuals are the questions of nurses or prison guards. They are infinitely more important than the curses that the professionals of Parisian intellectual life cast upon one another.”

“During the two days of intense and profoundly political debates and discussions (insofar as they questioned relations of power, knowledge, money), none of the thirty participants in the ‘neighborhood medicine’ group used the words ‘March 1978’ or ‘elections’. This is important and significant. Innovation no longer occurs through parties, unions, bureaucracies or politicians. It consists of an individual, moral concern. We no longer ask political theory what we should do, tutors are no longer necessary. This change is ideological and profound.”

“A major movement has emerged over the last 15 years, for which anti-psychiatry is the model and May ’68, an event. Among the strata that once guaranteed the happiness of society (doctors, for example), there are now entire populations that are becoming unstable, that are on the move, on a quest, beyond the customary vocabulary and structures. I would not dare call it a cultural revolution, but undoubtedly a cultural mobilization. It cannot be recovered politically: at no moment do they feel that the problem for them would change if there was a change of government. And I am glad of that.”

It was a highly provocative gesture. For the greatest philosophers, a simple workshop is more relevant than the argument over the ‘common program’ of socialists and communists. It is this workshop that connects directly with May ‘68 and not the potential electoral victory of the left front. Political invention comes from a small group of people who appear indifferent to the eventual change in government. It is as though ‘rising to the occasion’ consisted of positioning oneself way below, as if ‘politics with a capital P’ were in reality written in lower case.

Provocative, but not whimsical. Foucault’s gesture was perfectly consistent with his theoretical developments at the time. What, then, did Foucault understand as power, if it was not a matter of political power? How did he think about resistance outside the party paradigm? What to him was an intellectual contribution to emancipatory practices, if it did not have to do with signing manifestos or giving one’s opinion on the present moment?

Power, knowledge and resistance are three fundamental problems that existed throughout the career of this French philosopher. I am not a specialist in his work, nor would I dare attempt to string together, in a few lines, the full complexity of his thinking on these problems. But I would like to point out a few things in order to try and understand better where the value of this ‘cultural mobilization’ lay and in what sense I think we still need it today.

First of all, the question of power

“In both political thought and analysis, the king has yet to be guillotined,” Foucault wrote in 1976. What did he mean with this? Foucault alludes here to the figure of a majestic power, concentrated in a particular place, always distant and on high, radiating its will downward and vertically upon its subjects/victims. The king may be replaced by the state, the rule of law or class domination, but the way of understanding power is reproduced: a kind of “control room” situated at the apex of society. Foucault’s entire body of work seeks to break with this mental and conceptual scheme.

Instead of a power that is concentrated in or derived from major figures (the state, law, class), Foucault proposes that we think of it as a ‘social field of forces’. Power does not descend from a sovereign point. Rather, it comes from all sides: a thousand relations of forces passing through and configuring our ways (practices) of understanding education, health, the city, sexuality and labor.

These relations of force are not merely codified in legal terms (what one can and cannot do according to the law). They consist of an infinite plurality of extra-legal procedures that operate by adjusting bodies and behaviors to norms, which differ from laws. Let us think, for example, of a prison. Its explicit law says that it is a space for the reintroduction of the prisoner into society, but a thousand everyday procedures produce something rather different: a branding, a stigmatization of the criminal as criminal, an exclusion. The exclusively legal analysis of power is blind to these determinant forces.

In this social field of forces there are, no doubt, ‘points of special density’: the state, the law, societal hegemonies… These are the major nodes in the network of power. But Foucault proposes that we think of them by radically inverting the typical perspective of ‘terminal forms’. That is, not so much causes as effects of the interplay of relations of force. Not so much primary and generating instances, but secondary and derivative ones. Profiles, contours, tips of an iceberg. State apparatuses, laws and societal hegemonies are the visible figures that stand out from the dark backdrop of everyday battles at a permanent boiling point.

These are terminal but not passive forms. The visible figures of power are the result of the social field of forces and sustained by it. But at the same time, they fix it (though never definitively). That is, they set in chain different concrete and local relations of force, thereby producing all-embracing effects and overall strategies. A very clear quote from Foucault in this regard, in an argument with the dominant Marxism of the 1970s:

It seems to me that it is not the bourgeois class (or whichever of its elements) that imposes the entirety of the relations of power. Let us say that this class takes advantage of them, it utilizes them, it modifies them, it tries to intensify some and attenuate others. There is not, then, a single focal point from which all of them emanate, but rather an interlinking of power relations which, on the whole, make the domination of one social class over another, of one group over another, possible.

In Jordi Évole’s famous interview with Pepe Mujica, the Catalan journalist asked the Uruguayan president if he had fulfilled his electoral programme: “Not at all,” Mujica responded, laughing. “Do you think that the president is a king who does what he wants?” He imparted a little ‘Foucauldian lesson’, explaining how what political power can and cannot do is conditioned by the social field of forces (which includes the legal framework that neoliberalism erects to meet its ends, the very desires and expectations of subjects in society, and so on).

Power is not an object to be found in a privileged place that can be occupied or put under siege. It is here that the hegemonic revolutionary paradigm of the 20th century enters into a crisis. Without a relationship with the social field of forces, this place is empty and this power is impotent. This all needs to be rethought, not to discard the revolutionary demand, but to reactivate it from a new perspective.

Second, the question of resistance

“Wherever there is power, there is resistance” is a famous Foucauldian maxim. The idea that power is not concentrated in a single point (the leaders, the political caste, etc.) but is instead generated, springing from every corner of society, is not a pessimistic thesis on the omnipotence of domination. On the contrary: to define power as a relation of forces means understanding it as the relation between one action and another action. One action of command and another action that responds to it. Force is not exercised upon a passive object, but upon another force that is always capable of action and a response that is unpredictable.

In an interview in 1977, Foucault names all these resistances as “the plebs.” First of all, the plebs is a concrete, local and situated response to a procedure of power that is equally concrete, local and situated. There, in fact, lies its potency: it responds to power wherever it is exercised and not elsewhere. “The plebs is less the exterior of the relations of power than its underside, its limit, its counterpoint. It is what responds to any advance of power with a movement to rid itself of it.”

Secondly, the plebs is not a sociological reality (those who share a social condition or interests), but a breakdown in given identities. It is not the people, nor the poor, nor the excluded: “there is something plebeian in bodies, in souls, in individuals, in the proletariat, also in the bourgeoisie, but expanding out in various forms, energies and singularities.” There is no binary division between the bloc of power and the bloc of resistances: power and resistance pass through everything and everyone.

Finally, the plebs is not a substance, but an action. “The plebs does not exist but there is a plebs.” It is like when we say “friendship does not exist, but there is evidence of friendship.” It is something that happens or simply does not exist. It is a fact, a manifestation, an event.

Can a mobile, heterogeneous and complex reality such as the plebs be organized? The answer is yes. Just as power interlinks different concrete and local relations of force in a chain that produces all-embracing strategies, resistances can be ‘strategically codified’ into producing general effects: revolutions.

The question is how. Doing so entails avoiding at least two shortcomings when thinking about organization: 1) simplification (only that which is identical can be organized), and 2) separation (to be organized one must ‘move out’ of the concrete places where resistances unfold). The ‘political subjects’ that we have known throughout the 20th century (the political party and the armed group) follow this model: thinking of themselves as the head and the articulation of the resistances, building themselves in reality as spaces that, in reality, are homogeneous, closed and isolated from the worlds in which resistances live.

Thus, it would entail re-imagining organization in terms of ‘circulation’ between the different points of resistance. To assume the dispersed and specifically located character of resistances not as an obstacle to be gotten rid of, but as a potency. To think not in terms of how to pull together the resistances under centralized forms without any organic relation to their worlds, but of how to build “transversal links from knowledge to knowledge, from one point of politicization to another, as points of crossing and exchange.”

The plebs becomes organized through communicating and expanding its practices of resistance. If Foucault enjoyed those 1978 workshops so much, it was no doubt because they opened up a space where resistances could meet up and share without setting aside their differences and their own worlds.

And finally, the question of knowledge

“Each time I tried to carry out a theoretical work, I did it starting from elements of my own experience, always in relation to processes that I saw unfolding upon me,” Foucault explains. To elucidate lived experience, Foucault could go very far in time and space (remote centuries, obscure figures, lost texts). But all of his erudition is placed in the service of thinking about the “problems, anguishes, wounds and worries” of the present.

It is the difference between thinking streetwise and thinking literally. In thinking literally, books send you off to other books. In thinking streetwise, books resound with the problems of individual and collective life.

One emerges stronger, more intelligent, more joyous after reading Foucault — and yet he only complicates matters further. How is this possible? My intuition tells me this: joy in thinking has nothing to do with how comfortable the conclusions you reach are, but rather with the fact that we discover that we are capable of reaching a place by ourselves. It is an experience that leaves a lasting imprint: if we have proven capable of thinking something for ourselves (no matter what it is), we can do so again.

It is the opposite of what Foucault called ‘the prophetic stance’, which he often associated with Marxism: a mobilizing thought that in reality achieves the demobilization of thought. How? First, by confusing historical necessity and the goals to be reached, as if these were already written in the very course of the real (‘the end of capitalism is nigh’, etc.). Second, by covering up “the dark and solitary aspect of struggles”: the difficulties, contradictions and grey areas of reality, the phases of silence and invisibility in which a struggle does not take a leading role in the media or receive the spotlight of attention. And third, by endlessly seeking out our adherence to certain theses, but without demanding any kind of personal labor on our part.

Instead of the prophetic stance of superiority, which is like a voice-over that describes what is happening without us ever knowing where it comes from, Foucault understands theory as a ‘toolbox’. Not as a theoretical system that is forever valid, but as an instrument forged to decipher the logic pertaining to a concrete relation of forces. Not as a closed and perfected diagnosis, but as lenses that one must learn to focus for oneself. An unfinished thinking that requires (in both senses) the activation of the other. “I would like to produce truth effects that can be used in a battle that is possible, conducted by whoever might desire it, in forms yet to be invented and organizations yet to be defined. I leave that freedom at the end of my speaking to whoever wants to do something with it.”

The intellectual (who can be anyone) who understands theory as a toolbox is not a guru, an oracle or a guide, but rather what Foucault called a ‘specific intellectual’. Not the spokesperson for universal values, but for concrete situations. Not one who traces lines to be followed, but who brings tools that can be used freely. Not the voice-over that knows everything, but the prolonging of the potency of a struggle.

Thinking in plural

In those 1978 workshops, the discussions that unfolded were ‘profoundly political’. Nonetheless, Foucault preferred to speak of ‘a cultural mobilization’. Why? I think that what Foucault perceived was an alteration in the ways people were seeing and thinking. That is, a cultural or paradigmatic change. Certain elements of the ‘new political imagination’ that he sought.

Perhaps we could then define one of these elements as thinking in the plural tense. For example, not understanding power as a monopoly of the state but as a social field of forces. Not understanding resistances as a monopoly of political parties, but as possibilities in the reach of whomever, in whatever place. Not understanding knowledge as a monopoly held by specialists and the Voices of Explanation, but as a toolbox with neither author nor owner, of which we can all make use and to which we can all contribute.

Our historical moment is of course very different from the 1970s, but is there not still an overwhelming necessity to think in the plural tense, without a center? To think and practice social change, not as something that passes through a single plane (parties-elections-political power) but through a plurality of times, spaces and actors? One criteria for distinguishing between ‘old politics’ and ‘new politics’ could be, rather than a temporal criteria, this key: thinking about oneself (as the center) vs. thinking in plural.

In this way, ‘old politics’ would be that which constantly re-centralizes, absorbing all social energies into a few times, places and actors. These few centers would accumulate power at the cost of the passivity and departure of everyone else, always in the name of efficiency and the like. On the other hand, ‘new politics’ would be that which empties the center time and again by empowering the remainder. That which opens possibilities for political intervention instead of corralling them into privileged spaces. That which multiplies the capacities of whomever to do, to say, or to think, instead of producing spectators. That which activates conversations and not monologues.

One of the Foucauldian lessons that we can pick up today is that the maturity of political thought does not consist of passing from the small to the great or in ‘leaping’ from the streets into the institutions (or vice versa), but in guillotining the king once and for all and inventing language and maps for pushing through a change that will be (in) plural or not at all.

Amador Fernández-Savater

Amador Fernández-Savater is an independent researcher and co-editor of Acuarela Libros. He maintains the blog Interferencias for El Diario.

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