In defense of Foucault: the incessancy of resistance

  • February 1, 2012

Intellectuals & Ideas

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.

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.

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Simon Thorpe

Simon Thorpe is the managing editor of the Birkbeck Law Review.

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