Society Must be Defended Part 02: Power
About Society Must Be Defended Part 02: Power
In this section of a close reading of Lecture one we will discuss Power. Today, Foucault is most known for his conception of Power and the way that Power is Contested through discourse. Identity Politics is a prime example of the sort of discourse power contest that Foucault outlines in this section of Lecture one.
Notes and Quotes from Foucualt, M., 1997 Society Must be Defended Picador, New York. These notes were written in 2013 when studying for a thesis on conspiracy theories. Foucault is a complex thinker and demands serious attention when being read. I am performing a close reading here of the first lecture in the book. Foucault’s lectures were tape recorded by students and the transcripts of those recordings have been used for create Society Must Be Defended.
Click here for part 01
“What is power?” is the wrong question though! I think we should be asking “what is Order” as power in a concrete sense is predicated on Order. It is interesting that Foucault begins this lecture with a discussion of Free Masonry, given that their motto is “Order out of Chaos.”
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Power is a big deal for Foucault. One of the aims of this close reading of Foucault, is not simply to understand his thought, but to understand how he has been used in our contemporary analysis of identity. Identity politics has become a major political problem – ranging from the minor (transgendered bathrooms) to the major (Islamic State Terrorism). Some have laid the current strife at the feet of Post-Modernity and the notions espoused by Foucault’s contemporaries. We must seek to learn from them to understand what it is they said that has led to our current discontent. We must ask what role Foucault played in this.
It is essential to seek out what we take from these thinkers. What were their powerful insights? We can do this by parsing out their propagandistic tendencies. It is not enough to call Post-Modernism one homogeneous body of work and dismiss it wholesale. We now face the unenviable task of finding the treasure in the trash…
What is Power?
Out of context, the quote below can be twisted and turned and used to promote the post-modern resentment towards the Western culture. There are some clues as to why Foucault may not wish to link power directly to the Economy – one of which is the fact that already in this lecture Foucault has delivered a harsh and accurate assessment of the veneer of the “science” that Marxism attempts to push in lieu of an organic relationship between human volition and reality.
What is power? Or rather – given that the question “what is power?” is obviously a theoretical question that would provide an answer to everything which is just what I don’t want to do – the issue is to determine what are, in their mechanisms, effect, their relations, the various power-apparatuses that operate at various levels of society, in such very different domains and with so many different extensions? Roughly speaking, I think that what is at stake in all this: can the analysis of power, or the analysis of powers, be in one way or another deduced from the economy (p.13).
Another clue is that Foucault tells us directly that power cannot be understood by gazing directly at it. He wants to find the “powers,” the various contests that occur, the domains in which these context are played out. Foucault, is perhaps, driving at is the idea that the economy is an indicator; of the set of power games that are being played out in society.
Not A Theory of Everything
Importantly, Foucault is resisting here the creation of a theory of everything. This is interesting to grapple with given that we now have the benefit of hind sight. Foucault didn’t have the same appeal that Thomas Paine for example had. He was clothed in the garbs of the academy and say high in the ivory tower.
We don’t know much of his personal life, but we do know that he was incredibly wealthy. Foucault’s oeuvre today is housed in the set of high theory, critique of it revolves around the fact that “there is no outside Foucault, everything can be explained within Foucault.” That is, Foucault is often accused of providing an answer to everything.
So on some level Foucault was able to foresee how his work would be used and twisted and he did two things to prime that. Firstly he voiced a resistance to his work being used to explain power in such a way that it is an answer to everything, and secondly, he divorced himself from his work and created a “tool box.” The tool box could be a collection of any and all theory and it could be packed away and then fragments could be produced to solve specific problems at specific points in time. In other words, Foucault preempted the Post-Modern murder of the Author by figuratively (and literally) allowing himself to die before his work could be employed.
Foucault Doesn’t Care
Foucauldian apologists stand proud today, because Foucault followed through. He lived his own particular brand of identity politics in the sense that he left France to pursue Sadomasochism. He also demonstrated just how powerful he was, which is to say not at all, as the figure of author once his work had been released.
Power is the concrete power that any individual can hold, and which he can surrender, either as a whole or in part, so as to constitute a power or a political sovereignty. In the body of theory to which I am referring, the constitution of political power is therefore constituted by this series, or is modeled on a juridical operation similar to an exchange of contracts. There is therefore an obvious analogy, and it runs through all these theories, between power and commodities, between power and wealth (p.13).
Power vs Order
What is power is the wrong question though! I think we should be asking what is Order as power in a concrete sense is predicated on Order. It is interesting that Foucault begins this lecture with a discussion of Free Masonry, given that their motto is “Order out of Chaos.” Perhaps what Foucault is offering here then is a bridge to understanding the manufacture of order through contest of power. He wants to point to the accumulation of wealth as being a source of concentration of power and that is a priori. So we have an axiom we can take from Foucault here: concentration of wealth becomes the concentration of power. This however, is a dangerous axiom and wielded improperly can promote Marxism and the earnest desire to redistribute wealth.
Again though, we need to think about the social order in which that wealth has been facilitated. Simply going to some of the bigger power brokers and draining their accounts does not solve the problem. This is one of the most seductive aspects of Foucault and why he is held in such reverence by those who have read him. Foucault here is implicitly attacking the very system which produces wealth. One might be tempted to even go as far as to say, what Foucault is arguing here is that we need to “Abolish the Fed.”
Abolish the Fed?
Of course, Foucault isn’t arguing that we should abolish the Fed (Federal Reserve Bank of the United States of America), but he is developing a path through which we can begin to understand how our discourse around production and accumulation of wealth is constituted into direct social power. Social power, at a high enough level then becomes political power. This is a great point again to jump off and start digging into theorists such as Bourdieu, who offer a framework for conceptualizing social capital. However, sticking to the task at hand and continuing a close reading of Foucault, what we can immediately take note of is the face that he uses the word “analogy.”
Power in Marxism
The devil is always in the detail, so Foucault at once sets up the fact that power is the accumulation of wealth (a priori and thus axiomatically) and then he tears it down (I’m only speaking analogically). In other words, power – concrete power – can be understood at an individual level, sure. As soon as you attempt to scale it up though you run into problems. I propose this is because power is predicated on Order and Order is not simply the economy. This then brings us nicely to yet another critique of Marxism that Foucault makes in this opening lecture:
[In the] Marxist conception [of power], you have something else that might be called “economic functionality” of power. “Economic functionality” to the extent that the role of power is essentially both to perpetuate the relation of production and to reproduce a class domination that is made possible by the development of the productive forces and the ways they are appropriated. In this case, political power finds its historical raison d’être in the economy (p. 14).
One way of looking at this passage is to think about the progenitor and the antecedent of a thing. In this case the “thing” is power (as we conceptualize it within human and animal interactions) the progenitor for power is, as I am arguing Order, and the antecedent of power is what Foucault suggests the Marxists call “economic functionality.” So that’s a lot to take in, but essentially Foucault is accusing the Marxists of going in the wrong direction. He is accusing them of treating the symptom and not the disease.
Economic Functionality as Power in Marxism
However, at the same time, the relationship between power order and economic functionality is far from straight forward. It is coiled upon itself and deeply intertwined. Thus, power is an indicator of the ability to act in the world in a coherent manner commensurate with understanding or desire. Order is the set of understandings and desires manifest from the always already present chaotic potential of the universe writ large and economic functionality is the specific exercise of power within a particular social framework.
What we could say is my ability to eat depends on my ability to harness social power, and this mean acting in radically different ways if I am in a communist society or if I am in a capitalist society.
Foucault’s own Marxists tendencies are going to start to appear now, because he is turning his gaze towards the most fundamental question that Marx posed: What does the term Alienation mean? Foucault writes:
My research into power is broken into two themes of overarching questions… First: Is power always secondary to the economy? Are it’s finality and function always determined by the economy? Is power’s raise d’être and purpose essentially to serve the economy? It is designed to establish, solidity, perpetuate, and reproduce relations that are characteristic of the economy and essential to it’s workings? Second question: Is power modeled on the commodity? Is power something that can be possessed and acquired, that can be surrendered through a contract or by force, that can be alienated or recuperated, that circulates and fertilizes one region but avoids others? (p. 14).
Foucault then doesn’t buy the notion that the economy is the system of Order and therefore Power in society. Rather he questions what the system actually is that produced the economy as a visible system. This is another clue that Foucault was more aligned with psychoanalysis than with structuralism. These questions are seeking to understand the root of our manner of being within boundaries of ordinance and sub-ordinance. The economy makes this clear and apparent. If you are an employee you are subordinate to a boss or a series of bosses. Yet your power as an individual is not confined to these relationships. So Foucault introduces the concept of Force.
Power abstracted is useful for quickly assessing your role in a particular situation. Do you have the power to act? Can you demand a pay rise from your boss, can you get away with cheating on your wife. Can you successfully provide for your family? These are all questions of your capacity to act – specifically your capacity to act within the boundaries of time and space. A Lord in the 16th century had a much higher chance of successfully cheating on his wife than a 40 something year old in Canada who’s Ashley Madison profile has been leaked.
However, power as an abstraction is also ambivalent. It doesn’t actually describe the relationship of subject and object sufficiently well enough to serve as a metaphor for a natural phenomenon. Foucault knew this and using his genealogy method began to deconstruct the forms of power throughout various constituted societies. That is to say, Victorian Era sexuality vs Grecco-Roman sexuality vs contemporary sexuality. The result of this is that he introduced the concepts of Force and Repression into his theoretical framework:
… Power is not primarily the perpetuation and renewal of economic relations, but that it is primarily, in itself, a relationship of force. Which raises some questions, or rather two questions. If power is exercised, what is the exercise of power? What does it consist of? What is its Mechanism? We have here what I would call an off-the-cuff answer, or at least an immediate response, and it seems to me that this is, ultimately, the answer given by the concrete reality of many contemporary analyses: Power is essentially that which represses. Power is that which represses nature, instincts, a class or individuals (p.15).
Power as Repression
Foucault is building towards his next axiom. That is: “Power is war, the continuation of war by other means.” At this point we can begin to disentangle the complex political aspects of Foucault’s work. He is certainly not a Capitalist. What this concept shows is that rather than the economy order being the constitution of power, the economic order is there to keep power in check. This is a radical idea. Foucault is also separated from traditional Marxism at this point.
He asserts that his contemporaries has determined that power is that which represses. I have shown though that he is building towards the axiom that power is war. War doesn’t simply repress it destroys, it terrifies, it plunders. War is a form of brutal chaos. My question at this stage of understanding if power is war, is this: if you calculate that Foucault’s axiom is correct, are you saying that the strongest will always win out?
If you’ve studied military history then you will know that many a stronger, more well equipped, even more professional army have lost on the battlefield. War is not simply a matter of strength. To successfully wage war there are “rule of engagement.” These may as well be considered “laws of engagement,” as they outline consequences for particular actions that become indisputable. If we consider sport as a model for war, as a “play” version of war (particularly contact sport) then we start to see what it is that Foucault is hinting at. The level of organization and cooperation as well as the notion that both opposing sides are basically adhering to the same set of rules, reveals how dramatically complex this rendering of power is.
Power is not repression, that is an oversimplification. Power is relational. Thus when people adopt the Marxist ideology of the oppressed and the oppressors they fall into the trap of Power simply being the ability to exercise repression.
War – Always and Everywhere
Foucault then, breaks out of the paradigm of power as repression and builds towards his axiom stated above. He continues now by deconstructing the idea of power and repression by asking his second question in relation to force and the enactment thereof:
[Second] if power is indeed the implementation and deployment of a relationship of force, rather than analyzing it in terms of surrender, contract, and alienation, or rather than analyzing it in functional terms as the reproduction of the relations of production, shouldn’t we be analyzing it first and foremost in terms of conflict, confrontation, and war? That would give us an alternative to the first hypothesis – which is that mechanism of power is basically or essentially repression – or a second hypothesis: Power is war, the continuation of war by other means (p.15).
More questions are raised here by this axiom than are answered. However, Foucault is unfolding the depths of relationships that are predicated on force. What we go back to the employee/employer relationship the force factor does not go one way. This opens the door to discourse analysis as the relationship is actually just a story being enacted through two parties who choose to play particular parts.
Politics as an end to War?
I am immediately drawn here to ask whether peace is the opposite of war or if it is a function of war ? George Orwell comes to mind here which his series of axioms set out in 1984 – War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength. The first time you read that your inclined to think of it as biting satire. However, there may be, and in fact there is, much more depth to these axioms. I would even go as far as to say that there is some surface level truths that Orwell is articulating.
Foucault speaks to this question directly:
[Whilst] it is true that political power puts an end to war and establishes or attempts to establish a reign of peace in civil society, it certainly does not do so in order to suspend the effects of power or to neutralize the disequilibrium revealed by the last battle of war. According to this hypothesis, the role of political power is perpetually to use a sort of silent war to reinscribe that relationship of force, and to reinscribe it in institutions, economic inequalities,
language and even the bodies of individuals. This is the initial meaning of our inversion of Clausewitz’s aphorism – politics is the continuation of war by other means. Politics in other words, sanctions and reproduces the disequilibrium of forces manifested in war (pp.15-16).
Reich, Nietzsche and the Convenience of Hypothesis
Foucault now works hard to reveal the great thinkers who have developed extant grand theories of power. Nietzsche is perhaps an obvious target for Foucault given the extreme influence he derived from the German philosopher. Reich however is a more complex and difficult thinker. Today Reich is largely diminished from the public purvey. An acolyte of Freud and the developer of Orgone energy he is one of the original alternative scientists of the twentieth century. Unlike Tesla though, his fan base is small and marginalized, even and perhaps especially during the 1970s when Foucault was delivering this particular lecture.
It is then another clue as to the deep root of psychoanalysis that Foucault has branched out of. Importantly, it is these psychoanalytic insights that allows Foucault to really reveal the underlying shadows of power that form the current of the river of society.
In short then, the two grand hypothesis that Foucault lays out are: 1) the mechanism of power is repression; and 2) the basis of the power-relationship lies in a warlike clash between forces. Foucault writes:
So you see, one we try to get away from economistic schemata in our attempt to analyze power, we immediately find ourselves faced with two grand hypotheses; according to one, the mechanism of power is repression – for the sake of convenience, I will call this Reich’s hypothesis, if you like – and according to the second, the basis of the power-relationship lies in a warlike clash between forces – for the sake of convenience, I will call this Nietzsche’s hypothesis. The two hypotheses are not irreconcilable; on the contrary, there seems to be a fairly logical connection between the two. After all, isn’t repression the political outcome of war, just as oppression was, in the classical theory of political right, the result of abuse of sovereignty within the juridical domain? (p.16).
Final Thoughts on Lecture 01
This article and the previous article on Society Must be Defended start to demonstrate the complexities that run throughout Foucault’s thought. Yes, he is modular, he shifts and changes depending on the context. Yes, he rejects a through line in his work that could propagate a grand theory. But… he also retains his world view throughout all of his work. I argue that he was deeply interested in the underlying relationships between the role of the individual acting within a series of increasingly complex social systems.
This method of viewing the world does diminish the influence of ideologies that are abstracted from nature. I have focused heavily in this article and the last on Marxism, but the same can be said for Capitalism, Feudalism or Anarchy. They are all abstracted from nature. This leads to easy simplifications as Foucault points out, like the oppressor and the oppressed. In fact Foucault calls this the attempt to categorize Power as being “legitimate or illegitimate.” However, this reduces agency and the reduction of agency is only ever a synthetic overlay. For even in the gulag archipelago there was a choice in terms of how to act in the world. The perpetual problem for tyrants remains the fact of human agency or to put it Biblically: “Free Will.”
Foucault thus argues against such abstractions. He wrestles with a form of articulation that simultaneously simplifies the thing in itself (which is a prerequisite for communication) and accurate portrayal of the thing in itself. Power is always-already intangible due to the problem of human agency. So I will leave the final word to Foucault:
So, two schemata for the analysis of power: the contract-oppression schema, which if, if you like, the juridical schemata, and the war-repression or domination-repression schema, in which the pertinent opposition is not, as in the previous schema that between the legitimate and the illegitimate, but that between struggle and submission.