Foucault, power and the left

MARTIN JENKINS believes Michel Foucault’s analysis of power can inform an ethical understanding of socialism.

The French thinker Michel Foucault died 20 years ago in 1984. Lecturing at the foremost European universities, Foucault was briefly a member of the Parti Communiste Francais (PCF). Along with other thinkers, he has been labelled as a post-modernist.(1) These thinkers were critical of modernist accounts of social reality. Post-modernists saw them as totalising, reductive and thus oppressive in their holistic accounts of phenomena. In particular, they found fault with Marxist and liberal democratic theories.(2)

Foucault himself was involved in developing a radically different theory of power and its operation to the dominant liberal-democratic and Marxist accounts. He provided accounts of how power operates through knowledge to create human subjects of scientific, social scientific, political and cultural analyses.(3)

His projects received impetus after the significant events in Paris of May 1968. Here, both orthodox and unorthodox Marxism was perceived as having failed in theory and, more specifically, failed in practice to provide a radical vehicle for change. The PCF and ultra-leftist groups could no longer account for the new social agencies and dynamics which were challenging the restrictions of the status quo. Agencies such as youth, alternative culture, sexual politics, feminism, gay politics  and liberation, could not be reduced without conceptual violence, to Marxist categories and schemas.

A new theory of social dynamics and power was called for. This coincided with the projects Foucault was engaged in. Not a Marxist, Foucault is regarded as a leftist.(4) So, in the following essay, I will provide a brief overview of the main themes in Foucault’s works. Secondly, in light of his alleged leftism, I will provide a critical analysis of his aims and their relation, if any, to the political project of democratic socialism. I do this to settle a question as to whether Foucault’s works can be of use to the cause of democratic socialism.

Juridical power

Central to Foucault’s analyses is the issue of power. The existing understanding of power in orthodox political philosophy is that it has a singular source from which it flows in a top-down manner.(5) In liberal democratic theory it flows from the state down upon the citizenry as subjects. In Marxist analyses, power flows from the ruling class down to the subjugated class. What unites both liberal and Marxist accounts is that power is understood as negative in operation. It represses, prohibits and forbids. Also, both theories view power as flowing from just one single macro level source. So whether of the political left or right, juridical power says ‘No’ to practices not approved of by prohibiting, repressing and outlawing.

Foucault views the juridical account of power as limited, inaccurate and insensitive. It is a hangover from the Middle Ages where monarchies were involved in centralising power and overcoming all local, regional opposition. In a more complex society such as our own, juridical analysis, being restricted to the state, misses out other sites of operating power. Thus it cannot provide an accurate narrative of the dynamics of power. Foucault hopes to demonstrate that power is not just negative, emanating from one source, but that it is also creative, productive, arises from many sources, and operates at many levels in society: it is polyvalent.

Political philosophy and theory must cease to begin and end with the analysis of power as issuing from the state alone. An account of the operation and play of power as it operates beyond the state needs to be incorporated.

Foucault is not ignoring the existence of the state. The state does play a role but it cannot occupy the whole field and fields of power in a society. It is not omnipresent nor is it omnipotent. Secondly, the existence and operation of the state pre-supposes already existing sites and fields of activity such as mental and physical health, the body, sexuality, the family, kinship, knowledge, technology, criminality and population. These ‘micro-levels’ of the operation of power (as opposed to the macro level of the state) are where people concretely and phenomenologically live their lives.

Foucault thinks it possible that there could be a revolution at the state level which would leave essentially unchanged, the power relations of these macro levels.(6) It is these micro but not unimportant fields of power networks that Foucault examines.(7)

Power and knowledge

Foucault claims knowledge identifies with power. Power and knowledge, knowledge and power imply one another.(8) It is actualised in those micro levels of social, scientific and medical discourses concerning human activity whereby human beings become subjects of knowledges (for example, the social sciences). Discourses of knowledges, such as that of the body, the criminological, the medical, the educational, the economic and the sexual, seek to understand and classify human beings. Through classification and subsequent normalisation – normalisation following on from classification – power is transmitted.(9)

Beginning with their socialisation, beings have been immersed into and imbibe established and changing discourses of knowledge and power. This makes a being ‘human’. Discourses will attach definite norms upon persons. Norms and normalisation will invoke strictures of what is normal or abnormal, acceptable or unacceptable and thus how to act or not act. Hence the importance of the power element of the discourses of knowledge and their effects on how human beings and social groups are defined, how they define themselves, and how they act and are treated.(10)

As mentioned above, power is creative and productive and not just repressive. That is why, by means of discourses, it acts through subjects as well as upon them. Acting through them, it invests bodies with meanings, acts and behaviours so that subjects begin to think, value, act and consciously live according to the discourses. Power traverses and produces things. It induces pleasure and knowledges, produces discourse. How life is actually lived is the effect of power acting upon and through the body via discourses.

Discourses intersect with one another to create a network of fluid power relations and their perpetual operations over, in and through the bodies of their subjects. Moulding the expression and understanding of the body, discourses create the identity of the human subject(s) they analyse. Human beings become subjects and objects of the discourses of power and knowledge. As Foucault writes:

‘That is to say, there may be a knowledge of the body that is not exactly the science of its functioning and a mastery of its forces that is more than the ability to conquer them: this knowledge and this mastery constitute what might be called the political technology of the body.’(11)

Accordingly Foucault’s insights are not  ‘humanistic’. He is not producing a humanism, defined as those philosophical theories which posit a human essence, an essence which is to be liberated from alienating or oppressive socio-political relations. There is no such innate essence. Any essence, identity or being of the human is produced by discourses of power and knowledge. Thus he writes that ‘man’, understood by humanism as possessing an immutable essence, has died.(12)

Many factors are to be taken into consideration in analysing the operations of power through discourses. Power creates, operates, resists, represses; it is a perpetual, polyvalent movement. Power utilises discourses and practices. It constructs the ‘being’ of the human. Human beings may believe they are agents using and employing power as an instrument but power uses and employs human beings as its agents. As written above, the identity of subjects is constructed by the application of technologies of power that follow from discourses of power and knowledge. Power creates and moulds the forces of the human being prescribing how she or he ought to act and not to act as stipulated by their identity.


Genealogy is the method of analysing the myriad historical and social factors that influence the origin of technologies of power, their emergence, their application, their operation and effects on the human subject. It is adopted as a methodology as it permits the taking into consideration factors which would be ignored, which would remain outside the scope of the juridical account of power.

Marxism, with its allegedly rigid dialectical analyses of productive relations and class war, ignores the micro level yet very real sites of operating power. Liberal democracy takes the rational, sovereign citizen as given, not questioning the origin and functioning of this conception of human identity.

Genealogy is open to the inclusion of heterogeneous factors, influences and effects that operate at many levels. It is non-teleological as it does not describe the political goal of a future, free, rational society – a process and goal that characterises modernist political philosophies since the enlightenment.(13) There is, and only ever will be, the operations of power and resistance to that power.

Resistance to the political technologies of the body, which ensue from the effects of definite discourses of power and knowledge, is the site of political action theorised, in what Foucault calls critical historical ontology.

This denotes the intellectual enquiry initiated by Foucault into how human identities are constructed and how human beings view their identities, their being, at a given time in society. That is, how discourses are instilled and what they determine; in other words, how we become what we are. It is a critical enquiry in that it seeks the origin of the discourses, their effects on their subjects and, more importantly, their possible transgression.

Critical ontology asks, ‘How are we constituted as subjects of our own knowledge?’ It asks, ‘How are we constituted as subjects who exercise or submit to power relations?’ It asks, ‘How are we constituted as moral subjects in our actions?’ Foucault writes:

‘The critical ontology is to be conceived as an attitude, an ethos, a philosophical life in which the critique of what we are is at the same time the historical analyses of the limits that are imposed upon us and an experiment with the possibility of going beyond them.’(14)

Critical ontology performs a patient labour giving form to our impatience for liberty.

To recap, Foucault has provided an account of how power operates through discourses of knowledge to create the identities of individuals and groups. Historical genealogy describes the operations and interactions of the discourses in the production of such identities. Critical ontology is the monitoring of the production of identities and the highlighting of sites of resistance – resistance manifesting themselves concretely in identity and cultural politics such as feminism, gay politics, sexual politics, politics of the physically different, and so on. Can such a non-juridical practice of power, concerned with social identities, have any connection with what is traditionally seen as ‘statist’ socialism?

Democratic socialism

Democratic socialism as I understand it is about increasing the liberty available to citizens through the collective provisions of the community.

Socialism has been construed economistically and issues of identity have been downgraded to secondary importance or ignored in relation to the ascendancy of productive relations. Change in the area of the productive relations (ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange) and other economic matters (such as wages and material conditions) are regarded as politically and socially paramount. Economic change is the pre-requisite of all social change. So women can never be free without economic emancipation. Homosexuality will remain frowned upon as long as the productive relations require the re-production of labour through the heterosexual family.(15)

Foucault may reply on two fronts: First, even if capitalist productive relations were removed to be replaced by socialistic ones, the politics of identity and corresponding issues would remain. The relation between changes in productive relations and changes in identity is not inexorable.

Secondly, the construction of identities is polyvalent. It involves a plurality of factors from a plurality of sources. Economistic socialism with its homogeneous dialectic between the productive relations and the rest of society is much too restrictive in its analysis. Genealogy, not dialectic, is an appropriate method of analysis to account for the discontinuous and heterogeneous factors and events involved in the production of the discourses of power and knowledge and their effects.

Nonetheless, identity politics must play a subordinate role to that of economic socialist politics. Despite all the analyses of identities and their genealogical origins, socialist politics recognises and deals with the economic activity of people. This activity is fundamental and the pre-requisite to anything that may follow such as identity politics. Before one can begin to think about who or what one is, one must eat. This is paramount and makes identity politics somewhat secondary, even irrelevant. Perhaps this is why Foucault does not concentrate on state level power arguing that changes at this level merely reinscribe existing local power relations.

So we either opt for socialism with its economic concerns and thus subordinate or ignore identity politics. Or, we emphasise identity politics at the expense of socialism with its economic concerns. It seems that economistic socialism and Foucault’s critical ontology do not have any common ground. Another conception of socialism might provide scope for common ground.

Ethical socialism

If ethical socialism bases itself on a definite conception of the human subject (rather like the liberal democratic view which defines the human subject as rational or possessing intrinsic value) then it will be juridical in scope. It will therefore be irreconcilable with Foucault’s critical ontology. If we conceive of ethical socialism as resistance to capitalistic social norms, identities and the promulgation of alternatives, then ethical socialism can possess a commonality with critical ontology.

Resistance will arise from the local grassroots of society, the workplace and not the absconded class war. People may choose to opt out of capitalistic discourses to reinscribe themselves. Alternative co-operative lifestyles based on a socialism of free co-operation from below, and not statist commandism from above, could be the expression of resistance to capitalistic identities and discourses.(17) The homo economicus of subjective identity under capitalism could give way to a new socialistic one. In this understanding, resistance to capitalism will be based on counter-cultural movements espousing alternative identity and culture.

Further, this local, non-statist model of socialism, with its resistance to capitalist technologies of the body, discourses of power and knowledge, would be more sensitive to the needs of people, or circumstances than the diktats of distant state officials. Here, Foucault’s analyses of local, non-macro and non-global power, and of non-juridical operations of power, are germane.

Finally, recognition of the perpetual, polyvalent and open-ended play of power (Foucault’s analysis of power) would prevent the closure of social dynamics that was arguably present in teleological Marxist theory and post-1917 instantiation of statist socialism. From this we learn that socialism does not represent the end of history, or the ‘final stage of society’ – for it can be rescinded. Even with socialism, power relations, discourses of power and knowledge will be present, will be active and will be subject to critical ontology.


As we have seen, Foucault eschews the global, macro juridical powers to analyse micro level operations of power. However, can the institution of the state, its power – the macro-level of the operation of power – really be ignored? Yes, for the juridical analyses of power can be forgone and replaced with a genealogical analysis. This analysis must try and account for the holistic interaction of the dynamics of power, on many and varied levels, including the state.(18)

The open-ended, non-teleological view of the process of ‘history’ is to be welcomed. It is recognition that the modernist philosophies with their views of an intelligible march from the past into a better future were not only philosophically flawed but could not anticipate the barbarism of the 20th century. A theoretical narrative that does not foreclose its views of human activity and its possibilities, avoids the repressive nature of those which do. Genealogy is open to revision and by its nature, open to the anomalous, the accidental, and the contingent. By this very fact, it guarantees freedom.

The issue of whether Foucault’s politics are too dissimilar to juridical politics and therefore irreconcilable is evident if socialism is construed as economistic. Although attempts have been made to link non-economic interests with economic interests this seems to me to fail and be forced. With Foucault, a completely different political philosophy is adopted which is non-juridical and thus able to highlight the construction, enforcement of, and resistance to identities. Here, on the site of identities, resistance to capitalistic identities produces alternative ‘socialistic’ ones. This is a socialism from below. There may be connections to the macro level but this will be articulated and accounted for by the genealogical method of critical ontology and not the failed pseudo-science of the dialectic.

On the grounds of an identity politics of ethical socialism, I believe Foucault does have something to contribute to modern socialist thinking. Am I justified in this or not?


  1. Post-modernism. Movements in literature, arts and philosophy that found ascendancy in the 1970s and ’80s. They can be regarded as a response to the all-encompassing modernist narratives that sought to explain and account for politics, history, art and philosophy. Modernist narratives were regarded as being implicitly totalitarian. In seeking to account for and include all phenomena in their holistic theoretical explanations, what is different, anomalous, what cannot be reduced to, what is ‘other’ to, or cannot be included in the theory, tends to be regarded as suspect. It is repressed in theoretical violence, or worse, as witnessed by what happens to those regarded as racially ‘other’.
    Post-modernists highlight and elaborate upon what is ‘other’, irreducible, different to or outside of, modernist narratives. Todd May does not conceive of Foucault as a ‘post-modernist’ thinker. With his post-metaphysical understanding of the self, its otherness and resistance to incorporation into discourses, the non-teleological unlimited play of power which recognises the anomalous, the contingent, the accidental – I think Foucault can quite easily be regarded as such.
    Notable post-modernist thinkers include the recently deceased Jacque Derrida, Jean-François Lyotard, Emmanuel Levinas, Jean-Luc Nancy and Richard Rorty. Further reading:
    Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference, Harvester Press, 1991.
    Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity, Duquesne University Press, 1969.
    Jean-François Lyotard, The Post-Modern Condition, Manchester University Press, 1984.
    Jean-Luc Nancy, The Inoperative Community, University of Minnesota Press, 1991.
    Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Harvester Press, 1988.
    Todd May, Reconsidering Difference, Penn State Press, 1997.
    Alex Callinicos, Against Post-Modernism, Polity Press, 1989.
  2. I mention both political philosophies in their most general sense.
  3. Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilisation, Penguin, 1991
    The Archaeology of Knowledge, Penguin, 1991
    The Birth of the Clinic, Penguin, 1991
    Discipline and Punish, Penguin, 1991
    The History of Sexuality, Vols 1, 2, & 3, Penguin, 1998.
  4. In ‘Politics and Ethics’, (A Foucault Reader, edited by Paul Rabinow, Penguin, 1991) Foucault recounts how he has been denounced as a danger to democracy by Marxists, as writing in the vein of Mein Kampf by a socialist, considered by people on ‘the right’ as a dangerous left wing anarchist, and a crypto-Marxist and KGB agent. Foucault regards himself as dealing in questions of epistemology – how we define ourselves as objects of analysis – which, while it might involve orthodox politics and parties, transcends them. He will not align himself to any pre-established political ideology or philosophy.
  5. For elaboration upon liberal theory, the paradigm text is John Locke, Two Treatises on Government, Everyman, 1994. For the classical Marxist view of power and the state: Karl Marx and Freidrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto, Peking, 1976; or V.I. Lenin, The State and Revolution, Peking, 1976.
  6. ‘Truth and Power’, p64, Foucault Reader, op cite. Foucault eschews changes at the global or state level such as revolution, preferring specific transformations at the level of the ‘local’ sites. This seems to be because he believes that at the state level of juridical power, revolutions merely reinscribe existing local sites of the operation of power. Moreover, as he writes in ‘What is Enlightenment?’ (op cite) ‘radical’, ‘global’ revolutions at the state level which have sought to produce ‘the new man’ have produced the worst and ‘most dangerous’ political systems of the 20th century. So he opts for ‘specific transformations’ and not ‘total’ transformations.
  7. Such a position could be construed as anti-statism. It reminds me of the anarchist’s dismissal of statist politics of left or right as irrelevant for ‘they’re all the same’. Although not Foucault’s position, he does not analyse the state on the grounds that it (ie. juridical power) does not account for the myriad and perhaps much more important shaping activities of power in the local, peripheral sites such as the relation between sane and insane, sexualities, normal-deviant, and so on.
  8. The influence of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). Nietzsche held that all reality – from the most primitive to the most rarefied – is constituted by macht, translated as power although evocative of other meanings. Organised, directed power he termed ‘will to power’ (wille zur macht). Foucault accepts this to develop an almost theoretical anti-humanism. Perhaps also influenced here by Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser?
  9. For elaboration of this see Judith Butler, ‘Bodies and Power, Revisited’, Radical Philosophy no.114, July-August 2002.
  10. Hence Foucault uses the term ‘disciplinary power’ to denote the operation and effects of power in this context.
  11. Discipline and Punish’, p173, Foucault Reader. Op-cite.
  12. J.G. Merquior, ‘Foucault’, Modern Masters, Fontana, 1991.
  13. Belief that the power and application of human reason would yield progressive development can most explicitly be found in the works of the so-called German idealist philosophers. Thinkers such as Kant, Fichte and Hegel maintained that human activity progresses and develops in a linear manner due to the developments in reason.
  14. ‘What Is Enlightenment?’ p50, Foucault Reader op cite.
  15. Setting the precedent, Lenin (The Right of Nations to Self-Determination, Progress Press, 1977) argued that nationalities would remain oppressed unless they joined with the respective proletariat of the oppressing nation (and vice versa) to overthrow the mutually oppressing ruling class. Hence the national question synthesised with what was formally, the purely economistic issue of class war. Hence ‘non-proletarian’ factors from nationalities of oppressed nations, to ethnic groups, to sexual politics and homosexuality have been linked with the proletariat to overthrow capitalism. The issue for me, is the legitimacy of such linkage.
    Rachel Aldred [p.131 International Socialism 103] writes: ‘We want to make class an open, bridging and dynamic sign, which levers open ‘economics’ to include and reveal wider social relations, including sexuality. In the Bolton Seven case [gay men prosecuted for consensual Sado-masochism], the comrade who persuaded the local branch of UCATT to send a banner in support of the men was proving in practice this can work.’ Is such a linkage under the fluid sign ‘economics’ a valid one or is it entirely accidental, contingent and forced?
  16. A view not dissimilar to that propounded in A Socialism for our Times (Independent Labour Publications, 2003).
  17. From norms such as how we are expected and required to adopt definite modes of dress; how we are expected to behave towards those higher in the hierarchy; the very acceptance of hierarchy; that one’s intelligence is commensurate with one’s position in a hierarchy; and that a job, a career defines the person (exemplified by the permanently asked mis-question ‘Oh, what do you do?’) as witnessed on game and quiz shows where one is defined and one defines oneself by one’s occupation. That one’s life, short and unique, one’s energies, ought to be spent augmenting profit and wealth for others in an undemocratic workplace.
  18. A scenario much more faithful to Nietzsche. See second essay ‘Guilt, Bad Conscience and Related Matters’, On the Genealogy of Morality, Hackett, 1998.


Rachel Aldred, ‘In Perspective: Judith Butler’, International Socialism Journal, no.103, July 2004.
Judith Butler, ‘Bodies and Power, Revisited’, Radical Philosophy, no.114, July/August 2002.
J.G. Merquior, Foucault, Fontana, 1991.
Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality, Hackett, 1998.
Keith Ansell-Pearson, ‘The Significance of Michel Foucault’s Reading of Nietzsche: Power, the Subject and Political Theory’, Nietzsche: A Critical Reader, Ed. Peter Sedgewick, Blackwell, 1995.
Michel Foucault, A Foucault Reader, Ed. Paul Rabinow, Penguin, 1991.

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