Foucault, Marx, and pervasive power

One frequently hears the complaint about ‘identity politics’ and ‘critical race theory’ that they are obsessed with power and reduce all social relationships to power, and that this is a fundamental error, and overgeneralisation of power (see for instance, Lindsay and Pluckrose’s Cynical Theories, 2020).  On the contrary, I would argue that the thesis of the pervasiveness of power is correct, that power is fundamental to all social relationships, and always present.  But a lot depends on what we mean by ‘power’.  These bodies of theory deal with power rather poorly.  Identity politics and critical race theory are complex amalgams of many elements, but the influence of two ‘dead white European males’ is often pointed to: Michele Foucault and Karl Marx.  Looking at how they have been appropriated can help us see how these bodies of theory have mishandled the question of power. 

Take Foucault first.  In my view Foucault undermined the promise of his own insights about the pervasiveness of power by also claiming that power should be thought of as endlessly fluid and ‘decentred’, impossible to locate anywhere. He thought that in order to avoid a falsely physicalist and mechanistic conception of power, as something that can be concentrated in the possession of a few hands, we must think of it as something that emerges out of social relationships, situationally, and ephemerally.  He famously said we should ‘cut off the king’s head’, that is, reject the idea of power as something that emanates from a single centre, as the imposition of will.  The ‘king’ here is largely a metaphor for the state, or the notion of a ruling elite.  Of course, he had a point.  The king’s commands only work if enough others choose to follow, taking these commands as legitimate, and incorporating them into their own wills.  Social power depends on relationships in this sense. 

However, this is an insight about power that long predates Foucault (e.g. in the writings of Thomas Hobbes, David Hume, and Max Weber).  And the fact that power relies on mobilising articulated webs of social relationships does not imply that it is evenly spread among those relationships.  The concept of power is only useful if power is understood as unevenly distributed in consequential ways, such that one can relate it to causal chains of social actions.  If it doesn’t help us identify social actors who tend to get their way, what use do we have for a concept of power?  Talking about it in amorphous terms makes it analytically useless.  True, power does not emanate from one great centre (‘the king’, ‘the state’), Foucault was right about that, but it is associated with multiple centres of varying kinds and capacities (governments, corporations, campaigning organisations, cliques, and so on).  And it is to study the dynamics of those relationships between contending powers that we need a concept of power, as something multicentred and unevenly distributed, not as a fluid sloshing about the social body (which, when you think about it, is just another kind of physicalist metaphor). 

Now for Marx.  Current theories of identity politics are sometimes inclined to add a further error to those of Foucault (one that is sometimes intimated, but also rejected in his writings), which is to assume that power equals oppressive domination.  And this is what current critics of identity politics and its insistence on the pervasiveness of power are also assuming, when the chafe at the idea that power is omnipresent.  The touchstone for this idea is Marx’s writing about the historical dynamic of class antagonisms, culminating in the great contest between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, the oppressed and the oppressor, which he thought was fated by historical logic to resolve itself in the former’s favour.  After the revolution, with the arrival of communism, all would be set free to realise their own potential, without being dominated by others.   This paradigm of the great struggle between oppressed and oppressor has been generalised in the theories in question, such that human history is understood as a ramified set of struggles over not just economic class, but race, ethnicity, sex, gender, sexuality, and so on. Indeed, these latter have tended to trump class in importance.  But this move fundamentally fails to grasp Marx’s conception of power.  There was a reason why the workers and not some other oppressed group were at the centre of his story.  For Marx the foundation of human power was labour, our ability to transform the world through applications of body and mind.  ‘Labour’ replaced Hegel’s ‘Reason’ as the engine of history, the thing that was unfolding itself and realising its inner potential.  The class struggle was a part of that unfolding, not the whole story in itself, as many seem to take it to be today.  Other dimensions of inter-group struggle are only marxian to the degree that they involve struggles over the control of labour power. 

The key problem with Marx was his utopian vision of a world in which power differentials had been entirely overcome.  Paradoxically, underlying Marx’s political radicalism, was a kind of libertarian idealism.  However, life cannot be like that.  Power is inevitably unevenly distributed, especially as the tasks people pursue grow larger in scale and more organisationally complex.  Some degree of hierarchy becomes requisite.  But within that, we can make many critical judgements and decisions about how it might best be distributed, and its concentrations held in check.  Human power at its most elemental is simply the capacity to intentionally do things, to exercise one’s will freely, which is no bad thing.  That’s why we speak positively about ‘empowerment’.  However, much of the time power involves the control of some over others, and we might evaluate this morally in different ways, depending on the situation.  A parent controlling a child to ensure its safety will rarely be objected to.  One group of people enslaving another group is a different matter, of which we are likely to disapprove.  And many cases of ‘domination’, here simply meaning the control of some over others, without any moral judgement attached, are complex and difficult to evaluate.  Should the state, that we have some democratic control over, be allowed to restrict our movements to control a pandemic?  Not as simple as the previous two cases. 

But my point is that all social relationships, from intimate couples, to friendship groups, to organisations of work, on up to states and international relations, are imbued with power.  They involve the ability to do things, and the subordination of some to others.  The presence or absence of power is not the question.  The question is when do we find these power relationships legitimate, and why, and how fixed or flexible are they?  Can we modify them if we find them wanting?  And to ask these crucial questions, we cannot regard power as amorphous and free-floating.  We need to understand it as distributed, as waxing and waning, among multiple points of concentration.  Nor can we reduce human history to a dramatic struggle between oppressors and oppressed.  This is one of history’s recurring patterns, which we should study critically, but there are many forms of ‘domination’ (in the neutral sense above) which we accept for good reasons.  The language and narrative of power we find in theories of identity politics is often heavily romanticised.  We desperately need a more mature, realistic, everyday language of power.  One that neither exoticises it, nor demonises it, but treats it as standing fact about social relations, in need of steady scrutiny, and periodic justification.  The goal is not to overcome power, nor to keep it in its place, but to handle it better, because it will not go away, and it follows us everywhere.

Published by jshearn

Professor of Political and Historical Sociology, University of Edinburgh.

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