Michel Foucault as a political philosopher

“Could you define the sense you give the word ‘political’?”

Michel Foucault as a political philosopher


Hans Sluga

The making of a political philosopher

When Duccio Trombadori interviewed him in 1978, Foucault described how the Second World War had initially alerted him to the need for a radically different society and how subsequently, under the influence of Nietzsche, he had come to hope for “a world and a society that were not only different but would be an alternative version of ourselves.”[1] Having joined the Communist Party in the 1950’s as a “Nietzschean communist” (!) and having left the Party again a short time later because of its Stalinist tendencies he had ended up, as he put it, with “a degree of speculative skepticism” towards all politics.[2] But his reluctance to concern himself with political matters had dissolved towards the late 1960’s as a result of two and half years of teaching at the University of Tunisia where he came face-to-face with the political activism of his students and was moved by their readiness to expose themselves to the most fearful risks. “It was a real political experience for me,” Foucault told Trombadori.[3] He emerged from this time newly energized and politicized and when he returned to France after the 1968 riots these energies inspired, first, his engagement in the prison reform project and then, at the theoretical level, the books Discipline and Punish of 1975 and The History of Sexuality, vol. 1 of 1976.

I mention these biographical circumstances in order to stress that Foucault’s concern with politics arose just as much out of historical uncertainties as Carl Schmitt’s and Hannah Arendt’s, two thinkers with whom we can fruitfully compare him. For Foucault, as for those two others, the traditional political institutions could no longer be taken for granted and the concept of the political could therefore not be explained in their terms. Like Schmitt and Arendt, Foucault made, in fact, no effort to revive the old formula of politics as rule of the polis. But in seeking to recast the concept of the political the Foucault of the 1970’s also did not move in the direction Schmitt and Arendt had taken. Instead of conceiving human activity (such as acts of deciding or deliberating) as constitutive of the domain of politics, Foucault sought to understand it as a domain of power relations. In The Concept of the Political Schmitt had, by contrast, rejected the thought that the political could be analyzed in this manner. “In those definitions of the political which utilize the concept of power,” Schmitt had insisted, “this power appears mostly as state power.” [4] Such definitions thus presupposed the for Schmitt derivative concept of the state. Foucault’s challenge is then from a Schmittian perspective that he needs to come up with a notion of power that does not, in turn, presuppose the concept of the state. Arendt presents a second challenge to Foucault’s reliance on the notion of power. For her, the concept of power is itself a derived notion since power arises, as she put it, only from the concerted action of individual human agents. Arendt’s challenge to the Foucault of the 1970’s is then that he needs to explain the relation between action and power – a theme he did not get to till the 1980’s.

The Foucault of the 1970’s did, in fact, not have a theory of action at all. He spoke of power, instead, as consisting of “nonegalitarian and mobile relations” that “take shape and come into play in the machinery of production, in families, limited groups, and institutions,” that generate “wide-ranging effects of cleavage that run through the social body as a whole”[5] and that may even furrow “across individuals themselves, cutting them up and remolding them, marking off irreducible regions in them, in their bodies and minds.”[6] Far from being conceived on the model of action, power was for Foucault  “both intentional and nonsubjective”[7] and thus constituted “a complex strategical situation in a particular society.”[8] His language, as we see, is vivid and metaphorical (power as a fluid circulating through the social body) but it certainly relates power, in no way, to the “intentional and voluntary actions” of men “in their singular being,” that were to concern Foucault in the 1980’s.[9]


Politics as power acting on power

How the Foucault of the 1970’s sought to understand politics in terms of power-relations becomes clearest in an interview he gave in January of 1977 – shortly after the publication of The History of Sexuality, vol. 1. Lucette Finas, the writer and teacher, was trying to get Foucault to expand in this interview on the theme of sexuality. But Foucault declared quickly that the whole point of the book had for him been “a re-elaboration of the theory of power,” adding sarcastically: “I’m not sure that the mere pleasure of writing about sexuality would have provided me with sufficient motivation.”[10] The impetus for thinking about the problem of power, he added, had come to him “during the course of a concrete experience that I had with prisons, starting in 1971-72.”[11] This had left him realizing that one needed to substitute a “technical and strategic” understanding of power for the traditional, “judicial and negative” one. It had taught him to reject thinking of power in terms of “exclusion, rejection, denial, obstruction, occultation, etc.,” and to focus, instead, on its capacity to “make positive mechanisms appear.”[12] Such a perspective would, in fact, lead to an analysis of institutions “from the standpoint of power relations, rather than vice versa,” as he was to put it elsewhere.[13] This would make evident in particular, so he said to Lucette Finas, that the institution of the state could not account “for all the apparatuses in which power is organized.”[14]  There existed relations of power “between all points of the social body,” as, for instance, “between a man and a woman, between the members of a family, between a master and his pupil, between everyone who knows and everyone who does not.”[15] One needed, in other words, to assume the existence of a myriad of particular mechanisms of power. Power, as he had said already in the History of Sexuality is “everywhere” and “comes from everywhere” and is as such not confined to the classical domain of politics, the polis or state.[16]

But if power relations are ubiquitous and politics is to be conceived in terms of them, does it not follow that everything is political? By 1977, some of Foucault’s more adventurous readers were, indeed, drawing that sweeping conclusion. The same thought was clearly also on the mind of Foucault’s interviewer when she asked: “Can one adopt a political standpoint regarding power? You speak of sexuality as a political apparatus. Could you define the sense you give the word ‘political’?”[17] But Foucault was not to be trapped into endorsing the simplistic formula that was being ascribed to him.  He responded cautiously instead: “To say that ‘everything is political’ is to affirm this ubiquity of relations of force and their immanence in the political field but this is to give oneself the task, which as yet has scarcely been outlined, of disentangling this indefinite knot.”[18]  One had to remember, he added, that “political analysis and criticism have in a large measure still to be invented.”[19] He was not expressing ignorance thereby of the long history of political philosophy, but affirming his belief that political analysis had to be radically recast, that it could not rely on the old understanding of politics in terms of the institutional order of a polis or state and their rule or government, and that it needed to reconceptualize the domain of politics instead in terms of the concept of power. Such a rethinking of the basic concepts of politics had, in fact, been on his mind since the early 1970’s when he had told Gilles Deleuze that the concepts of domination, rule, and government “are far too fluid and require analysis.”[20]

Foucault obviously understood that there was something seductive in the formula that everything is political, just as there is in saying “everything is sexual,” or “everything is in the mind,” or “all action is selfish,” or even “everything is beautiful in its own way.” Each of these utterances seems at first sight illuminating in its stark generality (the “Wow!” effect) but each of them proves on closer examination to be empty of meaning. Each robs, indeed, its crucial term (be it political, sexual, mental, selfish, or beautiful) of its discriminatory power. This is not where Foucault was going. He was ready to grant that all social relations belonged to “a political field,” as he said to Lucette Finas, but he meant to speak of politics itself instead specifically as a “more-or-less global strategy for coordinating and directing those relations.”[21]

The simplest picture of politics that one might derive from this formulation would involve a binary division between a domain of inherently non-political relations (the “political field”) and a second level of “strategic” political relations of power that coordinate and direct relations within this domain. But this two-tiered picture is not right for two reasons. (a) The relations within the domain of power-relations, the political field, are for Foucault by no means to be considered “elementary and by nature ‘neutral’.”[22] They are, rather, typically the outcome of other and earlier strategic interventions. (b) The strategic relations that constitute politics are once more relations of power and so themselves once again potentially subject to strategies of co-ordination and direction. It appears, then, that we must replace our first, simple, two-tiered picture with the following more complex one:

There exist among power-relations a particular subset of strategic relations that co-ordinate and direct force relations in society. Politics consists precisely in these relations; it is constituted, in other words, very precisely in terms of power relations coordinating and regulating power relations. Political relations are relations of power whose object are other power-relations. We may speak of such relations as supervenient and characterize the domain of politics then as the domain of supervenient power-relations. It is with this idea that Foucault makes an important advance over Schmitt and Arendt. In Foucault’s terms we might say that Schmitt and Arendt sought to understand politics in terms of the specific relations within the primary, political field. Foucault, on the other hand, understood that there are all kinds of relations of power that obtain in that field and that none of them are as such distinctively political. Some of these relations will have the character of Schmitt’s friend-enemy interactions, others will be acts of mutual self-revelation in Arendt’s sense. But none of these are as such political. Political relations are, rather, power-relations that set up, maintain, transform, regulate, or suppress the kinds of relations that Schmitt and Arendt are singling out as determinative of the political. From Foucault’s perspective, the two are locating the political at a too elementary level. Despite occasional hints at a more satisfactory view, Schmitt and Arendt fail to understand the strictly supervenient character of political relations.

It is important, however, to Foucault that the power-relations that constitute supervenient strategies of political coordination are themselves only a subset of power-relations. They can, therefore, like any other such relations be subjected in turn to new acts of coordination and direction. There exists therefore the possibility of a whole hierarchy or network of strategic relations of power that apply to other strategic relations which, in turn, supervene on yet other strategic and political relations. Politics has to be understood, in other words, as a process that reproduces itself at ever higher levels of coordination, as a system of nested strategic relationships.

There are certainly at any given moment non-strategic, non-supervenient relations of power. They constitute “the set of relations of force in a given society [that] constitutes the domain of the political,” i.e., the set of relations to which supervenient political strategies are directed. It is important to realize that not every relation in that domain will at every moment be actually subjected to strategic, supervenient political intervention. Political economy seems to forbid this. There exists then in every society whole arrays of power-relations that are at any given moment politically dormant. Currently dormant relations within the political field may have been subjected to supervenient power-relations at some earlier time and they may become once again subjected to such interventions. We then call them “politicized” relations of power. These must, of course, be distinguished from the supervenient strategic relations that have politicized them.  That currently dormant power-relations may have been politicized at some time in the past and have always the potential of becoming so in the future, determines their status as belonging to the political field. All such relations are “potentially politicized,” they are  all “politicizable.” Merely politicizable relations must, of course, be distinguished from actually politicized ones.

Finally, we must take note of Foucault’s thought that all or almost all relations within the political field have at some point of time been subject to political intervention. They have all or almost all been “politically constituted.” That, too, is meant by Foucault when he says that power relations all belong to the political field. To be politically constituted does not mean the same as to be actually politicized at any given moment nor does it mean actually politicizable now or some future time though it may be the case that everything that has been politically constituted at some time in the past can also become once again politicized at some time in the future. Whether this is so will once again be determined by the facts of political economy. To call something politically constituted does, in any case, not mean that it is now politicized. The contrary is often the case. What is politically constituted must, however, in every case be distinguished from the strategies that originally brought about the political constitution. There remains, in other words, still a difference between strategic, political and politically constituted relations.

Such schematic distinctions call for exemplification, in particular so because what is neatly separated in our terminology does not always occur separately in reality. Relations within a family, for instance, may constitute a political field in Foucault’s sense and we may, in participle, be able to distinguish in this field among relations that are subject to strategic, supervenient interventions and those relations that constitute such interventions but that distinction may, in practice, be often invisible. The difference between political strategies of co-ordination and direction and the domain to which they are said to apply is, perhaps, most easily perceived in cases of organized, institutional actions. Take, for instance, the case of law making. Legislating is a political activity which issues in politically constituted laws and that concerned permitted, or forbidden activities. Thus traffic rules regulate the relations between people engaged in driving behavior. Economic legislation organizes and legitimates business relations. Here the distinction between the supervenient, strategic, political intervention (the legislating) and the power relations that are being coordinated and regulated (the subject of the legislation) is straightforward.

Of decisive importance for the Foucault of the 1970’s is, however, the fact that dormant power relations can at some point become politicized. Family life may at some point have been considered immune to political intervention, but the relations between parents and children and between marriage partners have now become politicized. It is in this sense that Foucault’s tells Lucette Finas that it is necessary now to oppose a process of politicization to the use of existing techniques and mechanisms of power. The basic political challenge of our time is not, he declares, the choice between political positions in “a pre-existing set of possibilities.” It is, rather, “to imagine and to bring into being new schemas of politicization.” He illustrates this by adding: “To the vast new techniques of power correlated with multinational economies and bureaucratic states, one must oppose a politicization which will take new forms.”[23] Corporate and bureaucratic power have been for too long outside the purview of politics, in other words, and must now be subjected to political intervention. Ever new areas of social relations may in this way become politicized over time while others may cease to be so. Foucault had made a similar point already some years earlier when he had said in an another interview that “the frontier of the political has shifted, and so now subjects such as psychiatry, internment, or the medicalization of a given population have become political problems” and politics has in this way “colonized areas that had been almost political yet not recognized as such.”[24]


Beyond power

Foucault’s thought moved away in the 1980’s from treating power as a basic concept and this led him, in turn, to rethink his own earlier account of the nature of the political. He declared now even that it had never been his goal “to analyze the phenomena of power, nor to elaborate the foundations of such an analysis.”[25] Instead, he claimed to be concerned and to have always been concerned with “the problematizations through which being offers itself to be, necessarily, thought” and with “those intentional and voluntary actions by which men not only set themselves rules of conduct, but also seek to transform themselves.”[26] This change of language was accompanied by a relative shift in focus away from politics and towards ethics, away from social relations of power towards the care of the subject or self. He could write now accordingly that “it is not power, but the subject, that is the general theme of my research.”[27]

The nature of this move for his political thinking became first apparent at the end of the nineteen seventies when he began to speak of political power “as a mode of action upon the actions of others.”[28] The shift is made most explicit in the essay “The Subject and Power” of 1982 which argued that “what defines a relationship of power is that it is a mode of action” and that the exercise of power is to be understood therefore “as a mode of action upon action.” [29] The term “power” must thus be understood to designate, as Foucault said, “relationships between ‘partners’” and power exists, in fact, “only as exercised by some on others.” (p. 340) Where he had previously taken power to be  coming from “numerous points” and as passing through bodies, it is now seen as exercised by human agents. He continued, however, to maintain that “power relations are rooted in the whole network of the social.” (p. 345) To live in a society means to live in such a way that some individuals act on the actions of others. “A society without power relations” so he remained convinced, “can only be an abstraction.” (p. 343) Indeed, “all human relationships are to a certain degree relationships of power,”[30]

In characterizing the exercise of power now as action directed at actions rather than people or objects, Foucault sought to preserve the insight that there are supervenient relations. But where he had previously explained politics as supervenient power-relations, he now, in effect, treated all power-relations as supervenient. This opened up the question whether he now wanted to say that the exercise of power is always political. This would not have forced back into the vacuous assertion that everything is political. For he was distinguishing now after all between ordinary actions and acts of power and could have insisted that we need to distinguish between the field of human action which may or may not be in some way or other politicized and political acts of power. And this would have allowed him to retain all the distinctions he had made in the interview with Finas. But Foucault turned, in fact, in another direction. He began now to distinguish between political and non-political exercises of power. The latter kind of exercise of power, he now suggests, is concerned with “government” in a broad sense of the word. (p. 341) But government in this sense is not necessarily identical with politics. It appears to be that for Foucault only, if it is institutionalized in some form of other. It is certainly characteristic of our own period, but not necessarily of every historical period hat power has become “progressively governmentalized, that is to say, elaborated, rationalized, and centralized in the form of, or under the auspices of, state institutions.” (p. 345) There is a suggestion here that Foucault was returning to a narrower and more traditional understanding of politics as the exercise of power in distinctively “political” institutions.

If this was a retreat of some sort, we can also say that for Foucault the characterization of power as action on action served to clarify the notion of power itself. It also helped him to separate the concepts of power and force that he had used earlier on almost indiscriminately. He could, moreover, speak now of a connection between power and freedom that had previously remained mysterious. And he could, finally, provide a rationale for the formula “where there is power, there is resistance,” which he had asserted so triumphantly but without any justification in the History of Sexuality, vol. 1. With respect to the distinction between force and power, Foucault now wrote: “A man who is chained up and beaten is subject to force being exerted over him, not power.” But if the man can be induced to talk, he continued, rather suffer death, “then he has been caused to behave in a certain way… He has submitted to government” and has thus submitted to power. While submitting to power the individual still remains free – however marginal his freedom may be – and this freedom guarantees that “there is no power without potential refusal or revolt.”[31] It is clear then that “power is exercised only over free subjects and only insofar as they are ‘free.’”[32]  But this justification of the famous resistance-formula turns out to be disappointingly formalistic one. It is true simply because we would by definition be in the grip of force rather than that of power, if there was for us no possibility of resistance, if we were not at least in a minimal fashion free.

Foucault’s turn from power to individual action and, in particular, to action through which individuals constitute themselves as subjects did not mean that he had lost all interest in politics by the 1980’s. He certainly remained active on behalf various political causes but the way he addressed them was now shaped very much by his new way of thinking. He now spoke about politics increasingly in moral terms. In a 1984 appeal on human rights he spoke, for instance, of common men as “members of the community of the governed, and thereby obliged to show mutual solidarity.” He also spoke of “the duty of this international citizenship to always bring the testimony of people’s suffering to the eyes and ears of governments” and he declared it to be a right of “private individuals to effectively intervene in the sphere of international policy and strategy” and to wrest from governments “little by little and day by day” the monopoly of action that they have attempted to reserve for themselves.[33]

The changing language suggests a shift in Foucault’s political thinking. This expressed itself first and foremost in his increasing preoccupation with what he called the care of the self and that his increasing inclination to treat public, political engagement as a mere consequence of this need for a care of self. “The problem of the relationships with others,” he wrote at that time, “is present throughout the development of the care of the self.”[34] Indeed, “the care of the self appears a pedagogical, ethical, also ontological condition for the development of a good ruler.”[35] When he spoke in these final years of an aesthetics of existence as focused on the care of the self, he did certainly not mean to foster a solipsistic preoccupation with one’s own individual selfhood. The care of the self was meant, rather, to include new forms of socialization, an ethics of friendship, and the shared pursuit of new types of experience. These might be thought to involve also a search for new forms of political community though not necessarily one conceived on the model of the state or any other rigid institutional structure. Foucault also realized that the care of self, whether focused on the individual or understood politically, could not proceed in a social vacuum but had to take place under existing conditions of power and he remained highly skeptical about the way every power structure tends to “subject” the individual to its own demands. Hence, there remained for him the task of constant struggle against the existing power structures. This struggle might take different forms at different historical moments. It might be directed against ethnic, social, and religious forms of domination; it might also be a struggle against economic exploitation. But it might finally also be a struggle “against that which ties the individual to himself and submits him to others,” and here Foucault added that “nowadays, the struggle against the forms of subjection – against the submission of subjectivity – is becoming more and more important, even though the struggles against forms of domination and exploitation have not disappeared, Quite the contrary.”[36]

Given this premise of the increasing importance of resisting subjection it becomes clearer why the late Foucault became more and more preoccupied with the care of the self. From the seventies onwards he had conceived of politics broadly as involving supervenient relations of power or, subsequently, as involving actions supervening on actions. Now he began to consider that these relations of supervenience can be found not only in the sphere of large-scale, institutionalized, and public politics, and not only within the relations of the household, business, or the academy. His interested turned accordingly to the phenomenon of supervenient actions in relations of the self to the self.




[1] “Interview with Michel Foucault,” pp. 247-48.

[2] Ibid, p. 279.

[3] Ibid.

[4] CP, p. 20, note 2.

[5] The History of Sexuality, vol. 1, p. 94. (Hereafter referred to as HS)

[6] HS, p. 96

[7] HS, p. 94.

[8] Ibid. , p. 93.

[9] The Use of Pleasure, p. 10.

[10] Michel Foucault, “The History of Sexuality,” in Power/Knowledge. Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977, edited by Colin Gordon, Pantheon Books New York 1980, p. 187. 

[11] Ibid., p. 184.

[12] Ibid., pp. 183 and 186.

[13] Michel Foucault, “The Subject and Power,” Essential Works, vol. 3, p. 343.

[14] “The History of Sexuality,” loc. cit., p. 188.

[15] Ibid., p. 187

[16] The History of Sexuality, vol. 1., p. 93.

[17] “The History of Sexuality,” p. 189.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid, p. 190.

[20] Michel Foucault, “Intellectuals and Power, “ in Language, Counter-memory, Practice, p. 213.

[21] Ibid., p. 189.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid., p. 190.

[24] Michel Foucault, “Prisons at asiles dans le mécanismes du pouvoir,” in Dits et Ecrits, vol. 2, p. 524, quoted in Didier Eribon, Insult and the Making of the Gay Self, translated by Michael Lucey, Duke U. P., Durham and London 2004, p. 293.

[25] Michel Foucault, “The Subject and Power,” Essential Works, vol. 3, p. 326.

[26] Michel Foucault, The Use of Pleasure, translated by Robert Hurley, Vintage Books, New York 1986, pp. 11 and 10.

[27] “The Subject and Power,” loc. cit., p. 327.

[28] Michel Foucault, “The Subject and Power” (1982) in Essential Works of Michel Foucault, vol. 3, p. 341. Foucault repeats this characterization of power again and again throughout this text.

[29] Ibid., pp. 340 and 341.

[30] Michel Foucault, “The Risks of Security,” in Essential Works of Foucault, vol. 3, p. 372.

[31] Michel Foucault, “Omnes et Singulatim: Toward a Critique of Political Reason,” Essential Wrks of Foucault, vol. 3, p. 324.

[32] “Subject and Power,” loc. cit., p. 342.

[33] Michel Foucault, “Confronting Governments: Human Rights,” in Essential Works, vol. 3, pp. 474-475.

[34] “The Ethics of the Concern for the Self as a Practice of Freedom,” Essential Works, vol. 3, p. 287.

[35] Ibid., p. 293.

[36] “The Subject and Power,” loc. cit., pp. 331-332.

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