Michel Foucault: a new political imagination

This is a translation of an essay by Amador Fernández-Savater, originally published on the 24th June 2014, on the Interferencias blog on eldiario.es, the day before the thirtieth anniversary of Michel Foucault’s death.

Michel Foucault: a new political imagination


Michel Foucault

There is a scene that can help us begin this reflection on the relevance of the political thought of Michel Foucault, on the thirtieth anniversary of his death.

At the end of 1977, socialists and communists are arguing over the elaboration of a ‘common programme’ to be presented jointly in the French general elections of March 1978.

The moment has come, some are thinking, to translate the May ’68 revolt into an electoral and institutional victory, through the required ‘left unity’. It is the time for ‘politics in capital letters’ and for serious things, now that so much self-management, direct democracy and self-organisation have proven patchy as a means of transforming reality.

At the same time, two publications are organising a meeting among people committed to intervention in specific spheres of society such as education, health care, urban planning, the environment, and labour.

Michel Foucault, perhaps the brightest star in the intellectual firmament of the time, attends the meeting and signs up for the ‘neighbourhood medicine’ workshop. Le Nouvel Observateur (no. 670) records his impressions at the end of the sessions in a short interview titled “A cultural mobilisation”. Among other things, Foucault says:

“I write and work for people like those who are there in that workshop, new people who are posing new questions. The questions that ought to interest intellectuals are the questions of nurses or the questions of prison guards. They are infinitely more important than the curses that the professionals of Parisian intellectual life cast upon each other.”

“During the two days of intense and profoundly political debates and discussions, given that it consisted of questioning relations of power, of knowledge, of money, none of the thirty participants in the ‘neighbourhood medicine’ group used the words ‘March 1978’ or ‘elections’. This is important and significant. Innovation no longer occurs through parties, syndicates, bureaucracies, politicians. It consists of an individual, moral concern. We no longer ask political theory what we should do, tutors are no longer necessary. The change is ideological, and profound.”

“A major movement has emerged during the last 15 years, for which anti-psychiatry is the model and May ‘68 a moment. Among the strata that once guaranteed the happiness of society, for example doctors, there are now entire populations that are becoming unstable, that are on the move, on a quest, beyond the customary vocabulary and structures. It is..I would not dare say a cultural revolution, but undoubtedly a cultural mobilisation. It cannot be recuperated politically: at no moment do they feel that the problem for them would change if there was a change of government. And I am glad of that.”


It is a highly provocative gesture. For the greatest of philosophers, a simple workshop is more relevant than the argument over the “common programme” of socialists and communists, it is this workshop that connects directly with May ‘68 and not the potential electoral victory of the left front. Political invention comes from a small group of people who appear indifferent to the eventual change in government. It is as though ‘rising to the occasion’ consisted of positioning oneself way below, as if ‘politics in capital letters’ were in reality written in lower case.

Provocative, but not whimsical. Foucault’s gesture is perfectly consistent with his theoretical developments at the time. What did Foucault understand then by power (if it were not a matter of political power)? How did he think about resistances (outside the party paradigm)? What to him was an intellectual contribution to emancipatory practices (if it did not have to do with signing manifestoes or giving one’s opinion on the conjuncture)?

Power, knowledge and resistances are three fundamental problems throughout the career of this French philosopher. I am not a specialist in his work, nor would I dare try and pull together in a few lines the full complexity of his thinking on these problems, but I would like to note down a few things in order to try and understand better where the value of this ‘cultural mobilisation’ lay and in what sense I think we still need it today.


First of all, the question of power

“In both political thought and analysis, the king has yet to be guillotined’, writes Foucault in 1976. What does this mean? Foucault is alluding here to the figure of a majestic power, concentrated in a particular place, always at a remove and on high, radiating its will down vertically upon its subjects/victims.

The king may be replaced by the State, the rule of law or class domination, but the way of understanding power is reproduced: a kind of “control room” situated at the apex of society. Foucault’s entire work seeks to break with this conceptual/mental scheme.

Instead of a power that is concentrated in or derives from major figures (State, law, class), Foucault proposes that we think of it as a ‘social field of forces’. Power does not descend from a sovereign point, but rather it comes from all sides: a thousand relations of force pass through and configure our way (practice) of understanding education, health, the city, sexuality, and labour.

These relations of force are not merely codified in legal terms (what one can and cannot do according to the law), but rather consist of an infinite plurality of extra-legal procedures that operate by adjusting bodies and behaviours to norms (that differ from a law). Let us think for example of a prison: its explicit law says that it is a space for the reintroduction of the prisoner into society, but a thousand everyday procedures produce something rather different: a branding, a stigmatisation of the criminal as criminal, an exclusion. The exclusively legal analysis of power is blind to these determining forces.

In this social field of forces there are, no doubt, ‘points of special densification’: the State, the law, societal hegemonies…These are the major nodes of the network of power. But Foucault proposes that we think of them (by radically inverting the normal perspective) of ‘terminal forms’. That is, not so much causes as effects of the interplay of relations of force. Not so much primary and generating instances, but rather secondary and derivative. Profiles, contours, tips of an iceberg. State apparatuses, laws and societal hegemonies are the visible figures that stand out from the dark backdrop of everyday battle at permanent boiling point.

Terminal, but not passive, forms. The visible figures of power are the result of the social field of forces and are sustained by it, but at the same time, they fix it (though never definitively). That is, they set in chain different concrete and local relations of force thereby producing all-embracing effects and overall strategies. A very clear quote from Foucault in this regard, in argument with the dominant marxism of the 70s: “It seems to me that it is not the bourgeois class (or whichever of its elements) that imposes the entirety of the relations of power. Let us say that this class takes advantage of them, it utilises them, it modifies them, it tries to intensify some and attenuate others. There is not, then, a single focal point from which all of them emanate, but rather an interlinking of power relations which, on the whole, make possible the domination of one social class over another, of one group over another’.

José Mujica and Jordi Évole

José Mujica and Jordi Évole

In Jordi Évole’s famous interview with Pepe Mujica, the Catalan presenter asked the Uruguayan president if he had fulfilled his electoral programme: “Not at all”, Mujica responded in laughter, “do you think that the president is a king who does what he wants?” And he gave him a little ‘Foucauldian lesson” by explaining to him how what political power can and cannot do is conditioned by the social field of forces (the legal framework that neoliberalism erects to meet its ends, the very desires and expectations of subjects in society, etc.).

Power is not an object to be found in a privileged place that can be occupied or laid siege: it is here that the hegemonic revolutionary paradigm of the 20th century goes into crisis. Without relation to the social field of forces, this place is empty and this power is impotent. This all needs to be rethought, not to discard the revolutionary demand, but rather to reactivate it from a new perspective.


Second, the question of resistances

“Wherever there is power, there are resistances” is a famous Foucauldian maxim. The idea that power is not concentrated in a single point (the leaders, the political caste, etc.) but is rather generated, and springs from every corner of society, is not a pessimist thesis on the omnipotence of domination. On the contrary: to define power as a relation of forces means understanding it as the relation between one action and another action. One action of command and another action that responds to it. Force is not exercised upon a passive object, but rather upon another force that is always capable of action and a response that is unpredictable.

In an interview in 1977, Foucault names all these resistances as “the plebs”. First of all, the plebs is a concrete, local and situated response to a procedure of power that is equally concrete, local and situated. There in fact lies its potency: it responds to power wherever it is exercised and not somewhere else. “The plebs is less the exterior of the relations of power than its underside, its limit, its counterpoint; it is what responds to any advance of power with a movement to rid itself of it”.

Secondly, the plebs is not a sociological reality (those who share a social condition or interests), but rather a breakdown in given identities. It is not the people, nor the poor, nor the excluded: “there is something plebeian in bodies, in souls, in individuals, in the proletariat, also in the bourgeoisie, but expanding out in various forms, energies and singularities”. There is no binary division between the bloc of power and the bloc of resistances: power and resistance pass through everything (and everyone).

Finally, the plebs is not a substance, but an action. “The plebs does not exist but there is a plebs”. Like when we say “friendship does not exist, but there are shows of friendship”. It is something that happens or simply does not exist. It is a fact, a manifestation, an event.

Can the plebs, such a mobile, heterogeneous and complex reality, be organised? The answer is yes. Just as power sets in chain and interlinks different concrete and local relations of force to produce all-embracing strategies, resistances can be ‘strategically codified’ into producing general effects: revolutions.

How? It entails avoiding at least two shortcomings when thinking about organisation: 1) simplification (only that which is identical can be organised) and 2) separation (to be organised one must ‘move out’ of the concrete places where resistances unfold). The ‘political subjects’ that we have known throughout the 20th century (the political party and the armed group) follow this model: thinking of themselves as the head and the articulation of the resistances, building themselves in reality as spaces that are homogeneous, closed and isolated from the worlds where resistances live.

So? It would entail reimagining organisation in terms of ‘circulation’ between the different points of resistance. To assume the dispersed and specifically located character of resistances not as an obstacle to be gotten rid of, but rather as a potency. To think not in terms of how to pull together the resistances under centralised forms without any organic relation to their worlds, but rather how to build ‘transversal links from knowledge to knowledge, from one point of politicisation to another, the points of crossing and exchange’.

The plebs becomes organised through communicating and expanding its practices of resistance. If Foucault enjoyed those 1978 workshops so much, it was no doubt because they opened up a space where resistances could meet up and share without setting aside their differences and their own worlds.


And finally, the question of knowledge

“Each time I tried to carry out a theoretical work, I did it starting from elements of my own experience, always in relation to processes that I saw unfolding upon me”, Foucault explains. To elucidate lived experience, Foucault could go very far in time and space (remote centuries, obscure figures, lost texts) but his entire erudition is placed in the service of thinking the “problems, anguishes, wounds and preoccupations” of the present.

It is the difference between thinking streetwise and thinking literally. In thinking literally, books send you off to other books. In thinking streetwise, books resound with the problems of individual and collective life.

One emerges stronger, more intelligent, more joyous after reading Foucault and yet he only complicates everything further. How is this possible? My intuition tells me this: joy in thinking has nothing to do with how comfortable the conclusions you reach are, but rather with the fact that we discover we are capable of reaching a place by ourselves. It is an experience that leaves a lasting imprint: if we have proven capable of thinking something (whatever it is) for ourselves, we can do so again.

It is the opposite of what Foucault called ‘the prophetic stance’, often associating it with marxism: a mobilising thought that in reality achieves the demobilisation of thought. How? 1. By confusing historical necessity and the goals to be reached, as if these were already written in the very course of the real (‘the end of capitalism is nigh’, etc.); 2) by covering up ‘the dark and solitary aspect of struggles’: the difficulties, contradictions and chiaroscuros of reality, the phases of silence and invisibility in which a struggle does not take a leading role in media or receive the spotlight of attention; and 3) all the time seeking out our adherence to certain theses, but without demanding of us any kind of personal labour.

Instead of the prophetic stance of superiority, which is like the voiceover that describes what is happening without us ever knowing where it comes from, Foucault understands theory as a ‘toolbox’. Not as a theoretical system that is forever valid, but rather an instrument forged to decipher the logic pertaining to a concrete relation of forces. Not as a closed and perfected diagnosis, but as lenses that one must learn to focus for oneself. An unfinished thinking that requires (in both senses) the activation of the other. “I would like to produce truth effects such that they can be used in a battle that is possible, conducted by whoever might desire it, in forms yet to be invented and organisations yet to be defined, I leave that freedom at the end of my speaking to whoever wants to do something with it”.

The intellectual (whoever) that understands theory as a toolbox is not a guru, an oracle or a guide, but rather what Foucault called a ‘specific intellectual’. Not the spokesperson for universal values, but for concrete situations. Not one who traces lines to be followed, but who brings tools that can be used freely. Not the voiceover that knows everything, but the prolonging of the potency of a struggle.


Thinking in plural

In those 1978 workshops discussions unfolded that were ‘profoundly pollitical’ but nonetheless Foucault preferred to speak of ‘a cultural mobilisation’. Why? I think that what Foucault perceived there was an alteration in the ways people were seeing and thinking. That is, a cultural or paradigm change. Certain elements of the ‘new political imagination’ that he sought.

Perhaps we could then define one of these elements: thinking in plural. For example, not to understand power as a monopoly of the State, but rather as a social field of forces. Not to understand resistances as a monopoly of political parties, but rather as possibilities in reach of whoever, in whatever place. Not to understand knowledge as a monopoly of specialists and the Voices of Explanation, but rather as a toolbox with neither author nor owner, of which we can all make use and to which we can all contribute.

Our historical moment is of course very different from the 1970s, but is there not still an overwhelming necessity to think in plural, without a centre? To think and practise social change, not as something that passes through a single plane (parties-elections-political power), but through a plurality of times, spaces and actors?

One criteria for distinguishing between ‘old politics’ and ‘new politics’ could be, rather than a temporal criteria, this key: thinking in plural or thinking about oneself (as the centre).

In this way, the old politics would be that which re-centralises the whole time, absorbing all social energies into a few times, places and actors. These few centres would accumulate power at the cost of the passivity and departure from the scene of everyone else (always in the name of efficiency etc.)

For its part, the new politics would be that which empties the centre time and again by empowering the remainder. That which opens possibilities for political intervention instead of corralling them in to privileged spaces, that which multiplies the capacities of whoever (to do, to say, to think) instead of producing spectators, that which activates conversations and not monologues.

One of the Foucauldian lessons that we can pick up today is that maturity of political thought does not consist of passing from the small to the great or in ‘leaping’ from the streets into the institutions (nor in the reverse), but rather in guillotining the king once and for all and inventing language and maps for pushing through a change that will be (in) plural or it will not be at all.

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