Six Ways of Conceiving Marx and Foucault


This text was written for a discussion devoted to the collective volume Marx & Foucault. Lectures, usages, confrontations (eds. Christian Laval, Luca Paltrinieri and Ferhat Taylan. Paris: La Découverte, 2015), held at Paris’s Lieu-dit literary café on 28 January — and published in Contretemps. Translated by David Broder.

To this day, there have been only a few analyses of the links between Marx and Foucault. The introduction to this volume does mention some, but here we can also see how few there are. This is surprising, for these two authors count among the critical theorists who had the greatest influence in the twentieth century. It would take precise bibliometric analyses to prove it, but there can be little doubt that Marx and Foucault are the most frequently cited references in contemporary critical thought. So one first reason to welcome this book’s publication is that it fills a gap.

This book is also important because it can be subjected to a dual reading: an academic or specialist reading of Marx and/or Foucault, but also a militant reading. Marx and Foucault’s works are oeuvres in the classic sense of the term; in the sense of the Pléiade [Editions Gallimard’s prestigious book series publishing classic texts, and which has recently begun publishing Foucault’s collected Œuvres]. But these names also designate political experiences, of greater or lesser extent. That is obvious in Marx’s case: not so long ago, close to a third of Earth’s inhabitants lived under political regimes that — rightly or wrongly — claimed his inheritance. But that is also true of Foucault, who has been the object of multiple non-academic appropriations, for example at the hands of feminist collectives, the alter-globalisation movement, or by creatives in France. “Change the world without taking power” — the famous slogan of the alter-globalisation movement, and also the title of a book by John Holloway — has clearly Foucauldian hues. The very object of Marx & Foucault thus invites us to question the distinction between “scholarly” and “militant” readings.

I will take as my starting point a typology that Étienne Balibar proposes in his contribution to this volume. Balibar argues that there are four ways of conceiving the relations between Marx and Foucault. Firstly, there is “articulation”: in order to think a given problem, we borrow ideas from both Marx and Foucault and combine them in an original manner. This is doubtless the most commonplace approach in critical thought today. The second possibility is “subsumption”. Here we resolutely take a position within one or the other of their theoretical frameworks — as a Marxist or a Foucauldian — but take ideas from the other author and, through more or less substantial transformations, integrate them into the theoretical framework within which we are situated.

The third possibility is what Balibar calls “meta-theory.” Here, we declare the oeuvres of Marx and Foucault the expressions of one same underlying theory, and as we bring this theory to light we show in what sense Marx and Foucault are each possible variants of it. For example, in saying that Marx and Foucault are two thinkers of modernity or of power, and indicating in what sense this is the case. Finally, there is the fourth possibility: that Marx and Foucault are irreconcilable, for their oeuvres rest on contradictory axiomatics. This is Balibar’s own position, though he nonetheless admits that there is a certain “vicinity” between these two fundamentally antinomic corpuses.

I would like to propose for discussion two other possible ways of thinking the relations between Marx and Foucault, which Balibar does not mention, and which have little or no presence in this book. These two possibilities are anchored in the current political conjuncture. The first is that Marx and Foucault have become outmoded. Their ideas are still in some measure operative, but something fundamental has changed in the structure of societies, which tends to depress their present-day relevance. Parts of the Right have often announced the death of Marx and Foucault. But positions of this kind also exist within contemporary critical thought. These latter are interesting in that they compel us to break out of interpretative routines, and mount a new and different reading of these two oeuvres, which are so foundational to the radical Left.

The second possibility — so the sixth one, following on from Balibar’s typology — is that we can no longer speak of Marx and Foucault without starting out from what took place in between Marx and Foucault. Namely, the various Marxisms. According to this hypothesis, thinking the link between Marx and Foucault presupposes that we start by way of the Marxisms, in that they constitute the inextricably both theoretical and practical actualisation of Marx’s ideas in the twentieth century. This book in part does do this —  indeed, one fascinating section is entitled “Foucault and the Marxisms.” But there is good reason to continue further down this interpretative path. In particular, I will mention what might be a “missing chapter” of this volume: a chapter devoted to Gramsci and Poulantzas. Gramsci began a specific lineage within Marxism, which led to Poulantzas, and which in its own way formulated problematics that Foucault would later address.

Marx, Foucault and the Anthropocene

A first interpretative hypothesis. Marx and Foucault have become outmoded, indeed due to an event that fractures history in two: the environmental crisis, and humanity’s arrival in the “Anthropocene.”  This argument is advanced by Indian historian Dipesh Chakrabarty, an exponent of subaltern studies, who has recently written several important texts on ecology. The “Americanised” variant of subaltern studies that he represents is, in good part, defined by the dual inheritance of Marxism and French theory.

Chakrabarty engages in a comparison between economic crises and the ecological crisis. He declares, “Unlike in the crises of capitalism, there are no lifeboats here [in the context of climate crisis] for the rich and the privileged.” The dominant will always do well out of economic crisis, but according to Chakrabarty this will not be the case with the ecological crisis, since there is no available “lifeboat” with which to leave the planet. Chakrabarty freely recognises that this crisis also entails a class dimension, in the sense that its impact is not evenly distributed across the population. The rich and the poor do not suffer pollution in the same way. But he nonetheless argues that this crisis transcends the class dimension, and is a new form of crisis. Hence, “the current crisis has brought into view certain other conditions for the existence of life in the human form that have no intrinsic connection to the logics of capitalist, nationalist, or socialist identities.”

In Chakrabarty’s view, the ecological crisis is beyond the grasp of Marx’s class analysis. After all, this crisis does not only concern workers and peasants, the “subalterns” that subaltern studies takes as its object, but humanity as a whole. The “Anthropocene,” the age in which man has become a geological force influencing climactic parameters, thus means the weakening of Marx’s theoretical and political effectiveness.

The same also goes for Foucault’s effectiveness. The ecological crisis, Chakrabarty tells us, forces us to rethink the old question of humanism, and notably the famous controversy on “anti-humanism” in which Foucault, Althusser, and others participated in the 1960s and 1970s. Against all expectations, a debate that had seemed dated has experienced a resurgence in the context of the environmental crisis. At a time of climactic upheaval, Chakrabarty argues, humanity’s survival is really in danger, and no longer only theoretically so. In these conditions, we can no longer abstractly speculate on humanity being “erased,” as Foucault did in his renowned conclusion to The Order of Things. For this “erasure” has become a real possibility.

According to Chakrabarty, the ecological crisis sets down, for the first time in history, the conditions for humanity to make common cause at a planet-wide scale; and this will allow it to respond to the challenge of global warming. This implies the elaboration of a new humanism, breaking with structuralist “anti-humanism.” The Anthropocene-event heralds not only the end of the centrality of the class struggle, but also invalidates any thinking that does not take this new humanism as its perspective.  

Marx & Foucault… Gramsci & Poulantzas

Here is another way of conceiving the link between Marx and Foucault. In this volume we find analyses devoted not only to Marx and Foucault, but also to the relations between Foucault and Marxists: including Lukács, Sartre, and Althusser. What took place between Marx and Foucault was the various Marxisms: and it is far from clear that we can indeed reflect on the link between the two authors if we jump past the “century of Marxisms.”  We could, however, continue further with the analyses that this book has embarked upon, reflecting on the links between Marx, Foucault, Gramsci and Poulantzas. Why these two, as well?

In the 1920s and 1930s Gramsci anticipated a series of Foucauldian problematics, including everything that concerns the “non-state” element of power, or “micro-powers.” But he anticipated them from within Marxism, within the context of a reflection bearing on the evolutions of capitalism and the inability of the dominant Marxisms of his time to apprehend them. A reading of his twenty-second Prison Notebook, entitled “Americanism and Fordism,” is instructive in this respect. The concepts of “hegemony,” “integral state,” and “civil society” refer both to the strengthening of the modern state in the context of the crisis of the 1920s and 1930s, and the constitution of what Gramsci calls “private hegemonic apparatuses,” external to the state as strictly conceived. Among others, Bob Jessop has brought out the closeness between Gramsci and Foucault’s approaches in this regard.

I’ll mention in passing the correspondence between Foucault and Joseph Buttigieg, translator of Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks. In one letter to Buttigieg, Foucault says that Gramsci is “an author who is cited more often than he is really known.” We don’t know if Foucault himself had read Gramsci… In any case, a systematic investigation of the links between these two thinkers is something that remains to be carried out.

Poulantzas, for his part, was the first Marxist to take Foucault seriously. In his State, Power, Socialism there is a whole book within a book, namely his discussion of Foucault’s theses. Poulantzas criticises some of these on the basis of Marxism, but also criticises certain Marxist ideas basing himself on Foucault. Poulantzas clearly himself adopts the idea of the “productivity of power” — the idea that power is not only coercive or repressive, but produces the social and individuals.

If Gramsci and Poulantzas are fruitful points of departure for interpretation, this also owes to the political conjuncture in which we are currently immersed. In Europe today the radical Left is in power or at the gates of power in two countries, namely Greece (with Syriza) and Spain (with Podemos). One year on the balance-sheet for Syriza is nothing short of catastrophic, but that is of little importance, here. It is interesting to note that in their political writings and interventions the leaders of Syriza and Podemos mainly invoke two thinkers: Gramsci and Poulantzas.

For example, Syriza’s theoretical and educational institute (originally belonging to one of its components, Synaspismos) is named the Poulantzas Institute. It is led by the philosopher Aristidis Baltas, who became culture minister in the Tsipras government. More generally, the Syriza leadership is impregnated with Poulantzas’s ideas, or a certain reading of his ideas, and notably the “Eurocommunism” to which he subscribed toward the end of his life. Podemos political secretary Íñigo Errejón also frequently cites Gramsci. He has recently published a book featuring an interview with Chantal Mouffe, Ernesto Laclau’s collaborator and partner. In the 1980s Laclau and Mouffe elaborated what is without doubt the most influential interpretation of Gramsci today.

So the reference to Gramsci and Poulantzas is politically operative in today’s Europe. In the countries where neoliberal hegemony is being contested at the level of whole states, those leading the revolt principally claim the tradition of Gramsci and Poulantzas. We have to interrogate the reasons for this. It is partly explained by the fact that Gramsci and Poulantzas were theorists of the state, its capture and its radical transformation, and not simply of “resistance” to power. Whatever the case may be, as with Chakrabarty and the Anthropocene, conceiving of the Marx-Foucault relation starting from Gramsci and Poulantzas allows us to ensure that the interpretation of their ideas will be securely plugged into the political conjuncture of our moment. 

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