A Marxist experience of Foucault
Colloque Marx-Foucault, Nanterre, 18-19 December 2014
Translation by Arianna Bove and Pier Paolo Frassinelli1. The question I will ask today is simple: how have I tried, how has it been possible, in my work, to read Marx with and after Foucault? I would like to present a brief analysis of this experience. To do it, I had to position and arrange axes of Marx's reading around a dispositive of subjectivation retraced on Foucault; a dispositive from which I will try to demonstrate how it is possible to apply it to our present, how it imposes an adequate ontology. Inversely, if reading Marx means nourishing a radical will of transformation of historical being, Foucauldian subjectivation must be confronted with this determination.
a) Today it seems to me that on the basis of Foucault's intuition and conclusions, the highly historicized tone and the style of Marx's critique of political economy need to be neatly installed within a materialist approach. Thus, evidently, reading Marx's historical writings together with all the others (especially those on the critique of political economy) is not enough; one needs to go deeper and develop, genealogically, his analysis of concepts by opening them up to the present. Foucault's approach has allowed us not only to grasp, but also to insist on the fact that the subjectivation of class struggle is an agency in the historical process. The analysis of this subjectivation will always need to be renewed and confronted with the transformative determinations that affect concepts in the historical process. In the framework of Foucault's stimulations and aside from any dialectics and teleology, historical subjectivation is assumed as a dispositive that is neither causal nor creative, and yet determining. Like Machiavelli: a historical materialism for us.
Here are two out of many possible examples:
- In Capital, when Marx defines the transition from the extraction of absolute surplus value to that of relative surplus value, linking this shift to workers' struggles for the reduction of the working day – here, the historical dimension of the struggle, the specific subjectivation of class, becomes essential, in the event, to the definition of the ontological transformation of the structure of capitalist valorisation as well as to the changing relationship of technical and political composition, that is, innovation, in workers' subjectivity. It is the struggle that allows for both the event and the ontological transformation to occur.
- Marx's move from the analysis of 'formal subsumption' to that of 'real subsumption' of labour under capital is first and foremost a theory (hypothesis) of the historical development of the capitalist mode of production. Well: from his description of the shift that invests the process of surplus value and its transformation into profit, Marx draws various possible figures of the extraction of surplus value. On this historically grounded basis he then introduces his analysis of a constant reconfiguration of the categories of exploitation in the different epochs of capitalist development. In this framework, for instance, it is possible to critique the very concept of the working class, as it changes and takes on different shapes in the shift from 'manufacture' to 'large scale industry', and now from industrial capitalism and its more or less socialised Fordist figure to that of financial capitalism. Here the concept of 'multitude' can adequately describe the actual determinations of 'living labour' in the 'cognitive' sense, as singular, plural and cooperative, and thus redefine, rather than eliminate, the concept of the working class.
b) In the theoretical perspective that firmly originates in Foucault, it is possible to assume that Marx's concept of capital (especially when in its historical development from 'manufacture' to 'large scale industry', from 'social capital' to 'financial capital') is strictly connected to the concept of power that Foucault defined as the result of a relation of forces, as the action on the actions of another, as the effect of a 'class struggle' with ontological bearing. The new features of proletarian subjectivation – resistant and/or active as a productive, singularised and cognitive force – allow us to place class struggle back at the centre of capitalist development, to see it as the engine, even of its final crisis, eventually. And please, let's stop accusing of historical teleology anyone who speaks of the eventual end of capitalism. The opposite is the case: it is only thanks to these analogies that we can recover the meaning of 'class struggle' as Begriff des Politischen.
c) The third point I would like to make in this context concerns the possibility of making some progress in the analysis of the transformation of the 'technical composition' of the labour force, focusing on the relationships that an antagonist subjectivation opposes to capitalist command. In the Foucauldian perspective of an analysis of 'technologies of the self', living labour can increase its power when it appropriates quota of 'fixed capital'. By this I mean that labour power is not merely subjected to the subjectivation of the capitalist mode of production; it also subjectivates itself at the level of cognitive capital and thus reacts by constituting new figures of living labour. These appropriate for themselves fractions of fixed capital and thus develop a superior productivity. At this level, today we can grasp the 'excess' typical of cognitive living labour and improve our analysis of its biopolitical productivity. The figure of capital and that of power always interact in the relations of forces that constitute them, but they also always interact in the relations that preside over processes of subjectivation.
Here we must recuperate the experience of Simondon, to use and develop it not only in terms of inter-subjectivity and trans-individuation but also in those of Guattari and Deleuze, of the machinic transformation of corporeity and subjectivity. What is sometimes lacking in Deleuze, even in this machinic perspective, is the antagonistic element of subjectivation, but this can be recovered by insisting on Foucault's intuitions. Just as class struggle traverses the organic composition of capital, so does this increasingly central machinic element, moved by class struggle, belong to the technical composition of labour power. After Foucault, this development of Marxian discourse becomes possible. In the class relation, as studied after Foucault, the ontological dimension is not a background; it is a productive machine. Operating in common, the productive hegemony of the common, result not only from the turning of labour into a cognitive machine, but above all from the anthropological transformation this transformation derives from, from the conducts that nourish it, from new technological puissance. Though steeped in classical antiquity, Foucault's technologies of the self approach a new anthropology: one with no traces of naturalism or identity, yet still capable of configuring the subject after the 'death of the subject'. Foucault's work started from an analysis of the 'accumulation of men' that went hand in hand with the primitive accumulation of capital. Now it is necessary to dwell, in the technical composition of labour, on the transformation of productive bodies and forms of life, and to definitively affirm that 'modes of life' become 'means of production'.
d) Finally, my fourth point, to be extremely schematic, is that when the relationship between Marx and Foucault is looked at from the standpoint of Foucault's theory of subjectivation, communism can be seen as none other than the process that joins together the production of the common and democratic subjectivation, that is to say, the singularization of the multitude. It is in this way that productive ontology recovers the concept of the common.
2. Having already explained how I used Foucault to read Marx, I would like to take a step back and provide a clearer basis for my interpretation by returning to the analysis from a less subjective standpoint. Traversing the century that separates Marx from Foucault and analysing the diversity of forms of exploitation, struggles and modes of life, let us start from some points of differentiation. These differences are probably sketchy and undoubtedly limited, but they are still at the centre of the political lexicon of both these authors, and provide the measure of a significant distance between them. We will later examine the extent to which these important differences can be resituated within a common perspective – which is clearly my view, but, for now, let us dwell on the differences.
First difference. In Marx, the unity of command is held and sustained in the figure of sovereign power. Government is unified in the will of capital. Instead, in Foucault, the unity of power is diluted, and 'governmentality' describes a plural development of production of different and diffuse powers.
Second difference. In Marx, capital sums up dominion, and the historical dynamics of social development succeed one another following the pace of different 'subsumptions', in the one-sided perspective of a 'capitalisation', if not 'statalization', of the social. In Foucault, biopower is decentred, its diffusion occurs by different germinations, and the articulations of powers become singularized. Here we are confronted with a 'socialisation of the political'.
Third difference. In Marx, communism is organised through the dictatorship of the proletariat, which, alone, can carry out the transition from a capitalist to a classless society. In Foucault, the political regime of liberation is organised in subjectivation, singularized as freedom, and sees in production an unlimited scope for the construction of common happiness.
Can these undoubtable differences be corrected or drawn together? Can the conceptual divisions, though grounded on the same ontological line, be eliminated? Probably they can be made less important than they seem. For instance, the first difference, at the political level, concerning Marx's organic concept of the state and command, is attenuated by the historical analysis of the comportment of social classes, by the interpretative device of 'class war' and its transitory and multiple effects, and by the hypothesis and then critiques of the commune developed in Marx's historical writings. In any case, at the level of the critique of political economy, the organic concept of the state and command changes dramatically when Marx moves from the analysis of the processes of production and reproduction, characterised by highly centralised and abstract figures, to the analysis of the social circulation of commodities, where he reconnects the productive process to the processes of value creation and then descends back to the analysis of the wage and consequently to the description of social classes and their modes of life. There, the multiplication and diffusion of the mechanisms of power design large spaces, where society becomes a factory, the processes of power multiply, become different, and on these differences they really begin to pulsate.
The second difference concerns the 'capitalisation' or 'statalization' of society. Marx presents this extremely violent 'primitive accumulation' also as a sort of 'governmentalisation' or 'socialisation of the state' taking place in the shift from 'formal' to 'real' subsumption. Roberto Nigro has insisted on these analogies between subsumption in Marx and Foucault, while Macherey has always tried to grasp, in his analysis of these social transformations, the change from 'produced subject' to 'productive subject' that is at the heart of Foucault's problematization of subjectivation.
The third difference concerns Marx's communism: the dictatorship of the proletariat on the one hand, and its ontological subversion in Foucault's theory of subjectivation on the other. Here we could draw some similarities between them taking into account the pages on communism, the general intellect and the social individual in the Grundrisse. This similarity will become more evident in Foucault's lectures from 1978, and is probably the outcome of debates he had with friends, colleagues and collaborators, in the Foucauldian circles of his time and thanks to his acknowledgement of Marxist historiographers like E. P. Thompson.
To conclude, whilst these similarities draw our authors closer around some of the main questions of modernity (State, society and subject), they also locate them in the twilight of the modern, where modernity fades out, rather than in the line of a development of a new ontology. It should be noted here that when highlighting these differences (and similarities) between Marx and Foucault, we refer to the phase of Foucault's work up until the biopolitical turn of the lectures of 1977-78 and 1978-79. The analogies determined here remain confused. Concepts are treated in an ambiguous manner. Suffice it to say that, for Marx, in the first and second example, each discursive accentuation is not given in the terms of singularization but in those of extreme 'abstraction', whilst in Foucault the opposite is the case.
3. I believe that by studying Foucault's work since the 1977-78 courses, and having been able, since 1984, to take his writings and lectures not just as those of a philosopher but also of a militant (the tone of the courses at the Collège de France lends itself to this reading), we could define a basis that goes beyond the superficial convergences between Marx’s and Foucault’s thought on governmentality, biopolitics and the subject. We could consolidate their common insertion in an ontology of the present.
In those years Foucault moved forward in his articulation of politics and ethics by defining a 'self's relationship to itself' which goes against any individualizing operation and return to the Cartesian subject. This results in a collective constitution of the subject immersed in the historical process, which turns out to be a 'destitution' of the subject that is presented as an excavation [scavo] of the We – of the relationship I/We – not just as becoming but also as multiplicity. We is a multitude and I is defined by its relationship to the other. When we analyse the 'care of the self', which Foucault spent so much time focusing on, we realise that it cannot be reduced to an individual practice and, to repeat Judith Revel’s approach, even less to 'an individual response to a power that tends to create and shape the figure of the individual according to its own needs. To put it brutally and schematically, the Greek self is not the Cartesian I and, all the more so, it is not the individual created by the economic and political liberalism whose birth was described by Foucault in 1978 – rather, it is the singularity defined by Deleuze'.
Ethics is situated at the crossroads of being and doing. The decentring within the process of subjectivation, which is totally political, follows from this. It is here that the cynics triumph and that parrêsia is spelt out not simply as will (to say the truth) but as the ground of truth. Yet, to affirm this one must insist not just on the coupling power-resistance, which introduces a dissymmetry between the two terms (even though they can’t be thought without each other), but above all on the ontological character of their difference. This is revealed by the intransitivity of freedom, which is unconditional even when it is subjected to a power relation, as in the case of living labour, which is intransitive puissance within the relation of capital.
Truth is created on a poietic terrain that produces new being. For instance, liberation struggles develop an intransitive practice of freedom: freedom that creates truth. In his debate with Chomsky, when the discussion touches upon the desire for truth of the proletariat, Foucault says: 'I would like to reply to you in terms of Spinoza and tell you that the proletariat doesn’t wage war against the ruling class because it considers such a war to be just. The proletariat wages war against the ruling class because it wants, for the first time in history, to take power. And it’s because it wants to take power that it considers such a war to be just'.
It is clear that the development of these processes of subjectivation leads to a continuous reformulation of the grammar (and of the practices) of power. If archaeology recognises the difference between yesterday and today and genealogy experiments with the possible difference between tomorrow and the now, they can only do this by means of an accurate analysis of the present, a 'critical ontology of ourselves'. And it is through a critical ontology of ourselves rooted in the present that we can or indeed need to put in crisis the categories of the modern. One could provide many examples. The fundamental ones are the problematics that surround the new quality of 'living labour' and the new dimensions of its productive capacity; and, secondly, the exhaustion of the dimensions of the 'private' and the 'public' and the emergence of a 'common' ground determined by the relationship between I and We – the production of I by We.
Now, what's important about this historical sequence – about ethics and political activity – is the projection, or better, the dispositif of an open ontology, of production of being. It is perhaps odd but nonetheless relevant to remember this Foucauldian position, which he developed when the last outcomes of Sartrean existentialism had imposed themselves even within the revolutionary left. Vis-à-vis Sartre, in Foucault there is no freedom of the subject and necessity of fact. Instead, we have the necessary determination of the ontological context and its opening, freedom of action and ethical activity.
4. After Heidegger, in postmodernity, ontology is no longer defined as the site of the foundation of the subject. It is a linguistic, practical and cooperative agencement. It is the texture of praxis: in short, it is an ontology of present being that has interrupted the continuity of transcendental philosophy that had been fixed from Kant onwards. This ontology is literally torn apart from the ontology of modernity and from its Cartesian roots – from the centrality of the subject – and installs itself on the new materiality of 'modes of life'. Here the epistemological screen that functions as a bridge to reality is shattered. Heidegger proceeds on this terrain, but he also makes it impassable as technical operating, which now constitutes the world, clashes with the work [opera] itself: 'The threat to man does not come in the first instance from the potentially lethal machines and apparatus of technology. The actual threat has already affected man in his essence. The rule of Enframing [Gestell] threatens man with the possibility that it could be denied to him to enter into a more original revealing and hence to experience the call of a more primal truth'. In Heidegger being is no longer productive and technology drowns production in an inhuman destiny that introduces a sign of perversion in the genesis of the new ontology. Technology gives us back a waste land: it is here that the ghosts of the subject reappear, well represented by Heidegger's existentialism.
Nietzsche and Foucault walk a different path. They assume the being of the world for what it is and excavate it to know what it has become: to manipulate the detritus of the past, the compactness of the present, and the adventure of what is to come – in its material reality and open temporality. They push to fill ontology with history, to establish linguistic relations and performative dispositifs, genealogical reconstructions and wills to truth, so that these may interact and produce new being. They bend every relation to a world constituting machine. Transcendental epistemology is put aside: it can no longer provide a guarantee of knowledge for the ontology of the present within which our life is produced.
Against Heidegger, within this new ontology we have a decisive bifurcation that is open to the common pulsation of life. The production of being is not in profundity or transcendence but is organised in the presence, actuality and care of life. I am talking about 'pulsation' but let there be no ambiguity: no vitalism here, we are in social and political life, not in a biologised or naturalistic life. Life is always social and political.
In Foucault there is the highest expression of this being immersed in a new ontology of the present: a common being where the reciprocal and multilateral dependence of singularities creates the only ground on which we can posit the question of knowing and look for truth. As Macherey reminds us, the context of Foucault's publications is 'at the beginning of a season of great debates that marked the complete renewal of the modes of thinking and writing of the immediate post-war period, when realism in literature, the philosophy of the subject, and the notion of continuous historical progress of dialectical rationality were being simultaneously questioned'. Freeing oneself of that culture means abandoning the sovereign subject and the concept of consciousness – and with them historical teleology. It means conceiving ontology as the texture and product of collective praxis. In the mid-1970s, as I read what Foucault had written up to that point, I perceived an impasse and asked myself whether it should be overcome – beyond the structuralist cult of the object and the spiritualist fascination with the subject – by an impulse towards subjectivation, towards a coming [a-venire] ontological construction. This is what has happened since the end of the 1970s.
In Marx we are faced with the same form of ontological rooting: a rooting of in/of historical presence and its constant reconstitution. There is no metaphysics of the subject. The ontological texture is the same as the one I have hitherto called 'new ontology'. Assuming this ontological immediacy doesn’t mean failing to take into account the difference of the historical periods and therefore of the 'modes of life' to which reflection is applied – for instance, in Marx and Foucault. It just means being able to approach them from a homogeneous basis.
It is therefore a matter of proceeding with the four points defined at the beginning of this intervention and that I am going to recall again: radical historicisation of the critique of political economy; recognition of class struggle as the motor of capitalist development; sujectivation of labour-power and living labour in struggle and adjustment of productive bodies to the mutation of relations of production; and, lastly, a definition of subjectivation open to the common.
5. Contrary to what I have said thus far, in the French context there have often been attempts to advance on this terrain by developing a de-subjectivation of ontological discourse. This is where Althusser's thought has been used as a mediation. And in effect he proposed this line with great radicality. Now, there is no doubt that Althusser deepened his critique on this terrain: 'the individual is interpellated as a (free) subject in order that he shall submit freely to the commandments of the Subject, i.e. in order that he shall (freely) accept his subjection, i.e. in order that he shall make the gestures and actions of his subjection "all by himself." There are no subjects except by and for their subjection.' We know that very well. Still, in this process, by dismantling subjectivity so much, by cutting the tree of any possible spiritualism, Althusser paradoxically ended up cutting off the branch he was sitting on. This is how Balibar corrects him: 'It is (only) in the process without a subject as historical process that the "constitution of the subject" can have a meaning'. The Marxist critique of the subject cannot be translated into an unqualified and indeterminate figure for anti-humanism. Historicity and the pouissance that this critique expresses must be recovered. Possibly, humanism after the 'death of man' is resurrected in the ontology of the present.