Why the Left Needs Foucault

The relationship between the philosophy of Michel Foucault and Marxism has been contentious since the 1970s. Notably, Jean-Paul Sartre accused Foucault’s thought as being “the last barricade the bourgeoisie can still erect against Marx.” The reason is simple: he rejects the onto-teleological claim of Marxism and the reduction of all conflict to class conflict. Instead, there are a multiplicity of arenas in which struggles can vie for position: domains of sexuality, health, delinquency, and so on. But for Marxist political movements, this doesn’t mean Foucault is useless or, worse, detrimental. On the contrary, Foucault’s philosophy is more useful to the Left than is commonly considered by their pundits, while they continue to dismiss the value of his work to the detriment of their own purported goals, however noble they may be.

For an emancipatory project to be successful, we must be more critical of supposedly politically neutral endeavors and of the political concepts which we embrace. One key to understanding the value Foucault provides to these pursuits lies in his conception of “justice,” which was recently criticized by Ben Burgis on his show Give Them and Argument. In the famous debate between Noam Chomsky and Foucault, one of the disagreements that takes place is whether the working-class wages war or fights in the name of justice. Chomsky is dismayed by Foucault’s insistence that what is in the interest of the proletariat is not justice. Burgis defends Chomsky’s argument by insisting that there must be some grounding or ideal to one’s struggle. He, therefore, charges Foucault with being incoherent on this point and therefore problematic for Marxist politics if his line of thinking is taken up by the Left.

In actuality, Foucault is more faithful to Marx than many Marxists realize. When one wages war, it is often said that they do so in the name of justice; they want to end a state of injustice. But a concept of justice already exists in capitalism, and it is virtually hegemonic. As Marx said in The German Ideology, “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas.” What he means is that the ideas which regulate a given society exist co-dependently with the given upper-class. Without them, there could be no upper-class as these concepts justify their position in society. For example, John Locke’s concept of private property as something one has a right to by the labor one puts into creating or improving an object was the necessary culmination of a change in material circumstances leading to the closure of the commons in England and the creation of a mass of people in need of means of subsistence. This ultimately helped lead to the establishment of the capitalist class.

Marx further hits upon this point in his Critique of the Gotha Program when he criticizes their attempts at establishing an ideal society. The problem is that whatever that ideal is would not be made clear until the material circumstances had disclosed the possibility of such a society, and therefore also the corresponding concept of justice according to which it would cohere. Along these lines, this is also why in Capital, vol 1, Marx argues that even though the worker is exploited in the process of production by receiving a lesser share of profits than they create, that they are still wage laborers and as such their exploitation is in keeping with the conception of justice according to the capitalist system. Because of this a worker cannot simply argue that their position as a wage-laborer is unjust – which, by the way, is why Marx never used moralizing language in his academic works.

In this way Foucault and Marx both agree that when people attempt to overthrow the capitalist system they do not do so in the name of justice – since the entire apparatus which justifies such a system operates in the name of the truth of justice – but instead they wage war on that system and its concept of justice. And only afterward can a new conception of justice be born, corresponding to the then actually existing material and social practices. Without the corresponding material or social circumstances – or apparatus, to use more Foucaultian language – there cannot be a new concept of justice which makes sense. In other words, there is no such thing as justice which exists in abstraction.

This is where we find the importance of Foucault for a Marxist project: he makes us approach class-struggle more critically, taking up and furthering the spirit of Marx as a philosopher of suspicion. To be a philosopher of suspicion is to be suspicious of the traditional claims to transcendental truth. Like Foucault, Marx wanted to look behind appearances to see what actually determines what we take to be true in a given context. He teaches us to look beyond ideological narratives and instead see what material circumstances create the possibility of such ideals and concepts. Thus, we are able to dissolve concepts like natural property rights and historicize them instead of accepting them as inevitable or natural.

In taking a more critical approach to politics, Foucault broadens the scope of the political and shows us that nothing is a-political. The philosopher Johanna Oksala makes the argument, in Foucault’s Politicization of Ontology, that Foucault’s work shows what is normal is nothing other than the result of a successful political struggle. Specifically, she says he has undertaken a clearing of ontology by “showing how the ontological order of things is itself the outcome of a political struggle: Ontology is politics that has forgotten itself.” What she means is that what is taken to be reality, i.e. “the way things are,” is nothing other than the consequence of a struggle which had previously occurred and was therefore not normal or given. For example, the idea that one needed to own land to be free was a widely held belief until very recently. It was an imperative that one needed to secure land, and therefore the guaranteed means to life, in order to realize one’s natural right to liberty. In fact, this was so much so that Thomas Jefferson decried the city as the most unfree inhabitance, while only white, male property owners could vote in the early stages of the United States. Now, however, almost no one would conceive of owning land as the prerequisite to being free. The reason is that a certain ideology has taken hold now which operates to a different rationale than the one previously held by Jefferson and his contemporaries.

This understanding of political struggle and its relation to what we take to be normal can be grafted onto a Marxist project. In “Truth and Power,” Foucault stated that “The political question… is not error, illusion, alienated consciousness, or ideology; it is truth itself.” Many Marxists would interpret this as a challenge to Marxism, but there is another way of understanding what Foucault means here that is beneficial to Marxist politics. In this interview Foucault talks about regimes of truth, which are the apparatuses that separate the true from the false, and which give legitimacy to social, political, and economic systems. If we look beyond pro-capital narratives themselves that leftists often spend too much time trying to refute on their own terms, we can disclose the mechanisms which produce them, ultimately meaning we can begin to dissolve them.

When we deal with ideological concepts and narratives which reinforce capital power, we should be aware of the structures which give them force, their regime of truth, because only once we do that are we able to dismantle pro-capitalist narratives which revolve around the supposed natural truth and good of market forces. For example, in the article “Can We Criticize Foucault?”, Daniel Zamora claims Foucault is not only compatible with Neoliberalism but that he aided it. But Foucault’s own work explicitly undermined neoliberalism where, in his The Birth of Biopolitics lectures, he clearly problematizes neoliberalism and the fantasy of the marketplace serving as the site of veridiction in a regime of truth. Neoliberalism uses concepts like “entrepreneur of the self” which sounds like something emancipatory, but in reality subjugates those who take such a concept as true to market forces and other oppressive apparatuses. Foucault shows us that these concepts and narratives can take a life of their own, that knowledge can indeed push back upon power – upon material practices – problematizing a crude Marxist materialism.

Foucault’s concept of regimes of truth also enables us to disclose seemingly innocuous knowledge. We should be wary of falling into the grip of certain truth regimes, like that of scientism or the infallibility of science and its supposed objective prescriptions, which obfuscate class struggle. A simple Marxist interpretation of the use of science for imperialism (via weapons industries) can show the connection between business and how science can be used for the benefit of capital in these ways. But Foucault teaches us to look more closely at the production of such knowledge itself. For example, in Hermeneutic Communism, the authors point out that the field of analytic philosophy, extremely prevalent in Anglo-American universities, “legitimizes not only scientific enterprises but also the American government, which in part depends on such enterprises.” Now, this does not mean we reject scientific knowledge, but that we should reject the fetishization or reification of such an enterprise, and instead understand the production of such truth as being a result of historical forces just as much as Marx rightly understood the system of capitalism to be the same. And we can see the impact of such Foucaultian-inspired Leftism in the projects of politicians like Evo Morales in Bolivia and his desire to create indigenous truth for social and political practices combatting capitalist hegemony. What is necessary for this, however, is rejecting scientific realism by recognizing the role it plays in supporting the dominance of capital.

In using Foucault, we do not need to reject class politics as the necessary base of an emancipatory movement, and resort to multiple lines of fragmented movements against capitalism. We can retain the required solidarity of Marxist politics, and we must. But recognizing the mechanisms which determine the true and the false allows us to dissolve the reification of their world view and open up the possibility for building solidarity. With Foucault’s analytical theory of power, we can see the way that a regime of truth takes hold of the persuasions of people who will ultimately need to be won over. Understanding that truth takes many forms and looking for the structure which separates the true from the false for those subjects caught in that regime requires a Foucauldian analysis of power. It is obviously not fruitful to argue with people who do not listen to reason – like we might say of conservatives and other reactionaries. In fact, this is the point Foucault tries to make! What one group takes to be rational corresponds to certain apparatuses which differs from other conceptions of rationality and its corresponding apparatuses. Building class-consciousness requires recognizing the regimes of truth of those whose consciousness we need to change. De-mystifying the truth they adhere to on behalf of capital requires dissolving the regime that produces it. In this way Foucault is right: truth is central to political struggle. To overcome capitalism requires we attack it from all sides and remove the foundation upon which it rests. And to lay aside useful tools, ones which Foucault offers, weakens our attempt at such a project.