Can Foucault’ s Analysis of Power Inform a Radical Politics?
In a well known televised debate between Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault (1971), the two great thinkers reach a deadlock. Chomsky is intent on drawing up an alternative society – though he admits he is vague on the details – in which justice allows human nature to flourish. Foucault, however, refuses to offer any suggestion of what should be. He emphasises the danger in universalising what is an unavoidably partial notion of human nature and goes so far as to suggest that the very concept of justice which Chomsky holds so dear is complicit in the perpetuation of structural inequality in the West. Chomsky’s understandable frustration at the practical implications of Foucault’s thinking is shared by a great many philosophers, political theorists and activists; it is arguably this aspect of his work that has made the biggest contribution to his reputation as a controversial and contrarian theorist.
This essay explores the difficulties in applying Foucault’s work to practical political problems and discusses the question of what a Foucauldian radical politics might look like, focusing particularly on Judith Butler’s development of Foucault’s thought and the implications of this for feminist politics. The essay also serves as an introduction to Foucault as philosopher, historian and political thinker, bringing together a range of his work to demonstrate the continuing value of Foucault’s idiosyncratic ideas to academic, political and everyday life.
This essay provides an explication of Foucault’s approach to power, with an emphasis on the main components of his concern: the productive nature of power, the subject as the effect of power and the crucial relationship of power to knowledge. While his analysis is somewhat ambivalent to the left/right dichotomy of traditional politics, I argue that his dislocation of power from the subject redefines politics- or the ‘art of government’- as a concern with the practices of everyday living. Suggesting that an inadequate account of resistance presents problems for the practical use of Foucault in politics, I move on to respond to this criticism with the suggestion that the lack of normative grounds at the root of these problems is in fact valued by Foucault as a method of resistance to all totalising power/knowledge systems and that this ‘hyperactivity’ may in fact be understood as an extremely radical position rather than philosophical paralysis. Lastly, the essay turns to the work of Judith Butler as an example of the use of Foucault in the creation of a feminist radical politics. I argue that Butler’s purge of all forms of essentialism from the concepts of sex, gender and sexuality shifts the focus of feminism from ‘who?’ to ‘how?’, guarding against the reconstitution of marginalisation in all forms through a practice of constant re-imagination.
Overall, the essay demonstrates that Foucault’s analysis of power can inform a radical politics through a hyper-vigilant permanent critique that provides a thorough understanding of how power/knowledge relations work in order that we may be able to imagine ways of doing politics-as-life differently.