This essay considers the writings on power of Michel
Foucault. It compares his concept of power relations with those
of Marxism. Whereas the Marxists see power relations as class conflict
between two main opposing classes, which is permanent and predictable,
Foucault shows that power is diffused throughout society, that its outcomes
are not predictable, and that the sources of power and their relations
are transitory and change over time. This leads to a society that
is less static than in Marxist theory, and is less controllable, in terms
of social development.
Foucault also questions the role and place of revolution
in creating major social change. Unlike in Marxist theory, revolution
for Foucault is not central or necessary for major social change.
Major social change for Foucault is the outcome of the multitude of small
and mainly local conflicts, which together add up to the equivalent of major
Foucault's theory that power is distributed between the
local and global levels, brings into question the viability of the nation
state. If power is thus distributed, then the nation state could
be seen to be either irrelevant, or a national co-ordinating structure for
local power relations, and a regional co-ordinating structure for the global
This essay is a review of the theories on power of Michel
Foucault. It shows how Foucault's mode of analysis of power, can
be used to understand the power relations of a modern society. The
essay begins with a review of Foucault's basic theories on power, showing
the connection between discourses, knowledge and truth, and his assertion
that power is not centrally located within society, nor is it static.
Rather power is shown to be diffused throughout society, while not necessarily
being found constantly in the same places.
Foucault's ideas are then compared to Marxist theory,
as the two theories are in some ways the opposite of each other, and therefore
make for a useful comparison of power relations. First, Foucault's
idea that power is diffused and transitory and that conflict takes place
between temporary groups over temporary issues, is contrasted with Marxist
theory that sees society being divided between the conflict of two main classes,
and where power is centralized, not diffused. Next, Foucault's idea
that there are no permanent power structures within society and that this
can be seen to create a society that appears to have no real sense of
direction, is compared to Marxist theory which sees society as a rule-governed,
predictable system, where conflict has usually foreseeable outcomes.
The role of revolution is considered next, where Foucault's ideas that revolution
is not central or necessary for major social change, is compared to Marxist
theory that sees revolution as not only central but also necessary, even
Lastly, Foucault's ideas are used to analyse the
role of the nation state. His idea that power is not found in a
central body or place in society, such as a national government, but rather
is found at the local and global levels, shows that from this perspective
the nation state, or national government, could be seen to be either little
more than a co-ordinating body for local and global power, or increasingly
irrelevant in post-modern power relations. Two examples of the discourse
on globalization of the economy will be used to show the relevancy of Foucault's
Foucault's ideas of power revolve around his ideas of
discourse. For Foucault, power is derived through discourse.
Those discourses that are accepted by the main body of society are the hegemonic
discourses. Therefore the groups that promote these hegemonic discourses
become, in a Grammscian sense, the hegemonic groups in society. These
discourses become hegemonic because they are promoted, and eventually accepted,
as the Truth. The truth, in modern societies, is derived from knowledge,
especially that from the human sciences. So for Foucault, knowledge
and power are directly linked to each other. Foucault made this clear
when he wrote, "that power produces knowledge, . . . that power and knowledge
directly imply one another", where there is no power without knowledge,
and no knowledge can exist without creating power relations.1
In this way, knowledge produces
truth, which in turn produces power. So that truth itself becomes a
form of power.2
showed, "We are subjected to the production of truth through power and we
cannot exercise power except through the production of truth".3
In this way, power is exercised, as
Rouse shows, through "an enforced regimen of truth".4
Clearly then, the groups in
a society that can control the knowledge, and how it is used, will have
the ability to determine, at least to an extent, what the truth is.
From this they will then be able to exercise at least some power within
To Foucault, power was not socially or structurally
static. Rather, power was historically specific to the particular
society at a particular time, and could only be understood in this context.5
To understand how power worked in
a particular society at a particular time, it was necessary to understand
the techniques used to exercise the power. He argued that although
there were different forms of power, such as legal and economic, all these
forms and their institutions used the same methods of applying the power.6
Sex was an example of this, such
as the discourse on the roles of women and men.7
These methods were based on a new 'mechanism' of exercising power.
This mechanism was based on the "management and administration of 'life'
", in order to ensure ". . . the efficient functioning of power's control
over life processes".8
of these new mechanisms was the use of surveillance, in place of sheer force,
for social control. Surveillance took the form of disciplines, examinations,
the human sciences, and even architecture.9
The use of power in this way can
be seen as "the conduct of conduct".10
Yet Foucault did not see power as being completely
dominating. He did not see power as being based on a centralised
agency, rather he saw power as being diffused throughout society, through
complex social networks.11
This diffusion of power allowed for resistance to power within a society.
Foucault argued that whenever power was exercised there was likely to
be resistance to it. This resistance was based on discourse.
By creating a critical knowledge of a hegemonic discourse, those resisting
it could then claim a new truth of their own.12
To be successful, the resistance
would be more effective when used against a technique of power, rather
than attacking the general power or discourse.13
This new truth, if accepted, could
then become the new hegemonic discourse, which would then attract new resistance
to it. In this way, power, discourse, and truth were all fluid concepts.
They were never static or permanent, but were always subject to resistance
Foucault's ideas on power and social structure are very
different to Marxist ideas. For Marxists, society is essentially divided
between two main groups, the Bourgeoisie and the Proletariat. As
such society is divided between the competing discourses of these groups,
with the Bourgeoisie's discourse being the hegemonic discourse.14
As well, to Marxists power is centred
within the capitalist class, where power is exercised as sovereign power,
that is from a centralised source. In this way Marxism, as Rouse shows,
is a rule-governed system based on economic relations.15
To Foucault, basing power relations purely on economic
relations is to simplify the power relations within society, and to limit
power primarily to state apparatus which act mainly in the interests of
where the Marxists see conflict within society as between the two main economic
classes, Foucault pays little attention to classes, seeing power as being
widely distributed throughout society. He writes, "power is everywhere
not because it embraces everything, but because it comes from everywhere".17
This is clearly a very different
conception of power to the Marxists. Whereas the Marxists see only
two possible outcomes from class conflicts, either the Bourgeoisie win
or the Proletariat win, Foucault's concept allows for unlimited and unforeseen
outcomes to power struggles. This is because Foucault does not limit
himself to economic interests driving social conflict. His concept,
based on discourse, allows for conflict to take place over virtually any
social question. By having power spread across the entire social order,
there are "points of resistance" across the entire "power network".18
This allows for vastly more than
simply conflict based on a few classes. It allows for conflict to
be undertaken by any and all manner of classes, groups, and individuals,
none of which inhabit a fixed point or interest, therefore being free to
form any temporary alliances and to fight for any interest. Foucault
explained it this way:
one is dealing with mobile and transitory points of resistance,
producing cleavages in society that shift about, fracturing unities and
effecting regroupings, furrowing across individuals themselves . . . [where
the] points of resistance traverses social stratification's and individual
Put simply, Foucault's concept completely undermines the Marxist concept
of class identity and conflict. In this concept, classes, as identifiable
fixed interests and individuals, simply does not exist as anything more
than a temporary alignment. Even the idea of general group interests
appears to be undermined. From this, we are left with little more
than power as individuals, rather than power as individuals in fixed groups.
That is, individuals joining temporary alliances to fight for interests
which themselves are only temporary. This idea is reinforced by Foucault's
insistence that the distribution of power within a society is historically
specific to a particular point in time.
The mobile and transitory nature of Foucault's concept,
is in direct opposition to the structured system of conflict found in Marxism.
As previously stated, Marxism is a rule-governed system, in that conflict
takes place exclusively between classes with limited and fairly much foreseeable
outcomes. It is a static, and usually predictable system, at least
in terms of social conflict, and as such is a meaningful system, where
both sides know their roles in the conflict, as the roles themselves change
little. Marx explained it this way:
The history of all hitherto existing society is the history
of class struggles. . . . oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant
opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now
open fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution
of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.20
In this sense then, Marxism can be said to have rules, or at least
guide-lines of action.
Whereas with Foucault's concept of power, there
are no static or permanent power structures, such as classes. As
such it can be seen to be a somewhat senseless system, at least when seen
from the perspective of the society as a whole. Rouse shows this lack
of overall direction when he writes:
the totality of power relations [in Foucault's ideas] cannot
be understood as a meaningful system . . . Without doubt,
meaningful actions and situations do occur within specific alignments
of power, but these have only local intelligibility, which Foucault understands
as tactical. That is, they make sense only as responses to a particular
configuration of forces within an ongoing conflict [original emphases].21
So that with Marxism, conflict in any part of a society and over any
issue, being essentially class conflict, can be seen to fit in with, and
make sense to, the wider social structure. It can be said to allow
at least some control over how a society develops. Whereas conflicts
within Foucault's theory only make sense or are meaningful to those who
are directly involved within the conflict itself, but not necessarily to
the wider society or social order. As such, it is a society that can
be said to have no widely recognized rules over its process of social conflict,
and therefore is a society that is essentially directionless in terms of
its overall social development.
As stated, Marxist theory sees the development of a predictable
and somewhat static system of power relations between two competing classes.
For them, the only way to break this cycle is for the Proletariat to rise
up and overthrow the system through a revolution. Marx writes, "their
ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social
for the Marxists, revolution is the only way to create major social change
that is not in the interests of the hegemonic class. Clearly then,
revolution is central to Marxist political theory. As well, for the
Marxists, revolution is linked to a view of the future, that is, that the
revolution will make possible a better society at some point in the future.23
Foucault's concept changes the role of revolution
in society. It goes from being central for major social change, to
being peripheral. This comes about due to two reasons. First,
Foucault's view that power is diffused throughout society, and that allegiances
are transitory, effectively undermines the possibility of a successful revolution.
It can be argued that for a revolution to be successful in a modern society,
it needs to be widely supported over a relatively long space of time.
Although Foucault's theory does recognize that revolutions can and do
happen, he appears to question the real viability of the necessary long
term support. As McHoul and Grace shows:
. . . although great radical ruptures or revolutions have
taken place, . . . what is much more important are 'mobile and transitory
points of resistance' which are constantly shifting the focus with which
these social cleavages are understood. It is the mundane or everyday
act of resistance that potentially produce profound effects.24
In other words, as there is no static and permanently overarching
central power in Foucault's theory, there is little scope for major revolution.
Rather, to Foucault, major changes within, and to society, are the outcome
of the infinite number of small and unconnected conflicts within his system
of fluid power relations. As there is no central power point to resist
these small conflicts, all these small conflicts when seen as a whole,
can dramatically change a society every bit as much as a revolution.
The second reason is closely connected to the first.
As stated, Marxism has a clear view of how to build a better future.
Foucault's view of a multitude of seemingly unconnected conflicts appears
to undermines this. If society is made up of constantly shifting
political movements and power, then it is hard to see how such a society
could adequately plan for future development. Any plans made today
would become quickly obsolete as new discourses and points of power replaced
the earlier ones.25
When comparing Marxist and Foucaltian ideas of revolution,
one more point needs to be considered. For Marxists the revolution
is not only necessary, but actually desirable and inevitable. Marx
writes, "What the bourgeoisie, therefore, produces, above all, is its own
grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally
sees it differently. For him, revolutions are not simply necessary
or even inevitable, they are rather, a matter of choice. When it comes
to revolutions, Foucault writes, ". . . the very desirability of the revolution
is the problem today".27
What he appears to be arguing is that the idea for the need for revolutions
is connected to the idea of seeing politics as a system of sovereign power
relations, that is, a centralised system of power relations. Take
away the central or sovereign power, and revolutions are no longer seen
as necessary or inevitable.28
Rather, Foucault's theory allows for choice. A society has the ability,
as already shown, to effect major change through either small conflict or
through the use of a revolution. In this way, revolution becomes another
tool for social change, instead of something that society is periodically
subject to, while being largely outside of society's control.
Foucault's ideas on power have particular relevance to
the nation state, or national government. Contemporary thought on
the nation state sees it as a political entity that is made up of various
legal, economic and administrative institutions, and which claims to have
a monopoly of power within a given geographical area.29
Foucault's theory challenges this
role or place of the state within society. He argues that centralised
or state power, that is, power exerted from above, is not the real or
main power within a society. Even though such power does exist,
it is reliant on the local points of power to make it operable. Racevskis
shows this clearly when he writes:
[Foucault's] purpose is to show that these are secondary
manifestations of power and that this particular kind of domination would
be thoroughly ineffective if power relations did not already exist at a
lower lever, and if a whole network of minute mechanisms actualizing the
application of power were not already in place.30
As well, not only is state power reliant on local power to operate,
it also is affected by forms of global power.31
These ideas directly impact on
the viability of the nation state, because if the real power is at the
local and global levels, then the role of the nation state is effectively
undermined. In this sense then, the nation state could be seen to
be little more than a co-ordinating body for local and global power.
As well, politics and the exercise of power within
the nation state is usually seen to be centred around the national political
structures, such as federal governments. Within the national structure
people are often thought of as holding power, such as Prime Ministers.
Yet Foucault rejects this view. He argues that, "power is not something
that is acquired, siezed (sic), or shared, something that one holds on to
or allows to slip away".32
This is because those who are seen to 'have power', are only seen as such
because others are prepared to act in ways that supports the person 'with
power'. This is made clear by Rouse, who writes:
even in situations in which we might characteristically
describe one person as having or exercising power over another, that power
depends upon other persons or groups acting in concert with what the first
To Foucault, this leaves us with nothing more than the illusion of
power, in that we think that our national government, or state apparatus,
and politicians is where power is to be found. Foucault writes:
power in the West is what displays itself the most, and
thus what hides itself the best: what we have called political life since
the 19th century is the manner in which power presents its image . . .
Power is neither there, nor is that how it functions. The relations
of power are perhaps among the best hidden things in the social body.
[which leaves us] . . . finding power nowhere except in the mind (under
the form of representation, acceptance, or interiorization).34
In other words, what Foucault is arguing is that the model which we
use to understand power, as distributed and held throughout society, the
model of sovereign power, is fundamentally flawed. This creates
the illusion that power is held and exercised by the institutions and
individuals representing the state. Yet these do not have real power;
it is only that others, at a lower or local level, and at the global level,
are prepared to act, or already act, in the same way.
So if Foucault is correct in this, then the whole
basis of the nation state is seriously questionable. It could leave
the nation state, or national government, as being at most a co-ordinating
body, or at worst an irrelevancy in the power relations in an increasingly
globalised society and economy. If only a co-ordinating body, then
its role could be to allow or assist in the standardizing of responses of
local powers or institutions, which creates the appearance of centralised
government. As well as acting as a conduit or agent of the global
powers within the nation state. Whereas, if irrelevant, then a society
could operate without it, with power being divided between the local and
global levels, with no need of an intervening or co-ordinating structure.
Either of these possibilities for the nation state
become clearer when the increasing globalization of the economy is considered.
This can be seen in the thinking of Lester Thurow, who writes:
. . . today's reality [is] that a global economy exists.
A global economy now shapes everyone's view of the world and alters how
each of us thinks. Everyone faces a new reality. Everyone is
mutually interdependent . . . Powerful institutions (world banks,
multinational firms, international institutions) are in place with a vested
interest in maintaining themselves and their environment. In a very
real sense the global economy has become physically embodied in our ports,
airports, and telecommunications systems. But most important, it is
embodied in our mind-sets.35
This quote of Thurow's makes three important points that relate to
both Foucault and the nation state. First, he recognizes the increasingly
powerful role of global institutions, which by their very existence undermine
the power of the nation state. Second, he recognizes the interdependence
of people to each other on a global basis, and more importantly, the importance
of particular local infrastructure to the global economy. This second
point is important because both these things are part of the fundamental
basis of the nation state. People within the nation state are fairly
interdependent, as they live within a separate political system and economy
from those in other states. As well, ports, airports, and telecommunications
systems, are usually what is seen to make up the infrastructure of the nation
state, not the infrastructure of a global economy. By linking both
these things, and in these ways, to the global economy, Thurow has effectively
taken away some of the foundations of the nation state and given them
to the global system, which fits in well with Foucault's idea of power
being both local and global. Lastly, Thurow recognizes the changing
discourse on the nation state, when he writes of the creation of a 'new
reality', where the 'global economy now shapes everyone's view of the world'
and where 'it is embodied in our mind-sets'. This can clearly been
seen in the case of Terry McCrann of the Daily Telegraph, who re-defined
the term sovereignty when discussing Labor's 1998 election policy of scrapping
Telstra's untimed STD charges within Tasmania. McCrann wrote:
Kim Beazley has quite recklessly and inexcusably created
potential concerns of sovereign risk under a future Labor Government
. . . [Where, by scrapping the STD charges] It very clearly
opens the door on the question of sovereign risk. That's when there
is a hint of fear for foreign investors their investments could be directly
or indirectly, and indeed if only partly, confiscated [ My Emphases].36
Where the term 'sovereign risk' would normally mean a risk to Australia's
sovereignty, McCrann's definition of sovereign risk links sovereignty to
foreign investors, so that what is bad for overseas companies, is a 'risk'
to Australia's sovereignty. In this way, Australia's sovereignty is
not based on Australia having the freedom to make decisions about its own
interests. Rather, that the interests of overseas companies and the
market place, are the deciding factors of Australia's sovereignty.
Put another way, Australia's sovereignty is not to be found within Australia,
but is to be found externally, in the interests of multi-national corporations.
Clearly, this perspective of McCrann's is what
Foucault would see as the emergence of a new discourse. It also
shows, as Thurow noted, the changing recognition of infrastructure as a
national possession, to a global possession. From the perspective
of this new discourse, or new reality, a nation's sovereignty comes not
from its separateness and independence from other states, rather, sovereignty
comes from its integration into, and subservience to, the emerging global
economic and political system. In such a discourse the nation state
clearly has a limited role at best.
In conclusion, it is clear that Foucault's concept of
power structures and relations within society are both very different from
the Marxist perspective, as well as give an insight into the use of power
that Marxism either does not consider to be relevant, or simply ignores.
The two main differences between Foucault and the
Marxists, is Foucault's assertion that there are no large permanent and
fixed power sources in society, such as classes. Rather that power
is diffused throughout society, and is constantly shifting. Second,
that Foucault questions the role of revolution in the creation of major
social change. Clearly both of these concepts cannot easily be resolved
If power, as Foucault claims, comes from everywhere
then anyone at any-time can attempt to exercise it. They do not have
to be part of a larger group or class. When this idea is connected
to the idea that the groups themselves, and the issues they are fighting
for, are merely transitory and historically specific, then Foucault leaves
us with a vision of a society that is in some ways in a state of permanent,
but partial, anarchy. With Marxism, at least there are clearly defined
power sources and points of resistance, where both of these groups know their
role and the possible outcomes. Foucault's concept sweeps this aside,
envisioning a society that basically makes it up as it goes along. There
can be little in the way of long term social and economic planning that could
realistically be expected to actually mature into reality.
This leaves open the question of the viability
for a successful revolution. If society, its conflicts, and its
social development are both transitory and being fought out, not mainly
in large scale conflicts, but in a multitude of small conflicts, then
the possibilities for a successful revolution must be reduced. Yet
Foucault goes further than this. He appears to see revolution as
only another tool for social change. His belief that the many small
separate local conflicts can add up to the equivalent of revolutionary
change, appears to make revolutions themselves unnecessary. In such
a case, revolution becomes nothing more than one choice among many that
a society could choose from in deciding how to bring about social changes.
Yet how a society would actually make such a choice when conflict is mainly
limited to the local level is hard to see.
This becomes even more relevant if Foucault is
correct about power being mainly divided between the local and global
levels, with the national level being of limited importance. In
such a situation those at the local level would become increasingly dependent
on the global power due to the scope and scale of the global power compared
to the local. This, as Thurow has shown, is exactly what is happening.
The global economic system is taking away from the national level the
infrastructure and symbols that were originally part of the nation state.
If a nation does not have control of its major transportation and communications
systems, and its people increasingly see themselves as part of not just
a national, but also a global economic system, then the very viability
of the nation state is at question. In a very real sense then, the
nation state, as a geographic entity, becomes over time, little more than
an administrative structure for the emerging global economic and political
1. A. McHoul, & W. Grace, A Foucault Primer: Discourse,
and the Subject, (Melbourne: Melbourne
University Press, 1993), p. 59.
2. M. Foucault, "On Power" in L.D. Kritzman, (ed), Michel Foucault
Philosophy, Culture: Interviews and Other
(New York: Routledge, 1988), p. 107.
3. McHoul, & Grace, op. cit., p. 59.
4. J. Rouse, "Power/Knowledge" in G. Gutting, (ed.).
The Cambridge Companion to Foucault,
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994),
5. McHoul, & Grace, op. cit., p. 64.
6. Ibid., p. 65.
7. M. Foucault, "Power and Sex" in L.D. Kritzman, (ed), Michel
Politics, Philosophy, Culture: Interviews
and Other Writings 1977-1984,
(New York: Routledge, 1988), p. 115.
8. McHoul, & Grace, op. cit., p. 62.
9. Rouse, op. cit., pp. 95-96.
10. D. Rollison, "Notes on Burchill, Gordon and Miller, The Foucault
Readings for Coercion and Consent
Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences,
As supplied by university, 1998,
11. Rouse, op. cit., p. 106.
12. Ibid., p. 99.
13. McHoul, & Grace, op. cit., p. 86.
14. K. Marx, and F. Engles, The Communist Manifesto,
(Melbourne: Penguin Books Australia,
1985), p. 80.
15. Rouse, op. cit., p. 109.
16. M. Foucault, "Power and Sex", op. cit., pp. 118-119.
17. Rouse, op. cit., p. 106.
18. Ibid., p. 109.
20. K. Marx, and F. Engles, op. cit., p. 79.
21. Rouse, op. cit., p. 108.
22. K. Marx, and F. Engles, op. cit., p. 120.
23. M. Foucault, "Power and Sex", op. cit., pp. 121-122.
24. McHoul and Grace, op. cit., pp. 85-86.
25. M. Foucault, "Power and Sex", op. cit., p. 121.
26. K. Marx, and F. Engles, op. cit., p. 94.
27. M. Foucault, "Power and Sex", op. cit., p. 122.
28. Ibid., pp. 121-122.
29. T. Bilton, & K. Bonnet, & P. Jones, & D. Skinner,
& M. Stanworth,
& A. Webster, Introductory
Sociology, 3rd ed.,
(London: Macmillan, 1996). pp.
30. K. Racevskis, Michel Foucault and the Subversion of Intellect,
(London: Cornell University Press,
1983), pp. 93-94.
31. Rouse, op. cit., p. 107.
32. Ibid., p. 105.
33. Ibid., p. 106.
34. M. Foucault, "Power and Sex", op. cit., pp. 118-119.
35. L. Thurow, The Future of Capitalism,
(Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1996),
36. Terry McCrann, "Time is up for Beazley's untimed regulation
The Daily Telegraph, 18 September
1998, pp. 43-44.
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Politics, Philosophy, Culture: Interviews and Other Writings 1977-1984.
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Foucault, M. "Power and Sex" in Kritzman, L.D. (ed). 1988. Michel
Foucault Politics, Philosophy, Culture: Interviews and Other Writings
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Marx, K. and Engles, F. 1985. The Communist Manifesto. Melbourne:
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McCrann, Terry. "Time is up for Beazley's untimed regulation spectre".
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and the Subject. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press.
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Readings for Coercion and Consent subject.
Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.
As supplied through University, 1998.
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