Karl Marx and Michel Foucault are two of the most cited critical theorists in the world today, simultaneously revered or reviled, depending on who you talk to. Their work has been subjected to countless appraisals and debunkings and has met with everything from overzealous acceptance through well-reasoned critique to parodic and bad faith misinterpretations. One of the more interesting recent developments has been the tendency to conflate their thinking, and to present Foucault as essentially carrying on the Marxist tradition by other means. The most well known exponent of this position is Jordan Peterson. Drawing on books like Stephen Hicks’ Explaining Post-Modernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault (critiqued here), in Peterson’s lecture series and 12 Rules for Life, he makes the claim that Marxism was morally bankrupt by the 1960s, once the horrors of the Soviet Union had become widely known and accepted. Rather than abandon the cause, postmodern theorists like Foucault decided to repackage the Marxist framework to sell old wine in new bottles. Where Marx had focused on class oppression, Foucault generalized the oppressor/oppressed binary to claim that power impacted all areas of human life, not just economic and political relations. Therefore what was needed was a total critique of Western civilization and ways of life, which would leave nothing standing, and open the door to a new form of communism or socialism. While Peterson’s account has largely been dismissed as fantastic, even by critics of Foucault and postmodernism like Slavoj Zizek, it has garnered considerable popular support.
Marx and Foucault’s thinking overlap, but there are considerable differences between them. For reasons I outline elsewhere in this magazine, the main difference lies in the theory of freedom underpinning Marx, which is largely absent from the French thinker’s work. As a result, Foucault’s work indirectly abets certain reactionary viewpoints, while Marx’s does not.
Perhaps the most obvious points of overlap between Marx and Foucault are their shared interest in human history and criticism of all simplistic forms of individualism. From his early young Hegelian period onward, Marx was scathingly critical of the tendency of classical liberal thinking to place an abstract individual at the center of political and economic thought. This abstract individual comes into the world needing no one and relies exclusively on her own wits and abilities to pursue her self-interest. To Marx, this is a highly specious claim: all individuals come into the world in historically and socially specific material conditions, which have an immense impact on their lives. For instance, a poor woman born into the family of a Roman slave could expect a very different life to an upper middle class man born in Orange County circa 2001.
Foucault was also critical of the methodological individualism characteristic of classical liberalism, but he approached the issue from a different angle. Foucault was partly reacting against the existential philosophy of figures like the Marxist Jean Paul Sartre, who tried to reconcile an individualism drawn from phenomenology and Heidegger with Marxism. Sartrean thought stresses that, even under the most coercive conditions, we always enjoy the fundamental freedom to create ourselves. By contrast, Foucault insisted that our destiny as subjects is always shaped by power in ways we have barely begun to understand. Looking at the history of how different subjects emerged could help us recognize how power evolved and changed to shape us.
Karl Marx on History and Freedom
Marx’s thought draws heavily on eighteenth and nineteenth-century English classical political economy, French socialist and anarchist thought and the philosophical materialism of German writers like Feuerbach. But by far his biggest theoretical influence was the philosopher Georg Hegel, who developed an extremely complex theory of history. Hegel argues that history consists of the gradual ascension of consciousness (which he calls Geist or spirit) towards higher levels of complexity and freedom. It achieves this through a dialectical process by which finite historical forces come into conflict with one another, leading to the emergence of newer and more liberated forms of existence.
One simple example is his dialectic of the master and slave, whereby a single consciousness passes over into what Hegel calls self-consciousness. When two individuals confront one another at an early stage of history, the person who is more willing to risk his life for dominance can enslave the other, thus becoming the master. This fills him with a tremendous sense of self-worth since he is able to dominate the behavior of another. But, Hegel points out, there is a problem. The master can only gain this sense of self-worth by dehumanizing and belittling the slave, as beneath the master’s concern. Unfortunately it eventually dawns on the master that dominating the behavior of someone you regard as an inferior isn’t all that impressive—just as abusing a child as an adult is usually indicative of deep inner weakness on the adult’s part. Meanwhile the slave comes to recognize that it is her work that actually feeds the master’s sense of dominance. In effect, the master depends on her, rather than the other way round. The resolution to this conflict, according to Hegel, is the historical realization that we can only gain a sense of self-worth through being admired by an equal. This realization is achieved through long periods of historical struggles for equality, which include everything from movements to end slavery to demands for women’s emancipation. The racist slave-owner recognizes that his dominance is nothing but concealed weakness; the misogynistic male recognizes that being loved by a subordinate can never provide true satisfaction. The end result is that one becomes a self-conscious being, aware that each individual depends for his sense of self-worth on the equal status and freedom of others who value him.
Marx drew heavily on this Hegelian theorizing, while famously turning it upside down. He felt that Hegel was right that history consists of a movement towards greater self-consciousness and freedom. In The Communist Manifesto, he singles liberal capitalism out for praise as the highest kind of social form yet developed, since people are freer and more capable of self-development than ever before. However, Marx felt that Hegel focused far too much on the claim that ideas—rather than the material world—determine people’s actions. For instance, in his Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, he argues that Hegel was far too enamored of the belief that liberal ideology generates grand social changes. Hegel, Marx argues, writes as though the French Revolution had singlehandedly sprung from the writings of Locke and Voltaire, or the end of slavery come about because individuals simply became more compassionate. Marx claimed that material historical transformations helped bring about a liberal ideology and set of institutions. For instance, the invention of industrial technology in the late eighteenth century contributed to a change in property relations, as capitalists upended the old feudal order to generate workers who could sell their labor power in the factories of Manchester, rather than leading traditional agrarian lives in the English countryside. These changing property relations made it necessary to change the legal and political relations up top, leading to the end of aristocratic monarchies and the rise of the capitalist bourgeoisie.
For Marx this constituted a big improvement on the feudal era. The epoch of serfs laboring for a lord, or slaves who picked cotton for the landed gentry in their white picket houses, gave way to one in which each individual was legally considered free. She could nominally sell her labor as she wished, or even try to acquire enough capital to become a capitalist. But, for Marx, this was also simply one historical movement among others, subject to its own contradictions. Under capitalism, for example, people come to define their freedom and sense of self through the consumption of consumer goods. Buying the latest iPhone or dressing in the latest fashion become how people reflect who they were. But this freedom is highly one dimensional, to invoke Marcuse, since our deeper yearning for higher forms of freedom is constrained by the capitalist system. For instance, in liberal capitalist societies one is permitted to reflect one’s freedom by choosing between hundreds of different kinds of ice cream. But, politically, one is often faced with a choice between two or three virtually indistinguishable political parties, often more beholden to monied interests than to their purported constituents and not very interested in changing the status quo. For Marx and later Marxists, this limited society will eventually give way to a freer kind of human life. Though, as I have mentioned before, the form this will take has always remained annoyingly unspecified.
Foucault on History and the Formation of Subjects
Michel Foucault’s approach to history naturally owes something to Marx, but it is quite different. He came of intellectual age in a period in which French academia was heavily influenced by existential and phenomenological philosophy. His touchstones therefore include Sartre—but also Heidegger and, especially, Nietzsche. Indeed, one of the ironies of Peterson’s reductionist account of Foucault as a kind of closet Marxist is that he fails to recognize that both he and Foucault draw on many of the same theoretical sources, given the Canadian psychologist’s acknowledged debt to both Heidegger and Nietzsche. Much of Foucault’s work criticizes the existentialists’ individualism, while paying close attention to their emphasis on how our sense of self is formed. Foucault would pick up on these ideas and give them a cynical twist. As Thomas Lemke observes in his classic Foucault’s Analysis of Modern Governmentality: A Critique of Political Reason, it is helpful to divide Foucault’s work into three time periods. Each takes a different approach to history, but all three have overlapping concerns and—I would argue—a depressingly totalizing approach to power and our limited capacity to resist it.
In the first period, from Madness and Civilization through to 1970, Foucault analyzed the “archaeology of knowledge” and its association with institutional and political power. He tried to show how what we consider true knowledge has profoundly changed over time. For instance, what we now consider madness was conceived of in the Middle Ages as a sacred association with higher powers. It was only when a particular conception of reason emerged in modernity that we could begin to divide people into the reasonable and the mad. For Foucault, the different kinds of knowledge that emerged through history are better understood as “discourses,” which conflict with one another on basic points, and often change or disappear, depending on historical conditions. Often, these discourses were held up less because they were true than because institutions propagated them and insulated privileged discourse from criticism.
Despite his best efforts, Foucault often comes across in this period as a skeptical Hegelian, who views the world in terms of a clash of ideas, in which each set of ideas gives way to another in its turn. In his second, genealogical period Foucault takes up Nietzsche’s project in The Genealogy of Morality to try to show how moral ideas also change—though he focuses primarily on the consequences of this at ground level. In Discipline and Punish, Foucault argues that, with the advent of the Enlightenment, our understanding of law, the state and punishment changed dramatically. We moved from a monarchical system, in which punishment was meant to be horrific and public, to demonstrate the sovereign’s power over his subjects, to a disciplinary society, in which punishment was directed against the soul, rather than the body. Prison was established to train deviants to be cooperative and productive citizens, by regimenting their schedules and ensuring they are always hard at work. Foucault argues that this disciplinary approach was a model for other forms of social organization, from schools through to the military.
In his final period, Foucault focuses on how different kinds of subjects are created throughout history. As this was his most creative and ambiguous period, it’s a shame he died so early. In the History of Sexuality and in his lectures on neoliberalism, biopolitics and other topics, Foucault brings the different strands of his ideas together to show how our sense of self has been largely determined by different ways of conceiving of knowledge and their implementation at ground level. To use his favored parlance, throughout history we are determined as various kinds of subjects by different forms of power. To give a pertinent modern example, what is sometimes called neoliberalism emerged in the late twentieth century, as state institutions and the market framed individuals as mini entrepreneurs who look at the entire world in economic terms. This results in subjects who relate to one another using cost-benefit analysis, as a result of which the economy colonizes all forms of social life from marriage to academia. Neoliberalization creates a world in which subjects get married for tax purposes, avoid unproductive activities like philosophy or literature as a waste of time, and are constantly negotiating with others in order to generate social and economic capital in all areas of their lives.
Conclusion: Marx and Foucault on Freedom
There is a common thread running through all three of Foucault’s periods and it shows where he radically differs from Marx. Marx was committed to a strong theory of human freedom and development. He felt that the ultimate triumph of history would be the emergence of a society in which we could finally develop all sides of our nature. Despite its pessimistic analysis of liberal capitalist society, Marxism is fundamentally an optimistic (critics would say dangerously utopian) theory. According to Marx, eventually the contradictions latent in liberal capitalism will lead to its demise and the rise of a communist society, where freedom will be fully realized. There is none of this in Foucault. He occasionally gestures towards the need to resist the influence of power, and, near the end of his life, he seems to have been flirting with developing a more concrete set of ideas as to what emancipation would look like. Unfortunately, however, the general sense one gets when reading his work is that resistance, while admirable, is likely futile. Malicious forms of power will always exist, and even efforts to fight back that invoke principles like justice may just conceal insidious ambitions, aimed at establishing new forms of oppression.
I agree with Habermas: this gloomy outlook means that there is an inherently conservative dimension to Foucault’s work. Like Edmund Burke—and like Jordan Peterson himself—Foucault believes that, while power can be productive, hierarchy and oppression will always be with us. We are inevitably bound up in the historical contexts in which we exist, framed as subjects of the social order of which we are a part. While some forms of resistance may be possible and even admirable, we should look on them with caution and recognize that they may just conceal deeper drives towards new kinds of oppression. Burke had a very similar appraisal of movements like the Jacobins and would have agreed with Foucault that any effort to demand bold emancipation in the name of justice can be dangerous. This pessimism is nowhere to be found in Marx, who could be a cynic, but was never a defeatist about humankind and its longing for freedom. In our strange postmodern world, I find his approach more refreshing than Foucault’s.