Foucault is often characterised, by critics and proponents alike, as having maintained that power relations are so all-pervasive in society that any attempt at liberation can only be illusory, since such attempts are always and necessarily imbued with, and complicit in, the prevailing power relations themselves: in effect, that every possible apparent antidote is already infected with poison. Since the self that “resists” such power relations is a mere construct of the very power relations it supposedly resists, the would-be rebel can never be more than a hand puppet going through the motions of attacking its puppeteer. Whatever looks like Fighting the Power – Foucault is said to have taught – is just one more trick whereby the Power survives and extends its reach.

Michel Foucault This pessimistic interpretation might seem to run up rather quickly against some obvious contrary evidence. Foucault often insists that what is harmful is not power per se, but the particular form of power that he calls domination – in effect, a form of power that oppressively constrains the options of those upon whom it operates. Mere power, by contrast, can be relatively harmless, since it allows those upon whom it operates many options for resisting, subverting, or reversing it. Mere power is, to be sure, always dangerous – since it poses the risk of being transformed into domination – but, as Foucault liked to say, “everything is dangerous,” so the proper response to ordinary power is simply vigilance, not hostility. Thus, an optimistic moral: while power relations are necessarily all-pervasive, they need not be bad; and while domination is indeed bad, it need not be all-pervasive.

Moreover, Foucault also explains that domination can never be complete. One cannot exercise power over the dead or the comatose; power necessarily operates upon subjects who retain their capacity for agency. And from this it follows that domination can never become so oppressive as to foreclose all possibilities of resistance; for the exercise of power depends for its success (as La Boétie, Gandhi, and Rand likewise taught in their different ways) on the cooperation of victims who, still being agents, can never be guaranteed to cooperate. It would seem to follow that while, as Foucault tries to show, putative liberatory projects can be, and often have been, mere stratagems to maintain and extend the existing power structure, they need not be so.

Foucault’s pessimistic interpreters are of course well aware that he said these more optimistic-sounding things. But they maintain that he was inconsistent to do so. As the pessimists see it, the central thrust of Foucault’s overall theorising is that our very identities are so constituted by power relations as to render the distinction between domination and mere power illusory, and likewise to undermine the possibility of any meaningful resistance. On this reading, Foucault’s “real” position, the position that most of what he says supports, is that all apparent resistance to domination is simply another strategy of domination itself – and Foucault’s more optimistic pronouncements to the contrary are simply rosy-eyed afterthoughts that cannot be sustained on the basis of Foucault’s own analysis. Power co-opts, and absolute power co-opts absolutely.

I recently came across (while searching for something else, as is the Way of the Internet) an interesting article by James Johnson, “Communication, Criticism, and the Postmodern Consensus: An Unfashionable Interpretation of Michel Foucault” (Political Theory 25, no. 4 (August 1997), pp. 559-583), which lends some support to those of us who prefer the optimistic reading. Johnson makes a plausible case for the claim that, far from being an unconvincing addendum to a theory constructed on fundamentally pessimistic principles, Foucault’s optimistic moment is woven throughout his canonical presentations of this theory – and in particular that Foucault persistently recognises reciprocal, non-hierarchical, communicative, “contractual” relationships as distinct from (albeit deeply entangled with) power relations and a potential mode of resistance to domination.

If you’re accessing the internet from a university or other institution that subscribes to JSTOR, you can read the article here. Otherwise, you’re … powerless.

11 Responses to Overpowered

  1. MDM September 11, 2006 at 2:01 pm #

    Funny you should post on Foucault, today. Just yesterday I was skimming through the chapter on Foucault in Mark Lilla’s Reckless Minds: Intellectuals in Politics. Toward the end of his discussion, he mentions that in the late seventies Foucault had turned to traditional questions in political philosophy and was encouraging his students to read Hayek and Mises!! Could it be? Of course, it didn’t say he endorsed their views, but it’s a tantalizing tidbit.

  2. Administrator September 11, 2006 at 3:15 pm #

    He also wrote about this. The relevant Foucault texts (part of his College de France series) haven’t been published yet — I look forward to finally seeing them — but from reports he became interested in both the Austrian and Chicago schools, for a variety of reasons (some we’d like, some we’d dislike, and some we’d scratch our heads over). More info here, here, here. and here.

  3. Anthony Gregory September 11, 2006 at 4:21 pm #

    More libertarians should read Foucault.

  4. John Markley September 13, 2006 at 5:58 pm #

    Interesting stuff. I’ve heard wildly different takes on Foucault from libertarians (and others) over the years. Could anyone suggest a good book to start with to understand him?

  5. Daniel J. D'Amico September 16, 2006 at 3:50 pm #


    I consent that Foucault “persistently recognises reciprocal, non-hierarchical, communicative, “contractual” relationships as distinct from (albeit deeply entangled with) power relations and a potential mode of resistance to domination.” But am I wrong to describe his theory of power as originating from the tendency of humanity to discipline and routinize natural processes? In “Discipline and Punish,” he describes the history of prisons and punishment to stem from militarization or systematizing behaviors like walking into marching.


  6. Tim September 24, 2006 at 5:51 am #


    I’m intrigued by your comments on Professor Foucault. If I can prevail upon you to add one more thing to your “Orta List” (…as in I-orta, Aorta, sumwunorta) , one day you will need to pen (or type if you prefer) an ‘idiots guide to Foucault’ for us libertarianistic idiots.

    To date I have been deterred from reading anything by Foucault due to:

    (1) prior exposure to anti-Foucault commentary from anti-po.mo conservative writers and…

    (2) the swirl of obtuse, arcane and just damn hard to read word swirly-gigs that seem to jump out of every page of anything by Mr. F. And…

    (3) the picture of his egghead doesn’t encourage me either. Sort of like Lex Luthor or brainiac from the old superman comics. 🙁

  7. Tim September 24, 2006 at 5:57 am #

    Foucault versus Brainiac. If it weren’t for the glasses and the green skin…

  8. Administrator September 26, 2006 at 5:37 pm #

    To Dan: yes, that’s right.

    To John: Discipline and Punish (the book Dan’s referring to) is probably a decent place to start, since a) its subject-matter is of immediate interest to libertarians, and b) around the time of that book his writing-style was starting to become less opaque. As far as secondary sources go, nothing thrills me, but Alison Brown’s On Foucault is clear, short, and relatively harmless.

    To Tim: Yeah, writing a short Foucault-for-libertarians intro is something I’d like to do at some point. On your other points: as I said above, Foucault’s writing gets less awful as he gets older. I can’t help you with the Luthor/Brainiac connection — though I suppose you could try to imagine this connection instead.

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