Friday 4 September 2009

Foucault vs Marx

Mark Poster's Foucauldian critique of Marxism in his 1984 book, Foucault, Marxism, and History: Mode of Production Versus Mode of Information argues Marx's method is underpinned by metaphysical thinking on four counts.

First, Poster argues Marx constructs history as a narrative of a subject (the labourer) acting on an object (nature) in which the subject increasingly comes under the domination of impersonal forces. This is theoretically expressed in Marx’s youthful theory of alienation and its mature rendering as commodity fetishism. Poster asks if premising critical theory on a labour-centered foundation is adequate to the task of unmasking contemporary forms of domination, particularly in the advanced capitalist societies where production is being displaced by service industries as the main sector of employment.

Second, Marx comes under fire for his notion of proletarian universality – the idea the self-liberation of the working class will eliminate all oppressions that appear independent of class, such as sexism, racism and homophobia. Poster argues this is little more than an expression of faith. For example he believes Marxism passes over awkward questions such as the oppression of working class women by working class men, which in turn reinforces his scepticism class struggle will sweep away all forms of oppression.

Thirdly, Poster argues that for Marx socialism was the end point of history, a not-so-subtle recoding of Hegel's philosphy of history. Here history is understood as the progress from lower to higher forms of social organisation. The further along the historical track the nearer history is to the instantiation of the Absolute - the point where history ends and reason begins. The difference for Poster is whereas for Hegel the Absolute is destined to come about naturally, for Marx the proletariat is the bearer of a higher form of social organisation which is established as the successful outcome of class struggle.

Finally, Poster criticises Marx’s method for its imputed teleology, where conjunctural specifics and accidents of history are reduced to class and related to the inevitable march to the communist future. Working class interest in ‘non-class’ issues are therefore products of an inadequate socialist consciousness, of false consciousness.

The Marxist method for Poster stands in the Enlightenment tradition of affirming the ability of reason to grasp and restructure the real. In contrast, "for Foucault, history is a form of knowledge and a form of power at the same time ... it is a means of controlling and domesticating the past in the form of knowing it. The historian pretends to recreate the past ... as it really was. Using an awkward combination of anecdote and statistic, the historian paints the landscape of the past in the colours of the present" (ibid. p.75).

In other words, Marxism is another network of power/knowledge with typical Enlightenment characteristics. It totalises history, premising it on a metaphysical labour narrative and is compromised as a critical theory by its inability to conceptualise oppressions arising outside of the production process. Therefore, Poster is predisposed toward Foucault because he eschews metaphysics, affirms anti-teleology, anti-totalisation while emphasising the discontinuities of history.

Despite this, Poster notes a couple of problems with Foucault. The radical anti-teleology and resistance to totalisation embedded in the genealogical approach rules out theorising relationships between micro-technologies of power and the wider social formation. Second, Foucault uses concepts with the barest minimum given over to conceptual construction. This, Poster argues, not only leaves Foucault’s concepts open to contention but has hampered their diffusion. Nevertheless Poster believes they are a clear advance over Marxism, providing answers to questions Marxism has barely addressed.

The whole contents of Toward a Marxian/Foucauldian Encounter can be viewed here.


JaneWatkinson said...

Postmodernists annoy me in how they make out there is no point in Sociology. The way they say that everything is uncertain and that we can't really explain anything because of this makes me question why they are even bothering theorising.

Their dislike in meta narratives is also hypocritical, as the way in which they are arguing that we have no certain way of knowing where society is going, is in itself a meta narrative of where sociuety is going. As how can you be certain that uncertaininty is the way society will develop, if nothing is certain lol?

Good blog post, i enjoyed reading it.

Anonymous said...

From the Neo-Hegelian

From this post and numerous speculations on Marxism. The application to the exception(s) of the proletariat seem doubtful.

"Thirdly, Poster argues that for Marx socialism was the end point of history, a not-so-subtle recoding of Hegel's philosphy of history."

It would seem that for this or any theoretical 'end' of history. Modernity exceeds all men within their affairs with Reason. For the 'Instantiation of the Absolute', the absolutte as the 'end' is itself a force into reasoning with the historical discontinuity. The bearer of such Absolution exist in the oppression into struggle(proleteriat).

The proleteriat inevitably becomes commensurable to Reason, as they are TO the materialization of the Absolute Idea.

Phil said...


I think it is useful to sift through poststructuralist and postemodernist philosophers and theorists because it's not all total guff. For example the work of Foucault, Derrida and Baudrillard are full of useful insights and are not as relativist as they first appear. Where Foucault is concerned - as will be shown in the next post in this series - in order to extract and usefully deploy his concepts you need to junk his Nietzschean method. While it is true it allowed him to develop his pathbreaking analyses of discourse, power, knowledge and the body it simultaneously prevents him from developing them further - which probably explains his turn to the self in the latter two volumes of the History of Sexuality. The kind of Marxism I tried outlining here is more than capable of taking these insights and building on them.

Re: some of the processes so-called post-Marxists use as an excuse for "going beyond" Marxism are however very real. The "advances" they made in this area (the knowledge economy, new social movements, declining salience of class) were possible partly because of their neglect by more traditional Marxists.

Phil said...

KM, that assumes History (with a capital H) is driven by reason, which of course it is not.

While Hegel's philosophy IMO captured the "shape" of social movement in the abstract he mistook this for the real thing, which is why it appeared history was driven by the idea rather than the mess of material struggles.

JaneWatkinson said...

Yeah, I agree that there are some very useful insights that postmodernism can provide us, but I still think that they need to be taken in an overall context that considers how they are out of step with mainstream Sociology. They have useful ideas, but they contradict themselves in making out that we can't really explain anything for certain because everything is so uncertain.

Yeah, I agree. Marxism, as all theoretical positions , can learn and build as a perspective from postmodernist insights. But I think they have to take care with many of the Postmodernist ideas, as they can seem a bit divorced from reality - which seems to be the way a lot of modern Marxism is going.

Anonymous said...

Of course you must have presumed also, that I only refer to the 'History of Reason' itself. Not in History in its singularization.

I only claim Hegelian for the sake of 'having' a substantial ideal of history to the present.

If anything the History of the Idea (as in a Hegelian context) leaves Reason to the theoretical 'end'. A theoretical 'end' in which the Idea of History itself is in unity (Idea) with all and any History.

We can no longer anticipate the emergence of movement as a power-related "struggle". The movement then becomes indefinite to its literal 'movement'.

Phil said...

Jane, depends on which Marxists you read, lol. The sort of Marxism I'm immersed in - that elaborated and developed by activists, be they members of my party or other comrade bloggers are about making sense of the mess we find ourselves in. This blog I hope is a modest contribution to that endeavour.

Which Marxists do you have in mind?

JaneWatkinson said...

I was thinking more about the revisionism Marxism you are taught in formalised Sociology lessons not the route and branch activism. I am not aware of any substantial difference. Hopefully, reading your blog i will become more aware lol.

Jim Denham said...

Foucault really is a load of bollocks. I'm disappointed to find serious Marxists taking him seriously. If you want serious development upon basic Marxist conceots, then ignore the pretentious obscurantism of Foucault's superficial "discourse, discoursive formation and episteme", and attend, instead, to a serious modern Marxist thinker like Max Shachtman.

Phil said...

Jim, Foucault needs to be taken seriously by Marxists in academia because he does, or rather did offer a series of fruitful analyses of subject formation that were lacking in the Marxist tradition. There is nothing fundamentally "anti-Marxist" in his work on power, knowledge and the body. In fact I would say that not only is it dialectical and materialist, but it is so *despite* the Nietzschean route he took to them.