Foucault and the revolutionary self-castration of the Left
Far from posing a counter-hegemonic challenge to the dominant powers in the world, Foucault’s armchair philosophy simply made resistance impossible.
I first encountered the work of Michel Foucault in college. Intrigued but confused, I decided to look for videos of the intellectual giant explaining his theories in a way that might be more intelligible than his obscurantist writings. To my excitement, I encountered a fascinating debate between Foucault and Chomsky aired on Dutch television in 1971. The exchange between the figureheads of the European and American Left, respectively, was a true clash of titans. By the end of it, however, I had lost most of my short-lived obsession with Foucault and had sided instead with the radical linguist Chomsky.
Foucault: Truism, Error and Gibberish?
Later, while doing graduate studies in Paris, I was taken aback by the extent to which intellectuals are still revered in French culture, as if they were some kind of postmodern priests. Thinking back of Foucault, it struck me how ironic it was that the founding father of discourse analysis should be praised for speaking a discursive dialect that no sane person could believably claim to fully understand. What is the point of criticizing the reproduction of power through academic institutions if you willfully reproduce that same very power through your own unintelligible language?
Given the fact that Foucauldian discourse analysis is meant to reveal the obscured power relations undergirding social interactions in everyday life, there must have been an exclusionary purpose to Foucault’s flamboyant style of writing and speaking. In my own discourse analysis of Foucault, his was a desperate attempt to turn commonsensical statements about the role of language into seemingly profound truths backed by the culturally-respected veil of social theory — common sense dressed up in the hot air of ‘philosophy’.
Or, as Chomsky himself would later go on to say:
Quite regularly, “my eyes glaze over” when I read polysyllabic discourse on the themes of poststructuralism and postmodernism; what I understand is largely truism or error, but that is only a fraction of the total word count. True, there are lots of other things I don’t understand: the articles in the current issues of math and physics journals, for example. But there is a difference. In the latter case, I know how to get to understand them, and have done so, in cases of particular interest to me; and I also know that people in these fields can explain the contents to me at my level, so that I can gain what (partial) understanding I may want. In contrast, no one seems to be able to explain to me why the latest post-this-and-that is (for the most part) other than truism, error, or gibberish.
Foucault and the Impossibility of Resistance
But there is another problem. Ultimately, Foucault’s critique of Western civilization becomes a deterministic one. Because it connects power with knowledge through discourse, and because it posits that knowledge and power are continually reproduced through both formal and informal institutions, there is ultimately no way for willful agents to escape the choking grasp of their culture without reproducing the same forms of oppression they are trying to overcome. As a result, Foucault’s philosophy precludes the possibility for revolutionary action. Chomsky, by contrast, focusing on the notions of justice and human nature, actually forces us to imagine an alternative; to find pathways for radical change and actively engage in the creation of a better world.
Foucault, aware of this major limitation in his work, would later state that:
We are not trapped. We cannot jump outside the situation, and there is no point where you are free from all power relations. But you can always change it. So what I’ve said does not mean that we are always trapped, but that we are always free—well, anyway, that there is always the possibility of changing … [r]esistance comes first, and resistance remains superior to the forces of the process; power relations are obliged to change with the resistance. So I think that resistance is the main word, the key word, in this dynamic.
Yet as Slavoj Žižek has argued, “the Foucauldian account of resistance is not only incoherent on its own terms, but also […], in restricting oppositional political formations to the reactive gestures of refusal and resistance, Foucault embraces a profoundly pessimistic view of the possibilities for social and political transformation.” The only way to overcome this incoherence would be to embrace a more dialectic understanding of power and resistance, in which the roles of the subject and the object — the revolutionary agent and the oppressed individual — are intimately tied up in ways that actually allow the former to outgrow the latter; resistance to overcome power.
Throwing Out the Baby With the Bathwater
The problem with Foucault’s incoherent conception of resistance is that, from the 1960s onward, his discursive method has become quasi-hegemonic in Leftist academic circles. Ever since the postmodernists and post-structuralists began to scramble for an alternative to the rigid economism of orthodox Marxism, the systemic critique of capitalism has largely been thrown overboard. Thus, in an attempt to expand the Marxian notions of politico-economic oppression and social conflict with a more discourse-based cultural critique, Foucault and his followers actually ended up throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
Far from revealing the predominant power relations in society, the post-1968 Left has ended up ‘purging’ social reality of its material power dynamics and ‘stuffing’ it with interpretations over meaning and contextuality. In other words, discourse analysis has become so emphatically obsessed with language and intersubjectivity that it can only speak to forms of cultural oppression in highly specific contexts, while largely sidestepping the structural forces of economic oppression that Marx spoke to. In the meantime, we are left with a contradictory view of resistance that is at once pessimistic and naive — epitomized in Foucault’s bizarre praise of the fundamentalist Iranian Revolution of 1979.
Thus, to borrow from Slavoj Žižek once more, the cultural turn in critical theory — far from being counter-hegemonic in the Gramscian sense, as it claims to be — has actually proved perfectly compatible with the dominant mode of capitalist accumulation. A multinational corporation like Shell, whose ‘rational’ decisions affect the lives of millions of Nigerians, could honestly care less about a bunch of fashionable bourgeois intellectuals holding obscure and unintelligible conversations about the linguistic construction of social reality and its implications for social stratification in the Niger Delta.
Discourse as a Hegemonic Strategy
Ultimately, as Antonio Gramsci pointed out, the moment where discourse becomes relevant is in the act of justification and legitimation, where dominant social actors seek to cement popular consent and justify their materially privileged position by obscuring the negative impacts of their structural power. Shell doesn’t care about discourse analysis. What it does not want you to know are the facts — for example its capture of the Nigerian state and its military crackdown on citizen protests against the brutal environmental and developmental disaster it is causing. And so it spends lavishly on lobbying, PR, greenwashing and ‘corporate social responsibility‘ in order to justify its overwhelming power and defend the legitimacy of global capital.
We see this form of discursive power in operation every single day, through old-fashioned marketing campaigns, for example, but especially through ‘progressive’ business strategies such as ‘fair trade chocolate’ and ‘organic latte’. In extreme cases, states and corporations even engage in downright suppression or manipulation of the truth, as large oil companies have done by funding bogus science denying the reality of climate change, or as House Speaker John Boehner and a Wall Street lobbying firm proposed to do by starting a $850,000 PR campaign to delegitimize the Occupy Wall Street movement. Discursive power exists, but not independently of its material foundations.
The rise of poststructuralism, postmodernism and constructivism in the social sciences has thus been a boon for the true wielders of material power in this world. By replacing the systemic critique of capitalism with the discursive critique of civilization, the postmodern and post-structuralist Left has ended up castrating itself intellectually in the attempt to overthrow the cultural hegemony of global capital. Far from revolutionizing society, postmodernism has only further entrenched the power of the bourgeois elite. The time has come to leave our armchairs and take the bull by the horns. As Marx had it, “philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways — the point is to change it.”