Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote that to be great is to be misunderstood. This is a coat that fits Michel Foucault well. The French philosopher is one of the most famous (and infamous) thinkers of the 20th century.
He is idolised and demonised as one of the great figureheads of Postmodernism and this polarised reputation is mirrored by the reception of the topic at the centre of his work: Power.
Foucault accomplishes one of those rare moments in the history of philosophy when a concept that has stood before our eyes for centuries is suddenly turned on its head. His innovative analysis of Power transforms our understanding of the concept from a hierarchical domination into an oceanic force of nature.
In this instalment we are going to explore Foucault’s theory of power, why it is so revolutionary and how it can be applied to understand our lives and our cultural moment.
Empirical vs Theoretical
In coming to terms with Foucault’s theory of power the first thing we have to distinguish between is the theoretical and the empirical levels of Power.
The empirical level is the study of forms that power has crystallised into over the course of history. It is these empirical trends that Foucault studies in his books on the prison system, mental asylums, science and sexuality.
A step removed from these historical crystallisations of power, there is the theoretical level of Power which is the fundamental nature of Power that is true across all of its manifestations. This is the study of Power itself and it’s this level we’re going to be exploring in this article.
In exploring this theoretical level of Power, it will be helpful to first talk about what Power isn’t. This in itself is an important part of Foucault’s work and it will serve as a helpful backdrop against which his own theory will be seen much clearer.
What Power isn’t
According to Foucault, there is a tendency “deeply rooted in the West”, commonly found in many “political analyses of power” and of sexuality to understand concept in a certain way. This misconception sees power as a top-down phenomenon and it’s something that fans of Hobbes’s Leviathan, Orwell’s 1984 Gramsci’s Hegemony and Conspiracy Theories will be quite familiar with. In this view, Power is seen as something that is wielded by the powerful over the not-so-powerful.
Central to this conception is the idea that Power always operates negatively. That is to say, Power tells us what is allowed and what is forbidden and it punishes us if we transgress these rules.
But the trouble with this misconception for Foucault is that it functions like misdirection — causing us to overlook the majority of power’s workings because we are fixated on a single narrow understanding of it.
This perspective evolved out of a legalistic way of viewing power and it has a long history in the West — which Foucault in some of his Collège de France lectures traced as far back as Aeschylus’s plays about Oedipus.
It is one way of understanding Power but it is only a fraction of it and it is in fact a misrepresentation of the whole. Power is not the power of the state dominating over its subjects nor is it the domination of one class over another as in Marxist thinking. These conceptions of Power all miss the wood for the trees — they are partial views that obscure the fundamental nature of Power.
What is Power?
So what is Power then? If it’s not the power of sovereigns or the machinations of the State or class struggle or the dynamics of repression then what is Power?
In his 1976 work La Volonté de Savoir or The Will to Knowledge, there is a series of about a dozen pages where Foucault packs in a condensed exploration of his theory of Power.
You have to remember the vast majority of Foucault’s writings were investigations into the historical crystallisations of Power in institutions like the asylum and the prison system. He is very careful, even in his lectures, speaking about Power in itself.
In that brief flurry of pages Foucault gives shape to his theory of Power which we can understand through a few key parts.
The first thing to understand is that for Foucault power is immanent. That is to say it isn’t something concrete or tangible but it is nevertheless — like gravity or magnetism — a real and measurable force in the world.
We might not be able to observe gravity directly but its effects are everywhere and by taking a step back from these empirical effects we can form a theoretical understanding of gravity.
The same goes for Power. It’s an immanent force of nature that operates independently of individuals. Foucault explicitly draws on this analogy with the hard sciences in his theory of Power — referring regularly to “the micro-physics of power”. But of course it should be noted that where gravity is a quality of the physical world, Power is a component of the social world. Unlike Nietzsche, Foucault doesn’t make a metaphysical conception out of Power.
Intentional and Non-Subjective
This brings us onto another key component of Foucault’s understanding of Power: it is intentional and non-subjective. On the face of it, this seems like a paradoxical assertion. But it’s quite sensible and it dovetails nicely with what we’ve been exploring recently on the channel.
By intentional, Foucault means is that we make choices as free agents: we have intention in the decisions that we make. But these choices are steered by non-subjective forces.
If you’ve ever been at a party where someone asked you to put on a song then you will recognise this distinction. Yes you have free choice. Sure you technically are free to put on Roberta Flack’s Killing Me Softly. That is within your Power. This is what Foucault means by saying that Power is intentional.
But Power is also non-subjective. You can’t control what’s cool and what’s not. This is the non-subjective ocean of Power that shapes and guides your decision in certain directions.
Those of you who have read the previous article on Ken Wilber’s Four Quadrants model will easily recognise this as the distinction between Q1 and Q3 — there’s the intentional domain of the internal individual Q1 and there’s the non-subjective domain of the internal collective Q3.
This brings us onto another core component of Foucault’s theory and that is resistance. In The Will to Knowledge, the first volume of his History of Sexuality series, Foucault writes that:
“Where there is power, there is resistance, and yet, or rather consequently, this resistance is never in a position of exteriority in relation to power”
This final point is an important one. Rather than seeing resistance as external to Power, Foucault sees it as internal. In the classical model the revolutionaries and rebels might be seen as resisting the Power structure from the outside. There is the Power and there is us.
Not so in Foucault’s theory. Resistance is a fundamental part of the Power dynamic. If there’s no resistance there’s no Power. Tied up with this we find freedom; he writes that:
“there cannot be relations of power unless the subjects are free … [I]f there are relations of power throughout every social field it is because there is freedom everywhere”
To return to our example, while the Power of context and common sense are trying to force your choice in a certain direction, you can resist — if you want to you are free to put on Killing Me Softly. Who knows you might just be able to pull it off as ironic and it’ll even be cool. Power is funny that way.
All of which brings us to the core piece of Foucault’s theory of Power and that is force relations.
Force relations are the atoms of Foucault’s bottom-up Power system.
In The Will to Knowledge, Foucault gives a definition of Power that begins as follows:
It seems to me that power must be understood in the first instance as the multiplicity of force relations immanent in the sphere in which they operate
We’ve already covered what we mean by immanent here. But now let’s talk about the multiplicity of force relations.
Let’s say you’re getting ready to go to school one morning. As you think about what you are going to wear for the day, you can feel the tug of various force relations trying to yank you in different directions.
For a start there are the force relations visible to the classical understanding of Power — the considerations of domination from above: you have to worry about the school’s dress code and whatever laws your country might have — so if you’re in France you can’t wear a niqab; if you’re in Saudi Arabia you can’t not wear a niqab and so on.
But in Foucault’s theory, this is just the beginning. There’s also the opinions of your parents, there’s the opinion of whatever clique you’re in at school — like goths, jocks or nerds — then there’s your other schoolmates and beyond that there’s the general consideration of what’s in fashion and what’s cool.
These are the multiplicity of force relations that Foucault is referring to. And they don’t pull on you individually. They all operate all at once just like different minerals dissolve and diffuse through a body of water — these force relations are all simultaneously active in the same place — you.
These force relations are the centrepiece of Foucault’s theory of Power. They are the different elements coaxing and coercing us in different directions.
The dynamism of force relations
These force relations don’t remain static and contained in one individual however and this is where things get really interesting.
These local force relations — the feeling of your friends’, peers’ and parents’ opinions all pulling at you — don’t exist in isolation from each other. They don’t just act on you — pulling you this way or that. They act on each other.
Having established the multiplicity of force relations Foucault goes on to talk about:
the process which, through ceaseless struggles and confrontations, transforms, strengthens, or reverses them; as the support which these force relations find in one another, thus forming a chain or a system, or on the contrary, the disjunctions and contradictions which isolate them from one another
So these force relations struggle with each other. On a side note you’ll notice in all of this the central importance of war to Foucault’s framing of Power. In his 1975 work Discipline and Punish, Foucault writes that:
one should take as [Power’s] model a perpetual battle rather than a contract regulating a transaction or the conquest of a territory” ==heraclitus nietzsche == This takes us back to Heraclitus and Nietzsche and the central place that struggle and adversity takes in their metaphysics.
So anyway, these individual force relations don’t just act on you, they act on each other. On the one hand we have them struggling and confronting each other. This confrontation can lead these force relations to transform and strengthen or to reverse.
But, and this is where it gets really interesting, force relations don’t just struggle with each other — they can also support one another and bond together to form chains or systems.
Let’s think about this in terms of the getting dressed for school example. If we look at the different force relations at play we can see how some combat and isolate and some support and combine. You might see the opinions of your parents, the school’s dress code and your country’s laws supporting each other and pushing you in one direction. On the other hand you might have the opinions of your peers and of what’s in fashion working together. This combination of force relations might be struggling against the more conservative force relations of the other group and both groups of force relations might be strongly antagonistic to some innate desire in you that wants to dress like Bozo the Clown.
So already at the local level of your morning clothing choice we can see the wrestling of many collections of force relations. But this doesn’t stop at the individual level.
The alliance of force relations
The final part of Foucault’s definition of Power moves from talking about these chains and systems of force relations to:
the strategies in which they take effect, whose general design or institutional crystallization is embodied in the state apparatus, in the formulation of the law, in the various social hegemonies.
So now we are moving from the realm of micro-physics into the macro realm of culture. Local force relations — the opinions of your friends, your classmates, your parents — are what Foucault (again using the language of warfare) calls tactics. Tactics are local; they are micro.
But at the macro level we have strategies. As we have seen, force relations can work together. The force relations of your parents’ opinions can join with those of the school and the state.
In fact since Foucault’s theory of power is bottom-up, it is local micro-opinions like your parents’ that ultimately creates the force relations of the school and the state. Their opinions join with those of other parents and like-minded parties and these tributaries of force relations become rivers and gather more and more steam as they head to the great ocean of globalised influence.
Greta Thunberg is the perfect example of this. Her tactical use of force relations — organising a walk-out from school — converged with a greater trend in the substrate of Power. Her local tactical force relations got swept up in a much bigger strategical chain of force relations that had money and influence and brought her to the world stage.
On a side note, it’s also the perfect example of intentional but non-subjective. Neither she nor anyone else for that matter could have predicted that her local tactical action could have had such major resonance in the non-subjective ocean of power. Which goes to show the dynamic living thing that Power is.
The strategical level is a greater collection of shared force relations. As these strategical alliances grow larger and denser, in time we see what Foucault terms “institutional crystallisation”. These chains and systems of force relations crystallise into institutions. This could be a series of laws like the civil rights act, the Paris Climate Agreement or it could be a whole new form of government as happened in the wake of the American Revolution, the French Revolution and the Bolshevik Revolution. What started as the discontent of a few — as a small resistance against an entrenched power — in time formed a chain of allied force relations and ultimately led to the toppling of governments or massive innovations in law and the way we organise society.
It would also be interesting to explore the connections between this conception of Power in Foucault and the Jungian analysis of gods and mythology. In future articles I’d love to follow up this trail and explore a map-over between Foucault and Jung. I think that Foucault’s micro-physics of power would mix very curiously with the idea of gods as archetypal forces in the collective unconscious. Could the ancient gods be seen as chains of force relations? And what would ritual and sacrifice look like through that lens? It’s a fascinating stream of thoughts to consider…
- Foucault, M., 1975. Surveiller et punir (Vol. 1, pp. 192-211). Paris.Foucault, M., 1990. The history of sexuality: An introduction. Vintage.
- Foucault, M., 2019. Power: the essential works of Michel Foucault 1954-1984. Penguin UK.
- Lynch, R. A. (2010) “Foucault’s theory of power,” in Taylor, D. (ed.) Michel Foucault: Key Concepts. Acumen Publishing, pp. 13–26. doi: 10.1017/UPO9781844654734.002.