economy of power

economy of power

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The economy of power
‘I would like to suggest another way to go further
towards a new economy of power relations, a way
which is more empirical, more directly related to our
present situation, and which implies more relations
between theory and practice.
Michel Foucault, 1982
Beyond the repressive hypothesis: Power as power/knowledge
Foucault never attempts any (impossible) definition of power. At best, he gives a definition of
power relations in an essay published in 1982:
‘The exercise of power is not simply a relationship between partners, individual or collective; it is a way in
which certain actions modify others. Which is to say, of course, that something called Power, with or
without a capital letter, which is assumed to exist universally in a concentrated or diffused form, does not
Therefore, Foucauldian definition of power is drawn in opposition with the « repressive
hypothesis » (Foucault, 1971) which holds that there is a transcendental reason which can be
exercised independently of any power relationship. Precisely because it is transcendental, reason
is then universally compelling. It can limit the political power field and has therefore a role in
opposing domination (ie when political power goes beyond its rights).
Foucault draws the genealogy of this hypothesis advocating two reasons for its appearance in
history(Dreyfus and Rabinow, 1982:130). On a first hand, because of what he calls the
« speaker’s benefit », the mere fact that, by advocating such a hypothesis, the speaker places
himself out of power and within truth. However, this is not the main argument of Foucault as he
must recognise that, not as an archaeologist but as a genealogist, he is himself in a field of power
relations. On a second hand, because:
‘modern power is tolerable on the condition that it masks itself–which it has done very effectively. If truth
is outside of and opposed to power, then the speaker’s benefit is merely an incidental plus. But if truth and
power are not external to each other, as Foucault will obviously maintain, then the speaker’s benefit and
associated ploys are among the essential ways in which power operates. It masks itself by producing a
discourse, seemingly opposed to it but really part of a larger deployment of modern power.’
An additional, more technical, reason should be added, which is that talking about a
transcendental reason means falling again in the contradictions of modernity (see part 1).
Therefore, Foucault prefers considering rationality as « a kind of rationality » and study how
several kinds of rationalities could emerge in history (see part 2). However, considering the
emergence of a kind of rationality presupposes that the field of possible knowledge is tightly

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linked with an empirical field:
‘I think we must limit the sense of the word « rationalisation » to an instrumental and relative use and to
see how forms of rationalisation become embodied in practices, or systems of practices’ (Foucault, 1980:47)
If reason is reduced to an instrumental, relative reason embodied in an empirical field of
practices, then the field of reason, at a determined time in a certain place is a field of discursive
formations. Hence the two following consequences:
1) Because of its instrumentality, a form of reason as well as any form of knowledge define a set
of possible practices and is thus an instrument of power.
2) Because it is embodied in an empirical field, a form of reason (or any form of knowledge
supported by it) has ontologically no being beyond any set of practices. Therefore, because of
the former consequence, the field of knowledge defines a field of power and vice-versa.
Therefore, power is not to be considered as opposite to reason; but on the contrary as the
necessary condition for the construction of knowledge. Moreover, because power produces
knowledge, it can be, at least partially, grasped by archaeology:
‘These power-knowledge relations are to be analysed, therefore, not on the basis of a subject of knowledge
who is or is not free in relation to power, but, on the contrary, the subject who knows, the objects to be
known and the modalities of knowledge must be regarded as so many effects of these fundamental
implications of power-knowledge and their historical transformations.’ (Foucault, 1977)
A deterministic economy of power ?
Foucault’s aim is to establish a genealogy of how power is exercised in our society basing his
analysis on an archaeology of the discursive formations. Hence, his analysis is aimed toward the
‘modes of functioning’ of power in our society. Therefore, his objective is less to mirror the
terrain, than to give tools to use it (Gilles Deleuze, 1985). As he put it in 1978 and in 1979 at the
College de France his work on power relations have a tactic and a practical aim:
‘If there is an imperative in my lesson, then this is a tactical one: « if you want to fight, here are some
guidelines [lignes de force] », ... I will expose tactical directions.’ (Foucault, 1978. I translated the text)
All the elements Foucault exposes cannot then constitute a « system of power ». Because of
their very nature they shape at best an economy of power. The questions he deals with are not:
What is power ? What is the general system of power ? Or even: how is power exercised in such
or such institution ? But rather: What are the main characteristics of power relations in our
society today ? How did they appeared ? On what rationality are they sustained ?
In spite of the practical goals of his analysis, Foucault has been broadly criticised by his
adversaries on the ‘backdoor determinism’ inherent to his conception of power (Alvesson, 1996;
Giddens, 1985; Reed, 1998). As Giddens wrote it:
‘... Foucault is mistaken insofar as he regards ‘maximised’ disciplinary power of this sort as expressing the
general nature of administrative power within the modern state. Prisons, asylums and other locales in
which individuals are kept entirely sequestered from the outside... have to be regarded as having special
characteristics that separate them off rather distinctively from other modern organisations ... The imposition
of disciplinary power outside contexts of enforced sequestration tends to be blunted by the very real and
consequential countervailing power which those subject to it can, and do, develop.’ (Giddens, 1985:pp185-
Such a critique is particularly serious as it reproaches Foucault to have totally missed the
point of what he claimed to study. If Foucauldian analysis of power both is deterministic and
cannot be extrapolated from the institutions he studied, then his whole project of giving « tactical
directions » must be considered as a failure. Therefore, two questions are prompted, which issues
may determine Foucault’s relevance: first, does his analysis of power lead to deterministic
conclusions ? Second, to what extent is his choice of studying « special institutions » relevant ?
Replying to the first question means not examining only the rhetoric aspects in Foucault. His
dense and nervous style may lead one to feel that there is no room for agency freedom, and that
Foucault is then unable to distinguish between open doors and brick walls (Smith, 1991).
However, if we refer to the way he defines power relations in his essay « The subject and
Power » (1982), it appears that power relations are set between two limits.
First, its upper limit is that a power relation is not a direct action on a person, but an action
upon other actions. Therefore,
‘The exercise of power consists in guiding the possibility of conduct and putting in order the possible
outcome’ (Foucault, 1982)
Although the exercise of power may need violence or consent, these are not inherent to a
power relation. Moreover, one of the consequences of this limit to power (which the critics did
not seem to notice) is that resistance is the sine qua non condition for power. Indeed, a power
relation, is not an action which determines another action, but an action which influences an other
action by determining a field of possibility for it. In this field of possibility, ways of resisting are
by definition present.
The second limit set to power relations, therefore, is fight. According to Foucault, the goal of a
fight is either to force the opponent to abandon the game (hence a victory which dissolves the
power relation) or to set up a new relation of power. In other words, there is a circularity
between power relations open to fight and a fight aiming at power relations. Therefore there is a
constant instability in a power relationship which excludes by definition any form of
determinism. By stressing the ontological link between power and resistance, Foucault then
invites us to an undeterministic reading of the mechanisms of power he highlights. Even
panopticist power is to be understood then as a form of power, though inquisitory and totalizing,
that is perpetually confronted with potential (and some time actual) resistance.
This leads us to the next question, which is about the relevance of drawing general conclusions
from the type of institutions Foucault studied. I think the main point which led Foucault to study
institutions as the hospital, the asylum or the prison was precisely because of his assumption
that modern legal power may be best studied where it generates the more resistance. As he puts
‘[My way of studying power relations] consists of taking the forms of resistance against different forms of
power as a starting point. To use another metaphor, it consists of using this resistance as a chemical
catalyst so as to bring to light power relations, locate their position, find out the point of application and
the methods used. Rather than analysing power from the point of view of its internal rationality, it consists
of analysing power relations through the antagonism of strategies.
For example to find out what our society means by sanity, perhaps we should investigate what is happening
in the field of insanity.
And what we mean by legality in the field of illegality’ (Foucault, 1982)
By drawing a genealogy of the prison, Foucault could then be able to characterise some of the
features of modern power relations which are disciplinary, economic, individualizing, inquisitorial,
normative and curative. In a word, subjectifying. However, this does not mean that Foucauldian
analysis is doomed to see only these features of power. In his genealogical account of the punitive
practices, he draws other forms of power relations, especially those (now absent in our western
modern societies) in relation with the ‘surplus power possessed by the king’ (Foucault, 1977). I
would then be extremely interested in a Foucauldian history of the factory and the dynamics of
workplace trade unionism in British industries as the one announced by Alan McKinlay (1998).
At the condition, of course, that besides the use of Foucauldian concepts, this work be
Foucauldian by its approach to history (genealogical and archaeological).
But there is still a final analytical question. Can an analysis à la Foucault account for the
existence of the institutions in which the power relations occur ? And if yes, then how and to
what extent ?
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