Foucault and Power

Foucault’s theory of power is radically different to previous theories. Instead of seeing power as working through a collection of rules and prohibitions, Foucault sees it as generative, that is, as a shaping force that structures society. Foucault’s theory is postmodernist, in that it assumes a fundamental role for discourse, and it is decentred, in that it assumes that power is not an instrument under anyone’s control but is impersonally distributed throughout society.

Before Foucault, theories of power from Hobbes to Lukes focused on sovereign power (Clegg, 1989). Sovereign power is imposed on people from the outside and only exists as far as it is exercised. This conception of power is based on the ability of a king to impose his will on his subjects. As the system of monarchical rule declined in Europe and eventually evolved into liberal democratic government the conception of power did not fundamentally change.

Hobbes, writing in the seventeenth century at around the time of the English Civil War, suggested that the sovereign of a state holds legitimate power because of a contract between him and the citizens whereby he expresses their collective will (Clegg, 1989; Hobbes, 1968).

Lukes, writing in the late-twentieth century has an approach to power that can be applied in different contexts, not just to the nation state, and attempts to explain the subtler effects of power (Lukes 1974). His theory builds upon previous theories such as that of Dahl (1957) and Bachrach and Baratz (1962). According to Dahl’s theory, developed in the context of research into the distribution of power between elites in local politics in the USA, A has power over B if he can make B do things that A wishes him to do. There is an intentional cause and an observable effect (Clegg, 1989; Dahl, 1957, 1958). Bachrach and Baratz built upon Dahl’s theory but added another dimension. A is not only able to enforce the outcome of a decision but is also able to shape the agenda of any discussion when a decision is being made. A can do this by preventing discussion of topics that would be against his interests to be allowed to become topics of discussion (Bachrach & Baratz, 1962). Lukes extends Bachrach and Baratz’s theory by adding a third dimension (Lukes, 1974). In this third dimension of power not only is A able to impose his will directly on B and is able to shape the discussion so that the decision that results is favourable to his interests but he is also able to shape the desires and needs of B so that B will want to do what is in A’s interests. Although Lukes does not use the term “ideology” this third dimension of power is similar to the concept of ideology in the Marxist tradition.

In Marx ideology is an illusionary view of the world which acts in the interests of the ruling class to achieve the acquiescence of the working class. These phantom ideas form “politics, laws, morality, religion, metaphysics, etc.” (Marx & Engels 1970 p.47) in such a way that they are “directly interwoven with the material activity and the material intercourse of men, the language of real life” (ibid) so ideology makes it appear that the way power operates is the result of these conceptual systems whereas the opposite is true: “Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life.” (ibid) By producing an appearance which is the reverse of the truth ideology conceals itself making it appear that the status quo is natural and the only way that things could be ordered. In the early and mid-twentieth century Marxists developed this conception of ideology, for example, Gramsci’s theory of hegemony, which is a combination of ideology and coercive state power leading to the consent of the oppressed to the will of the oppressor (Gramsci, 1971) and Althusser’s theory of the ideological state apparatuses, such as education or the church, and the repressive state apparatuses, such as the army or the police, through which the state maintains the capitalist order (Althusser, 2001). In the Marxist tradition, the legitimacy of a Marxist government arises from its basis in ideology free reality.

In Marxism ideology creates consciousness, albeit false consciousness and it therefore creates subjects. Despite this constructionist aspect of Marxism, it falls within the realist sub-paradigm of modernism. In the Marxist view of the world, ideology can be transcended by penetrating the mist of ideology to a neutral, bias-free standpoint, reality, by means of an objective, scientific analysis of social relations (Foucault 1980a p.110) and this is the way to emancipation and freedom.

A departure from this tradition may be discerned in the work of Volosinov who was writing in Soviet Russia in the 1920s (Volosinov, 1986). According to his view, ideology is located firmly within discourse, “Without signs there is no ideology” (ibid p.9). However, the reverse is also true because ideology is fully imbricated with discourse, “Wherever a sign is present, ideology is present too” (ibid p.10). It follows from this position that there is no ideology free and fully objective reality so even Soviet Marxist-Leninism is also an ideology (ibid p.10). This position is in contradiction to the orthodox Marxist credentials that Volosinov claims and puts his work within the postmodernist paradigm. He also claims that his view of discourse is not an idealist Kantian one but completely materialist since it is rooted in the material nature of the sign (ibid p.11) and Derrida makes the same point (Derrida, 1976).

Foucault was educated in the Marxist tradition and studied under Althusser for a time (Sheridan, 1980). However, he rejected the Marxist view of ideology and his published work falls within the postmodernist paradigm. Foucault comments that theories of power, which includes Marxist theories of ideology (Foucault 1980a p.118), so far have all been based, directly or indirectly, consciously or unconsciously, on the model of sovereign power and have not fundamentally changed since Hobbes (Foucault, 1980a). Foucault comments that, “What we need, however, is a political philosophy that isn’t erected around the problem of sovereignty, nor therefore around the problems of law and prohibition. We need to cut off the King’s head: in political theory that has still to be done” (ibid p.121).

In an interview in 1970 Foucault talks about the shift in his thinking between the publication of The Archaeology of Knowledge (Foucault 1972/1969) and Discipline and Punish (Foucault 1979/1975) Foucault. The Archaeology of Knowledge marks the end of Foucault’s archaeological period where his focus is discursive formations and their conditions of formation. On the other hand, Discipline and Punish marks the beginning of his genealogical period where his work takes on a different focus by directly examining the working of power. In this interview he looks back at his early work and comments, “… I ask myself what else it was that I was talking about, in Madness and Civilisation or The Birth of the Clinic, but power?” (Foucault 1980a p.115). Thus, he sees the change in his work not in terms of the repudiation of the earlier work, or it failure as some scholars have described it (Dreyfus & Rabinow, 1982), but as the identification of its true object of analysis. He says that it is a mistake to think that power is only concerned with repression; instead it works mainly as a productive force since it “traverses and produces things, it induces pleasure, forms knowledge, produces discourse” (Foucault 1980a p.119). It is a force which is always at work everywhere.

In a lecture delivered in 1970, The Order of Discourse (Foucault 1981/1970), Foucault explains the direction that his research is taking. He locates his work in the postmodernist paradigm, as defined in this thesis, describing it main principles in terms of discourse. He says that attention must be paid to the specifics of discursive practice because there is no continuous underlying discourse that controls its specific manifestation. Instead discursive practice is fragmented with bodies of discursive practice that “cross each other, are sometimes juxtaposed with one another, but can just as well exclude or be unaware of each other” (p.67). We should not look into discourse to find its central hub, that would be to go beyond discourse, but instead we should look outwards from discourse to find its “external conditions of possibility” (p.67). This statement compliments and clarifies Derrida’s specification of the postmodernist paradigm in Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences (Derrida, 1978). By placing discourse at the centre of the paradigm which is a practice rather than a concept like god or man, postmodernism, as it were, turns itself inside out and makes the specific practices in which people take part its focus. Although Foucault rarely uses citation in his writing it is possible to discern the influence of Derrida in a passage in the lecture where he discusses these matters. He says that “the world is not the accomplice of our knowledge” but that discourse is “a violence which we do to things” in order to impose a regularity on the world.

This theoretical position leads to a clarification of the relationship between archaeology and genealogy which looks at specific practices to discover how power operates. In an interview (1991/1977) about his genealogical methodology in Discipline and Punish Foucault says that his method is to simultaneously look at what was done (specific penal practices) and what was said about it (theories and justifications) to discover how these practices came to be the accepted ones which seemed so natural that they no longer needed to be discussed (ibid p.75). He goes on to say that in this work he is not trying to formulate social theory but to discover how a discursive formation acquires a domain of objects in which it determines truth and falsehood (ibid p.79) and, therefore, distributes power. As Deleuze comments about Foucault’s thinking, power does not come from the state, as in Althusser for example, and is not a property of a person or institution but a strategy where the state itself is a product of interacting forces in a “microphysics of power” (Deleuze 2006 p.23). Foucault says that it is a mistake to think that power is only concerned with repression; instead it works mainly as a productive force since it “traverses and produces things, it induces pleasure, forms knowledge, produces discourse” (Foucault 1980a p.119). It is a force which is always at work everywhere.

In his later work Foucault examines two overlapping types of power, disciplinary power, particularly in Discipline and Punish (Foucault 1979/1975), which works locally and biopower, particularly in The History of Sexuality Volume I (Foucault, 1980b), which works on whole populations. However, both of these are forms of generative power and are consistent with a model of power that is postmodernist and discursive.


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