Foucault’s “The Mesh of Power” « Viewpoint Magazine

The full English version of this important essay (with links to the French and an introduction) is available here: The Mesh of Power « Viewpoint Magazine

 The question that I would like to pose is the following: how is it that our society, Western society in general, has conceived of power in such a restrictive, impoverished and negative way? Why do we always conceive of power as law and prohibition, why this privilege? Of course, we could say that all this is due to the influence of Kant, to the idea according to which, in the final instance, the moral law, the “you must not,” the opposition “you must” / “you must not” is, in fact, the matrix of every regulation of human conduct. But, to speak frankly, explaining this with recourse to the influence of Kant is, of course, totally insufficient. The problem is to know whether Kant had such an influence, and why what influence he had could be so strong. Why did Durkheim, a philosopher with vague socialist tendencies at the start of the Third French Republic, rely upon Kant in this fashion when performing an analysis of the mechanism of power in society?

I believe that we can crudely analyze the reason in the following terms: basically, in the West, the great systems established since the Middle Ages had been developed through the increase in monarchical power, at the expense of power, or better, of feudal powers. Now, in this battle between feudal powers and monarchical power, right [le droit]5was always the instrument of monarchical power against the institutions, customs, prescriptions [réglements] and forms of bond and belonging characteristic of feudal society. I’ll simply give you two examples of this battle. On the one hand, monarchical power developed in the West by, in large part, relying upon juridical institutions and by developing these institutions; through civil war, a system of courts supplanted the old solution of private disputes. In fact, the laws established by these courts gave monarchical power itself the ability to resolve disputes between individuals. In the same manner, Roman law, which reappeared in the West in the 13th and 14th centuries, was a formidable instrument in the hands of the monarchy for succeeding in delimiting the forms and mechanisms of its own power, at the expense of feudal power. In other words, the growth of the State in Europewas partially assured by, or in any case was used as an instrument in, the development of juridical thought.Monarchical power, the power of the State was essentially represented as right [le droit].

And yet, as it happened, while the bourgeoisie was largely profiting from the development of royal power and the diminution and regression of feudal power, it also had, on the other hand, every interest in developing a system of rights that would permit it to give form to economic exchanges that assured its own social development. The result being that the vocabulary and form of rights was the system of representation of power common to the bourgeoisie and the monarchy. The bourgeoisie and the monarchy succeeded little by little at establishing, from the end of the Middle Ages up to the 18th century, a form of power representing itself as language, a form of power which gave itself – as discourse – the vocabulary of rights. And, when the bourgeoisie had finally disposed of monarchical power, it did so precisely by using this juridical discourse – which had more or less been that of the monarchy – which the it turned against the monarchy itself.

To simply give one example: Rousseau, when he formulated his theory of the State, attempted to show how a sovereign – but a collective sovereign, a sovereign as social body, or better still, a social body as sovereign – is born out of the transfer of individual rights, the alienation of these rights and the posing of laws of prohibition that each individual must recognize, because it is he himself who has imposed the law, to the extent that he is a member of the sovereign, to the extent that he is himself a sovereign. Accordingly, the theoretical mechanism through which the critique of the monarchical institution was made, this theoretical instrument was the instrument of rights, which had been established by the monarchy itself. In other words, the West never had another system of representation, expression or analysis of power aside from that of rights, the system of law. In the final analysis, I believe that is ultimately the reason for which we have not had, until very recently, other possibilities for analyzing power, except in using these elementary, fundamental, etc. ideas which are those of law, rule, sovereign, commission, etc. I believe that we must now free ourselves from this juridical conception of power – this conception of power derived from the law and sovereign, from the rule and prohibition – if we wish to proceed towards an analysis of the real functioning of power, rather than its mere representation.

How may we attempt to analyze power in its positive mechanisms? It appears to me that we may find, in a certain number of texts, the fundamental elements for an analysis of this type. We may perhaps find them in Bentham, an English philosopher from the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century, who was basically the great theoretician of bourgeois power, and we may of course also find these elements in Marx, essentially in the second volume of Capital. It’s here, I think, that we may find some elements that I will use for the analysis of power in its positive mechanisms.


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