Johanna Oksala on Foucault, Marx and Neoliberal Subjects

Critiquer Foucault coverFoucault, Marx and Neoliberal Subjects                                 


Johanna Oksala

Daniel Zamora’s edited volume Critiquer Foucault: Les années 1980 et la tentation néolibérale, published in November 2014, has been the subject of a heated debate recently on the philosophical blogosphere. Many Foucault scholars have been puzzled and surprised by the stir it has caused. Verena Erlenbusch (2015) suggests that the controversy has more to do with Zamora’s interview with Jacobin Magazine, provocatively titled “Can We Criticize Foucault?” than with the book itself because many of the arguments presented in it are neither as revolutionary nor as provocative as the interview would make it seem. Stuart Elden (2014) notes that Zamora’s ‘revelations’ are not in fact based on any new material that would have come to light recently and that Foucault’s relationship with neoliberalism has already been subject to critical scrutiny for a number of years by a host of thinkers.

In my response to the interview, I suggested that the debate was misguided to the extent that it sought to disqualify Foucault’s thought by attacking his person and the position he currently holds in the academic field.[1] Zamora (2014b) contrasts Foucault and Marx, for example, by claiming that Foucault “offers a comfortable position” that allows “his defenders to get published in prestigious journals, to join wide intellectual networks, to publish books”. While working on Foucault supposedly “opens doors”, the same is not true about Marx. I contended that instead of contesting power relations in the pond of leftist academic theory, a more pertinent task for the academic left today would be to try to find the most powerful theoretical and political weapons that can be deployed against the hegemony of neoliberalism. Rather than swear allegiances and defend camps, we should try to critically analyze the decisive philosophical issues underlying the opposition between Marxist and Foucauldian responses to the rise of neoliberalism. In this short article I want to focus on one such issue in particular, namely our theoretical understanding of the subject.

Post-Marxism: Foucault contra Marx?

The Foucauldian critique against traditional forms of Marxist theory targeted the latter’s inability to account for the different ways in which subjects are constituted in the diffuse and intersecting networks of power. While effectively exposing forms of exploitation and alienation, Marxist theory tended to theorize subjects and the power relations between them in terms of relatively static class antagonism between capital and the proletariat. Foucault’s key contribution to critical social and political theory was his insight that any analysis of power relations must recognize how these relations are constitutive of the subjects involved in them. His genealogical investigations showed how subjects were constructed through mundane everyday practices as certain kinds of social, political and economic beings. In other words, individuals did not enter the political arena as fully formed subjects who then demanded rights and represented interests. The supposedly personal or private aspects of their being were already traversed by power relations, which not only restrained them, but produced them as political subjects. This productive and capillary conception of power allowed Foucault to bring into theoretical focus a whole spectrum of dominations that had been relatively invisible before: sexual minorities, prisoners, the mad, the “abnormal”, the undocumented and so on.

Marxist theorists have responded to the Foucauldian critique with attempts to incorporate philosophically more nuanced accounts of the subject into their theoretical frameworks. Rosemary Hennessy (2000, 11) makes a distinction between “neo-Marxist” and “post-Marxist” responses. Neo-Marxists challenged the primacy of class for the formation of the subject by arguing that class was only one of the many factors along with gender, race, sexuality and nationality determinate of the subject. Post-Marxists took a step further and questioned the objective ontological status of class: they argued that class was in fact a construct constituted by the very same political practices that it was supposed to found.

Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe’s post-Marxist intervention in the 1980s, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (1985), for example, was an innovative attempt to contest class essentialism by combining Marxist and poststructuralist theoretical insights. Laclau and Mouffe appropriated Gramsci’s thought to argue that hegemony becomes constitutive of the very subjectivity of the political actors who thereby cease to be merely or essentially class actors. In other words, the proletarian struggle could not be understood as an expression of a class subject constituted prior to the struggle itself because the hegemonic power relations not only transform the identity of the subjects, but ultimately construct them.

More recently, Michel Hardt and Antonio Negri have brought together Foucauldian and Marxist insights in their trilogy Empire (2000), Multitude (2004) and Commonwealth (2011). Hardt and Negri borrow the concept of biopolitics from Foucault, but radically transform it into the notion of “biopolitical production”. Instead of designating distinct governmental technologies centered on the optimization and regulation of life, the term designates the whole of the ontological process in which social reality is materially produced. Biopolitical production is thus not limited to economic phenomena, but involves all aspects of social life, including networks of communication, information, linguistic forms, the production of knowledge, collaborative social relationships, affects and the producers themselves. “The great industrial and financial powers thus produce not only commodities but also subjectivities. They produce agentic subjectivities within the biopolitical context: they produce needs, social relations, bodies and minds – which is to say, they produce producers” (Hardt and Negri 2000, 32).

Through the idea of biopolitical production, Hard and Negri thus import into Marxist theory a version of Foucault’s idea of productive power. However, they also argue that this idea can in fact already be found in Marx: Marx already introduced the idea that power relations are constitutive of the subjects in Capital, Volume I, in the significant passages that describe the transition from formal subsumption to real subsumption of labor (e.g. Hardt and Negri 2000, 25). By real subsumption Marx refers to the way in which capital not only takes over and manages an already existing labor process, but completely transforms its nature and, by extension, the laborers themselves (Marx 1976, 645, 1019-38).

Another significant section of Capital is the famous chapter on the working day, in which Marx shows how the laborer is subjected to specific forms of discipline that reshape her body. The production process produces the worker herself, not only commodities.

the worker himself constantly produces objective wealth, in the form of capital, an alien power that dominates and exploits him; and the capitalist just as constantly produces labor-power, in the form of a subjective source of wealth which is abstract, exists merely in the physical body of the worker, and is separated from its own means of objectification and realization; in short, the capitalist produces the worker as a wage-labourer. This incessant reproduction, this perpetuation of the worker, is the absolutely necessary condition for capitalist production (Marx 1990, 716).

Foucault could thus be read as an early post-Marxist in the sense that his analyses of disciplinary subjectivation in Discipline and Punish would be an elaboration of the idea of real subsumption put forward by Marx. Foucault continues the Marxist critique of liberalism by showing how the supposedly free political subject of liberalism was in fact materially constructed through the concrete and detailed disciplinary practices of production. He argues that the establishment of an explicit, coded and formally egalitarian juridical framework, made possible by the organization of a parliamentary, representative regime in the 18th century, was accompanied by the development and generalization of disciplinary mechanisms. They constituted the other, dark side of these processes of democratic progress (Foucault 1991, 222).

In an interview from 1978, Foucault explicitly confirms the idea that his work is a continuation of Marx’s genealogy of capitalism in the sense that he too is engaged in a historically concrete analysis of the conditions for the development of capitalism. “I situate my work in the lineage of the second book of Capital… for instance what I wrote on discipline… my work is … intrinsically linked to what Marx writes” (Foucault 2012a, 100-101).[2] In a lecture delivered in 1976 at the invitation of the Philosophy Department of the Federal University of Bahia in Salvador, Brazil, he goes as far as to present his productive conception of power as something that he learnt from Marx. He poses the question of how we may “attempt to analyze power in its positive mechanisms” and answers that “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” (Foucault 2012b).

He then goes on to distinguish four crucial insights concerning productive power that he claims can be found in Capital. First, society is not a unitary body, in which only one kind of power is exercised, but an archipelago of different powers that maintain their specificity. “Marx places great emphasis, for example, on the simultaneously specific and relatively autonomous… character of the de facto power the boss exercises in a workshop, compared to the juridical kind of power that exists in the rest of society”.  Second, these different webs or forms of powers cannot be understood as the derivation or the consequence of some central and overriding sovereign power that would be primary. Marx does not recognize the theoretical schema put forward by social contract theorists, but shows, “on the contrary, how, starting from the initial and primitive existence of these small regions of power – like property, slavery, workshop, and also the army – little by little, the great State apparatuses were able to form”. Third, these specific or regional powers do not have the function of prohibition. Their essential function instead is to produce “the efficiency and skill of the producers of a product”. Fourth, power should be theorized as historically specific techniques that were invented, developed and perfected. “Here, once again, we can easily find between the lines of the second volume of Capital an analysis…which would be the history of the technology of power, such as it was exercised in the workhouses and factories”.

Foucault thus reads Marx himself as a post-Marxist, who already recognized the diffuse and heterogeneous nature of power as well the constitutive relationship it has to the subject. He argues that the Marxists who regard power as a juridical superstructure are in fact reinscribing Marx in the bourgeois and juridical theory of power: they “Rousseauify Marx”.

Foucault develops the idea of productive power radically further than what can be found in Marx, however. He emphasizes repeatedly that the processes that constitute normalized subjects are not reducible to the disciplinary practices aiming to produce docile workers. In the third lecture of the lecture series Security, Territory, Population, for example, Foucault distinguishes between what he calls “normation” and “normalization”. Normation begins with the norm as a prescriptive ideal, an optimal that is constructed in terms of a certain desired result: discipline in factories breaks down individuals, places, times, movements, actions, and operations so that they can be coercively modified according to the objectives of capital such as greater efficiency and docility. In contrast, normalization “in the strict sense” requires knowledge of the normal understood as a scientific average that can be represented through a bell curve. “The normal comes first and the norm is deduced from it” (Foucault 2007, 63). While normation can thus be understood to correspond relatively neatly with real subsumption, normalization introduces an aspect of subjectivation that is under-theorized in Marxist accounts and explained loosely with the notions of false consciousness and ideology.

Hence, normalization or subjectivation is a process that also produces numerous others, intersecting forms of the subject besides laborers and involves large-scale techniques of governing operating on the basis of shifting and historically specific norms and rationalities. Such complex forms of governmentality are furthermore always linked with games of truth and forms of scientific knowledge. The normal has become essentially a scientific measure.

Neoliberal Subjects

It is my contention that Foucault’s “post-Marxist” insights about the intrinsic link between productive practices of power and forms of the subject must remain central in our critical analyses of the neoliberal turn. While in many Marxist accounts neoliberalism is understood simply as an intensification of capitalist exploitation, which is heightening the fundamental class antagonism between capitalists and laborers, from a Foucauldian perspective it must be understood as a new configuration of power relations that produces new forms of the subject. We have to recognize the historically specific ways that the instability and the persistent crises of capitalism have been negotiated in recent decades through neoliberal forms of governmentality – new political technologies of power and social regulation.

Many socialist writers have lamented that the retreat from class analysis in the academy in the eighties and nineties was one of neoliberalism’s most effective weapons because it prevented class-consciousness from developing as the appropriate response to the rise of neoliberalism.[3] While the spread of neoliberalism is clearly inseparable from the structural logic of capitalist accumulation, to view the subjects it produces simply as class subjects who lack the appropriate consciousness of their situation is nevertheless problematic in my view.

While it is important to acknowledge that in his lectures on neoliberalism, The Birth of Biopolitics (2008), Foucault describes technologies and rationalities rather than their actual empirical outcomes, empirical and experiential evidence gives weight to the theoretical claim that the neoliberal reorganization of Western societies has resulted in new forms of the subject – a new understanding of ourselves. Social volatility and economic risks have become increasingly central for profit making and the financialization of everyday life requires new kinds of subjects and social networks (Floyd 2009, 196). Neoliberal governmentality has dramatically extended the reach of the markets and market rationality and thereby produced the corresponding subjects who are compelled to behave as market actors – consumers, individual investors and entrepreneurs – across several dimensions of their lives. As Foucault shows, neoliberal techniques scramble the traditional opposition between capitalists and workers in the sense that subjects are increasingly conceived and conceive themselves as entrepreneurs of the self, who attempt to maximize their “human capital”. Whether we focus on the reforms of pension plans and healthcare, revisions of copyright laws or the restructuring of universities, we are increasingly required to view ourselves as market-actors and to behave accordingly.[4]

These new forms of governmentality and social regulation are misrecognized insofar as they are identified as “merely” cultural or superstructural.[5] The historically specific practices of power in which we must engage daily in order to go about our lives are not just symbolic, cultural or discursive practices as Foucault’s Marxist critics sometimes claim. They are essentially material, social and economic practices that are organized through neoliberal rationality and embedded in law and political institutions, but also in everyday social relationships. Hence, we are not confronted merely with ideological fiction that could be dispelled through the development of appropriate class-consciousness; we are confronted with a new kind of social reality.

What the Foucauldian analysis of neoliberalism downplays in my view, however, is the necessary “failures” of neoliberal governmentality to constitute entrepreneurial subjects – the neoliberal constitution of “others”. The obstacles in the way of developing class consciousness are also “objective” in the second sense that we are witnessing other, radically new forms of subjectivation that are brought about by the global, neoliberal turn: the unemployed and the undocumented subjects, as well as the neocolonial, disposable subjects of the global South.

It is widely acknowledged by numerous socialist writers that the composition of the workforce has dramatically changed in the last decades due to the globalization and neoliberalization of our economies. The industrial working class has been shrinking in all Western countries at a rapid rate, and has been largely replaced by post-industrial, service-sector workers, who are largely female and in part-time or precarious employment. Instead of social relations based on relatively stable forms of wage-labor, the growth of insecurity and negative flexibilization have come to increasingly characterize all work. Moreover, the majority of the poorest and the most oppressed people in the world today are not wage-laborers. They are people who have to eke out a precarious existence in the informal economy because capitalism appears to have no use for them at all. In other words, the forms of exploitation have not only assumed radically new forms, but it has become increasingly unclear what the class relations are and how we are situated in their intersections. It is imperative to also theorize these new forms of the subject and the political potential they hold for radical social transformation. That requires acknowledging the limits of both Foucault’s analysis of neoliberalism, as well as traditional Marxist class analysis, and moving beyond them.

Johanna Oksala is currently Academy of Finland Research Fellow (2012-2017) in the Department of Philosophy, History, Culture and Art Studies at the University of Helsinki, and a Visiting Professor in the Department of Philosophy at the New School for Social Research, USA (2013-2015). Her books include Foucault on Freedom (2005), How to Read Foucault (2007) and Foucault, Politics & Violence (2012).



Eisenstein, Hester (2009): Feminism Seduced. How Global Elites Use Women’s Labor and Ideas to Exploit the World. Boulder: Paradigm Publishers.

Elden, Stuart (2014): “Foucault and Neoliberalism”. Progressive Geographies.

Erlenbusch, Verena (2015): “Neoliberalism and the Genealogy of Biopolitics”. Foucault and Neoliberalism AUFS Event.

Floyd, Kevin (2001): The Reification of Desire. Toward a Queer Marxism. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press.

Foucault, Michel (1991): Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. London: Penguin.

Foucault, Michel (2007): Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Collège de France 1977–78, ed. Michel Senellart. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Foucault, Michel (2008): The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France 1978-79, ed. Michel Senellart. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan.

Foucault, Michel (2012a): “Considerations on Marxism, Phenomenology and Power. Interview with Michel Foucault”. Foucault Studies, No. 14, pp. 98-114.

Foucault, Michel (2012b): “The Mesh of Power”. Viewpoint Magazine, (2012): 2.

Gorz, Andre (2012): Capitalism, Socialism, Ecology. London and New York: Verso.

Hardt, Michael and Antonio Negri (2000): Empire. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Hardt, Michael and Antonio Negri (2004): Multitude. War and Democracy in the Age of Empire. London: The Penguin Press.

Hardt, Michael and Antonio Negri (2011): Commonwealth. Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press.

Hennessy, Rosemary (2000): Profit and Pleasure. Sexual Identities in Late Capitalism. London and New York: Routledge.

Hull, Gordon (2015): “Why Foucault Is Still Helpful on Neoliberalism”. Foucault and Neoliberalism AUFS Event.

Laclau, Ernesto and Chaltal Mouffe (1985): Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. Towards a Radical Democratic Politics. London and New York: Verso.

Marx, Karl (1990): Capital, Volume I. London: Penguin.

Oksala, Johanna (2015): “Never Mind Foucault: What Are the Right Questions for Us? Foucault and Neoliberalism AUFS Event.

Zamora, Daniel (2014a): Critiquer Foucault: Les années 1980 et la tentation néolibérale. Bruxelles: Aden.

Zamora, Daniel (2014b): “Can We Criticize Foucault?” Jacobin.

[1] See Oksala 2015.

[2] Foucault is not referring here to the second volume of Capital. He means Book Two in the edition published by Editions Sociales in France, which divides Volume One into two books.

[3] See e.g. Hennessy 2000, 12; Eisenstein 2009, 212-213.

[4] See e.g. Hull 2015.

[5] Cf. Floyd 2009, 35-36.


  • Readers may also be interested in a range of material we’ve previously published on Foucault and neoliberalism in the journal, Theory, Culture & Society, such as:

Nicholas Gane’s ‘The Emergence of Neoliberalism: Thinking Through and Beyond Michel Foucault’s Lectures on Biopolitics’:




Nicholas Gane’s ‘Review Article: Trajectories of Liberalism and Neoliberalism’:



William Davies’s ‘When is a market not a market?: ‘Exemption’, ‘Externality’ and ‘Exception’ in the case of European State Aid rules’:




The TCS ‘Special Issue on Michel Foucault’, edited by Couze Venn & Tiziana Terranova:


  • And in the TCS Book Series:

William Davies’s TCS Book ‘The Limits of Neoliberalism: Authority, Sovereignty and the Logic of Competition’


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