‘Un tout autre horizon…’ an interview with Jacques Bidet

Jacques Bidet – Foucault with Marx, translated by Steven Corcoran (Zed Books, 2016, La fabrique, Paris, 2015)

In lieu of a review of Bidet’s book Foucault with Marx, we got in touch with him to discuss the way the text seems timely, now, in 2018. Here is the core of our dialogue: 

SH: It seems to me that Foucault has been given a different share recently, or allotment, among ‘the left’ in Britain certainly.

JB: Foucault indeed leaves several legacies. From the perspective of my book, which confronts its topicality with that of Marx, we can see that he shows a theoretical and critical creativity which continues today to manifest its fertility/fecundity on several fields, and with different posterities.

First, on the domain of sex and gender relations, on which Marxism itself could only manifest a limited relevance because those issues remain outside of a possible grip of its own/proper concepts. Marx and Engels, of course, had a keen apprehension of gender and patriarchal domination, and they also helped to illuminate them by crossing them with class relations. Foucault does not elaborate a social theory of gender relations. But he provides a productive entry into the question by taking sexuality no longer from the point of view of its being repressed, but of the new knowledge that it represents, and the knowledge power to which it gives rise. This research gave full force to the idea that there is another social power than the property power existing as ‘capital’.

My excellent translator, Steve Corcoran, rightly emphasizes the relevance of my transformation of the Foucauldian expression, power-knowledge, into knowledge-power: it is not the power that can provide knowledge, but knowledge that can provide power. More precisely, it is ‘competency’, a competency which is given and received, which gives authority and reproduces itself as a class power: a knowledge-power parallel to the capital-power, but of a different nature.

This discovery of a knowledge-power in sexuality was a part of the unveiling of its presence in all social institutions: medicine, courts, administration, production… This problem of a knowledge-power was, of course, present in Marx’s mind. It is clearly identified in a famous page of The Critique of Gotha’s Program that can be considered as a kind of postface to Capital.

Marx wonders about the future. He distinguishes a ‘first phase of communism’ – the one that will be called ‘socialism’ in the later tradition – which culminates in the appropriation of the means of production and exchange by the workers, operating no longer by the market but by an organization concerted among all. But this phase is only a preamble to the second, that of ‘communism’, in the later terminology, which presupposes the end of the ‘enslaving subordination of manual labor to intellectual labour’, i.e.to the knowledge-power, more precisely competence-power. Here, Marx had the insight, but Foucault produced the concept. From there on, we can note divergent commitments. Those in the Marxist tradition turn spontaneously towards ‘socialism’, a horizon that is constantly receding. The other ones, those inheriting anarchism, self-management, operaism, situationism, etc. aim in some regards directly at communism. Two more or less antagonistic families. We just can hope that the ecological challenge, which brings together the issue of production and that of ‘sense’, leads them to find a path towards unity.

SH: This in itself is quite Foucauldian I guess, that his archive is being re-ordered.

JB: This notion of ‘re-ordering’ can be understood in different ways. They are issues that Foucault first clearly identified and to which he gave a grammar, making them more obvious to the public. They were marginal and they became central. They can be summed up as ‘minority’ issues, where minority is not opposed to ‘majority’, but to the notion of ‘totality’, a totality from which every particular problem should be considered. The characteristic of the ‘minority’ is that they have nothing to do with a social totality: homosexuals, ethnic identities, belong to a temporality different from that of the class. And, in this sense, women are paradoxically the minority par excellence. Their struggle does not dissolve in class struggle considered as a vector of universal emancipation. Here we can see how Foucault’s thought is redistributed in several domains without losing its identity.

SH: The left in Britain see Foucault as a harbinger of neoliberalism, not the announcer of its form of power (which is how I see him).

JB: Foucault anticipated the arrival of neoliberalism before all others, at least in France. France seemed solidly protected from liberalism by a ‘social state’ more ensured than that of its great neighbours and by an enduring anti-capitalist political ferment, once again revitalized by the great workers and students movements of ’68. Foucault escapes the sort of historical optimism that prevailed in the 60s-80s in the leftist circles, which saw the future as a gradual triumph of social conquests.

He felt for neoliberalism a certain fascination based on a principle of reality which was lacking in the intellectual milieu of the left in which he bathed. Because, on the one hand, his original political affinities were rather on the side of the republican right, and, on the other hand, because he had been living long enough outside France, outside the French evidence. The thinker in him foresaw the possibility of another civilization, entirely based on a flexible individualism: he felt, as Tocqueville did but in an opposite perspective, an obscure mix of enthusiasm and terror. But the citizen and the moralist that he also was remained attached to certain essential schemes of the social state.

SH: I think your book is particularly timely to revisit now as the young or new left are turning to an older sort of Marxism and turning away from Foucault.

JB: The advent of neoliberalism, with its devastating and almost universal development, brings a young generation back to the fundamentals of Marxism, towards the idea of a radical domination of capitalism. The twenty-first century situation seems to resume and universalize that of the nineteenth century, beyond the great popular time of the twentieth century conquests, which can eventually appear as a rather brief episode. For a century there had been counter-powers, which are now weakened, because they only developed thanks to the temporary context of the nation-state. In the present situation of capitalist globalization, Capital can paradoxically be read as a novel of anticipation. This ‘society in which the capitalist mode of production prevails (herrscht, reigns)’, in the first sentence of Capital Book I, which Marx profiled according to a British ideal type, may seem to have realized its full relevance only today, at the world scale, beyond a century of national resistances. Neo-liberalism is nothing else than an unhindered liberalism. This happens when the two forces that allied in a ‘national’ project and hindered it – that of the competent (see: competency power), which contains it in certain limits, and the popular force that struggles against it – separate from one other.

SH: I think the spirit of those formed in ’68 is being lost and on a more everyday level one can see this in the harrassment of ‘baby boomers’ as though they were the agents, somehow, of neoliberalism… again, your book is timely in this regard.

JB: I do not think that this generation, as such, is particularly an ‘accomplice’ in neoliberalism. Clearly, the initiative in neo-liberalism starts from financial capital: its first beginnings in the 60s were illustrated by figures such as Thatcher and Reagan. Very quickly, it was largely understood that the rise of the digital, this revolution in the productive forces, would revolutionize the life of the firm and allow a financialized economy at the world scale. Thus the project of liquidating what remained of the social state could appear. Once the border is down, the alliance between the labour class and the competent tends to collapse. And the latter tend to find their place in the new neoliberal capitalism, which needs them as purveyors of order and meaning, and can reward them in this function. Neoliberalism has been an opportunity for some of them.

But it does not mean that generation ’68 as a whole is melted in this mould. Of course, I’m talking about what I know a little, about the French situation, and about the long process that I experienced myself, from the 1960s to the present day. The heirs of ’68 have massively participated in an associative, both social and cultural, effervescence which remains behind what we now call ‘civil society’, turning this expression from its former sense: meaning no longer the private sphere centred around freedom-ownership, but the private common world of unions, of social, cultural, feminist, etc. associations.

Obviously, the current ‘memory of 68’ is mainly that of the student movement. The workers returned to their factories, their struggle continued in other forms. The students resumed their studies. Some of them, among the most convinced, dreamed of revolutionizing the factory. But that was not their vocation. They eventually joined the middle and upper classes. And they are those, of course, who are now producing the ‘memory’, the archive of those years. The dominant theme is ‘imagination in power’. Their imagination. Yet inventiveness was as great in the labor movement. Workers’ culture, that of the unions, was not so different. Strikes were regulated by a constant return to the base, in the form of assemblies, and not under a command at the top. What later made the difference, particularly in terms of a disappearance of memory, is that the management immediately understood that the production space had to be transformed, decentralized, split up into different legal units, managed by competitive procedures, etc.

In the long run, the labour movement has been weakened to the point of losing any memory. The workers of 2018 will not remind us of those of ’68. The (grown) old intellectuals will provide for it… celebrating the now old students of ’68. But the ceremonies will remain limited to small committees, because today’s students, in their mass, do not feel really concerned: their own vocation is quite different from that of their seniors. They are facing the uncertain future which is today that of the common working class. Quite a different prospect…

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