‘Marx & Foucault: Lectures, Usages, Confrontations’ by Christian Laval, Luca Paltrinieri and Ferhat Taylan (ed),’Foucault with Marx’ by Jacques Bidet reviewed by Alex Feldman

Foucault with Marx

Zed Books, London, 2016. 288 pp., £12.99 pb.
ISBN 9781783605378

Reviewed by Alex Feldman

About the reviewer

Alex Feldman holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from The Pennsylvania State University and has taught …


In 1994, “The Meshes of Power” was reprinted in the massive collection of Foucault’s Dits et écrits (Foucault 2001; Foucault 2007). Foucault insists in this conference presentation from 1976 that Marx’s Capital was of decisive influence for his own rethinking of power. This admission may come as something of a shock to those who have assumed that the two social critics are deeply at odds with one another. The Foucault-Marx relationship remains underexplored in English, despite excellent early work by Barry Smart, Mark Poster and Richard Marsden. Once Foucault’s lecture courses at the Collège de France began to be studied in earnest, the depth of his engagement with Marx and Marxism became indisputable. Much of the work on this topic, however, continues to be done in French. It has not always sunk in with the Anglophone public.

For those with some French, Marx & Foucault: Lectures, usages, confrontations (Marx & Foucault: Readings, Uses, Confrontations) is an excellent place to start. It is a collection of papers from a conference in Paris in late 2014. The editors’ Introduction provides a solid roadmap of the existing literature and frames the general stakes of the confrontation: overcoming the opposition between the ‘social question’ (Marx) and ‘minoritarian struggle,’ or between class politics and identity politics (8, 15). With 23 chapters, it is impossible to do justice to this rich volume. Its tone is largely academic, not activist, and its contributors are largely drawn from the discipline of philosophy; some have a background in political theory, political economy, or sociology. Although French writers are heavily represented, one can also find contributors from Italy, Switzerland, and Brazil, among other places. English-speaking readers will likely be familiar with a handful of names in this volume, such as Étienne Balibar and Antonio Negri, but there are many exciting contributions from younger academics as well. The volume contains four parts, whose headings I offer in translation: “Foucault, Reader of Marx”; “Foucault and Marxisms”; “Reading Marx after Foucault”; and “Marx with Foucault: Current Events, Struggles, Critiques.”

Those who are under the impression that Foucault rejected Marx wholesale should start with Part I. Rudy Leonelli gives an overview of Foucault’s reading of Capital (Chapter 4). Most importantly, he clarifies the perplexing reference to Book II of Capital in “The Meshes of Power” (Foucault 2001, 1005). Foucault is in fact using the mass-market version of Capital put out by Editions Sociales in eight volumes; he is really referring to Part IV of Capital, vol. 1, “The Production of Relative Surplus-Value.” This is a crucial correction of an editorial mistake that was unfortunately reproduced in the English translation Foucault’s presentation (Foucault 2007, 156). In Chapter 1, Ferhat Taylan, surveying The Punitive Society and Truth and Juridical Forms, argues that Foucault offers an account of primitive accumulation (see Part VIII of Capital). For Foucault, this question is not exclusively one of dispossession and enclosure; it is also a matter of forcibly turning the bodies and time of the dispossessed workers into labour-power. Foucault clearly also has something to contribute to our understanding of Marx’s concept of abstract labour, even if that particular term is largely missing from Taylan and Foucault. Guillaume Sibertin-Blanc, for his part (Chapter 16), draws a connection between Marx’s treatment of the capitalist law of population in Chapter XXV of Capital and Foucault’s notions of biopower and biopolitical racism. In short, Foucault’s Marx is very much the Marx of Capital, but it is a Capital largely shorn of the opening considerations on value.

There are risks in approaching Capital in such a piecemeal fashion. After all, Foucault does not obviously share Marx’s central problem, unearthing the laws of motion of capitalism. In Chapter 6, Étienne Balibar sketches three avenues for a comparison: articulation (linking up heterogeneous analyses and problems), subsumption (treating Marx as a contributor to Foucauldianism or vice-versa), or the search for a ‘metatheoretical’ standpoint under which both might be subsumed (84-85). Parts II and III of Marx & Foucault pursue various blends of these three strategies. Philosophical triangulation is particularly tempting: Roberto Nigro, Jean-François Bert, Julien Pallotta, Diogo Sardinha, Pierre Dardot, and Judith Revel, among others, add Nietzsche, Heidegger, Sartre, Lukács and, of course, Althusser to this mix.

A loose version of the metatheoretical approach—perhaps ‘metaproblematic’ would be more apt—guides much of the fourth section of the volume. This section reminds us that activists and not just academics read Marx and Foucault. For the activists, at least, neither thinker is quite lost yet to what Francesca Giardini calls ‘static traditions’ (261-2). Giardini’s contribution (Chapter 18) covers a certain use of Foucault and Marx in the development of Italian and French feminisms. She touches on the themes of formal equality, the production of surplus-value, the concept of patriarchy and reproductive labor. Stéphane Haber (Chapter 22) asks what Marx and Foucault might offer a political critique of the capitalist firm or corporation. His piece goes on to measure both of them against the critique of the firm carried out by the ‘radical-liberal’ tradition deriving from Dewey. Haber provides one of the most serious attempts in the volume to bring together Foucault’s writings on discipline with his later, less overtly Marx-inflected genealogy of liberalism. Massimiliano Nicoli and Luca Paltrinieri, for their part, show that Foucault’s late investigation of techniques of subjectivation can be of service for a ‘genealogy of the moralization of work’ in the neoliberal era (Chapter 23). The Foucault-Marx confrontation ultimately does not have to be limited to Foucault’s writings from the early 1970s.

Jacques Bidet’s contribution (Chapter 20) is a condensed version of his book Foucault with Marx (2014; English translation 2016). Bidet is an emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Nanterre. One of the most prominent and original Marxist philosophers in France, Bidet was the co-founder and long-time editor of the journal Actuel Marx. English-language readers may be familiar with his 1985 commentary Exploring Marx’s Capital (Bidet 2007). Since then, Bidet has undertaken an ambitious attempt at a general theory of modern society, and his work has expanded into a synthesis of Marx, the Frankfurt School, institutional economics, Rawlsian political philosophy and world-systems theory. Very little of this later work has been translated. Unfortunately, the thesis of Foucault with Marx is difficult to understand, let alone defend, without repeated consultation of Bidet’s earlier writings. Despite its title, then, Foucault with Marx is no mere confrontation, but rather another chapter in Bidet’s original project.

Bidet’s approach to the Marx-Foucault encounter is thus unabashedly metatheoretical: he assesses their contribution to a theory of modern class structure and class domination. In an attempt to overcome the distinction between base and superstructure, Bidet elaborates a somewhat different relationship between structure and ‘metastructure’ (6). The metastructural approach, worked out elsewhere, is presupposed in Foucault with Marx. It concerns the way in which relations between individuals are arranged and rationalized in the process of production. Marx’s mistake is to have focused unduly on the market as a way of coordinating individual activity by orienting it toward an ‘a posteriori’ equilibrium. He misses the other ‘pole’ of coordination, and thus of class domination: organization, or ‘a priori’ coordination through social planning (8).

Foucault with Marx contains four parts. The first, “The Foucault/Marx Difference [Différend]” is likely to be of most interest to those skeptical of the metatheoretical approach to the Marx-Foucault encounter. Skeptics will be persuaded that there is at least a ‘family resemblance’ (23). Building on the earlier work of Stéphane Legrand, Part I contains a fruitful comparison of Foucault’s disciplinary society and Marx’s capitalist society (24-36); Bidet also offers an important reading of Foucault on liberalism and neoliberalism (42-50). Although Foucault does not share Marx’s systematic ambition, Bidet convincingly shows just how much Foucault’s genealogies of power technologies presuppose Marx’s class society as a background.

Part II, “Property-Power and Knowledge-Power,” shifts from the perspective of the différend back to Bidet’s metatheory of modern social order. Foucault supplies what is missing in Marx: the power of ordering associated not with the ownership of capital (‘property-power’), but with institutionally-conferred authoritative ‘competence’ (‘knowledge-power,’ as pouvoir-savoir is here translated). Once this ‘historical incoherence of modernity’ is recognized, we are likewise forced to rethink class structure (109-110; 68-71). The dominant class is divided between property-owners and ‘competent-elites.’ Marx’s teleological understanding of capitalist development led him to think that organization (‘socialism’) would replace the market; he failed to recognize the need for a further project aimed at ‘re-appropriating’ competence and at radical democracy (‘communism’).

Part III, “Marxian Structuralism and Foucauldian Nominalism” takes up the question of class structure in more detail. It also amounts to a general reflection on method in the social sciences. There is a particularly illuminating treatment of Foucault’s concept of the dispositif (149-161). Bidet stages a nuanced critique of Foucault’s focus on civil war and his concomitant tendency to neglect the specificity of modern class struggle (172-178). Part IV, “Marx’s ‘Capitalism’ and Foucault’s ‘Liberalism,’” returns to Foucault’s lecture courses on liberalism from the late 1970s. Its central theme is the character of social productivity in Foucault and Marx. Foucault is found to be responding to the historical longevity of capitalism and liberalism and the shortcomings of actually-existing socialism. The Conclusion returns to the questions of Part II and lays out a program for a new alliance between some members of the competent elites and the dominated or ‘fundamental’ class. This alliance would aim at both socialism and communism in Bidet’s sense of these terms.

Given the aforementioned inaccessibility of the most central thesis, Foucault with Marx will perhaps be of most value to English-language readers for its analyses of particular passages and arguments in Foucault and Marx. Taking the book as a whole, it is not always clear why Foucault occupies pride of place in the theory of organization. In a footnote, Bidet acknowledges that Foucault is hardly the first to look into this pole, but, somewhat surprisingly, it is never really explained why we are to prefer Foucault’s approach to any of the others elaborated ‘since the 1930s’ (72n). Who else is mediating the Foucault-Marx encounter in this book?

A word is needed on the translation. It is generally competent and lucid, but there is one vexing error. L’économie can mean either “the economy” (the thing) or “economics” (the discipline that studies it); Steven Corcoran repeatedly chooses the former where Bidet could have intended nothing but the latter (e.g., 7, 40, 43, 210, 245; see Bidet 2014, 14, 40, 44, 176, 203). This error has the unfortunate result of obscuring one of major sources of inspiration for Foucault with Marx, the discipline of institutional economics: for l’économie institutionnaliste, we get ‘the institutionalist economy’ (7). A key passage becomes unintelligible: ‘He [Foucault] remains at the context that Capital defines, in contrast with the theoretical context of the classical economy [l’économie classique], as that of the “vulgar economy” [‘l’économie vulgaire’]’ (210). The provocative point is that Foucault never makes it past ‘vulgar economics’ to the insights of Smith and Ricardo, let alone Marx.

Both of the books reviewed here hold out hope of reconnecting what used to be called the ‘new social movements’ with struggles against capitalism. Bidet at first nods in this direction, with brief sections on gender, sexuality, and race (164-172), but later steps back, admitting that ‘neither Marx nor Foucault traces any path for emancipation from the yoke [joug] of the world-system’ or provides much insight into gender oppression (256-7, translation corrected). Marx & Foucault contains a few contributions in this direction, but, considering its opening promise, it could go further. Among other triangles, a confrontation between Marx, Foucault, and the black radical tradition or postcolonial theory would have been particularly interesting. In any case, Foucault and Marx feel very much alive and open for readings, uses, and confrontations after these two encounters with one another. Articulation, subsumption, metatheory, or some fourth path all remain real possibilities for thought and struggle.

6 June 2018


  • Bidet, Jacques 2007 Exploring Marx’s Capital trans. David Fernbach (London: Brill).
  • Bidet, Jacques 2014 Foucault avec Marx (Paris: La Fabrique).
  • Foucault, Michel 2001 Les mailles du pouvoir Dits et écrits. 1976-1988, vol. 2 Ed. Daniel Defert, François Ewald, and Jacques Lagrange (Paris: Gallimard “Quarto”).
  • Foucault, Michel 2007 The Meshes of Power Space, Knowledge and Power: Foucault and Geography Ed. Jeremy W. Crampton and Stuart Elden (Aldershot: Ashgate).

One comment

  1. “In an attempt to overcome the distinction between base and superstructure, Bidet elaborates a somewhat different relationship between structure and ‘metastructure’ (6). The metastructural approach, worked out elsewhere, is presupposed in Foucault with Marx. It concerns the way in which relations between individuals are arranged and rationalized in the process of production. Marx’s mistake is to have focused unduly on the market as a way of coordinating individual activity by orienting it toward an ‘a posteriori’ equilibrium. He misses the other ‘pole’ of coordination, and thus of class domination: organization, or ‘a priori’ coordination through social planning (8).”

    It remains a moot point in some circles whether or not Marx subscribed to the Marxist conceptions of a determining economic base and a determined superstructure. However let’s leave this tricky topic aside for the moment. What is clear, and in particular in Capital, is that Marx is not interested in how the market organises society a posteriori (as it were) but rather how market relations invade and reconfigures productive relations (and, indeed, all social relations on this basis). In this way Capital is an examination of the capitalist social relation as result and premise. To misapprehend this calls into question the usefulness attributed to Foucault, at least in this instance if not altogether.

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