The Productive Subject

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It is impossible at the present time to write history without using a whole range of concepts directly or indirectly linked to Marx’s thought and situating oneself within a horizon of thought which has been defined and described by Marx. One might even wonder what difference there could ultimately be between being a historian and being a Marxist.1

Power: From Politics to the Economy

In the concluding section to The Will to Knowledge, Foucault explains what led him to consider power, as it exists today, not from a negative perspective – as a constraint that is initially juridical in form – but from a positive one, inasmuch as power relies on mechanisms that materially organize and even help to “produce” human life, instead of imposing boundaries on it. This idea is at the very core of his conception of “biopower.” As he writes about it:

This biopower was without question an indispensable element in the development of capitalism; the latter would not have been possible without the controlled insertion of bodies into the machinery of production and the adjustment of the phenomena of population to economic processes. But this was not all it required; it also needed the growth of both these factors, their reinforcement as well as their availability and docility; it had to have methods of power capable of optimiz­ing forces, aptitudes, and life in general without at the same time making them more difficult to control. If the develop­ment of the great instruments of the state, as institutions of power, ensured the maintenance of production relations, the rudiments of anatomo- and biopolitics, created in the eigh­teenth century as techniques of power present at every level of the social body and utilized by very diverse institutions (the family and the army, schools and the police, individual medicine and the administration of collective bodies), ope­rated in the sphere of economic processes, their development, and the forces working to sustain them. They also acted as factors of segregation and social hierarchization, exerting their influence on the respective forces of both these move­ments, guaranteeing relations of domination and effects of hegemony. The adjustment of the accumulation of men to that of capital, the joining of the growth of human groups to the expansion of productive forces and the differential alloca­tion of profit, were made possible in part by the exercise of biopower in its many forms and modes of application. The investment of the body, its valorization, and the distributive management of its forces were at the time indispensable.2

To put it schematically, Foucault explains in this passage the need to rethink power by freeing it from the grip of politics, so as to bring it closer to the concrete level of the economy; an economy that is primarily concerned with the “management” of life, bodies and their “powers” – a term that persistently recurs here – even before having as its focus the value of traded goods within an economy of things. Furthermore, for Foucault, it is important to restore a historical dimension to this new understanding of power, which he does by relating it to the development of capitalism and the specific social relations of production set in place in the context of the Industrial Revolution. Although the term “class” is not overtly mentioned, it is clearly implied with the reference in the above passage to the “factors of segregation and social hierarchization, exerting their influence on the respective forces of both these move­ments, guaranteeing relations of domination and effects of hegemony,” and “the joining of the growth of human groups to the expansion of productive forces and the differential allocation of profit.” Foucault appears here to almost flirt with Marx’s analyses in Capital, which he reconciles with his attempt to view power from a positive and “productive” perspective.

Five years later, coming back to this point in a lecture given in Bahia in 1976, published under the evocative title “The Mesh of Power,”3 Foucault explicitly confirms this convergence. There, he writes:

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.

Foucault means that Bentham and Marx are basically talking about the same thing, even if they do so in different ways: the emergence of a new configuration of power, coinciding with the rise of capitalism and the bourgeoisie, did not solely consist of an institutional change or a seizure of political power, since it fundamentally depended upon an original harnessing of the forces of life itself, providing the economy with its specific object ‒ an economy whose transformations have driven social change. This perspective, it could be argued, moves toward the thesis of the determination by the economy in the last instance, on condition that the concept is extended to eventually subsume the management or the “production” (to follow Foucault’s ambiguous term) of life in all of its forms. In the rest of the lecture, Foucault enumerates the four dimensions that characterize this historical and social shift in power, and insistently refers to Marx for each one: the dispersion of power into a multiplicity of heterogeneous powers; its detachment from the state-form; its positive, rather than prohibitive or repressive, orientation; and finally, its progressive technicization that developed unplanned through trial and error, and thus was not subordinated to any devised or preconceived ends. Foucault considers this last point to be the most important: it appears in the passage from the Will to Knowledge cited above concerning “methods of power capable of optimiz­ing forces, aptitudes, and life in general without at the same time making them more difficult to control.”

When Foucault cites the “second volume of Capital,” he clearly has in mind the second volume of the French edition of Marx’s work, published by Éditions Sociales, which comprises Parts 4, 5, and 6 of Volume I, the only volume to appear in Marx’s lifetime, the final editing of Volumes II and III being posthumously completed by Engels. Althusser, in a preface written for the 1969 publication of Volume I of Capital in Flammarion’s GF book series, had recommended reading it by starting directly with the second half, that is, by skipping the first part, as its interpretation poses the most problems, problems only resolvable when one gets to the end of the work and can grasp the argumentation as a whole. Foucault seems to go even further, advising that Marx’s book be approached through the fourth part, which deals with “The Production of Relative Surplus-Value (Mehrwert).” Indeed, in this passage he sees, appearing for the first time, the elements enabling the definition of the new configuration of power, heralded from the end of the 18th century by theorists such as Bentham: namely, “bourgeois power” and its mechanisms, i.e., the specific procedures pertaining to a technology of power, to whose analysis Marx made the greatest contribution. By focusing his attention on this part of Capital, Foucault thereby finds a way of distancing himself from the polemical presentation provided in The Order Of Things – not of Marx’s thought stricto sensu, as found in his own texts, but what arose from it in the form of “orthodox” Marxism, in which Foucault had detected an avatar or epiphenomenon of political economy in its Ricardian form, full stop. From this point of view, it is as if Foucault proposed to add a new chapter to the project Althusser himself initiated with the publication of Reading Capital, which had already begun to challenge traditional, orthodox Marxism.

What could have interested Foucault in the passages from Capital, beginning with Part 4, to the degree that he presents them as sources for a positive study of power, rooted in the development of the economy and its “forces?” We would like to clarify this point by returning to Marx’s text, which Foucault’s suggestion prompts us to read in a manner that might be called “symptomatic,” since it is not at all obvious at first glance how one might derive the principles for an analysis of “power” which is at best implicit in Capital, hovering in the background. To roughly pose our question: how is it possible to draw the elements of a theory of power from the explanation of the process of the production of relative surplus value, without falling into overinterpretation, since the problem of power, if not completely extraneous to this explanation, is only posed at its margins? Let us say straight away that this question, which involves the particular relation that power maintains with the economy of capitalism, and which leads us to bracket the relations that power might otherwise have with political and state forms, also leads us to take into account and re-establish the primary importance of the notion Marx himself saw as his principal theoretical innovation, because it enabled him to radically break with Ricardian economics: the concept of “labor-power,” whose wording contains precisely a reference to “power,” a reference Foucault attaches such importance to in his own conception of the new economy of power. This economy, it can be said, is not an economy of things or goods but an economy of “forces,” and as such, inextricably an economy of persons; an economy which in reality is closely integrated with procedures for the subjection of persons and, more precisely, bodies. To put it in Foucault’s terms, we must ask ourselves how capitalism, by utilizing the exploitation of labor-power, developed “methods of power capable of optimiz­ing forces, aptitudes, and life in general without at the same time making them more difficult to govern.” It should be noted that the aim of such an inquiry is not to demonstrate that Foucault’s ideas are already black and white in Marx’s text, which would amount to inventing the fiction of a “Marxist” or “Marxisant4 Foucault, as such an heir to Marx, but to enrich our potential understanding of this text, by clarifying it in light of the hypotheses Foucault advances and thus traversing the path that leads from Foucault back to Marx in the hope of revealing new aspects of the latter’s thought and – this is the point that primarily concerns us – reframing the question of power in particular by shifting it from the level of politics to that of the economy.5

The System of Wage-Labor and the Exploitation of Labor-Power

In order to answer the questions that have just been raised, we must first return to the theory of wage-labor, which, according to Marx’s presentation, forms the basis of the capitalist economy and radically distinguishes it from preceding modes of production. We can summarize this theory by identifying three major traits. In the specific context of capitalism itself, the production of value-bearing, and thus exchangeable, commodities depends on the productive consumption of labor-power; this last, labor-power, is the property of the proletarian, and in exchange for a wage, the capitalist acquires the right to use it for a certain time within the space of his enterprise, where it is “consumed.” When he talks about the labor contract, Marx often writes that the proletarian sells its labor-power to the capitalist, a misleading shorthand if taken literally. What the worker actually alienates in exchange for a wage is not his labor-power as such, considered in its substance as something embodied in him, in the sense of being inseparable and even indiscernible from his bodily existence; if he were to do that, he would become, in a way, a slave to his employer – he would no longer be free and would lose as a consequence the responsibility of maintaining this substance that is one with his person. In exchange for the wage, the proletarian in reality only grants the right to exploit his labor-power for a certain time and in a certain place: he rents it out, strictly speaking, with the stipulation that the rent he is paid in exchange under the terms of this transaction is deferred, the wage not being paid until after use and not before, as is the case in the majority of rental contracts. This provision renders the exchange relation unequal from the start, insofar as it represents a form of pressure exercised by the buyer over the seller. It follows that if we want to understand what wage-labor is, we must carefully distinguish between labor-power as such – what we have called its substance – and its employment, which is measured in time and space, the basic unit of this measurement being formally constituted by the working day as organized within the bounds of the enterprise (at least until the end of the nineteenth century, manual laborers were generally hired and paid by the day, which distinguished them from salaried employees).

The wage-labor system, which determines the relation of capital to labor, presupposes the separation of these two aspects – the substance and its employment – and therefore that labor-power, as an aptitude borne by the body throughout its life, is in fact separated from the conditions of its activation as it is implemented within certain time limits and in the specific space of the enterprise, where the worker must go, bringing his labor-power with him, so that it can be used under suitable conditions. The existential capacity remains the inalienable property of the worker who, in exchange for a wage, concedes to his boss the possibility of using it, of putting it to work for his profit for a certain period within a given framework. This first point shows that the notion of labor-power, while it initially appears as a simple, unified, natural given, as a “power” originating in life and the body, is much more complex; the historical intervention of capitalism and its specific mode of production, it could be suggested, has the precise effect of complicating this notion by exploiting the aforementioned division, none of which is at all natural.

In this respect, Foucault would be entitled to talk of a technical procedure resulting in the establishment of a power relation: in effect, when he exchanges the employment of his labor-power for a wage, the worker is only formally “free” to do so. But for the procedure to work, the worker must actually be made to do so, because in order to survive, he is placed in the position of a job-seeker; a docile position, it could be said, insofar as it complies with an “economic” necessity that in the last instance has nothing juridical about it. In other words, the fact that labor-power is separated from its usage is historically conditioned: it corresponds to the development of a specific mode of production that depends on the exploitation of labor-power made possible by this separation, and whose very first effect is to bind the worker, the bearer of labor-power, to the constraints of the job market. Indeed, it is not enough that he “has” his labor-power, in the sense that his body belongs to him, as it still needs to be able to be set to work under certain conditions independent of him.

But that’s not all. At the outset, wage-labor appears as an exchange which, like all exchanges between commodities, should in principle be an exchange of equal values. What the worker brings to the labor market is himself: his body, his labor-power, whose usage he alienates; and, for this, he receives a wage which, in principle, must pay for what he has sold at its value, corresponding to its maintenance over the period during which he grants its usage. Maintenance should be understood as everything that enables the regeneration of this power as is necessary both for the survival of the individual worker, and also that of his family. Not only is his own labor-power reproduced within the family, but also that of his offspring; and in paying the wage, the capitalist takes out an option on this latter, thereby exercising a sort of pre-emptive claim over it. For the system to function normally – according to rules, thus making it legally indisputable – the commodity must be sold at its true price, which fluctuates around an average value determined by market conditions, that is, by variations in the relationship between supply and demand, as is the case for all market transactions. When he gets his wage, the worker therefore has not been robbed or plundered, which he implicitly acknowledges by complying with and willingly complying with the terms of the exchange, and formally speaking does so willingly. Nevertheless, one cannot leave matters here. For the exchange to effectively take place, it must reflect the interests that concretely bind the contracting parties. The seller’s interest is completely clear: the worker transfers the use of his labor-power for the wage because without it, he could not satisfy his needs or those of his family. If he brings his “commodity” to the labor market, then it is simply because he cannot do otherwise: it is the condition of his survival. But in regards to the buyer, who will employ this labor-power to his benefit, things are much less clear: what the capitalist bought at its value, he in fact intends to exploit, not at equal value, but in order to derive from it an additional value that will represent his profit, a profit destined to either increase his production or his wealth; at every turn he wins, and if this wasn’t the case, the transaction would not interest him the slightest. So there is something strange, anomalous, in the way that this relation is established. Under the terms of the exchange between the wage laborer and the person paying him, if one of them, the worker, strictly speaking, loses nothing, he does not gain anything either, that is, he cannot hope to gain more than he has initially pledged; and, if turns out that his wage even marginally exceeds his real needs, allowing him either to spend wastefully on extras or to save for himself, a correction almost automatically takes place and his wage drops, eventually bringing about a fall in the average value of the wages for all the other workers. Whereas, under the terms of the same exchange, the other party, the buyer, aims not only to recoup his stake, therefore losing nothing, but to increase it, proving this exchange of equal value, from which the system of wage-labor derives its legitimacy in terms of law, masks a conjuring trick which transforms equality into inequality, without, however, formally violating the commercial right of exchange. What has happened?

To understand this better, it is useful to apply the schema elaborated by Marcel Mauss – in another context, to account for the mechanism of the gift, an exchange which puts two parties in a relation of reciprocity – to the labor contract that sanctions the exchange.6 This schema is triangular, and articulates three operations: “giving,” “receiving,” and “returning.” Let us suppose that the labor contract, which is the basis for wage-labor, falls under this schema. The giver in this case is the person offering the commodity he seeks to part with: namely, the worker who brings his labor-power, his body – whose employment he rents out to someone else – to the market. In exchange, the buyer, his future employer, “returns” to him a value equivalent to the maintenance needs of this power. But, when this buyer is the capitalist, what is therefore “returned” – recompensed in the form of wages – isn’t exactly the same thing as what is “received” by the one who, in terms of the exchange, occupies the position of purchaser: this is the condition for this exchange of equal value to produce inequality. In other words, what the capitalist acquires in exchange for the wage, and granting him the right to exploit it according to his own wishes, in a manner consistent with his interests, is not exactly what has been brought, “given,” or formally sold in exchange for this wage. Thus, at this level, the previous division reappears, splitting up labor-power into two sides: one of these is “given” by the seller, the worker, and the other “received” by the buyer, the capitalist; the aforementioned conjuring trick depends on this splitting, which turns an exchange of equal values into an operation that benefits only one of the contracting parties, and is only possible because this exchange occurs within the framework of a power relation wherein one party, the seller, occupies the subordinate position and the other, the buyer, the dominant position, enabling the latter to impose their interests. For the system of wage-labor to take effect, the worker has to be placed in the position of a split subject who, while remaining entirely in control of his labor-power, alienates only its usage, which presupposes that this power can effectively be separated from its use.

On this basis, we can evaluate the break introduced in the explanation of the system of wage-labor by the substitution of labor-power for labor, a break that Marx presents as his principal theoretical innovation.7 If the seller, the wage laborer, alienated his labor, and if this was paid at equal value, as classical political economy until Ricardo supposed for all exchange, then the buyer, the capitalist, would gain nothing further, and the exchange would not happen simply because it would not present any interest for him. But if what the seller brings – “gives” – is his labor-power, or at least the possibility of employing it for a certain time, then the same cannot be said: for what is transferred, “received” at the end of the exchange is not exactly the same thing as presented at the beginning. What is received is the possibility of employing labor-power over and above its real value, and therefore to profit from its use. This profit is reserved for whoever buys the right to employ labor-power at its value, which is not what it produces, but what produces it, that is, the value necessary for the maintenance of the power that once produced, produces, as the bearer of the capacity to produce in excess of the value needed to produce it. Anticipating concepts that will be introduced later on, we can say that at the moment he accepts the provisions stipulated by his employment contract, the worker undergoes a quasi-miraculous mutation: he ceases to be his body in person, whose existence is by definition equal to no other, and becomes a “productive subject,” a bearer of “labor-power,” whose performance – “social labor” – is subjected to a common evaluation; and, in this fashion, he is subjected [assujetti], in all senses of the word.8

At stake here is the ambiguity surrounding the concept of labor, an ambiguity reinforced by the French language, which combines in one term two things that the English language and the German language distinguish: on the one hand, in these two languages, the terms Werk and work indicate the result of labor, once it is finished and thus when it has attained its end; and on the other hand, there is the operation or the process that produces, that is to say the activity of production as it is actually in progress, and is headed toward its end but has not attained it yet, which is indicated by the terms Arbeit and labor. One could say this terminological distinction is taken up metaphorically by Marx in his discussion of “dead labor” and “living labor.” Dead labor is “finished,” objectified labor, crystallized in the product wherein its trajectory is completed. Living labor is labor in the course of its execution, on a level that gives it a particularly dynamic range, while the product representing dead labor exhibits only a static dimension. In forging the concept of “labor-power,” his own contribution to the theory of wage-labor, Marx introduced these two aspects into this compound formula, just as the capitalist mode of production, which presupposes the possibility of substituting one for the other even though they correspond to different determinations, does in reality. One side of labor-power is decidedly dynamic, a power, with the dimension of capacity that defines it and has living labor as its bearer; dead labor is the other side, the static side of labor, in the sense of being the result of the completed labor process.9 The concept of labor-power, which joins these two aspects together, in this way allows for an understanding of what really happens when living labor transforms itself into dead labor and vice versa.10

Let’s return to the triangular model of the gift on this basis. In exchange for a wage, the worker brings to the labor market something that economically represents dead labor – that is to say, the value of the goods that are necessary for his maintenance and enable his labor-power to exist, inasmuch as labor-power is itself the product of a labor whose value is equal to that of these goods. This is what is paid to the worker, what is “returned” to him as the wage. From this point of view, labor-power is a product. But what the capitalist “receives,” with the aim of exploiting it, is living labor, the possibility of employing or activating the capacity that labor-power is the bearer of when it is exploited beyond what’s required for its subsistence, during the portion of time in which the worker, having ceased to work for himself, works for the capitalist, that is, his profit. This is no longer a product strictly speaking, but what Marx rather enigmatically calls a “productive power,” meaning a power defined by the activity of production that it is conditioned to exercise. By playing with our terms, we can say that what the worker alienates is the usage of his Arbeitskraft, his labor-power as it is wholly constituted since it it is one with him; and what the capitalist exploits is a Arbeitsvermögen, which through a process of exteriorization has been employed within the framework of productive activity. We now understand why the capitalist is the winner – and even in a “win-win situation” – in an exchange that is equal in principle, but in reality is a fool’s bargain, as most juridical relationships are, inasmuch they tacitly conceal a relationship which itself is not juridical.

The question, then, is how such a thing, improbable once its principle is revealed, can come to realize itself in fact. What brings the worker to “freely” – the quotation marks are in Marx’s text – submit to the conditions of this peculiar contract that is in principle between equal values but only in principle, since only one of the contracting parties emerges as the winner, and even cannot lose from an exchange which cannot be said to really “benefit” the other party engaged in this relationship, because it cannot do otherwise? This anomaly can be explained as follows: within the framework of the exchange in question, reciprocity is only apparent because, in the very process of the exchange, following its own trajectory, its nature has changed. At the start of this trajectory, as we have assumed, there is the Arbeitskraft of the worker, that is to say, his labor-power, meaning his personal labor, which is embodied in his individual existence; and it is precisely as an individual and on his own behalf that he agrees to enter into the labor contract, by which he transfers for a certain time the use of his labor-power in exchange for a wage. But at the end of its course, that is, when the buyer – the capitalist – takes delivery of the commodity he has bought, the latter presents itself in a whole new light: it has become labor-power, exploitable within conditions that are no longer those of individual labor, marked by the specific characteristics of the powers of initiative of the person who performs the work, but which define productive activity in general, subject to common norms. Once he has entered into the system of wage-labor, the worker, without even realizing it, has ceased to be the person he is, with his individually constituted Arbeitskraft; truly subjected, he has become the executor of an operation that surpasses the limits of his own existence. This operation is “social labor” which strictly speaking is no longer his labor, or at any rate not only his, but labor carried out under conditions which escape his initiative and control; these conditions are the regulation or rationalization of labor, or what is called at the end of the nineteenth century, by Taylor in particular, the “organization of labor,” whose outline is already traced by Marx. To return to the terminology employed previously, what the worker “gives” is the usage of his body inasmuch as it is the bearer of his own power, and what the capitalist “receives,” with the aim of exploiting for his profit, is the right to use this power as a productive force, whose capacities are assessed, calibrated, formatted, and, one can say, normalized according to principles that condition its optimal use, in the sense of the conditioning of a product – an operation in which a product is reclassified in order to meet common standards. If the exchange authorized by the system of wage-labor takes place, it’s because in the course of the exchange the instrument of the exchange has been transformed without the person looking for work being aware of it, with the consequence that this transformation is not taken into account in calculating the terms of the exchange, an exchange that takes place between equal values while still being unequal, conforming to the interest of the person who in this same relation holds the position of both payer and receiver or buyer. This is what defines the capitalist mode of production: labor-power is treated as a two-sided reality, and so is not exactly the same thing for the person who is its natural bearer and for the person who has become its user. This results in the possibility of deriving a profit from its use, kept by the capitalist for himself in the form of a surplus value (Mehrwert) that is not compensated by the wage and thus appears as a surplus. The exploitation of worker relies on this “trick”: although he remains in possession of his labor-power, he is relinquishes its use, as if its usage was no longer part of this power and as if this force existed independently of its exercise. It really is a sleight of hand, whose invisibility is the condition for its efficacy. This leads us to extend the scope of the concept of industrial revolution, accompanying the development of capitalism. Besides sophisticated machinery (with the steam engine as prototype), the industrial revolution depended on the invention of the “productive power” essential to the operation of these machines, “labor-power,” the result of a technical invention associated with the deployment of specific procedures of power, as Foucault explains following Marx. Machinofacture is a complex system of production that besides physical equipment, includes the more or less skilled agents who run it and are at the same time incorporated into its system as bearers of a labor-power destined to be productively consumed. The images in Chaplin’s film Modern Times show precisely this: they present a particularly forceful analysis of the mode of labor specific to industrial capitalism, in which inanimate machines and human machines are closely intertwined.

The surplus generated by the exploitation of labor-power is variable by definition, insofar as it is itself the result of a variation. In order to theoretically calculate the rate of exploitation (surplus value), Marx uses the model of the “working day”: i.e., the total amount of time during each workable day (and, as we have remarked, in the nineteenth century, manual laborers were generally employed “by the day,” ensuring maximum flexibility in their employment) that the worker spends working, thus activating his labor-power under conditions imposed on him by the entrepreneur. This working day is ideally represented in the form of a segment that can be broken down into its elements, which, according to Marx’s analysis, correspond to two distinct periods of time: one devoted to “necessary labor” (notwendige Arbeit) and the other to “surplus labor” (Mehrarbeit). Necessary labor is labor undertaken to produce a quantity of value equivalent to that required for the maintenance of labor-power as Arbeitskraft: it is this value that is effectively paid by the wage given to the worker in exchange for the right to exploit his labor-power, even though the result of this exploitation represents a value that is not the same as that remunerated by the wage. Surplus labor formally corresponds to the other part of the day during which the worker performs tasks that are not remunerated by his wage, since they produce a quantity of value exceeding that necessary to maintain his labor-power, a quantity of value that, consequently, within the framework of the performance of the labor process where Vermögenskraft is employed, represents the productive activity whose exploitation releases a surplus value, Mehrwert. One must not however lose sight of the fact that this division of the working day into two periods, represented by sub-segments following each other on a single line, has a purely theoretical significance. Only for the purposes of formally calculating the rate of exploitation of labor-power is it assumed that the worker, in performing necessary labor, works for himself until a certain hour of the day, and beyond this limit, for the exclusive benefit of his employer; in reality, from the first hour to the last – every moment the worker activates his labor-power – his time is composed of fixed proportions of necessary labor and surplus labor, whose borderline is not clearly discernible. This is made possible by the fact that, quite unbeknownst to the worker, who has no way of knowing when he is still and when he is no longer working for himself, his labor-power is simultaneously exploited in its dual aspect: as Arbeitskraft, whose value is measured by the quantity of labor necessary to produce it; and as Vermögenskraft, whose value is measured by the quantity of labor that it is capable of producing. This being said, Marx introduces the capital distinction between absolute surplus value (to which the third section of Volume I of Capital is devoted) and relative surplus value (to which the fourth section is devoted, that is to say, the part of the text that particularly interested Foucault for reasons yet to be specified) on the basis of this formal division, and to simplify its proof.

Thus, let the working day be a line (with a direction, as it represents the passage of time in a certain direction) divided into two parts which are meant to succeed one another:

working day222 (1)

The capitalist has an interest in changing the proportions between the two quantities of time (represented above) in his favor; wherein the first segment (A), if it costs him nothing because the value is fully contained in the product he keeps, it also brings in nothing, while only the second segment (B) represents a profit for him, because he does not need to invest the quantity of value represented by the payment of a wage to have at his disposal the goods this segment produces. To succeed in changing the relationship between these two elements, A and B, in his favor, the capitalist can take two courses of action according: lengthen the sub-segment on the right of the diagram, which interests him because it yields a profit, either by extending it to the right (thereby producing absolute surplus value), or by shortening it to the left, thereby reducing the length of the first segment (and producing relative surplus value).

Concretely, the first solution consists in extending the length of the vital part of the day, devoted to the performance of productive tasks, as far as possible, by postponing the end of the working day: the worker, instead of working a total amount of time, X, will work X+X’, then X+X’+X’’, etc…for example, if we take 12 hours of work activity as a starting point, then 14 hours, 16, 18, etc …This tendential increase, however, encounters a natural limit: the astronomical day has a fixed duration of 24 hours. If the capitalist could further prolong this length of time and therefore find the technical procedure allowing it to last for (why not?) 26 hours or 28 hours instead of 24 hours, enabling him to produce more absolute surplus value, he would not hesitate one second; but this procedure has not yet been discovered (he might pull it off by sending his workers to work on another planet without changing their conditions of pay; but the transport costs might burn a hole in his pocket, making the operation unprofitable). On the other hand, regardless of this natural obstacle, regrettably insuperable, the tendency toward the increased production of absolute surplus value encounters two limits: if the capitalist wants to fully profit from the worker’s labor-power for at least the period paid for by the wage, he must also concede a break period of non-work, devoted not to unproductive leisure but to recuperation, and more generally to procedures of maintenance and renewal of this labor-power: to eating, perhaps to procreation, and in this case to have some time to devote to his children, since if he did not do so, his capacities would be rapidly exhausted (as intensive agriculture may, beyond certain limits, exhaust the soil’s yield) and then the colorful expression that “the worker works himself to death” would no longer be just a metaphor. The capitalist who employs this labor-power must take into account the fact that it wears down and that its power would completely dissipate unless given time, even a minimum amount, to restore itself. The tendency toward the increase in production of absolute surplus value encounters another limit, namely the resistance generated by the employer’s insatiability, which pushes him to go ever further in this direction, and thus to continually increase, little by little, the length of labor time: at a certain point, the workers, who are always asked to do more, and realizing that enough is enough, understand that it is in their interest to unite to advance their demands. This terrifies the capitalist because for his enterprise of extracting surplus value to produce maximum returns, he must be able to deal with the workers who appear before him as individual workers, whose divisions he can exploit – not as a group, which would increase their capacity to resist. When it assumes a collective form, this workers’ resistance carries the additional inconvenience of becoming public: the capitalist hates publicity! He especially does not want people shoving their noses in his business, which he means to carry on as he pleases! And what really perturbs and infuriates him is when the workers’ demands, after obtaining a measure of publicity and official status, are taken up by public bodies and institutions. Lo and behold, the idea of legally regulating working hours appears, in particular the limitation of child labor, a process that once set in motion expands to include adolescent and adult labor. Then inspectors, who do not necessarily share the businessman’s point of view, and (how narrow-minded! how naive!) claiming that all they are doing is enforcing the law, begin to visit the workshops, make reports, record violations, levy fines, etc., etc. – intolerable from the businessman’s perspective, because as owner of his company, he is resolved to remain master of his own house and rejects out of hand any external control over his activities. The lengthy tenth chapter in the third part of Volume I of Capital on “The Working Day” (Chapter 10 of the French edition translated by Joseph Roy under Marx’s direction) provides abundant (and terrifying) documentation relating to this theme, which Engels had already used in 1845 to write his book on The Condition of the Working Class in England (After the Observations of the Author and Authentic Sources), one of the foundational texts of what would later be called the “sociology of work.” The current controversy around the issue of the 35-hour week demonstrates that this chapter of workers’ struggles is not yet closed, and that the capitalists have not given up on squeezing a maximum of absolute surplus value from the exploitation of labor-power, while deploring the concessions to which they been forced to very reluctantly submit due to the balance of forces; but they always remain hopeful that they can renege on these concessions whenever the opportunity arises, and specifically, that labor time can be extended (at the same wage-rate, of course).

When the possibility of increasing the production of absolute surplus value is blocked despite the capitalist’s efforts, he leaves open the option of switching sides, thus increasing the length of sub-segment B in the overall schema of the working day by stretching it, not towards the right, in the direction of the production of absolute surplus value, but towards the left, in the direction of the production of relative surplus value. How does he do this? Since he understands cost calculation, his specialty, he realizes that this operation, whose goal is to reduce to a minimum the portion of time devoted to necessary labor, is conditional on lowering the value of labor-power in the strict sense, i.e., the Arbeitskraft remunerated by the wage that pays necessary labor and nothing more. There is no other way of doing this other than by lowering the overall cost of goods, which automatically results in a decrease in the amount of value needed for the maintenance of Arbeitskraft, without this decrease being accompanied by a fall in the quantity of value created by the productive activity in the form of Verm[o]genskraft. Not only will this quantity of value not decrease, it will increase: for this to happen, less is paid for the same amount of labor time, creating more value, with this decrease and increase being strictly correlative. In other words, to increase his profit, the capitalist will capitalize on the productivity of labor-power as a “productive power” from which, in the same period of time, and with the production of absolute surplus value having been provisionally stabilized, he can extract a much greater quantity of value in the form of relative surplus value. This notion of productivity allows us to understand the capitalist mode of production by going to its very heart, that is, its vital principle, its driving force.

Labor-Power as Productive Power

What should be understood by the “productivity” of labor-power? To answer this, it is necessary to revisit the concept of “productive forces” whose significance is crucial in this respect. Here, invaluable elements of explication may be found in the Dictionnaire critique du marxisme (Critical Dictionary of Marxism), edited by Georges Labica, in Jean-Pierre Lefebvre’s article on “productive power/productive forces.”11 By productive forces in the plural, Produktivkräfte, is meant the totality of the physical and organic elements which enter into the labor process: that is, both the natural and artificial means serving production as well as bodily dispositions activated by workers to employ these means to produce material goods – the ultimate goal of craft and industrial production. When Marx’s text employs this same concept in the singular, not without a certain terminological inconsistency, Produktivkraft refers not to the elements present, whether these are raw materials, technical instruments or living bodies, but something quite different. It refers to a capacity the force has inasmuch as its reality is “dynamic” in the proper sense of the word, that is, it represents a “power,” a Vermӧgen. Dunamis, in the Aristotelian sense (Metaphysics Delta, 12) is “a source, in general, of change or movement in another thing or in the same thing qua other.” It is the expression of the tendential and continuous process through which what exists at first as “potentiality” is destined, under the right conditions, to realize itself “in action.” For example, when the art of the doctor manages to transform the sick body into a healthy body, representing a change in the state of the body, the doctor does so by exercising the specific “virtue” that applies to him and makes his art effective. From this perspective, the power is meant to represent the cause to which a change is imputed. Before this change takes place or is produced, it exists as a possibility realizing itself only when the change has taken effect, that is, when all the effects have been derived from the cause. The reference to a power assigns to this potentiality a quasi-existence, between being and non-being. For this reason it is marked by an indelible ambiguity, insofar as it “already is” that which it “is not yet,” two formulas where the verb “to be” has two different values mistaken under the same term. The capitalist exploits this ambiguity to the full: with the wage he pays labor-power for what it “already is,” as Arbeitskraft [labor-power], reserving for himself the right to use it for what it “is not yet,” as Arbeitsvermӧgen [labor-capacity], which he intends to mold according to his wishes in order to put it to work. As we have seen, the miracle that the system of wage-labor performs consists in separating power from its action by artificially creating conditions that allow a power to be considered independently from its action, as if a non-acting power, a power that would not be active, would still be a power. From the physical point of view, this is more than a mystery: it is an absurdity.

In the case of a positivist philosopher like Auguste Comte, the causalistic interpretation of power and its action is tainted with metaphysical presuppositions which render his pretention to objectively understand real phenomena perfectly vain. At best, he can only offer an approximate description of them. To say that opium puts one to sleep since it is endowed with a soporific virtue constituting its power or its proper force, from which it draws its capacity to act, does not in any way advance knowledge. This is merely to invent the fiction of a “virtue” existing independently of its actualization, and consequently preceding it so that it “would already be” before even occurring, thus without having “yet” taken place. Therefore, when rational mechanics as a branch of mathematics – which spares it the obligation of facing up to the givens of experience – employs the notion of “force” and states, as Newton did, the laws of action of forces, one must be careful not to attribute to this concept a physical reality. One should confine it to the role of an abstract concept or intellectual construction which has a demonstrative value, but certainly not an explicative one in the sense of a causal explanation. Stating that forces are causes of the motion they generate simply means saying nothing at all. This is why mechanics abandons the evaluation of forces for what they are and contents itself with calculating their “work,” represented through their real effects.

From this point of view, we could say that when the capitalist occupies himself with his workers’ labor-power, which he has acquired the right to employ in exchange for a wage, treating it as a “productive power” whose productivity he intends to increase in order to produce relative surplus value – he practices metaphysics not in a theoretical but in a practical way. He practices this peculiar sort of metaphysics not during his leisure time, as a distraction or mental exercise, as he would a crossword puzzle, but throughout the entire working day dedicated to production. By opening up his company to notions such as “power,” “capacity” and “causation,” he thereby makes them a reality, realizing these fictions, these products of the mind, which he then employs with daunting efficacy. In this way, with payrolls and charts of organizational tasks at hand, he shows, better than a philosopher’s abstract proofs, that the work of metaphysics could not be more material, provided that one knows how to put it to good use in introducing it into the factory. One could, incidentally, derive from this a new and caustic definition of metaphysics: in this rather specific context, it boils down to a mechanism for profit-making, which is no small matter. This means that, amongst other inventions that have changed the course of history, capitalism has found the means, the procedure, the “trick” enabling it to put abstract concepts into practice – the hallmark of its “genius.”

What in fact is this famous productivity attributed to labor-power in order to modify it, or rather to re-modify it? It is the “virtue” or “power” that may be ascribed to it when one begins to consider and treat it materially: as a “productive power” in the sense of a capacity to be put to work. This power is not only measurable on paper but can be modelled and modified so as to increase it. Such is effectively the goal of the rationalization of labor, which, by subordinating it to norms, and by shifting these norms, intensifies labor’s “productivity.” From this perspective, the norm not only has a constative but a performative dimension. It serves not only to determine an average state, counted as “normal,” but itself becomes “normative.” In other words, the norm acts to transform the reality to which it applies, grasps it not as it is but as it could be if one were to develop its potential. This is the theme tackled by Didier Deleule and François Guéry in their short book, The Productive Body, where they draw attention to the fact that it is not at all the same to treat labor-power as a power that produces and as a productive power.12 If the capitalist were to pay a wage to labor-power as the power that produces, he would then be formally placed under the obligation of recompensing the worker with a quantity of value equal to that effectively produced by the worker’s labor. Thus the thesis of Ricardian economics that the worker’s labor is paid at its real value would be verified. But, quite evidently, such a thing cannot be of interest to the capitalist because even if this transaction created value it would not make him any profit, or would at least force him to share with the workers he employs the surplus value created by the activation of their labor-power. If he was to confine himself to the exploitation of the labor-power of his workers measured by results, that is to what it really produces in value terms, such an approach would not generate any “growth” in his terms; that is in the sense of an increase in the value of capital, “his” capital, which he jointly owns with his shareholders, the only people he must account to for the way he manages it. That is why the labor-power he employs interests him – in the strongest sense of the word – not as a power that produces but a productive power. This creates the possibility of treating it not as an active power, which it “already is,” but as a potential power, which it “is not yet,” and as such the bearer of potentialities that one can apply pressure to and control so as to intensify them.

The notion of “living labor” thus attains a new dimension. Living labor is labor that not only produces but is productive, that is, activates labor-power as a “productive power.” Living labor produces value under conditions that can be regulated by exploiting the possibilities for change that, thanks to its plasticity and adaptability, life is so rich in. The issue of “flexibility,” so fashionable today, is at the core of this problem, which a metaphysician of the caliber of Mme. Parisot13 perfectly masters, being a metaphysician without knowing it, making her “speculation” particularly effective. Precisely because it takes labor-power not as the power that produces but as a productive power, capitalism can allow itself to treat labor-power with a maximum of flexibility since it has everything to gain by doing so. To its dying breath it rejects the rules that the law seeks to impose on it under the pretext that these rules stultify a reality it considers to be living. As such, it treats reality as malleable, in the manner of a wild animal to be tamed so that it performs amazing tricks, which at first sight one would never have thought it capable, jumps through flaming hoops, spins faster and faster in a revolving cylinder, etc., etc…In the sequences of his film Modern Times, Charles Spencer Chaplin, a metaphysician of a different class than Mme. Parisot, provides a striking illustration of the high-wire acrobatics perfected by capitalist production. There one sees his hero, Charlot, being caught in an assembly line, his body becoming so supple that, flattened by the conveyor belt, he merges and becomes indistinguishable from it. He becomes an accelerated bolt screw,14 to the point that once he gets out of the factory he neither knows nor can do anything else, which is a way of showing his “power” no longer belongs to him precisely to the extent that it has been separated from him. Of course, this management of his capacities, which makes his labor-power “productive” as suits the capitalist, has the effect of creating a new rigidity, riveting him to his assigned function. He must fulfil this function obeying norms determined for him in the strongest sense of the term. In this way, suppleness recreates rigidity. The capitalist does not content himself with being a metaphysician. He is a dialectician, he reconciles opposites, which is his way of managing the powers he exploits, not just by tracing their parallelogram in the manner of a mathematician but by forcing them to enter into the schema he has established according to his interests. This schema consists in extracting the maximum profit from the means of production at his disposal, including the labor-power of his workers – in particular by making them produce relative surplus value.

One passage in Marx’s text strikingly illustrates this. This passage, which is at the end of Chapter 12, “Division of Labor and Manufacture” (Chapter 14 of the Roy edition15 ), highlights the contrast between the form the division of labor within the factory already takes under the control of the manufacturing capitalist, therefore before the system of industrial machinofacture, and the form it takes within the wider framework of society:

While, within the workshop, the iron law of proportionality subjects definite numbers of workers to definite functions, in the society outside the workshop, the play of chance and caprice results in a motley pattern of distribution of the producers and their means of production among the various branches of social labour…Division of labor within the workshop implies the undisputed authority of the capitalist over men, who are merely the members of a total mechanism which belongs to him. The division of labour within society brings into contact independent producers of commodities, who acknowledge no authority other than that of competition, of the coercion exerted by the pressure of their reciprocal interests, just as in the animal kingdom the “war of all against all” more or less preserves the conditions of existence of every species. The same bourgeois consciousness which celebrates the division of labour in the workshop, the lifelong annexation of the worker to a partial operation, and his complete subjection to capital, as an organization of labour that increases its productive power, denounces with equal vigour every conscious attempt to control and regulate the process of production socially, as an inroad upon such sacred things as the rights of property, freedom and the self-determining “genius” of the individual capitalist. It is very characteristic that the enthusiastic apologists of the factory system have nothing more damning to urge against a general organization of labour in society than that it would turn the whole of society into a factory.16

In this passage Marx pinpoints the paradox of liberal discourse, which is the warp and woof of bourgeois ideology. If the latter defends laissez-faire, deregulation, non-intervention, it does so to better establish a theory of authority, taking the form of the “lifelong annexation of the worker to a partial operation and his complete submission to capital, as an organization of labor that increases its productive power.” Therefore, a power relation underlies the treatment of labor-power not only as a power that produces, but a power with a measured productivity that can be gradually raised. It is a power imposed on the individual worker, henceforth dispossessed of all initiative in the employment of his labor-power, exploited in every sense of the word within the framework of a system of which he has become a cog. Freedom is the word the capitalist constantly repeats and demands exclusively for himself in order to turn it into a means of enslaving the working classes, whose opinion he does not ask, let alone their consent, in subjugating them to the norms of productivity which he, the apostle of freedom, has made into an “iron law.” Today, almost two centuries after the factory system was established during the first half of the 19th century, coinciding with the explosion of a frenetic capitalism, the rhetoric of the bosses has not changed one bit: freedom is my freedom, from which stems the unlimited right to enslave others, and is the condition of the production of surplus value under both of its forms, relative and absolute.

Thus it is exactly where the labor process actually takes place that a system of power and subjugation miraculously reconciling the opposing values of necessity and freedom is established through the very forms in which labor is organized, that is controlled. Once the worker has alienated the usage of his labor-power in exchange for a wage, it is as if he is split into two and becomes a divided, overdetermined subject. On the one hand, he remains the person he is, attached to his bodily existence, whose inviolable owner he rests to his death. He often drags it behind him like a burden, for he must feed it, shelter it, nurse it, reproduce it (by having children), all this most often at his own expense and on his responsibility, even when he lacks the material resources to do so. On the other hand, he is transformed into a being whose power no longer depends solely on its own conditions of existence because its usage and activation have become dependent on rules that transcend it, turning him into a productive subject. He is the bearer and owner of a labor-power divided into an Arbeitskraft which belongs to him and is his exclusive concern and an Arbeitsvermögen that may be refashioned at will; its substance, Kraft, has been made supple, flexible, so that it may be more closely annexed to the type of task assigned to the worker, at a given level of productivity. Necessity in freedom: that is the great invention of capitalism. And, in fact, it had to be invented and appropriate procedures found to put the idea into practice.

This system of power, which dissolves the opposition between necessity and freedom, is of a particular kind, specific to the epoch of the industrial revolution and the type of society it establishes, which is, in Foucault’s terminology, a society of norms. This system presupposes a complete redefinition of the very notion of power. Namely, for it to work, for the dialectical miracle to happen, the relationship it establishes must not appear as a power on high whose authority consists in the realization of an external order and therefore has the character of a formal constraint that is above all repressive and negative. Quite the contrary, the project of normalization, consisting in the organization of work so as to increase its productivity and thereby the production of relative surplus value, is defined by fact that its intervention must not appear as a command out of the blue. Rather it must be hand in glove with the living reality, with “labor-power” as the “productive power” which it seeks to control and succeeds in inhabiting so as to possess it in its very being. From this perspective, it appears a genuine creation corresponding to the passage to a second nature.

The term second nature designates a necessarily equivocal, ambiguous plane of reality which is a nature without actually being one and has the paradoxical character of a nature that is not “natural.” Hence it is a nature not given as such but produced, created, constructed from top to bottom, suited to become “productive,” flexible, transformable, to comply with the objectives of growth. Itself the product of change, it is always open to change, resulting in an order whose persistence is asserted in the principle of change. Therefore, what we have here is an unstable condition which, in the absence of a base or foundation or purpose to secure it, derives its very substance from its instability. It represents the same through the figure of the other, permanence in the form of novelty. That great practical metaphysician Mme Parisot might well adopt Nietzsche’s dictum according to which “man is the not yet determined animal” (das noch nicht festgestellte Tier). The meaning of this saying lies entirely in the “not yet” (noch nict), indicating the fundamental precariousness of a form of existence in search of its realization, towards which it does not cease to strive precisely in so far as it never attains it. Arguably, if the human, together with human labor-power whose employment constitutes living labor, belongs to second nature, it is because everything in its “nature” or alleged nature is potentially “secondary”; that is, not strictly speaking derived but having an absolutely secondary character that cannot be related to any base or foundation. Therefore, a procedure of expropriation, going beyond the alternative of perfect order and pure disorder, lies behind the topic of second nature. This procedure represents an uncertain mixture of order and disorder that is perpetually flexible and open to manipulation, always ready to tip the scales in a literally never-ending back and forth, searching not above but below, always plumbing the depths of the unrealized, of the “not yet fixed” where the idea of “productivity” takes on its full meaning.17

What is it that allows second nature to present itself as “a” nature even though it is no longer “a” nature or “of” nature? It is the fact that it guides human behavior without ever appearing to consciousness as its governing principle, this being the main condition of its efficacy. It operates under the guise of spontaneity. To belong to second nature is to live under compulsion while accepting this condition as self-evident, hence from the outset refusing to question its raison d’être, the ends it serves and the specific limits placed on these ends. This is, broadly speaking, what Bourdieu sought to analyse using the concept of habitus, and Foucault that of discipline. When he puts forward the concept of habitus,18 Bourdieu resists the temptation to put it under the heading of doctrines of “voluntary servitude.” In his opinion these make the mistake of reintroducing a certain measure of reflexivity into the adoption or acceptance of a type of behavior that is acquired without even being aware of it and followed mechanically, so to speak naturally, except that this “natural” belongs not to first but to second nature. In a similar spirit, Foucault refuses to conceive of discipline as an order or injunction descending from the soul into the body: for discipline is only established at the level of the body and its acknowledged powers through a process of trial and error, relying on disciplining strategies which, as far their functioning is concerned, do not obey any determinate finality that can be consciously understood. This is the sense of the definition of discipline put forward in the lecture “The Mesh of Power”:

Discipline is basically the mechanism of power by which we come to exert control in the social body right down to the finest elements, by which we succeed in grabbing hold of the social atoms themselves, which is to say individuals. Techniques for the individualization of power. How to supervise [surveiller] someone, how to control his conduct, his behavior, his aptitudes, how to intensify his performance, multiply his capacities, how to put him in a place where he will be most useful: this is what I mean by discipline.19

When Foucault speaks, as he does here, of “the mechanism by which we come to exert control,” a formulation which seems to confuse the positions of the one who analyzes the system and the one who makes it function for his own benefit – and not about “the mechanism by which control is exerted,” which would amount to separating out these positions – he doubtless wishes to indicate that the existence of such a system is consubstantial with what he elsewhere calls “the ontology of present,” in the sense of a present which cannot but be ours and thus coincide with our historical epoch. The disciplinary mechanism imposes itself as something that appears natural precisely at the level our actuality, to which it is strictly adapted as only a technology aiming at efficiency can be. It is not self-evident that it should be observed from a distance and reduced to its guiding principle, which is what Marx in a tour de force nevertheless managed to achieve.

Consequently, subjection to the order or disorder of second nature, according to the specific procedures of a discipline or habitus, eliminates the formality of reasoned and conscious assent: but this is to be subjected without any objection to the rule of “it is so,” ruling out any prospect of reflection and critical distance, the bases of contestation. What we have here is a form of subjection that creates a corresponding subject by recreating it ab initio and entirely, denying it any prior, preconstituted reality preceding its imposition. When it functions under these conditions, command transcends the alternative of violence and consensus, as Foucault explains in his essay “The Subject and Power”:

The exercise of power may well inspire as much acceptance as one would like: it can pile up the dead and hide itself behind whatever threats it can imagine. In itself the exercise of power is not a violence which sometimes hides, nor is it an implicitly renewed consent. It is a set of actions upon possible actions; it operates in the field of possibility where the behavior of acting subjects is inscribed: it incites, it induces, it seduces, it makes easier or more difficult, it enlarges or limits, it renders more or less probable; in the extreme it constrains or forbids absolutely; but it is nevertheless always a way of acting upon an acting subject or acting subjects by virtue of their acting or being capable of action…to govern in this sense is to structure the possible field of action of others.20

The new power established in this way is one exercised not on real, already accomplished actions, but on possible ones whose implementation it anticipates by “structuring the field of possible action” in which the latter will take place. This field of possible action is precisely what constitutes second nature, whose subjects are configured so as to respond to what is expected of them without any need either to persuade or force them. For they themselves are “possible” subjects, assembled from birth and trained so as to be more easily governed, that is, from the perspective of our return to Marx, economically “productive.” Homo oeconomicus, whose integration is accomplished by this structure, is a fiction in that its reality or “nature” is completely fabricated as a second nature; but this fiction necessarily became real from the historical moment when it became part of the functioning of the mechanisms it blindly serves.

It should now be clear why Bourdieu and Foucault converge in dismissing the reference to ideology, which purports to place between people, their natural dispositions, and the historical forms within which these are exploited an intermediate layer occupied by ideal representations located in the spirit. From this point of view, the Althusserian theory of the ideological interpellation of individuals into subjects is inappropriate and is diagnosed as the return of a rampant spiritualism. For them, the procedure of subjection takes place entirely at the level of the body as an act of penetration or possession which neither corresponds to any recognizable goals of its own nor requires the mediation of any word, good or bad, because it becomes identical with the course of its reproduction. And it should be acknowledged that if the procedure by which the power that produces is transformed into a productive power finds its justification in the ideology of growth which intellectually reunites the outcome of the procedure in the discourse of the capitalist who has himself, little by little, and blindly, developed this same procedure, not knowing exactly where he was going: then this ideology, which intervenes after the fact and takes the form of a secondary elaboration whose role is to justify recuperation, has at best only an auxiliary value. It does not play any direct role in the operation through which this transformation takes place, a transformation that cannot be reduced to a language game. It does not make the decision. For the system of wage-labor – with its specific type of subjection that conditions the existence of the productive subject and not only the subject that produces – to work it is not necessary for ideas and words to be prime movers. What is required are technological and institutional mechanisms which comprehensively refashion the status of the living beings subject to this regime, that is the complex totality of the procedures which Foucault groups together under the concept of “biopower.” Such a power is exercised and produces its effects on the rhythm of life itself which, having taken over, it strives to recreate ab initio. When the capitalist hires productive subjects –the bearers of a two-sided labor-power, both Arbeitskraft and Arbeitsvermögen, a division that enables him to extract surplus value in its two forms, absolute, by extending the length of the working day, and relative, by lowering the cost of goods through raising productivity – he does not have to act the smooth-talking salesman and convince them of the reasonableness of this division. This division appears to them, that is the productive subjects they have become, an established fact that they do not have the choice of accepting or refusing. Bourdieu is right to claim that their servitude is by no means voluntary simply because there is no need, or even possibility, for it to be so considered to be accepted.21

In establishing second nature as part of the process of making labor-power “productive,” capitalism has as it were dissolved ideology in economy, in the sense of both the system of material production and the methods that organize it so as to extract maximum profit at minimum loss. One of those methods, according to Foucault, is the disciplinary system which he defines in general as follows:

Generally speaking, it might be said that the disciplines are techniques for assuring the ordering of human multiplicities. It is true that there is nothing exceptional or even characteristic in this; every system of power is presented with the same problem. But the peculiarity of the disciplines is that they try to define in relation to the multiplicities a tactics of power that fulfils three criteria: firstly, to obtain the exercise of power at the lowest possible cost (economically, by the low expenditure it involves; politically, by its discretion, its low exteriorization, its relative invisibility, the little resistance it arouses); secondly, to bring the effects of this social power to their maximum intensity and to extend them as far as possible, without either failure or interval; thirdly, to link this “economic” growth of power with the output of the apparatuses (educational, military, industrial or medical) within which it is exercised; in short, to increase both the docility and the utility of all the elements of the system.22

Foucault clearly indicates here that this disciplinary economy applies not to individuals taken separately but to “multiplicities.” It is precisely by incorporating individual lives into such multiplicities, “masses,” that it manages to “economize” their usage in a way that, amongst other savings, obviates the need for ideological representations. The latter weigh in, if at all, only after the event, when the job is already done, having no influence over its course, a course already mapped out by second nature, with little chance of deviation and none of renegotiation.

At first sight, such a situation seems hopeless. If there is at best still some room left for a change in consciousness, it comes only after the fact, hence too late for the problem to be discussed and negotiated. Does this mean that the new figure of power – a horizontal power, close to the ground, insidious, which never has to admit its true nature because it has the advantage of appearing self-evident and spontaneous – wipes out any possibility of resistance? No, but only on condition that our understanding of resistance is completely revised. This revision would dismiss the idea of a global resistance, planned and initiated from the start from a center; and because it is based on a clear understanding of the situation, draws its efficacy from its ability to develop a coherent discourse of justification. Snared in the “mesh“ of the new power, which catches it so to speak at source in its everyday existence, the productive subject can rely only on mobile points of scattered resistance that are initially blind and uncoordinated. The instability of the conjuncture associated with the ambiguity of second nature, which is a mixture of order and disorder, opens an indefinable space for such points of resistance. Rather than adopt a project of permanent rupture corresponding to the formula “class against class” – a striking example being the ideological theme of the revolutionary moment of truth, all the more striking because it is divorced from reality – the productive subject finds a way to oppose the system that captures him from birth and constitutes the key to his subjection, a subjection that makes him a split subject. He does so by engaging in partial struggles, most often improvised, making the most of those occasions when the underlying ambiguities and contradictions of the system, whose trace cannot be completely erased, come to the fore. There is no recourse against biopower, at least in the beginning, save in forms of bio-resistance that, without illusions and with the energy of despair, exploit its weaknesses as much as possible. They do so postponing the synthesis, the provisional reunification of these dispersed initiatives even if it means taking up the problem from scratch when the opportunity arises. Therefore, the productive subject is left with plural strategies, whose threads he is in no hurry to gather into general programmes. The latter are necessarily misleading if they claim to definitively resolve the question with which they are confronted, a question whose clear and rational perception emerges only gradually without promises or guarantees. The best thing for the worker, when pressured to be always more productive, is to follow the very path taken by the capitalist to establish the system of exploitation from which he hopes to extract the maximum profit. Namely, he must proceed by trial and error, step by step, so as to establish little by little, against the technologies of power that have taken control of his very existence, technologies of resistance that strive where possible to loosen this grip. It is therefore in the very process of production, where the employer deploys various figures of authority, that the subjugated worker comes to fight and oppose the authority which has succeeded in penetrating the innermost recesses of his being. This struggle and this opposition, however, have no chance of success if they are waged individually. That is why they have to be taken in charge by workers’ associations, mainly by what are today called unions, that organize their protests down to the last detail and subordinate them to more and more collaborative and coordinated planning in such a way as to rid them of the unfinished character to which they are condemned as long as they remain spontaneous.

The New Power and Forms of Authority Developed Within the Labor Process Itself

From the above we can see why Foucault was particularly interested in the passages of Capital which highlight figures of authority that are closely bound up with the labor process and represent the advent of the new form of power. It is possible in particular to re-read the few pages concerning cooperation of the eleventh chapter (Chapter 13 of Joseph Roy’s translation) of the fourth section of the first book of Capital where some specific modalities of the integration of power relations with the labor process are examined: a trick the capitalist employs, like a magician, to overcome the opposition between freedom and necessity to his advantage.

The first condition of this integration is provided by the assembly of workers in the same place of work, not only next to but together with each other:

A large number of workers working together, at the same time, in one place (or, if you like, in the same field of labour, auf dem selben Arbeitsfeld), in order to produce the same sort of commodity under the command of the same capitalist, constitutes the starting point of capitalist production. This is true both historically and conceptually.23

This assembly in the same “field” where their operations are to be coordinated has a direct impact on the way the workers set their labor-power in motion:

Even without an alteration in the method of work, the simultaneous employment of a large number of workers produces a revolution in the objective conditions of the labour process.24

According to the proverb, “unity is strength,” a power resulting not only from the addition of associated elements but from their combination, which by synthesising them creates a new power whose productive potential is increased both quantitatively and qualitatively:25

Just as the offensive power of a squadron of cavalry, or the defensive power of an infantry regiment, is essentially different from the sum of the offensive or defensive powers of the individual soldiers taken separately, so the sum total of the mechanical forces exerted by isolated workers differs from the social force that is developed when many hands co-operate in the same undivided operation, such as raising a heavy weight, turning a winch or getting an obstacle out of the way. In such cases the effect of the combined labour could either not be produced at all by isolated individual labour, or it could be produced only by a great expenditure of time, or on a very dwarf-like scale. Not only do we have here an increase in the productive power of the individual, by means of co-operation, but the creation of a new productive power, which is intrinsically a collective one.26

The combined working day produces a greater quantity of use values than an equal sum of isolated working days, and consequently diminishes the labour-time necessary for the production of a given useful effect. Whether the combined working day, in a given case, acquires this increased productivity because it heightens the mechanical force of labour, or extends its sphere of action over a greater space, or contracts the field of production relatively to the scale of production, or at the critical moment sets large masses of labour to work, or excites rivalry between individuals and raises their animal spirits, or impresses on the similar operations carried on by a number of men the stamp of continuity and many-sidedness, or performs different operations simultaneously, or economizes the means of production by use in common, or lends to individual labour the character of average social labour – whichever of these is the cause of the increase, the special productive power of the combined working day is, under all circumstances, the social productive power of labour, or the productive power of social labour. This power arises from co-operation itself.27

In particular, once it became a part of this collective power individual labor-power changed its nature, making it calculable according to different parameters. It has ceased to be this or that power whose character is specifically determined by the bodily existence of its owner. As explained, it has become labor-power, even social labor-power, measurable according to unified criteria, enabling the planning, the rationalization of its application in order to increase its productivity, a notion applied to labor-power in general, termed social labor-power, before being extended to the particular labor-power of individuals. The main aspect of this change is constituted by the appearance of, what Marx calls, “the average working day.” At the end of the nineteenth century Taylor will take up this concept when talking of “the loyal working day,” the basic unit of his system of rational work organization. Like Quetelet’s “average man,” this average working day is an abstraction since it never actually completely coincides with the concrete activity of any given worker united in the same field of work, for whom this notion at best functions as a benchmark, a program to fulfill, presupposing a certain margin of approximation or error. But for the capitalist, this abstraction is no longer exactly an abstraction inasmuch as he takes it into account in the calculations according to which he manages his enterprise. In effect, work for him exists only as the result of the employment of a “collective power,” and is defined as such in his accounts. Asserting his authority, he strives to translate this power into reality in his workshops where workers are brought to work together and not separately, each by and/or for himself.

Let us note in passing that, beyond the transformations that cooperation stamps upon the productive consumption of labor-power ‒ which thereby becomes a “collective power” – the characteristic of the new type of society, whose establishment coincides with the industrial revolution and which Foucault calls “the society of norms,” is the, so to speak, mass28 assembly and management of its subjects. Thanks to analytic tools such as statistics and probability calculus – previously unknown to the state administration– it has become possible to evaluate collective performance not on the scale of isolated cases but of large numbers, and from there to anticipate the development of this performance and to adjust its course with the aim of improving productivity. Instead of being carried out on an ad hoc basis, in a disorganized way, individual actions are in some way anticipated, prepared, prefigured by the global system within which they occur, thereby influencing their outcome. One of the aspects of this change is represented by the transformation of agents of production into productive subjects which fundamentally modifies the conditions in which their work is done. In terms of work results, productive subjects must now meet programmed expectations over which they have lost control. The objectives they must achieve are determinable prior to the process charged with accomplishing them. What is decisive in this regard is that one has begun to think in terms of possibilities that can be defined independently of their implementation. In general, “powers” are sought out even beyond the limits of the field of manufacture or industrial production. These powers have the status of virtual realities which are imparted in advance with capacities that have only to be actualized by conforming to the models prescribed to them.

In a society of norms everything is programmed or can be programmed. The behavior of each individual compelled to take his place in a process that is molded in such a way loses the character of individual actions possessing an intrinsic value. It is listed, catalogued, formatted according to functional criteria that are not up for discussion and impose themselves by claiming to be self-evident. In such a collective way of life which is, as we already observed in relation to industrial production, metaphysics in action, one could say, in fact, that essence precedes existence. The order established following this type of procedure is binding but exerts its constraints more smoothly, insidiously, precisely because it takes the subjects to which it is applied at the very source, anticipating their behavior, preparing and leading them towards their goal by incorporating itself into their conduct. When their behavior does not comply with set objectives they are penalized with rejection, sidelined without any need for formal sanction. In this respect, we can speak of conditioning by a norm which no longer depends on obedience to external commands, for like what we previously called “second nature,” it has become completely immanent to the processes it affects as it completes them. In this way, the new politics of “populations” of which Foucault speaks is propagated, a politics that is simultaneously and inseparably an economics since, in the last instance, it is at the level of the economy that the new challenges of power are defined, from which new figures of subjection follow.

These remarks allow us to better grasp the scope and limits of the concept of “the disciplinary society,” on which Foucault from the outset based his explanation of the nature of the new type of power established during the second half of the 18th century within the specific framework of liberal society. The usage of this concept, introduced by Foucault in 1975 in Discipline and Punish, encounters a basic problem. Does describing a certain type of a society as “disciplinary” mean attributing to it an organizing principle, “discipline,” that applies equally to all its aspects and consequently determines it in its very being, more precisely in its “disciplinary being?” This issue is raised by Stéphane Legrand in his article, “Le marxisme oublié de Foucault,” which warns against the essentialist and reductive syncretism of the notion of discipline under which Foucault sometimes seems to subsume mutually heterogeneous forms of subjection, reducing these to a single process for which “discipline” always provides the model: “One wonders, how is it that this same schema can be used to produce training, military prowess, productivity at work, hospital treatment?”29 In the same spirit, we could question the relevance of the concept of “norm” when it lays claim to an explanatory value in itself. However, it is clear that when Foucault talks about the “society of norms” – if this formula means anything and can be taken seriously – it is not in reference to the ideal model of a society of the norm but to a reality of a completely different order, to a complex and differentiated game of norms, a notion that is at any rate better to employ only in the plural. Otherwise one risks attributing to different norms, coexisting at a given moment and potentially confronting each other in the same historical social formation, a single purpose relating to the specific power of a norm in itself, considered both as an essence and as a cause. When, in Discipline and Punish, Foucault talks about “discipline” in the singular (as he does when he gives this title to the third part of the book) he takes precisely this risk and even appears to make matters worse when he presents the panoptic schema not as a particular example but as a sort of model that, starting from the specific case of the prison, can be universally applied, to other disciplinary institutions like the army, school, workshop, hospital, etc…The notion of discipline, like that of “norm,” can only serve as an effective analytic tool if it ceases to be reduced to the abstract presupposition of a convergence of its forms of application and is instead directed towards the interaction of these forms in a context where their content is exposed to perpetual renegotiation. Analogously, if one presents the intervention of norms in the social order by reducing it to a program of “rationalization” formulated with reference to the principle of a reason entirely constituted a priori in itself, one erases at once the historical and thus conjunctural character of this intervention.30

This general objection is not the only one that we can make to the notion of the “disciplinary society.” If the society of norms was nothing but a society of discipline, this would mean that the only point of application for its mechanisms would be behavior, and more specifically individual bodily behaviors whose reform is precisely their objective. However, what characterizes the society of norms is precisely that it does not treat individuals as such but as elements forming larger groups, the type formed by populations. Thanks to this move, it is capable of “governing” them in the very specific meaning that Foucault imparts to this notion, that is, to use a formula we have already encountered, “structuring the field of their possible action.” When Marx speaks of the “field of labor (Arbeitsfeld),” where the capitalist organizes the production of surplus value under his command, he aims precisely at something of this kind. Within such a “field,” the workers have ceased to exist as individuals and become productive subjects, totally immersed in the “collective power,” that is in a collective body outside of which they no longer have a reality of their own.

Let us bring this digression to an end and return to the analysis of new modes of the labor process, in so far as they rest upon the consumption of a collective power, thus enabling the increase of its productivity. Thanks to the unification of individual powers into a collective power, the capitalist is now in a position to exert strict control not only over the results of the labor process, hence over its product as dead labor (Werk, travail, work), but also over its course as the application of living labor (Arbeit, travail, labor). The change in scale thus provokes a modification in the nature of labor. In the beginning the exploitation/extortion of surplus value applies to the individual worker, forced to work not for himself but for another. As exploitation becomes integrated with and “massifes” the operation of the labor process, it comes to apply to the collective worker who performs labor in common, social labor whose organization it now takes in charge:

We also saw that, at first, the command of capital over labour (das Kommando des Kapitals über die Arbeit) was only a formal result of the fact that the worker, instead of working for himself, works for, and consequently under, the capitalist. Through the co-operation of numerous wage-labourers, the command of capital develops into a requirement for carrying on the labour process itself, into a real condition of production. That a capitalist should command in the field of production is now as indispensable as that a general should command on the field of battle. All directly social or communal labour on a large scale requires, to a greater or lesser degree, a directing authority, in order to secure the harmonious co-operation of the activities of individuals, and to perform the general functions that have their origin in the motion of the total productive organism, as distinguished from the motion of its separate organs. A single violin player is his own conductor: an orchestra requires a separate one. The work of directing, supervision and mediation becomes one of the functions of capital, from the moment that the labour under capital’s control becomes co-operative. As a specific function of capital, the directing function acquires its own special characteristics.31

Marx here makes two comparisons in order to explain how the capitalist “directs” the exploitation of labor-power; on the one hand, with the army general, and on the other, with the conductor of an orchestra. These comparisons become even more interesting once further parallels have been drawn between them. The orchestra represents modalities of cooperation conforming primarily to technical objectives; and the army modalities of cooperation involving a vertical, hierarchical structure which organizes joint action by transmitting orders and checking that they are followed in practice, that is obeyed. In line with these two models, a system of authority combining several functions is established: directing, supervision and mediation, as enumerated by Marx in this passage. Direction is the very first form of authority which consists in giving impetus to a movement by prescribing it an unified orientation from which it must not deviate. It establishes the principle of simplification, reducing diversity to homogeneity. The very first task the conductor must ensure instrumentalists respect is that they play together, and not each for himself according to whim. Under the command of its general, communicated through its “daily orders,” an army must march “as one man,” leaving no space for deviant behavior and eliminating in advance rebels or protesters who have no choice but to exit a game in which they no longer belong. However, this direct form of authority, which is exercised far and wide, is not enough: left to itself it risks remaining a dead letter. That is why it must be circulated and in a way cashed in, distributed. Besides a higher authority that in the last instance gives the orders, this presupposes mediating bodies that supervise their application in detail, checking that the smallest individual acts conform to common rules and respect the norms. For this reason, instead of being uniformly communicated from center to periphery, authority expands through the countless channels of a complex organization, thus becoming sufficiently flexible to adapt itself to all aspects of productive activity without exception: in other words, it diversifies. However, to avoid diversification turning into dispersion, flexibility into a factor of disorder, it is necessary, moreover, that the multiplicity of mediating bodies, which concretely enact authority in such a way that it penetrates the most minute details of the labor process, are not left to themselves but are kept to the overall perspective they must obey and from which they must not be detached. Thus, they are reduced to the status of “mediations” chained to one another. Once again, the hierarchical model of the army is foregrounded. Its aides de camp, officers, N.C.O.s, martinets and minions of all kinds ensure that power, instead of residing only at the head, is present at all points of the organization, even the most minute, where it is reproduced, “represented” to the extent that it is assigned a place within the system in which it participates and on which it depends. In such an organization, there is not, on the one side, power, and on the other, opposite it, those it dominates, but a complex network whose proliferating intermediary links occupy positions that are at the same time those of dominant and dominated. Here obeying and commanding are no longer alternative functions but combine to the point where they can no longer be distinguished from one another, which means that those occupying these places obey by commanding. In this way, the operations of direction-supervision-mediation, which enable the organization of the labor process to produce the maximum relative surplus value, are based on this organization, which becomes thoroughly entangled in the “meshes of power” from which it can no longer escape. Foucault took up this idea in summary fashion in his Discipline and Punish:

Surveillance thus becomes a decisive economic operator both as an internal part of the production machinery and as a specific mechanism in the disciplinary power.32

In a footnote, Foucault cites the end of the passage of Chapter 13 (Chapter 11 of the original German edition) of the Roy translation of Capital that we have just commented on.33

In this regard, one can speak of a generalization of authority, which as it extends becomes immanent to the process of its realization, with which it fully merges. Paradoxically, this generalization, which in the beginning follows a pattern of homogenization, leads to an operation of specification or specialization, thus granting relative autonomy to the mediating instances that we have just been discussing:

If capitalist direction is thus twofold in content, owing to the twofold nature of the process of production which has to be directed-on the one hand a social labour process for the creation of a product, and on the other hand capital’s process of valorization – in form it is purely despotic (despotisch). As co-operation extends its scale, this despotism (Despotismus) develops the forms that are peculiar to it. Just as at first the capitalist is relieved from actual labour as soon as his capital has reached that minimum amount with which capitalist production, properly speaking, first begins, so now he hands over the work of direct and constant supervision of the individual workers and groups of workers to a special kind of wage-labourer. An industrial army of workers under the command of a capitalist requires, like a real army, officers (managers) and N.C.O.s (foremen, overseers), who command during the labour process in the name of capital. The work of supervision becomes their established and exclusive function.34

In order to adhere to the operation of the labor process, the command of capital follows it in the double sense of guiding and supervising it, step by step, in such a way that the pressure that command exerts is permanent and the chances of discrepancy or loss are kept to a minimum. Consequently, mass production refines the forms of the division of labor, separating out functions corresponding to activities that are not directly productive and perform this role of guidance and supervision. The idea of supervision, as Foucault has shown, notably in the studies devoted to disciplinary procedures, is part and parcel of the functioning of the society of norms. What specifically does the supervision of activities mean? It means that activities should not only be controlled afterwards in terms of their effects or results but supervised at source even before they have begun to take effect. The system of supervision has primarily a preventive role, acts as a deterrent. It prefigures the ends it seeks to enforce and is the more effective as it has no need to intervene in the activities with sanctions or punishment. This is exactly the function assigned to managerial staff whose authority, precisely because it fulfils a supervisory function, operates in close contact with the labor process, which it “follows” step by step and even precedes, directing the latter in a such a way as to leave no margin of deviation or error. Thanks to these intermediaries, the command of capital spreads throughout the productive body, throughout the collective power of social labor, taking full control using different channels whose organizational structure it has mastered. This is the precondition for its spreading without diluting. On the contrary, it is all the stronger for employing this multiplicity of channels which refine its distribution.

This distribution, ending up with the diversification of control and supervision tasks, is eventually accomplished by the separation of manual and intellectual labor, that is labor which is not satisfied with just “doing” the job or working but in return reflects upon it. This reflection on the organization of the labor process, which aims to set in motion the new collective power created by cooperation, is accomplished both at a distance and in close proximity, on an ad hoc basis and uninterruptedly. Freed from material, that is manual forms of labor, intellectual labor of different levels of graduation provides itself with the means to intervene all the time and everywhere. The first to free himself from the process of production properly speaking – that is the productive consumption of labor power – is the capitalist or boss. From his office, he pulls all the strings, takes important decisions, defines company strategy. In his train, little by little, all those he needs to transmit his orders and make sure they are correctly applied become detached or rather specialized in the “supervision” of the work of others – messengers, inspectors, security personnel, drill sergeants of every shape and stripe, to whom he delegates a part of his authority so as to consolidate its extension.

In this respect, we can talk about an economy of power which is simultaneously a conservation of power. Authority is managed like a material power, thereby reinforcing its effectiveness, whose measure in the last instance is the maximum production of profit. Let us cite in this connection a final passage from the chapter of Capital on cooperation, which summarizes its gains:

The worker is the owner of his labour-power until he has finished bargaining for its sale with the capitalist, and he can sell no more than what he has – i.e. his individual, isolated labour-power. This relation between capital and labour is in no way altered by the fact that the capitalist, instead of buying the labour-power of one man, buys that of 100, and enters into separate contracts with 100 unconnected men instead of with one. He can set the 100 men to work, without letting them co-operate. He pays them the value of 100 independent labour-powers, but he does not pay for the combined labour-power of the 100. Being independent of each other, the workers are isolated. They enter into relations with the capitalist, but not with each other. Their co-operation only begins with the labour process, but by then they have ceased to belong to themselves. On entering the labour process they are incorporated into capital. As co-operators, as members of a working organism, they merely form a particular mode of existence of capital. Hence the productive power developed by the worker socially is the productive power of capital. The socially productive power of labour develops as a free gift to capital whenever the workers are placed under certain conditions, and it is capital which places them under these conditions. Because this power costs capital nothing, while on the other hand it is not developed by the worker until his labour itself belongs to capital, it appears as a power which capital possesses by its nature – a productive power inherent in capital.35

This brings us back to the analyses presented at the beginning of this essay. What the capitalist buys and pays with a wage – under the terms of the labor contract, which is an exchange between parties free and equal in law – is the possibility of using the labor-power of each individual producer for a certain time within the spatial limits of his firm. But, in reality, what he exploits in order to extract a surplus value that he appropriates in full is a general productive power that is more than the sum of individual labor-powers, and which consequently he obtains gratis. This general productive power – that, in Marx’s words, “capital possesses by its nature, a productive power inherent in capital” – is the specific result of cooperation which inserts individual activities into the collective labor process as it is performed under the command of capital, corresponding to productivity norms that have literally seized hold of these activities by placing them under control and supervision. The authority the capitalist exercises in this context is legitimate, therefore legally unassailable, for it rests on an exchange based on rules mutually agreed by the contracting parties. Besides being legitimate this contract is from the point of view of the capitalist also efficient since its implementation “returns” a surplus value in the form of the production of relative surplus value that constitutes his own profit. Without any prospect of profit, unless he is a saint, which is unlikely, he would never embark on any such undertaking. This enterprise turns him into what we have proposed to call a metaphysician in action, one bringing together all the conditions required for essence to precede existence not only on paper but in reality as well. At a push, one could say that capitalist industrial production manufactures the human essence as a form of productive power in order to exploit it.

One can appreciate how much these analyses might have interested Foucault and encouraged him in his efforts to develop a new, non-juridical conception of power. These analyses make it possible to get at, what he called, the “real functioning” of power, of which the law is, at best, the ideological reverse, that is, a representation out of step with how it actually operates. However, one cannot say in the abstract that this ideology is purely and simply wrong and as such should be rejected as an illusion that it would suffice to dispel. For, in its own way, it participates in the functioning of power and contributes to its effectiveness:

Let me offer a general and tactical reason that seems self-evident: power is tolerable only on condition that it mask a substantial part of itself. Its success is proportional to its ability to hide its own mechanisms. Would power be accepted if it were entirely cynical? For it, secrecy is not in the nature of an abuse; it is indispensable to its operation. Not only because power imposes secrecy on those whom it dominates, but because it is perhaps just as indispensable to the latter: would they accept it if they did not see it as a mere limit placed on their desire, leaving a measure of freedom however slight – intact? Power as a pure limit set on freedom is, at least in our society, the general form of its acceptability.36

To be productive, power must become integrated into networks that, along with wealth-producing material goods, produce the bodies which laboriously manufacture these very goods, conforming to norms that govern their manufacture. The condition for this is that the action of power is gradual, without drawing attention or being recognized, otherwise its attempts at penetration run into points of resistance that its advance, once exposed, in turn provokes. To achieve this goal, that is to remain invisible, power uses decoys, including the inverted representation of its action provided by juridical discourse. The trick is to recuperate this representation, which taken in itself corresponds to nothing real, and make it an element of the technology of power.37 This operation, which reduces the law to the level of a pure representation disconnected from any real content, and thus to a negative representation, does not have a timeless character, but takes place, as Foucault specifies, “at least in our society.” In other words, it should not be used to characterize power in general, a concept devoid of any real content. It rather applies to the type of historical society which has made productivity the heart of its existence and developed forms of industrial “cooperation” to achieve this end, that is, in different terminology, capitalist society. In the latter the technologies of power have taken on a particularly refined appearance, permitting them amongst other feats to turn the language of law to their advantage as a mask for their real activity which takes place on a plane entirely different to that of the law and its prohibitions. In other forms of society, such as feudal society, one might ask whether the law was just a language serving the same type of discourse of recovery used by the bourgeoisie. Academic Marxism fell headlong into this trap. It took literally the discourse of power elaborated by bourgeois society which makes power appear as a “superstructure” whose orders come down from high. In reality these orders ascend bottom up, from the depths of the system where value is produced. The truth of power, “at least in our society,” is economic before being political.38

According to Foucault, Marx helps us to better understand this, at least in those passages of his work where he deconstructs the “mechanisms” through which capital exerts its authority over labor, exploiting labor-power so as to increase its “productivity.” But, for this to happen the subjects must themselves be made “productive,” thanks to appropriate procedures of subjection which are part of the establishment of the new economy. These complex procedures of subjection are related to the establishment of the new form of power which, by overcoming the alternative between the individual and collective, constantly moves back and forth between the sphere of the economy and that of politics. As Foucault has explained in a key passage of Discipline and Punish where he refers in a note to Chapter 11/13 of Capital on cooperation, and to Deleule and Guéry’s Productive Body:

If the economic take-off of the West began with the techniques that made possible the accumulation of capital, it might perhaps be said that the methods for administering the accumulation of men made possible a political take-off in relation to the traditional, ritual, costly, violent forms of power, which soon fell into disuse and were superseded by a subtle, calculated technology of subjection. In fact, the two processes – the accumulation of men and the accumulation of capital – cannot be separated; it would not have been possible to solve the problem of the accumulation of men without the growth of an apparatus of production capable of both sustaining them and using them; conversely, the techniques that made the cumulative multiplicity of men useful accelerated the accumulation of capital. At a less general level, the technological mutations of the apparatus of production, the division of labor and the elaboration of the disciplinary techniques sustained an ensemble of very close relations (cf. Marx, Capital, Vol. I, Chapter XIII and the very interesting analysis in Guéry and Deleule). Each makes the other possible and necessary; each provides a model for the other. The disciplinary pyramid constituted the small cell of power within which the separation, coordination and supervision of tasks was imposed and made efficient; and analytical partitioning of time, gestures and bodily forces constituted an operational schema that could easily be transferred from the groups to be subjected to the mechanisms of production; the massive projection of military methods onto industrial organization was an example of this modelling of the division of labor following the model laid down by the schemata of power. But, on the other hand, the technical analysis of the process of production, its “mechanical” breaking-down, were projected onto the labor force whose task it was to implement it: the constitution of those disciplinary machines in which the individual forces that they bring together are composed into a whole and therefore increased is the effect of this projection. Let us say that discipline is the unitary technique by which the body is reduced as a “political” force at the least cost and maximized as a useful force. The growth of a capitalist economy gave rise to the specific modality of disciplinary power, whose general formulas, techniques of submitting forces and bodies, in short, “political anatomy,” could be operated in the most diverse political regimes, apparatuses or institutions.39

This passage confirms, without having to decide between the hypothesis of a Foucault who is (still) a Marxist and that of Marx who is (already) a Foucauldian, that the encounter between these two analysts of the modern regime of sociability had already taken place, resulting in a new conception of power, authority ,and the subject which can be taken as the basis for further analyses.

– Translated by Tijana Okić, Patrick King, and Cory Knudson

This text was originally written as a contribution to the collective research project headed by Macherey, “Savoirs, Textes, Langage,” and first appeared on the group’s website, “La philosophie au sens large.” It subsequently appeared in a slightly modified form in Macherey’s 2014 collection of essays, Le Sujet des normes. The present translation is based on the initial version. We thank the publisher of Le sujet des normes, Éditions Amsterdam, for allowing the release of the translation. 

The translators would also like to thank David Broder for comments on the draft and Sara Mendes for her help with the diagram. 


  1. Michel Foucault, “Prison Talk,” in Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings1972-1977, ed. Colin Gordon, trans. Colin Gordon, Leo Marshall, John Mepham, and Kate Soper (New York: Pantheon Books, 1980), 53. 

  2. Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Pantheon, 1978), 140-141, translation modified. 

  3. Michel Foucault, “The Mesh of Power,” trans. Christopher Chitty, Viewpoint Magazine 2 (2012). 

  4. Translator’s Note: This term refers more broadly to someone who is sympathetic to Marxism. – T.O. 

  5. This outlook is close to the one adopted by Stéphane Legrand in his “Le marxisme oublié de Foucault,” Actuel Marx 36.2 (2004), 27-43: “The fundamental concepts of the Foucauldian theory of power relations in “disciplinary society” will remain permanently blind unless they are articulated with a theory of exploitation and a theory of the capitalist mode of production” (28). We will not, however, go so far as to affirm, as Legrand does, that Foucauldian theory was constructed by relying on a “Marxist frame of reference” that it strove to hide. The side taken by the present study is to reread Marx in light of Foucault, rather than explain Foucault using Marx, by establishing a relationship of one-way determination or direct lineage between the latter and the former. 

  6. Cf. Marcel Mauss, The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies, trans. W.D. Halls (New York: W.W. Norton, 1990). 

  7. See the commentary by Engels in his 1891 introduction to the English edition of Marx’s Wage-Labor and Capital

  8. We can tentatively make this comparison: in an analogous fashion, during mass, when the sacramental words are spoken, the piece of bread becomes something completely different. The system of wage-labor, which is at the basis of the capitalist mode of production, basically only transposes the mystery of transubstantiation onto a worldly level in order to make the highest profit, instead of raising souls toward the heaven in the hope of earning their salvation. 

  9. From this perspective, when Marx introduces the concept of labor-power into economics, he does so by implicitly referring to the vitalist conception of force, theorized by [Paul-Joseph] Barthez using the notion of “vital force,” then taken up by [Marie François Xavier] Bichat when the latter defined life as the domination of life forces over physical forces, and inversely death as the domination of physical forces over life forces. In this view, “living labor” is labor as action, which encounters natural obstacles that it seeks to overcome; and “dead labor” is labor as result, reintegrated with the givens of nature at the moment when, the action having been completed, death takes hold of life again: the passage from living labor to dead labor represents the entropic consumption of energy. 

  10. In a personal communication, Étienne Balibar writes the following in this regard: “Marx is interested in the question of the growing ‘disproportion’ between ‘living labor’ and ‘dead (or objectified) labor,’ that is, the fact that with the development of capitalist ‘productivity’ an ever smaller quantity of ‘living labor’ is able to be set in motion, or ‘bring back to life’ – reactivate – an ever greater quantity of ‘dead labor.’ This can be read ‘positively’ (the productive power of labor-power continuously increases) or indeed ‘negatively’ (living labor is invariably dominated by dead labor); obviously, the Promethean demiurgy of the ‘socialist’ Marx connects these two perspectives as successive moments, of alienation and disalienation. But what’s especially interesting, from the perspective of the critique of political economy, is the shift to the notion of value: in reality, the basis of Marx’s argument concerning the production of surplus value is that the labor process simultaneously operates on two levels: it ‘conserves’ the value of means of production (that is to say it recreates or reproduces it) and it ‘adds’ new value (which only in part, an ever diminishing part, corresponds to the reproduction of labor-power)…Marx’s implicit doctrine is the inverse of the ‘logical’ order of the derivation of concepts: ‘surplus value’ is in fact the condition of ‘value’ and not the other way around, since (in the capitalist mode of production) there is no reproduction of the value of the means of production by living labor unless new surplus value is produced. In this sense, the ‘ravening appetite’ of accumulation is always-already inscribed in the process of the ‘expenditure of labor-power’ and this is what the notion of the ‘organic composition of capital’ claims.Perhaps we can go so far as to say, extending this analysis, that, in the capitalist mode of production, the limit between what is value properly speaking and what is surplus value is never clearly defined, enabling their relationship to be constantly renegotiated with the aim of what the capitalist calls, in their specific terminology, ‘growth’; that is to say, not growth in itself, but growth that serves his interests, corresponding to increased exploitation through an increase in the “productivity” of labor-power, an unstable and infinitely flexible combination of living labor and dead labor.” 

  11. Jean-Pierre Lefebvre, “Force(s) productive(s),” in Dictionnaire critique du marxisme, ed. Gérard Bensussan and Georges Labica (Paris: PUF, 1982), 466-471. Translator’s note: In the Penguin translation of Capital, Marx’s concepts Produktivkraft and Produktivkräfte are rendered by “productive power” in the singular, and as “productive forces” or less frequently “productive powers” in the plural. –T.O. 

  12. François Guéry and Didier Deleule, The Productive Body, trans. Philip Barnard and Stephen Shapiro (New York: Zero Books, 2014). 

  13. Translator’s note: Most likely a reference to Laurence Parisot, a CEO and former head of the main French employers’ federation, MEDEF. Macherey may have in mind “speculation” such as the following: “Life, health and love are precarious, so why should work escape this law?” As President of MEDEF, Parisot called for the “modernization” of the labor code, the abandonment of the legal duration of working time, and for “the enterprise [to be placed] at the heart of French society.” – T.O. 

  14. The slang expression “boulonner,” for “to work,” is thus particularly significant. Translator’s note: Macherey is referring to “boulons” in the French text, meaning “bolts.” –T.O. 

  15. Translator’s Note: It is also Chapter 14 of the English-language edition. 

  16. Marx, op. cit., 466-467. 

  17. The demonstration of the uncertainties relating to the usage of the term “second nature” underpins the anthropology of the non-intrinsic [impropre] developed by Bertrand Ogilvie in his book, La seconde nature du politique – Essai d’anthropologie negative [The Second Nature of the Political –An Essay in Negative Anthropology] (Paris: L’Harmattan 2012), which explains how this astounding philosopheme is “animated by a movement of internal contestation, or negation, which describes an essence that looks beyond but refuses in the end to transcend itself, without however absolutely upholding its immanence” (83). We propose here to show how this same ambiguity cuts across the capitalist economy when, in the grip of productivity fever, it begins to employ labor-power as a “productive” power and no longer simply a power that produces. 

  18. Bourdieu defines habitus as the “system of durable and transposable dispositions, structured structures predisposed to function as structurating structures, that is, as the generating principles of the practices and representations that can be objectively adapted to their outcomes without presupposing a conscious aiming at ends or an express mastery of the operations necessary to attain them.” Cf. Pierre Bourdieu, The Logic of Practice, trans. Richard Nice (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990), 53. 

  19. Foucault, “The Mesh of Power,” op. cit., translation modified. 

  20. Michel Foucault, “The Subject and Power,” Dits et Ecrits, t. IV, éd. (Paris: Gallimard, 1994), 236-237, Essential Works of Foucault, 1954-1984, Vol. 3, ed. James D.Faubion, trans. Robert Hurley and Others, New Press, 2000, 341, Translator’s note: the version used here is from Critical Inquiry, 8.4 (1982), trans. Leslie Sawyer, 777-795, translation modified. –T.O. 

  21. This could be translated into a different language: in the case of exploited workers, class consciousness cannot be automatically deduced from class being, from which it is, on the contrary, initially dissociated. 

  22. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish, trans. Alan Sheridan, (New York: Vintage Books, 1977), 218. 

  23. Marx, op. cit. (1976), 439. 

  24. Ibid., 441. 

  25. Translator’s note: “l’union fait la force” introduces a play on words on the notion of power as capacity, force, and strength which in French can be conveyed by the same word “force,” but is untranslatable as a single word in English. –T.O. 

  26. Ibid., 443. 

  27. Ibid., 447. In the chapter of Discipline and Punish devoted to “docile bodies,” Foucault cites an abridged version of this last passage from Capital; Foucault, Discipline and Punish, (New York: Vintage Books, 1977), 163. 

  28. Translator’s note: “En masse” also alludes to the “force d’une masse,” the collective power, arising from the transformation of labor-power into social labor-power through combination in the capitalist labor process, and embodied in the productive subject, the collective worker. –T.O. 

  29. Legrand, op. cit., 32. 

  30. Foucault sharply corrected himself on this point in later interventions where he underlines the factual character of his analyses that guards them from the temptation of essentialism. For example, in his contribution to the volume L’impossible prison [The Impossible Prison] edited by Michelle Perot, he writes, in a spirit one might call Derridean: “It is necessary to demystify the instance of the real as a totality to be restored. There is no “the” real that could be regained if one was to speak of all things or certain things more “real” than others, that one would let slip, to the advantage of inconsistent abstractions, if one limited oneself to showing other elements and other relations. It is perhaps also necessary to examine the principle, often implicitly assumed, that the only reality that history should lay claim to is society itself. A type of rationality, a way of thinking, a program, a technique, a set of rational and coordinated efforts, objectives that are defined and pursued, instruments to achieve it, etc., all this is real even if it does not claim to be “reality” itself nor “the” entire society. And the genesis of this reality, once the relevant factors are brought to bear, is perfectly legitimate.” (« La poussière et le nuage » [“The Dust and the Cloud”], 1980, Dits et Ecrits, t. IV, éd. Gallimard, 1994, 15.) And, during the roundtable that followed the presentation of this text, he stated in support of this general thesis: “I do not think we can speak of “rationalization” in itself without, on the one hand, presupposing the absolute value of reason and without exposing ourselves, on the other, to the danger of lumping together anything and everything under the heading of rationalizations. I think we should limit this word to an instrumental and relative meaning…We are not saying that practices should be measured in terms of a rationality that judges them as more or less perfect forms of rationality; rather the question is how the forms of rationalization form part of practices or systems of practices, and what role they play in these” (Id., 26). In other words, there are only regional and temporal rationalities and practices of rationalization that are relative in each case to the conjuncture in which they operate, and we cannot automatically extend their action to other circumstances. 

  31. Marx, op. cit., 448-449, translation modified. Translator’s note: The original has: “Diese Funktion der Leitung, Überwachung und Vermittlung, wird zur Funktion des Kapitals…” The French edition used by Macherey has “mediation” for “Vermittlung.” In the Penguin edition, the latter is translated as “adjustment,” which is somewhat imprecise. The passage contains another usage of “mediation” (retained also in the French edition): “Alle unmittelbar gesellschaftliche oder gemeinschaftliche Arbeit auf größtem Maßstab bedarf mehr oder minder einer Direktion, welche die Harmonie der individuellen Tätigkeiten vermittelt und die allgemeinen Funktionen vollzieht, die aus der Bewegung des produktiven Gesamtkörpersim Unterschied von der Bewegung seiner selbständigen Organe entspringen.” In the French edition, “Überwachung” is translated as “surveillance.” The Penguin edition has “superintending” and “supervision,” which is used interchangeably. We have inserted the latter for the sake of consistency. –T.O. 

  32. Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 175. 

  33. Translator’s note: The citation is: “The work of directing, supervision and mediation becomes one of the functions of capital, from the moment that the labor under capital’s control becomes co-operative. As a specific function of capital, the directing function acquires its own special characteristics.” See Discipline and Punish, 175, where it has been incorporated into the main body of the text. –T.O. 

  34. Marx, op. cit. (1976), 450. In a note in Discipline and Punish (163-4), Foucault cites the last phrase of this passage [in fact it is from a different passage reproduced in Macherey’s text from Capital, 443-trans.] from the chapter of Capital on cooperation, which, according to him, underlines “the analogy between the problems of the division of labor and those of military tactics.” More generally, he considers that the true genius (in the sense of the spirit of invention, ingenium) of capitalism consisted in transferring technical procedures of power and command that were first elaborated in military organization to the development of the labor process. 

  35. Ibid., 451. 

  36. Foucault, op. cit. (1978), 86. 

  37. Thus a response is provided to the question raised by Mitchell Dean in his study Critical and Effective Histories. Foucault’s Methods and Historical Sociology: “How is it possible that a headless body so often behaves as if it did indeed have one?” (cited by Thomas Lemke in his study “Marx sans guillemets,” in Marx et Foucault, Actuel Marx, PUF, 2004, 15). Liberal society, which professes the end of ideologies, practices ideology in the paradoxical form of its negation and absence, allowing it to integrate ideology into its operation by simultaneously depriving ideology of the character of a lofty discourse, proclaimed from on high, as if it came from the top. 

  38. In the fourth lesson of his course at the Collège de France in 1977-1978 (under the general title, “Security, Territory, Population”), published separately in 1978 under the title “Governmentality,” Foucault explains, referring to Quesnay and Rousseau, that: “I believe that the essential issue of government will be the introduction of economy into political practice…To govern a state will thus mean the application of economy, the establishment of an economy, at the level of the state as a whole, that is to say, the exercise of supervision and control over its inhabitants, wealth, and the conduct of each and everybody, as attentive as that of a father over his household and goods.” See Michel Foucault, Security, Territory, Population, Lectures at the Collège de France, 1977-8, edited by Michel Senellart, trans. Graham Burchell (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 133. By transferring politics to the plane of the economy, modern government at the same time transforms the economy into a politics in its own right. 

  39. Foucault, op. cit. (1976), 220-221. 

Author of the article

is Professor of Philosophy at Université Lille Nord de France.