Reassessing Foucault: Modern Sexuality and the Transition to Capitalism

Caravaggio, The Cardsharps

In love and memory of Chris Chitty, our dear friend and brilliant comrade, who read this paper aloud at Historical Materialism New York four years ago.

Are the premises of queer theory really antithetical to a historical materialist understanding of the origins of capitalism? A reassessment of Foucault’s seminal work considering the dispositif, or deployment of sexuality, and his account of the transition to capitalism, in the History of Sexuality, Volume 1 (which is probably not how most people remember that book, but… I’ll explain) seems crucial to making a judgment either way. Considering he’s something of the patron saint of queer theory, and this is his seminal work on the subject, we might perhaps discover the error of the whole formation in the thought of its founder – that’s in any case what I am going to try to do for you today.

So I submit to you Saint Foucault’s three cardinal sins. First, Foucault read Capital Volume 1, and he read it very carefully (definitely a sin). Second, Foucault universalized sexual science, or seems to universalize sexual science. And third, Foucault questions sexual repression, which in the milieus of 1970s politicizations of sex was also a heresy.

With respect to the first sin, that of reading Capital, I think you’ll probably agree with me that queer theory doesn’t really follow the sins of the founder in perpetuating that particular iniquity. There are, however, intellectual-historical reasons for this, which I don’t really have time to go into (I think Cinzia [Arruzza] pointed out some of the problems in Butler’s own thought about history, or absent thought of history). I am using the term sin here somewhat facetiously, but considering how Foucault was attacked by Sartre, for being “the last rampart the bourgeoisie can erect against the revolution,” and considering all of the kind of facile leftist critiques of him for lacking any kind of theory of revolutionary praxis or something, it’s ironic that Foucault’s own conceptualization of history as a process without a subject is derived from none other than Marx himself. I am suggesting it’s kind of dangerous, in some circles of Marxism, to read Capital too closely.

The second and third cardinal sins are far more decisive for the formation of queer theory. They are directly responsible for what we could term their dematerialization of what Foucault understood by the term discourse. His actual argument as I reconstruct it for you today is that the discourse of sexual science is a bourgeois formation, because it’s among the bourgeoisie that the science is first circulated and had its first material effects. In other words, Foucault argues that sexuality is primarily or at its inception a bourgeois science, a bourgeois concern for bourgeois bodies, and was only later, with great difficulty, extended to the working classes. Foucault was quite flippant about the mechanisms for this extension, or deployment, in The History of Sexuality Volume 1, and in three or four paragraphs (which I’ll read to you one of them) of periodization, he sketches the history in the broadest of strokes. This idiosyncratic way of presenting a very complicated historical thesis allowed liberals to read past this material to ignore it and to invent a rather breathless Foucauldianism in which some free-floating discourse springs fully formed from the brains of sexual scientists (you [Cinzia] signaled some of those themes), and programs the way people conduct their sexuality, the way they conceive of it, and the pleasures that are possible to derive from it.

This leads in queer theory to a rather facile opposition between the body as a site of resistance and normativity, and a sexual-scientific formation of discourse rather than understanding the sexual body to have been constituted, excited, even, by sexual science itself. This perverse hermeneutic allows the queer formation to discover in this book, which is so critical of sexual liberation, some rationality for its own preoccupation with putting diverse sexualities into discourse. In other words, they find some political justification for the liberal project of extending sexuality, to include more bodies, to extend bourgeois concerns for health to more bodies, liberal moralism, etc. So Foucault’s account of biopower, although skewed in its emphasis and guilty of each of these sins, illuminates some crucial historical features of this transition to capitalism that Marxists and queer theorists alike have tended to ignore.

The thesis that’s presented by Foucault requires a little massaging to be put to this purpose, and in what follows I advance the following reading hypothesis: sexuality plays a central role in both the prior accumulation of capital and the real subsumption of labor by capital. I’ll suggest to you that Foucault found this idea in Capital Volume 1, in the chapters on the struggles over the work day and those on heavy machinery, but you don’t have to take my word for it. In a book with very scant references, it’s in black and white at the bottom of the page.

So, first then, Foucault read Capital Volume 1, and he read it carefully. The thesis of this reading is: sexuality could only become a problem for societies in which communities of producers have been separated from their means of production. The above is an adaptation of the concept of biopower. However, in Foucault the idea is standing on its head. He merely observes that sexuality could only appear problematic for societies in which human life is augmented by new technologies, optimizing the powers of individual bodies according to disciplinary norms, so that they were increasingly productive – this is discipline. It can only appear problematic for societies in which human life is reproduced and regulated by economic pressures and objectives, or biopolitics.

This implies a separation of primary producers from their means of production. Perhaps Foucault doesn’t address this prior separation because he assumed most of his readers in France already knew this. Perhaps he really considered large-scale manufacturing rather than the emergence of the wage relation or landlord-tenant relations in the countryside to be the essential transformation of capitalism. Or perhaps he was merely following Marx’s emphasis on machinery in the factory system in Volume 1 – I favor the last explanation.

The hinge of this transition, the crossing of what Foucault calls the biopolitical threshold of modernity, is the development of large-scale industry in the factory system, replacing manufacture and handicraft production, which forced women and children onto the job market, which broke down all the little cottage industries of family-centered household production. The first trades to adopt automation and large-scale machinery are, as many of you probably know, the yarn, fabric, and garment industries. The option of this technology reduced the significance of human effort, human muscular expenditure, and allowed the substitution of child and female bodies for male bodies in the labor process, bringing down the volume of labor by broadening the market of labor and bodies. Marx calls this the real subsumption of labor by capital. Foucault calls it the biopolitical threshold of modernity. At stake in this biopolitical threshold of modernity is the advent of what Marx termed the despotism of the factory system, using an archaic political term to describe a modern phenomenon. Using a more modern, Newtonian metaphor, Foucault calls it a microphysics of power. In both cases the theoretical exposition is motivated by a desire to displace the law in understandings of power based on legal representation or the law. The abstract individual is, Foucault suggests, an ideological fiction, but this individual, this abstraction, is not merely of the realms of ideas and discourse; capitalism actually manufactures the abstract individual, and it was mass produced on factory floors, in armies, in schools.

Foucault’s emphasis and terminology are motivated by the desire to provide a new mythology of power. This is in keeping with the political tradition of political theory, stretching from Hobbes and Sorel to the Frankfurt School. There are two targets for this new myth of power as a network, of power as a capillary system: (1) the figure of the law, the truism that power is authority, and (2) the figure of the owner of property, the truism that power is money, or the vulgar and simplistic idea of a dominant class from which all other social relations of domination are derived.

So far, so good. But Foucault cannot possibly want to do away with property relations altogether, as these would be essential to any accurate account of capitalist development. He’s not being technologically determinist in assigning power of the separation to large-scale machinery and automation, but his rhetoric of technologies of power risks this reading. Foucault’s reaction to vulgar Marxism thus leads him to a historical analysis overemphasizing bourgeois discourse, and under-emphasizing the ways that this discourse attempted to incorporate the working class. He does not explicitly address the transformation as a separation of proletarian women and children from household means of production, which occurred sometime in the middle of the nineteenth century in most industrializing cities but earlier in Britain. He also passes in silence over the way this machinery and its absorption of women and children produced a concern for the sexuality amidst working conditions on factory floors, although he does refer to the chapters in Capital in which Marx cites these reports. He doesn’t address how the liquidation of peasant proprietorship transformed peasant sexuality. He refers to this peasant sexuality in passing as being caught up in a kind of pastoral power of perhaps confession to a priest, expresses doubts over whether peasants actually cared what priests thought about what they did. But there’s evidence that marriage restrictions became prohibitive to many agrarian communities in the first decade of the nineteenth century on the continent. Ecclesiastical authorities began refusing to marry people lacking property or status in peasant communities as an attempt to inhibit the growth of an indigent population. This is very much motivated by Malthusian concerns for, basically, a fear of poor people having sex, and then those people producing more vagabondage. This Malthusian concern of the nineteenth century peaked in the 1830s, mostly on the continent. Although the phenomenon of transience was less extreme in Britain, this concern is registered in the 1834 reform of the poor laws, and the intensification of the work house system. The workhouse system was devised along explicit Malthusian lines of sex segregation, of men from women, in order to prevent poor people from having heterosexual sex.

By the late nineteenth century in London, there was a panic about homosexual activity, specifically in the male workhouses. There’s this one account published of a kind of bourgeois man who went undercover as a working class person in the workhouse, called My Night in the Workhouse… [laughter] he witnesses this bath, and has all these fantasies about what’s going on. He doesn’t actually witness any homosexual sex, but in this gentleman’s publication kind of scintillatingly suggests that’s what the workhouse system was about. This happens in the 1860s, so it’s prior to the Wilde trial.

Foucault refers to the 1830s as a period in which ruling classes attempt to regulate the urban proletariat with the institution of marriage with the campaign against the immorality of the poor. So we might quibble with him, that it was a rural and urban phenomenon, we might quibble with him and say he omitted some things, but his account is basically correct. These are the silences and emphases of his account. Perhaps he thought giving a more thorough account would have required rehearsing arguments from Discipline and Punish about the great efforts to curb vagabondage. Perhaps he thought such historical observations were obvious, but these omissions have enabled all the misreadings. Most crucially he doesn’t elaborate the impact of this crushing blow to family centered production as the source of the sexual irregularities of the working classes, and seems to posit a kind of continuity between a bucolic, free sexuality of the peasantry, and then this new urban phenomenon of proletarians that don’t care about bourgeois sexual norms. All these transformations are prior to the birth of sexual science, and including them or emphasizing them in his account would have required reducing this significance of sexual science, which brings me to Foucault’s second cardinal sin: he seems to universalize sexual science.

Thesis two. Sexuality takes hold of the population through a scientific rationalization of three abnormal sexual types: the hysterical woman, the sexualized child, and the psychologized perverted-type.

You’ll notice that each of these types is a bourgeois one. Foucault points this out himself. There weren’t any proletarian men or women on Krafft-Ebing’s couch. By its own admission, this theorization of power is an attempt to get a handle on how the biology of populations became the target of political intervention and social control. To actually make the argument would have required an account of how bourgeois sexuality was extended to proletarians. That account as it stands in The History of Sexuality, Volume 1 is brief, and I’ll read it out to you in full.

Granted that one of the most primordial forms of class consciousness is the assertion of the body, at least this was the case for the bourgeoisie throughout the 18th century, the bourgeoisie exchanged the blueblood of nobles for a fit organism and a healthy sexuality. It will be understood why it took so long and required overcoming such great reluctances for the bourgeoisie to award a body and a sex to the other classes, precisely to those who it was exploiting. The living conditions dealt to the proletariat, particularly during the first half of the 19th century, demonstrate very little worry over its body and its sex. Far from it. It was no matter of whether those people lived or died. Anyway, it was reproducing itself all on its own. Conflicts were necessary for the proletariat to be given a body and a sexuality, for its health, sex, and reproduction to become problems. Conflicts over urban space were necessary. Conflicts over cohabitation, proximity, contamination, epidemics like the outbreak of cholera in 1832, conflicts over prostitution and venereal disease, were all absolutely crucial. Economic emergencies were necessary, the development of heavy machinery requiring stable and competent workforces, the necessity of controlling the flow of populations and obtaining a particular demographic composition. Lastly it was necessary to establish a whole technology of control for maintaining supervision over this body and this sex for which they were finally recognized: schooling, housing projects, public hygiene, assistance and insurance agencies, the general medicalization of populations, in short, and administrative and technical apparatus that allowed for the dispositif of sexuality to be imported into the exploited classes, without danger. Sexuality no longer risked affirming this class, opposite the bourgeoisie. It remained the instrument of its hegemony. Hence the reluctance of the proletariat to accept this dispositif, hence its tendency to say that all this sexuality is a bourgeois affair and of no concern to it.1

So in this quote we have an account of how sexuality, concern for health, the body, etc, is the basis of bourgeois attempt to physically augment its powers over the classes it exploits. It is not an ascetic art or a kind of protestant ethic, but rather a regulation of sexuality that augments the physical powers of the bourgeois body, and intensifies some of its pleasures, concentrates them in the family unit. Foucault was a careful student of early sciences of race and understood that they were first applied to the lower classes of Europe. Sexuality was first a eugenicist project to breed a better bourgeois body. It was only later extended to the working classes in diverse projects of social control after political upheavals, after cholera and diseases threatened to spread to this pure and healthy bourgeois body. Although Foucault seems to emphasize abnormal bourgeois sexual types in his emphasis on sexual science and concern for the body, and although he seems to universalize this sexual science, how the family, the institution of marriage and sexuality was first installed among the bourgeois and then extended with great political efforts to the working class, is actually far more central to his story.

However, in History of Sexuality, Volume 1 he has rendered it with the rather awkward French term dispositif d’alliance, translated into English as the vague turn of phrase “the deployment of alliance.” The word alliance is a faux amis for anglophones. Here it means the dispositif of marriage. Alliance has the meaning of a harness or connecting strap in equestrian arts, and it is a metonym in French for the wedding ring.

So Foucault’s account of modern sexuality is completely lopsided, to the extent that it emphasizes a very late period in the development of modern sexuality – i.e. the late 19th century – and doesn’t consider the other proletarian side of the Victorian sexual formation in any great detail other than parenthetical formulations I’ve just read to you. Tracing this history would have been a much greater effort. It would have required that he look at other archives than what he was usually looking at. Also, his argument is that it’s liquidated, so what is the point of studying it anyway if it is gone? The resulting theory proceeds by assuming bourgeois sexuality to be hegemonic, rather than rigorously accounting for how it became hegemonic, hence the impression that he universalizes sexual science.

Three: Foucault questions sexual repression. Thesis number three is that modern sexuality isn’t repressed, it is constantly put into discourse and circulated. This is what makes the sexuality of “the West” so distinctive from a historical or comparative perspective. This axiom glosses repression as science and censorship. Post-patriarchal societies are understood to shape sexual subjectivity through a circulation of sex and discourse. Power over sex is no longer conceived as the “know” of the law and the play of transgression, but the “enjoy” of a more permissive society. This axiom questions the tenets of a certain formulation of gay liberation, conceived as “coming out of the closet,” an emancipatory formulation that, it bears remembering, wrote the script for most subsequent alternate sexualities seeking recognition from states and societies. The cleverness of Foucault’s intervention here is that he takes the formula of sexual freedom in circulation of the 1970s and shows how it actually informs the conditions of possibility for an older power over sexuality. This intervention shows something of the political project behind his History of Sexuality, Volume 1. Foucault says, “we are all Victorians as much as we care about sex.” Perhaps a better point to make would have been to say that we’re all bourgeois in our concern for sexual ethics, sexual politics, health, body, etc.

His target is not Marcuse, who he seems to agree with from the hypothesis about a repressive desublimation. He thinks Reich and the sexual emancipation movement that formed around him merely attempted a tactical reversal of the dispositif of sexuality, and attempts to overthrow the bourgeois sexual hegemony with some more proletarian sexuality, but the essential terms of the relationship remained the same. They are just flipped. Foucault considers the absence of any political transformations accompanying the radical sexual changes in “Western societies” as proof that all this sexual emancipation really failed to dislodge the hegemony of the bourgeois, and that Reich’s hypothesis that social revolution would follow didn’t play out. He might have argued that the persistence of family structures remained the proof that sexuality could become more open without the loss of bourgeois hegemony. The stakes of the argument here are huge. He seems to follow Gramsci in considering sexuality as absolutely essential to bourgeois hegemony over the working class, and essential to its neutralization as an antagonism in “the West.” Queer theorists such as Judith Butler seem to get off here. But they failure to consider the basis of Foucault’s historical exposition in an analysis of class relations of the 19th century. In jettisoning this content Judith Butler and other queer theorists hypostatize Foucault’s categories of power and resistance into a free floating normativity standing above an equally nebulous resistance potential, subversion among queers, and – perhaps she’s not as voluntarist as some people have read her – you know, her analysis of drag queens is where people get off with that reading, a subversion of codes is a subversion of power relations. That might not be true. Power relations are material.

So what can we learn from Foucault’s three cardinal sins? The first thing I would like to signal is to remember the danger of dematerializing discourse. Sexual discourse is a necessary starting point. But emphasizing it risks dematerializing it. What are the actual material effects of a sexual discourse? I’ll take an example from ACT UP’s first slogan, “Silence Equals Death,” or the general injunction to kind of put sex into discourse of safer sex practices. What are the material effects of these apparently radical discourses had? Well, first of all, it responsibilized sexuality.

In other words, it led to a kind of neoliberal subject formation for homosexuals in which you have to take responsibility for your own sexual activities, rather than having a more social solution to the problem of AIDS, which would have emphasized universal treatment and care. It’s an individual responsibility rather than a social responsibility. That’s the kind of basis for the moralization around the syndrome, for the stigma of people who get it: they’re bad people, they made bad decisions. It’s also the basis of the integrationist project of the gay movement. It also delivered us into the hands of the pharmaceutical industry, and it delivered us into those hands quite early. The kind of care of the self, the focus on the self and the personal responsibilization of sexual decisions neutralized the political formation around AIDS before it really called capitalist property relations into question. And here, you have to look at something like the way intellectual property over AIDS technology has worked to the exclusion of Africa, and how the movement against AIDS stopped or really lost its momentum as soon as we got medicine here. It never extended to say “these are these other bodies over there that are still dying.” We might ask how other discursive concerns for health help mask political neutralizations. In the discussion we might have a larger conversation about the ruse of discourse that apparently seems subversive but might have material effects that wind up reinforcing power relations.

The second point is that “subversion” and theories of symbolic subversion are overrated. We have to remember the dangers of hypostatizing figures of resistance, sexual or otherwise, especially in political milieus. Self-assertion of the body in a politics of recognition is a rigged liberal game. While maybe essential to getting tangible needs met, it’s also how liberalism weasels its way into the movement, neutralizing more radical tendencies. It risks a merely symbolic resistance, posturing and new moralisms.


  1. See Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume 1, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978), 126-7. We have preserved Chris’s own translation from the original French. 

Author of the article

was a theorist and activist. He played a pivotal role in student struggles at the University of California and the Occupy movement.