Resistance To Power

Index to posts in this series

Related posts

Posts on The Dawn Of Everything: Link
Posts on Pierre Bourdieu and Symbolic Violence: link
Posts trying to cope with the absurd state of political discourse: link
Posts on Freedom and Equality. link

As we saw in the first post in this series, Foucault’s method is to think about power by considering the forms of resistance to power. He chooses three examples, the power of men over women, the power of parents over children, and the power of psychiatrists over mental illness. He identifies six things these struggles have in common.

  1. They are universal; they’re happening around the world. As an example, New Zealand is going to give 16-year olds the right to vote. Across the globe, the very young are leading the charge for climate action.
  2. The struggles are over power itself. His example is that the medical profession is attacked because of its domination of the bodies of others, not because it is a bunch of money-grubbers empowered by the State to suck up all the money.
  3. These are current struggles against an immediate power demanding an immediate solution. Women refuse to be controlled by any man in their lives. Foucault thinks this struggle is not against some distant enemy male, but that seems wrong to me. Male power is entrenched at all levels of society. He adds that women want action now.
  4. These struggles are about each specific individual. They assert the right to be different, At the same time, they rebel against institutional conditions set by the dominant class, conditions which separate individuals from their chosen communities. They resist the power of the government, and of society acting through the government, to tie individuals to an identity in a constraining way. I think this means, for example, that people are not to be identified solely as mentally ill, or children as dependents, when in both cases they can participate in the broader scope of social interactions.
  5. These struggles are against power generated by knowledge, whether that knowledge is arcane, as in the case of psychiatry, or secret and traditional, as in the case of the patriarchy. “What is questioned is the way in which knowledge circulates and functions, its relations to power.”
  6. In each case, individuals assert their right to determine their own identities, free from the claims of other people, either as individuals or collectively in the form of the government or a profession.

Summarizing, he explains that each of these struggles is against one form of power relation.

This form of power applies itself to immediate everyday life which categorizes the individual, marks him by his own individuality, attaches him to his own identity, imposes a law of truth on him which he must recognize and which others have to recognize in him. It is a form of power which makes individuals subjects.

Foucault describes three poles of these struggles.

  1. Struggles against domination, through ethnicity, social class, or religion.
  2. Struggles against exploitation, which means economic domination.
  3. Struggles against being shoved into niches and forced into being submissive.

Most historic struggles can be seen as combinations of these three strains of resistance. For example, Foucault says that the main focus of current struggles is the pressure of the state forcing certain people into subjectification. An example might be the power claimed by the government to prohibit abortion. The state identifies a pregnant adult or child as less than an autonomous person, and forces them to subject themselves to unwanted or dangerous childbirth.

The problem is that the modern state holds both individualizing and totalizing power. It has the power to tie people to specific identities, and to treat them differently based on those identities. It is everywhere, and its power reaches everywhere, a “totalizing” power, as he calls it. He says this developed out of the pastoral power, and we’ll take this up next.


1. Once again, I note the relation of Foucault’s ideas to those of Pierre Bourdieu and Elizabeth Anderson. Both identify domination as a central issue. Anderson sees it as a violation of human freedom rightly understood. Bourdieu describes the ways people internalize and justify domination. Links above.

2. Foucault is writing in the 1980s, and things have changed. For one thing, rapid communication makes it possible to speed up and broaden the scope of resistance to power, and to organize it more effectively. Thus, young people have used this technology to force the dangers of climate change into public discourse.

3. On first reading, this paper seems highly abstract. I’m trying to add specific examples to make these ideas more concrete, but it’s not easy. As commenters said in the Introduction to this series, Foucault is writing about the last two centuries. But the lessons seem relevant to what we read in The Dawn Of Everything by Graeber and Wengrow.

For example, they talk about rituals of adulthood, the rites by which young men are incorporated into the group through esoteric knowledge such as the powers of totem animals. This gives young men status in the community. Over time this status may have morphed into male domination of women and children through the possession of esoteric knowledge. This process requires women and children to accept the idea that in fact the special knowledge claimed by men is real. Once that happens, it becomes difficult to throw off male domination.

It’s impossible to use Foucault’s method of considering the history of our ancestors as a way of understanding their cultures. We don’t have nearly enough information. But I remain hopeful we can analogize the formation of recent Western cultures to the formation of earlier cultures. That hope is based on the idea that our ancestors were fully human, doing human things, as Graeber and Wengrow think.

4. Republicans oppose all changes to all social structures, Democrats tend to be more supportive. This is a big difference between the parties. I think it’s ane that has deep roots in individual personalities, an issue neither Foucault nor Graeber and Wengrow discuss. I also think it’s really important. It’s not on topic, but here’s a sketch of one explanation.

I think conservatives operate from a fundamentalist view of the world. Fundamentalists think that there is a single truth, and that they know what it is. Thus, fundamentalist Christians believe that the Bible is the sole source of truth. In exactly the same way Sam Alito and several of his SCOTUS colleagues think the Constitution is the sole source of truth about our rights as citizens, and that their Constitutional role includes stating that truth and correcting the errors made by prior versions of SCOTUS. In the political sphere we can describe the fundamentalist view as the idea that there is only one acceptable form of social structure, that that form existed in the past, and it must be recovered.

I think social structures are created by human beings. They should serve human need. As societies change, and as our understanding of the consequences of existing social structures evolves, we should change social structures to match our values. Following Foucault, the first step would be to examine our social structures from an historical perspective: how did we get the social structures we have now?

I think that will be my next step. One important text is Stamped From The Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi. One possible book is The Nation That Never Was: Reconstructing America’s Story, by Kermit Roosevelt. Here’s an interview of Roosevelt in which he discusses the book.

Democracy Against Capitalism: Class

Chapter 3 of Ellen Meiksen Wood’s book, Democracy Against Capitalism, takes up the issue of class. She says that class can be defined in one of two ways: “either as a structural location or as a social relation.” Kindle Loc. 1504, ital. in original. The first way takes an index and divides it into parts. For example, we rank everyone by income, then call the lowest quintile the lower class, the next three quintiles, the middle class, the 81-99% the upper middle class, and the rest the upper class.

The second way is to define class in terms of relationships, the relations of the members to the means of production, relations among themselves, and relations with members of other classes. In this treatment, the working class is people who have no direct access to the means of production and only have their labor to sell. Marx wrote:

“In the process of production, human beings work not only upon nature, but also upon one another. They produce only by working together in a specified manner and reciprocally exchanging their activities. In order to produce, they enter into definite connections and relations to one another, and only within these social connections and relations does their influence upon nature operate – i.e., does production take place.

I saw a folk musical recently in Chicago called Haymarket, about the Haymarket Affair, a general strike that turned violent in Chicago in 1886. The play opened with one actor singing a union song, Solidarity Forever. She encouraged us to join in the chorus, which, of course, I did. It was a great way to demonstrate how organizers of that day worked to instill a sense of comradeship among workers in different industries, a sense that they had a lot in common, a sense that they formed a class in opposition to the capitalists, a/k/a the “greedy parasites”. This is the last element of class in Marxist thinking. The class can be seen objectively, which Marx called a class-in-itself, but when the members become aware of their status as class members and begin to struggle together for a common end, Marx called it a class-for-itself.

This last point is illustrated by E.P. Thompson’s book, The Making of the English Working Class, which Wood discusses at length. The basic class structure is in place long before the members begin to understand that they are a class. People similarly situated in the relations of production experience them in class ways. Kindle Loc. 1614. Shared experiences bring them together. Ultimately the members of the class become conscious of the conflicts of interest and aggravation that are making them miserable, and those become the grounds of struggle. The struggle eventually leads to confrontation. Marx argued that in the long run those confrontations lead to socialism as the only form that gives workers a voice.

Wood identifies the relations of production in capitalism as exploitation, domination and appropriation. Neoliberal capitalism has jacked up these three relations at the expense of all workers. For example, meat companies use government regulations to increase the exploitation of meat cutters by increasing line speeds. Payday lenders suck money out of military families and other low income people, protected by the totally not corrupt Republican Mick Mulvaney. For domination, look at the way Amazon warehouse workers are treated. As to expropriation, look at the latest research on the impact of concentration of businesses on wage rates. Or just check out this simple chart, discussed here. The blue line represents corporate profits in constant dollars; the red line is wages in constant dollars.

The concept of class has received “remarkably little elaboration, either by Marx himself or by later theorists…”, Kindle Loc 1519, but it’s possible to identify several. Capitalists own the means of production and control access to them. The working class owns no assets and has no access to the means of production other than through individual relations with capitalists. They own only their own labor, and rely on their ability to sell that labor to stay alive and reproduce. Slaves don’t own themselves or their labor. Professional people, small business people and artisans own a little property and use it to produce goods and services for sale. Many of them are dependent on the capitalists in the financial sector through loans and leases, which compromises their independence as a class.

In America, everyone is middle class. Barack Obama appointed Joe Biden to chair a multi-agency Middle Class Task Force. The Department of Commerce was the only agency to respond, as I discussed here. The Department offered the following definition of middle class:

Middle class families are defined by their aspirations more than their income. We assume that middle class families aspire to home ownership, a car, college education for their children, health and retirement security and occasional family vacations.

There’s something fabulously American about that definition, so focused on the individual and so utterly indifferent to the context in which people try to achieve their aspirations. Also, who doesn’t want that stuff? The vacuity of the definition makes it clear that we as a nation are not willing to confront the implications of class.

In our highly differentiated economy, it isn’t easy for people to understand that the unpleasantness or worse that they endure in their jobs is common to everyone. That makes the nastiness feel like something specific to the job, a bad manager, bad policies or other excuses. We don’t notice appropriation because the capitalist pumps money out of workers using the “market”, and producers think it’s normal for the capitalist to grab all the profits. Somehow US workers don’t recognize that they are being exploited. They think their long hours and wrecked evenings and weekends and lack of vacations and medical and personal leave and lousy pay and benefits are just fine.

Wood has a different idea. She thinks that capitalism has successfully separated democracy from the economy. Everyone agrees that the government should be controlled democratically. People are taught that the economy is and should be controlled by private interests, and that private control should be sanctioned and enforced by government. Employers exercise domination and control in ways that would not be acceptable if done by the state. Employers restrict exercise of political rights in ways that are forbidden by the Constitution to the government. Fear of losing our income silences most of us at least occasionally.

Wood argues that the economy should not be separated from democratic control. She doesn’t offer a specific mechanism; she thinks that people will eventually demand change, and that the new controls will spring from democratic control over the State. She quotes E. P. Thompson who asked:

By what social alchemy did inventions for saving labour become agents of immiseration? Kindle Loc. 1739.

We can’t begin to solve the problems capitalism creates until we all come to grips with this question. And we almost know the answer, even if we haven’t verbalized it yet. It springs from the relations of the capitalist mode of production: exploitation, domination, and appropriation.

Islamic State Recruiter in Afghanistan Was “Substantially Exploited” at Guantanamo

Many outlets are reporting on the disclosure earlier this week that there appears to be active recruiting for Islamic State taking place in Afghanistan’s Helmand province. Here is AP as carried by ABC News:

Afghan officials confirmed for the first time Monday that the extremist Islamic State group is active in the south, recruiting fighters, flying black flags and, according to some sources, even battling Taliban militants.

The sources, including an Afghan general and a provincial governor, said a man identified as Mullah Abdul Rauf was actively recruiting fighters for the group, which controls large parts of Syria and Iraq.

The article notes that the Taliban is not taking this development lightly and that there are reports that up to 20 people had died up to that point in skirmishes between the Taliban and those swearing allegiance to IS.

But Mullah Rauf is not just any random figure in Afghanistan. As the article notes, he was once a prisoner at Guantanamo.

In their profile of him this week, the Washington Post had this to say about Rauf:

Rauf is also known as Abdul Rauf Aliza and Maulvi Abdul Rauf Khadim. According to a military document released by the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks, he turns 34 in February and was listed as detainee 108 at Guantanamo Bay. He was transferred to Afghanistan’s control in 2007.

The report on him released by WikiLeaks said he was associated with several known Taliban commanders, but claimed to be a low-level soldier. In interviews with U.S. officials, he was cooperative, but his responses were vague or inconsistent when asked about the Taliban leadership, according to the report. Nonetheless, Rauf was assessed not to be a threat, and was recommended for transfer out and continued detainment in another country.

That Wikileaks document on Rauf can also be read here at the New York Times. This particular paragraph in the report caught my eye:

Rauf exploited

The document from which this is taken is dated October 26, 2004. The parenthetic note from the analyst begins “Detainee is substantially exploited”. In the context of Guantanamo, the issue of prisoner exploitation is a very important topic. A groundbreaking post by Jason Leopold and Jeffrey Kaye in 2011 provides crucial context by what this aside from the analyst means for Rauf’s detention: Read more