Friday, January 28, 2011

((Activity)) ((2))

The second and third steps in this argument go to the critique of Foucault's discourse theory. The end of the first step established the context for a conceptual critique of the scientific adequacy of Foucault's model. But before we start that level of criticism, I want to point out one reason Marxists are prone to react vehemently to Foucault's work. In short, he is anti-Marxist and anti-Communist, and anti-Marxism and anti-Communism are one of the purposes of his work. Foucault's disavowal of Marx and hostility to Communism are complex and comprehensible enough to require a little examination in order to understand the specific hindrance they represent to contemporary Left theorizing of politics and liberatory struggles.

When I first read Foucault, his explicit rejection of Marx, and the implicit presentation of his work as a preferable alternative seemed self-evident. As I became acquainted, admittedly to a limited extent, with the reception of his work in the U.S., I was surprised that this obvious and obviously significant motive had apparently escaped his American readers or mattered so little to them that it did not merit mention. To me, the most telling indication was his objections to the notion of "ideology" and to the discourse strategy, to couch the issue in his own terms, of dialectics. Ideology and dialectics are both inextricable components in the Marxist theory of capitalism and its operations. To reject dialectics alone means the rejection of Marxism in toto. To reject "ideology" means the rejection of specific determinations of the form and content of "discourse" by commodity relationships. These questions belong to the conceptual critique of Foucault, and we will return to them in the third and fourth steps of this argument. But, now we need to look at Foucault's rejection of Marx from a practical perspective.

Foucault's anti-Communism and anti-Marxism have a history, an unfortunately comprehensible one recounted in the interviews with Duccio Trombadori published in English as Remarks on Marx. In these interviews, Foucault actually remarks very little on Marx, but at length on the French Communist Party and his experiences with it. He belonged to the Party briefly at one point and found it an incongenial, dogmatic environment. Anyone familiar with the operation of the fraternal parties of the Soviet Union from the 1930s on will have no trouble finding Foucault's dissatisfaction credible. Subsequently, the intellectuals associated with the Party received his work with pronounced hostility. That reception seems to have genuinely disappointed and frustrated Foucault. From his description of events, it sounds, again credibly given the standard operating procedures of the Stalinist parties, even in their post-Stalinist phase, as though this hostility was more one of ostracism than of substance. In passing let me say, if there is an account of this reception, it would be vital for assessing the sustance of Foucault's response to his treatment by the Party and its intellectuals.

The problem for the post-modern Left, particular in the U.S. and for young intellectuals, is that in his best known works, Foucault uses "Marx" as he uses "dialectics" and "ideology" as metaphors for the Party, its practices, its offical positions and its propaganda. Instead of a productive, valuable critique of a mistaken approach to revolutionary politics, Foucault's Francocentric and Eurocentric perspective assumes that the conduct of the European Communist parties is common knowledge and he can indulge himself in indirect references and imprecise formulations of hiscomplaints. His indirection and imprecision leaves his readers today with a misplaced, blanket rejection of historical and theoretical contributions deserving much more serious respect.

When Foucault mentions Marx for his own sake, and not just as a code-word for the Communist apparatus and its machinations, he only compounds the misinformation and misdirection. To be blunt, in the interviews on "Marx" as well as in a few direct comments in The Birth of Biopolitics, his lectures from 1978-79 on neoliberal political economic discourse, it is clear that Foucault knows and grasps even Marx' best known works so superficially and inaccurately, that it is reasonable to wonder whether he ever actually read them. It would seem that we can safely conclude that Foucault rejected "dialectics" and "ideology" as that method and those terms featured in the discussions and publications of the Party and its intellectuals and, to put it summarily, their use in those venues was dubious indeed. Nonetheless, however well-taken his objections ot the doctrinaire, apologetic orthodoxies of the French Communist Party, Foucault had unfortunately little idea what those methods and ideas mean in Marx' work itself. One strand of the third and fourth steps in this argument is clarify and justify the sense, the utility and the value of these elements in Marxist theory.

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