action post-Foucault – directionless or inspirational & challenging?

The writings or, or reference to them, of Michel Foucault have occupied much of my mental space for several months now. I increasingly have tried to grapple with a shift in perceptions and understandings of power relations from a Marxist towards a less monolithic (a view I always held even when benefiting from the teachings of/discussions with dogmatic Marxists) view encompassing agency and structuralist underpinnings. This shift towards such a perspective, and away from a prescriptive Marxist model of revolution has been – and still continues to be quite challenging.

The opportunity to rub shoulders with Judith Revel and Antonio Negri this week. At the first event, in which Judith presented some of her research, Biopolitics and the crisis of modernity I managed to spark a disagreement between her and Antonio regarding the recent uprisings in France and its provisional (according to Judith) existence as challenging state/capital from ‘outside’ relations as opposed to reflecting, reifying and perpetuating/legitimating the oppressive basis embodied in it. The second event about Foucault’s biopolitics and multitude, whilst very heavy and abstract, tied things together well. The question and answer session really consolidated things for me: my (non prescriptive) views on how we can achieve positive change.

With Foucault being non prescriptive and oft labelled as not a good/anti revolutionary – which I would agree with to an extent, albeit with a differing interpretation (a positive one) – and his ‘anti disciplinary politics’ as ‘merely rhetoric and posturing’, a transition from a Marxist perspective can leave one asking many questions. And this is a good thing – it is the lack of perceived direction that is the challenge. The notion of needing, and being able to, attain knowledge (i.e. truth) is at the core of western society and emanates from the Enlightenment project (and religion prior to this). Based on this and the loss of a prescribed direction in this shift from a Marxist to a Foucauldian understanding of power relations, having a prefigurative approach with hope – and here I refer to hope in the sense the Derrick Jensen postulates: hope is a longing for a future condition over which you have no agency – one can be at a loss for action for change.

It is in this form of stasis that I have found myself positioned. In critically and reflexively engaging with my own actions and attempting to improve on them prefiguratively (based on my mediated white existence) I have struggled to do little more than provide constructive criticism for past/present actions. This clearly contrasts with having a grass-roots revolution (of whatever form) that is enmeshed in a Marxist perspective. Whilst I still do not have prescription, and I should not need it, I know have a basis for direction beyond what I had. This has come about through both listening to Antonio Negri and reflecting on what he said to pose questions – the answers to which coalesced as I was attempting to construct the questions. To explain this, I need to outline the crux of what was presented by both Judith Revel (last week) and Antonio Negri (today).

Judith referred to a multiplicity of singularities that form communities as the source of resistance that can (provisionally, or more?) exist outside of merely reflecting the embodied power relations with the state/capital. Antonio referred to the subjectivities created by via the biopolitics of post-modern society and the dynamics of the power relation with the populace (power only exists if it is resisted – Foucault). He stated that it is not only the state/capital that can create subjectivities, rather that resistance can create them in their own right. Within and alongside this dynamic equilibrium is the basis for the possibilities of change emanating from this resistance. The subjectivities created can and do provide for existences outside of the state/capital modes of operation. This is where the potential for change lies.

Whilst articulating this has provided me with a renewed optimism, it still does not, per se, provide a clear direction – again a good thing as prefigurativeness is incommensurate with prescription. The last question posed to Antonio during the seminar provided for a means for some: what to do for the left. After critically challenging the left and referring to it is a parasite of capitalism, Antonio provided a response I had not come across before. What is needed is a reconceptualiseation of how we see exploitation at the core of state/capital relations. Whereas labour was previously the basis of exploitation, this has shifted to intellectual exploitation (i.e. knowledge). This needs to be clarified as I heard someone outside denigrating this – with the ability to do so being it taken clearly out of context (or based on a misunderstanding) I have a similar initial response.

Antonio Negri is not implying that it is now the intellectual classes who are the oppressed via current state/capital relations, rather the exploitation emanates from the social relations in the minds of the workers rather than as a direct action of the state/capital. I find this very interesting, given the context of a recent seminar of Derrick Jensen’s (where the hope reference is also located). In this seminar, Derrick refers to ‘rich’ people have more bits of paper than other people. The bits of paper mean nothing, it is the social relations that we accept. This ties back to hegemony, and thus agency and/or consent.

To surmise (also for my own benefit) the subjectivities created through resistance, specifically the aspects of the subjectivities that transcend state/capital relations is where the potential for radical change is located. It is not revolution, to again refer to Foucault, that we want to pursue – we do not want to replace the state – we want to dismantle the state. It is abolition that we seek.

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