Plurality of powers

by Arran James

In the essay The Subject and Power, Foucault talks about power in the following terms:

‘Let us come back to the definition of the exercise of power as a way in which certain actions may structure the held of other possible actions. What, therefore, would be proper to a relationship of power is that it be a mode of action upon actions. That is to say, power relations are rooted deep in the social nexus, not reconstituted “above” society as a supplementary structure whose radical effacement one could perhaps dream of. In any case, to live in society is to live in such a way that action upon other actions is possible —and in fact ongoing. A society without power relations can only be an abstraction’.

He doesn’t seek to define what power “is” but to define its exercise. This is in part owing to ontology but also to his neo-pragmatism; to answer the question of what a phenomena is one should ask about what it does. So for Foucault there is a sense in which power is ‘action upon actions’, and that this is how we should orient ourselves to it.

There is a danger that this kind of talk is itself too abstract and that we should return to the (unstable) ground a bit. So let’s use other words: it is the operation of conducting conduct. Power is simply the way in which behaviour/conduct/comportment is organised. Every constraint-restrain upon comportment limits the choreography of possible way of orienting ourselves to the world. As such, certain possibilities appear and others disappear. To think in terms of a party of the minority is to think in terms of permanent revolution. What is the meaning of such a process without end?

If one completely eliminates the concept of the end of history, then the concept of revolution is relativized; such is the meaning of “permanent revolution.” It means that there is no definitive regime, that revolution is the regime of creative imbalance, that there will always be other oppositions to sublate, that there must therefore always be an opposition within revolution.- Merleau-Ponty, Epilogue to Adventures of the Dialectic.

Isn’t Merleau-Ponty speaking the same language as Foucault? No definitive regime, creative imbalance. This is a thought faithful to the minorities, the dissensus, which is resolutely open, but that is unafraid of power. The dialectical image is dispensed with in Foucault but it is clear that Merleau-Ponty’s own philosophy jettisons the dialectic in favour of the transverse, the in-between, the “folding” of the flesh in the chiasmic “polymorphic matrix” of being. Under Merleau-Ponty’s vision-in-being-in-vision, there is power relations running not just through society but through the whole thing; power is utterly inhuman and can’t finally be relegated to the anthropological way of thinking. This is already the case in Foucault but Merleau-Ponty radicalises this immanantisation of power. No wonder Foucault thought the word would cause so much confusion! The question of power fragments into multiple questions of powers, of constraints, restraints, and enablements. Finally, returning to Foucault’s essay

At every moment the relationship of power may become a confrontation between two adversaries. Equally, the relationship between adversaries in society may, at every moment, give place to the putting into operation of mechanisms of power.

This is simply to say that the history of society is the history of a complexity that might, at any moment, appear as if it were the history of the emergence the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. This appearance can also disappear, as it did until recently in the global North, but it can also reappear under new names and new forms: plutocracy and precariat, geocapitalism and the earthbound.