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Modernity: Marx and Foucault on Revolution in Modern Society

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Marx and Foucault on Revolution in Modern Society

Modernity: Final Essay

Marx and Foucault on Revolution in Modern Society

The relationship of Foucault (1926-1984) towards Marx (1818-1883) is one defined by duality. Foucault was born more than a century later than Marx, which allowed him to criticize Marx’s theory. Although Foucault and Marx theories show parallels in thoughts, Foucault had a much different approach to change, and thus, to revolution. Accordingly, this essay will investigate the research question: ‘How do Marx and Foucault’s views on revolutions in modern society differ?’ In order to accurately answer this question, it it necessary to look into the very basics of Marx’s and Foucault’s theories and compare them. Thereafter, this essay will use both theories to examine their views on modern society. Finally, Marx’s and Foucault' different views on revolutions are analysed by the means of their theories and views on society.

Marx and historical materialism

Marx defines his theory of investigating the history of mankind as ‘historical materialism’ (Olssen, 2004, p. 454-455). He investigates the changes in material causes, such as the influence of nature and technologies, but more importantly, the developments of the economy (Harvey & Marx, 2010, p. 191-195) Marx also researches the superstructure of society, in which discourse is located. This superstructure encompasses the social relations with one another and comprehends legal and political institutions, culture and morality (Olssen, 2004, p. 454-456). All taken together, the superstructure influences the consciousness and reality of members of society (Olssen, 2004, p. 454-456).

Marx argues that the material practice or economic base is located outside of the superstructure of society. Also, this economic base is superior to the societal structure (Olssen, 2004, p. 454-456). As a result, the developments in the economy explain how society has come into being. And since the economic base is most important in determining differences among people, it explains how social classes coexist with one another and how society enacts on these class-differences (Olssen, 2004, p. 455).

Marx claims that all structures in society are reflecting the ideology of the economic structure, which is in correspondence with the ones that are in power in this structure (Celikates, 2016). Powerful members of society design laws, so that members of society have the illusion of equality, but eventually, these laws merely display the ideology of the economic base and the ones in power (Celikates, 2016). By analysing the forces of production and their relations to society, Marx is able to explain the evolvement of history. As a result, Marx considers himself as a scientist, not because of his methodological commitments, but because of the integration of historical moments in his theory (Harvey & Marx, 2010, p. 197).

Some readers of Marx argue that Marx is deterministic in his theory (Harvey, 2010, p. 192). They argue that Marx describes the society to be ultimately caused by the development of new technologies. Harvey belongs to the group of thinkers to argue in defence of Marx, and disputes the claim of determination. He thinks of Marx’s theory as one characterized by dialectics. Harvey proposes the six ‘moments’ in the process of human evolution: the relation to nature, technology, modes of production, social relations, reproduction of daily life and mental conceptions of the world. By taking the perspective of one of the moments or by considering the transformation of one of these moments, the world can be understood and explained by reflecting to history (Harvey, 2010, p. 192-196).

Nevertheless, the debate on Marx being determinist in his theory or not, has not been settled until today. It is unclear how Marx can be characterized, but it is not of importance for the further continuation of this essay.

Foucault and historical materialism

Foucault does not agree with either way of reading Marx’s historical materialism (Olssen, 2004, p. 457-458). He rejects Marx’s theory in many ways. He disputes Marx’s ideas to be a specific theory of the mode of production or as a critique of political economy. Besides these critiques, Foucault builds on Marx’s theory through the critical investigation of domination. Just like Marx, Foucault sees all social practices as impermanent, influenced by the time one lives in. The constitution of knowledge is influenced by all social relations and in particular, power (Olssen, 2004, 457-459).

Foucault’s methodology takes on the form of a discourse analysis, by studying the ‘unit’ of knowledge at a certain period in time (Peci, Vieira & Clegg, 2009, p. 381). He argues that if knowledge was simply invented, it would have no origin. The world is neutral and does not know any laws, but knowledge is also not derived from the human nature. Therefore, knowledge can only be produced between the friction of objects and knowledge (Peci, et al., 2009, p. 381-382). This friction is defined as power. Power is here not only a bottom-up or repressing mechanism, it is also productive. His way of analysis seeks to find and understand how historically and socially instituted sources of power produce discourse, by examining politics and the relationship between struggle and power (Hall, 1997, p. 77).

Foucault remarks that Marx separates discourse from the material, in which discourse is determined by the latter. Foucault thinks that Marx has reduced the relationship between power, knowledge and discourse to the mere practice of class-power and class-interests (Hall, 1997, p. 75-77). Foucault does acknowledge the very existence of classes, but he sees that this class reductionism transforms Marx’s theory into an ideological theory (Hall, 1997, p. 75). As a response, Foucault focuses on understanding how all sorts of practices comes into being and how participants of society act upon their environment. The ultimate objective of Foucault is to find the relations between the discursive formations and the non-discursive, the institutions and other objects (Olssen, 2004, 458).

Also, Foucault disagrees with Marx on the fact that there is an ‘absolute’ truth ‘outside of history’ or that a concept of ‘necessary interests’ exist which constitute the absolute foundation to knowledge, morality or politics (Hall, 1997, p. 75-76). Foucault believes that no one can ever claim this absoluteness, since their claims will never be outside of their discourse. As a result, Foucault proposes the idea of the ‘regime of truth’, which describes how truth is developed in society, by advocating for the inseparability of knowledge and power (Hall, 1997, p. 75-77).

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