The “How” and “Why” of Power: From Marx to Foucault to Power Today

Power relationships are the foundation of culture and society. For centuries, philosophers, cultural scholars, social scientists, political theorists, and others have been trying to capture the nature, function, and mechanisms of power that structure the dynamics of social life. In this paper, I address the concept of power in terms of the ways it has been theorized by two of the world’s most influential thinkers: Karl Marx, who never developed an explicit theory of power, but whose work implicitly, constantly, addresses it, and Michel Foucault, whose work explicitly attends to the question of power, and whose theorization of it is possibly the most well-known and widely used today.

If the quotations included in the following pages feel somewhat unbalanced, it is because we cannot ask Marx directly what he would say about power, and about Foucault, while we can look directly to Foucault for answers. This paper, then, draws more heavily from Foucault’s words when he discusses Marx – whether explicitly in interviews or implicitly across his oeuvre – than from Marx himself. From this position, I think, we can identify ruptures, tensions, and connections that will help to give us a sense of the kind of relationship between Marx and Foucault, and their ideas about power.

What is Power?

Before delving into an analysis of power a la Marx and Foucault, I will first lay out the basic assumptions each makes about the fundamental nature of power. These assumptions color each of the topics that will be developed throughout the rest of the paper.

Marx, whose historical materialism launched an attack on German idealism, attempted to bring power out of the sphere of ideas (where the German philosophers were always “fighting against phrases” (Marx & Engels, 1970, p. 41)) to address its relation to the material underpinnings of everyday life. As Marx and Engels put it, “It has not occurred to any one of these philosophers to inquire into the connection of German philosophy with German reality, the relation of their criticism to their own material surroundings” (Marx & Engels, 1970, p. 41). Power, for Marx, was not a religious/philosophical/political dogma, but a resource. And as a resource, power is always in limited supply. It is therefore concentrated among certain actors and groups – namely, the ruling class and the State – who wield it over an unsuspecting (proletariat) population. Its instrumentation is always captured by economic processes, and the logic of its distribution is the accumulation of capital (Marx, 1976). Although the origins of power are material, its effects are less so, since power (conceived as the control of economic processes) translates into the control over ideas. Ideas feed back into material reality, where they are implemented in everyday life as ideologies that lure the working class into a false consciousness, thereby ensuring their subordination. Power, for Marx, is negative, insofar as its effects are repressive (the loss of freedom). Power obscures “truth.” A counter-attack by the working class subject, which would reveal the “truth” that power hides from view, is only possible once the scales have been lifted from his eyes.

Critiques of Marx often point to his somewhat narrow focus on the State as the ultimate wielder of power. Such critiques suggest that this focus came at the expense of recognizing the ways in which power is dispersed and exercised within the nooks and crannies of everyday life (rather than being concentrated and in limited supply). Foucault’s critique of Marx certainly falls along these lines. For Foucault, power is not a resource, but a relation. It is never “held” nor “owned” but is strategically exercised. Furthermore, the logic of its distribution does not always imply the accumulation of capital. Although like capital, power is distributed unevenly, it exists and is exercised throughout the social body. And wherever there is power there is always counter-power. Perhaps most importantly for Foucault, power has positive effects. It is not repressive, but incredibly productive. Its instrumentation, moreover, is highly specific, and cannot be captured by economic processes alone.

While Marx refers to economic processes in capitalism as the sole technology of power, Foucault identifies at least two political technologies of power, which he refers to as disciplinary power and bio-power. Taking for the moment the concept of disciplinary power, we can identify some fundamental points of convergence between Marx and Foucault in their otherwise distinct analyses of power.

Capital and Discipline: The How and Why of Power

In analyzing disciplinary power, Foucault saw a kindred spirit in Marx. He draws heavily upon Marx’s discussion from Capital concerning the disciplinary practices necessary for the development of the productive factory worker. In this context, Foucault recognizes a Marx who acknowledged the infiltration of power outside the specific domain of the State, which could be exercised within and across differing institutions where, importantly, it lays hold on the body.

Moreover, Foucault articulates that the rise of disciplinary power as a central feature of modern society went hand in hand with the development of the capitalist mode of production, which was a necessary condition for the management of a rapidly growing population – and thus, a bigger labor force – in a burgeoning factory system. To manage its workers properly, the space of the factory had to be organized in such a way that guaranteed the docility and utility of its workers: “The growth of a capitalist economy gave rise to the specific modality of disciplinary power, whose general formulas, techniques of submitting forces and bodies, in short, ‘political anatomy,’ could be operated in the most diverse political regimes, apparatuses or institutions” (Foucault, 1977, p. 221). This is to say, the productivity of disciplinary power – which produces docile bodies – is intimately related to the need for controlling human subjects under capitalism, by regulating the movements of their bodies in time and space. With that said, however, Foucault is also quick to point out that understanding the material bases of disciplinary power is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for analyzing power. While examining the relations of production in capitalism might tell us why disciplinary power operates, it does not tell us how.

The why of Marx and the how of Foucault point to another significant difference in approach each takes to understanding power. At the risk of sounding too simplistic, we might characterize this difference as the relative uniformity of the former and specificity of the latter. Foucault saw it this way, when he addressed Marx in his “Two Lectures” by asking, “Is power always in a subordinate position relative to the economy? Is it always in the service of, and ultimately answerable to, the economy? …Or, on the contrary, do we need to employ various tools in its analysis…” (Foucault, 1976, p. 89).

What Foucault’s question points to is the basis for his analysis of power as micro-politics. Foucault recognized that by remaining fixed on the economic landscape of power, Marx risked overlooking its specificities. Foucault wants to emphasize that an analysis of power must attend to details, an idea which is conveyed in his use of the term “micro-politics.” Micro-politics implies an analysis of power that works from “the bottom up.” Such an analysis must then begin by examining its most minute mechanisms and intricate procedures and the ways in which these operate directly on individual bodies. Micro-politics, for Foucault, is power working at a level of extraordinary detail; it is “the conduct of conduct” (Foucault, 1977).

Consciousness, Power and Knowledge

In Marxist thought, the material basis of ideas provides an answer to the question of where consciousness (and also culture) comes from. Since material life determines, or at least ‘conditions’ social life, the primary direction of social explanation is always from material production to social forms, and thence to forms of consciousness. Put another way, ideas become ideology once they are integrated into our everyday activity, where they become normalized and naturalized (and thus invisible). Ideas become ideology becomes culture. According to Marx, it is the ruling class which has the power to disseminate its ideology to the working class proletariat; thus, it is also the ruling class which has the power to shape consciousness and society as a whole. As Marx famously put it, the ruling ideas are those of the ruling class (Marx & Engels, 1970). If you want to change culture, you must first dismantle the social and material base that conditions it since, after all, “The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships…” (Marx & Engels, 1970, p. 64).

Knowledge, then, is understood by Marx as a resource used in the services of power, which is shaped by the political and professional interests of those who control the economic means of production. Naturally, the maintenance of this system of production – the different roles human beings play within it, the hierarchical class relations it reproduces – is the most fundamental interest of the ruling class. This being the case, knowledge serves a social function of legitimation. It functions to mask the manipulation of human beings to ensure the stability of the social order and the accumulation of private profit for the upper class. As Marx understands it, the relationship ideas (or knowledge) have with power hinges on a false promise, which is the basis of his ideology critique. Power manipulates human beings, masks reality, and therefore compromises knowledge’s claim to truth.

Marx’s conception of ideology thus reduces the relationship of power and knowledge to a question of class power and class interests, and situates it in a binary of truth/falsity. But is it possible to think about knowledge as something other than “true” or “false”? Foucault certainly thought so, and we can turn to his writing about the co-constitutive relationship of power and knowledge as a way of moving out of this binary, toward a theory of power that is generative, that makes things thinkable and do-able.

In Foucault, power/knowledge refers to the co-constitutive capacities of knowledge and power to produce apparatuses of control, regulation, and production. Knowledge, then, is not simply descriptive; it is productive. What it produces, among other things, are normative categories (i.e., sick/healthy), prescriptions for proper conduct, and relations of power (i.e., patient/doctor). Power and knowledge come together in Foucault’s notion of discourse. Discourse, as something immaterial, appears initially as anti-Marxist. And in a sense it is, since it does not necessarily revolve around empirical reality. The use Foucault puts to discourse, however, is primarily to reveal the materiality of power relations within discrete sites – the prison, the hospital, the mental institution, and so on, which is to say, it has a materiality. Discourses, like science, medicine, or psychology, assert their monopoly over truth claims, which also gives them power to determine the face of “reality” at a given moment. This is not incompatible with a Marxist conceptualization of ideology, except that it does not necessarily refer back to a prevailing mode of economic production.

In Foucault, power/knowledge and the way they come together in discourse, are not repressive (as is power in Marx) but extraordinarily productive. As previously mentioned, power is that which makes things do-able and thinkable. Even more, power is that which “makes” individuals.

The Subject of Power

Maybe the most certain of all philosophical problems is the problem of the present time, and of what we are, in this very moment. – Foucault, “The Subject and Power” (1983/2003)

In this section, I will attend to the ways in which Marx and Foucault theorize the relationship of individual subjects to power, and vice versa. To do so, I will begin with Marx’s concept of “fixed capital,” which might help us understand the formation of “the subject” under capitalism.

In Marx, the formation of subjects is always tied to the development of a capitalist system, and cannot be extracted from the relations of production that structure individuals’ experience of the world (Marx, 1973; 1976). In Gundrisse, Marx uses the term “fixed capital” – a term he generally associates with machinery, factories, and other investments in the means of production – to refer to subjectivity (Marx, 1973). In particular, he refers to the subjectivity of the worker, whose concrete essence is defined in terms of his labor. Gradually, as man labors, his worker’s subjectivity develops alongside the progression of capital until he is himself incorporated into its machinery and becomes a replaceable “cog in the machine.”

The capitalist system is capable of transforming man’s essence precisely because it is what transforms labor into surplus value, into profit.  Because labor, for Marx, is part of the sphere of exploitation, subjection is a necessarily exploitative process. Yet again, we see the power that “makes” subjects working through an ideology of individuality, a “false promise” that alienates the working subject from his labor power, from other workers, and from himself.  This conception of the subject is negative: It hinges on the repression of an identity whose truth has been subsumed in machinery. This negative conception of the subject of power stands in marked contrast with the subject in Foucault, whose relation to power is positive, in the sense that his “truth” is not repressed, but rather generated through the different technologies of power. Despite this fundamental dissimilarity, there is a resonance between Marx and Foucault on the topic of labor, which both thinkers – albeit in different ways – understand as a catalyst, which forges a powerful link between systems of power and the subjects they address. I will say more about Foucault’s utilization of labor at the end of the section, but first some contextualization is in order.

It is perhaps surprising that Foucault did not see power, but rather the subject as his main scholarly project[1] (see Foucault, 1983/2003). But if we look closely at the two “technologies of power” that divide the first and second half of his writing, we see that the most profound task of each is the production of particular kinds of subjects. In Discipline and Punish (1977) and the rest of his work that precedes The History of Sexuality (1978), Foucault identifies a technology of power he calls “disciplinary power,” which (as discussed previously) generates norm-governed “disciplinary subjects,” whose subjection is ensured through their production as obedient and efficient “docile bodies.” Beginning with The History of Sexuality (1978), Foucault identifies a second technology of power which developed within, and ultimately transformed, disciplinary power. This “new” power is what Foucault terms bio-power.

Bio-power and disciplinary power differ in the objects each addresses: While discipline addresses the individual subject through power exercised directly on the (corporeal) body, bio-power takes as its central object the social body (Foucault, 2003). Bio-power belongs to system of government that addresses the population body (rather than the body of individuals) vis-à-vis the biology of individual bodies. In doing so, it is able to manage social risks (which would formerly have been responsibilities of the State – preventing illness, unemployment, poverty, etc.) by re-casting them as individual problems of self-care.

We can see how Foucault echoes a Marxist emphasis on labor when he discusses bio-power and the “making” of bio-political subjects. Contra to Marx’s worker subject, bio-political subjects are not “cogs in the machine.” They are active participants (and not un-knowingly) in the process of their own subjection. As such, subjection is not imposed on them from above, but through themselves. Put another way, the bio-political subject is a self-governed individual. She governs herself through forms of regulation and modulation that Foucault refers to as technologies of the self (Foucault, 2008). Taking an example from medicine, we can see how technologies of the self (i.e., birth control) function as conduits through which social problems (population control) become individual problems (unwanted pregnancy/motherhood), which necessitate a kind of labor that the bio-political subject is obligated to perform (i.e., taking her pills on time, every day). Her labor, which has been recast in terms of self-care, ensures her continued (self-) subjection (Foucault, 1984/1986).

Power Today

By way of concluding, I want to acknowledge a third approach to power that borrows from and builds on Marx and Foucault, and which develops an analysis of power today. In Communication Power (2009), Manuel Castells develops an alternative theory of power that focuses on the ways in which power moves through multi-media communication networks which are, for him, the dominant guarantors of culture and meaning in our lives. As Castells explains, “…all networks of power exercise their power by influencing the human mind predominantly (but not solely) through multimedia networks of mass communication. Thus, communication networks are the fundamental networks of power making in society” (Castells, 2011, p. 774).

It goes without saying that such an approach to power, which takes communication as its primary object, is absolutely essential for communication scholars, cultural studies practitioners, and anyone who writes about media, politics and/or popular culture. Neither Marx nor Foucault attended to this dimension. Marx, because he could not possibly have envisioned it. Why Foucault neglected communication networks, however, is more difficult to understand – particularly when we consider his emphasis on discourse. It seems to me, and I’d venture to guess that Castells would agree, that the texts which circulate through communication networks, are in and of themselves discursive sites; they exercise a powerful influence in the production and circulation of knowledge.

Indeed, Foucault has been criticized for his over-reliance on discourse, which led him to ignore the more coercive and violent forms of power exercised by the State.[2] Castells’ analysis of communication power attends to this gap, as well as to the gap left by Marx, who focused exclusively on the economic processes that give rise to power. Unlike Marx, Castells’ analysis extracts power from economic processes and re-situates them in social processes. And unlike Foucault, Castells acknowledges a mechanism of power that belongs to State, which is exercised through coercion and intimidation in the name of private and political interests. This mechanism is what he terms “intimidation power.” Intimidation power exists alongside another – far more decisive – mechanism of power that belongs to discourse, spreads through communication networks, and is exercised through persuasion. Castells uses Foucault’s term and refers to this second mechanism of power as “disciplinary power” (Castells, 2009). But why is this this second mechanism understood as being more decisive than the first? Castells’s answer is simple: Power that moves through communication networks has a unique ability to shape the human mind, in part because it is accessible by nearly every individual in every society, and in part because it is tightly controlled by a concentrated media elite whose discourses it tends to reproduce. There is a Gramscian slant to this idea: “Coercion alone,” as Castell explains, “cannot stabilize domination. The ability to build consent, or at least to instill fear and resignation vis-à-vis the existing order, is essential to enforce the rules that govern the institutions and organizations of society” (Castells, 2009, p. 3). Communication power in its most effective form is the power to persuade, to change people’s minds. This brings me to the final point I’d like to make about power, which I have not yet attended to – that power is always-already about struggle.

While Marx envisioned a particular kind of struggle that would dismantle power relations by overthrowing the system of capitalism, he devoted little time to describing the logic, mechanisms, and techniques of a revolutionary counter-power. The same can be said about Foucault, who insists time and time again that power is always accompanied by counter-power but says little else about what counter-power might actually look like. Castells, however, makes a point to do just that. In Communication Power, he draws for us two maps – one of a network of power, and another of a network of counter-power. Throughout a number of case studies about political upheavals, social movements, and civil disobedience, he points out the characteristics of various concrete sites where counter-power is exercised. In every instance, as he shows, counter-power operates vis-a-vis the determination of real people acting autonomously (that is to say, apart from the State) to construct their own discourses and projects.

Perhaps Castells’ analysis of power is a utopian one, or perhaps not. In any case, what is striking about his analysis is that it leads us – through communication networks – back to the human heart and mind. Castells’ theory of power is the first I have seen to take seriously its emotional register. Though power may certainly operate economically, politically, and strategically, it is not merely an impassive force (as in Foucault) nor a machine (as in Marx). Fundamentally – and above all else – power is human.


Castells, M. (2009). Communication power. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Castells, M. (2011). A network theory of power. International Journal of Communication, 5, 773-787.

Foucault, M. (1965). Madness and Civilization: A history of insanity in the age of reason. New York, NY: Random House.

Foucault, M. (1976). Two lectures. In C. Gordon (Ed.). (1980). Power/knowledge: Selected interviews & other writings 1972-1977. New York, NY: Pantheon.

Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison. New York, NY: Random House.

Foucault, M. (1978). The history of sexuality, volume 1: An introduction. New York, NY: Random House.

Foucault, M. (1983/2003). The subject and power. In P. Rabinow & N. Rose (Eds.), The essential Foucault. (pp. 126-144). New York, NY: The New Press.

Foucault, M. (1984/1986). The care of the self: The history of sexuality, volume 3. New York, NY: Random House.

Foucault, M. (2008). The birth of biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1978-1979. New York, NY: Picador/Palgrave Macmillan.

Marx, K. (1973). Gundrisse. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin.

Marx, K. (1976). Capital, vol. I. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin.

Marx, K., & Engels, F. (1970). The German Ideology. New York, NY: International Publishers.

[1] In “The Subject and Power,” (1983/2003) Foucault explicitly states that “…it is not power, but the subject, that is the general theme of my research” (p. 127).

[2] Although it could also be argued that this near total rejection of power in the Weberian sense – conceived as the State’s legitimate monopoly over violence – is exactly what Foucault intended to do.


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