Reflections by Jean L. Cohen

By Jean L. Cohen

First I’d like to thank the organizers of this seminar for giving me the chance to discuss Michel Foucault’s 1979-1980 Lectures at the College de France titled in English, On The Government of the Living. Before turning to this rich text, I would like to revisit the discussion last time with respect to some questions pertaining to Foucault’s discussion of neo liberalism, ordo liberalism and civil society. The question I’d like to focus on is the relation between his analysis of civil society and his alleged anarchism, something that comes up in today’s text. I will then turn to Foucault’s contrast between ideology and ideology critique (what the Marxists do) and the analysis of regimes of truth (what he does). Next I thematize an absent presence in this text, namely the work on religion of Max Weber and compare and contrast (very schematically) their approaches, so as to close with questions that arise from these reflections.

Continuity/Discontinuity with the Birth of Biopolitics

On civil society, power, anarchy, anarchism

Last time we debated whether The Birth of Biopolitics revealed some sympathy or even complicity between Foucault and neo-liberalism. There were also, not unrelated questions regarding the analysis of civil society at the end of the volume. It should be obvious that I concur with Fraser (and Habermas) that the logics of market and administration are two “rationalities” or organizational system logics and that Foucault is right to deem “civil society”, irreducible to either one or the other. Pace Marx and Marxists of Foucault’s day, despite the fact that modern civil society can support market economic processes, and that some of the droits de l’homme de la societe civile also play that role (especially property rights), (the juridical dimension targeted in On the Jewish Question and by Foucault), civil society is, nonetheless irreducible to them. (Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics, p. 301). Indeed it was uncanny for me to read these lectures and the segment on civil society because my first book, finished as a dissertation in 1979 and published in 1982 (Class and Civil Society: the Limits of Marxian Critical Theory) argues precisely against the reductionism that Foucault challenges. But civil society talk was in the air, not only in East Europe but also in France–indeed in 1976 in a conference in Paris Adam Michnik introduced the concept of the “new Evolutionism” and the ideas of civil society and many were discussing this as he notes.

To the point: It is quite correct that social bonds (not only families, tribes and corporations as per Fergusson and Foucault, but also associations, publics, movements, networks, etc.) cannot be reduced to the intersection of economic interests of economic actors (economic rationality of the market) or to the administrative rationality of the political system (state government). It is also correct that the understanding, analysis and concept of civil society began to shift in the late 18th and in the 19th centuries from designating the whole of a social order, to referring to a part, differentiated from economy and state such that indeed its relation to the state and the economy became a question. But although the communicative and solidaristic bonds of the social, the social bonds, in civil society are never purely economic nor purely juridical, it is misleading to designate them or civil society as “communitarian” or to peddle a corporate image of modern civil society institutions or to see them as that which resists government. Yet, neither can one construe civil society in normative philosophical or political theoretical terms, or capture its “third logic” with the concept of ‘democratic governmentality’. If that is meant as a normative political concept then it operates on the wrong level of analysis vis a vis the empirical analytic concepts of market and administrative rationality and is not analogous to those. If “democratic governmentality” is meant as a progressive desirable alternative to “liberal governmentality”, it is unclear why this should pertain to civil society and not also to the state.

Be that as it may, this brings me to a question regarding today’s text and its continuity/discontinuity with the biopolitics lectures, namely the relation of Foucault’s conception of civil society as he understands it, to anarchism. Since he himself raises the question of anarchy (30 Jan., pp. 77-78) in On the Government of the Living, it is worth looking into. There he tries to clarify his understanding of the anarchism of which he has been often accused. He notes that if anarchy or anarchism means that “no power warrants being taken for granted, that power has no intrinsic legitimacy”, then he finds this unobjectionable. All power only ever rests on the contingency and fragility of a history… there is no universal immediate and obvious right that can everywhere and always support any relation of power”. Indeed. Accordingly he notes, “…the approach consists in wondering, that being the case, what of the subject and relations of knowledge do we dispense with” when we consider no power to be founded either by right or necessity…?” (30 Jan. p. 77) (the translation perhaps is poor as the grammar here makes the meaning opaque).

Ok. But, what I ask is anarchist about this? One need not be an anarchist to make such statements about not taking any power for granted, denying power’s intrinsic legitimacy and any universal or immediate Right, or insisting in a systematic way on the non-necessity of all power of whatever kind”, if this non-necessity means non self-evidence.

Foucault elaborates further with a dementi: if anarchism means that power is essentially bad, and if it entails the project of a society in which every relation of power is to be abolished…he insists he is not proposing this. Instead he put, “no-power or the non-acceptability of power” not at the end but at the beginning of the enterprise as a mode of questioning all the ways in which power is actually accepted.1 p.78. He then concludes that his position does not exclude anarchy but doesn’t entail it.

I don’t want to pursue this further except to indicate that anarchy means “no rule”, not “no power” and so I have two questions: If the issue is the interrogation of the ways in which power is actually accepted and rendered apparently inevitable, what relation would such an enterprise have, if any, to the issue of finding or devising standards for assessing the acceptability of a mode of power (rule) either by participants or participant/observers like ourselves? Second, how does Foucault’s anarchizing interpretation of civil society map on to the option of “no- power”, or the “non-acceptability of power” and what relation does it have to his alleged flirtation with neo-liberalism?

Government of the Living

This is a wonderfully rich and fascinating series of lectures and well worth delving into and studying especially for those of us who have read the text on the History of Sexuality and Care of the self.

Ideology/knowledge-power/ Regimes of Truth

Foucault critically analyzes religion, in particular Christianity in this text not from the perspective of ideology or ideology critique but from the perspective of regimes of truth. His interest is in the geneology of the production of the western Christian/western subject – apparently our form of subjectivity. In reflecting on his approach he speaks of two shifts: from the concept of ideology and ideology critique to knowledge-power and from knowledge-power to regimes of truth (9. Jan.,p. 11) ie government (self government) by truth.

The target of the first shift is of course Marxism-ts, perhaps Althusser; the target of the second perhaps himself at earlier moments. I have some questions regarding the first shift.

Ideology/ power-knowledge

The notion of dominant ideology is, Foucault insists, pegged to a set of oppositions: true/false; reality and illusion, scientific and unscientific, rational and irrational (9 January, p. 11.); the term ‘dominant” allegedly overlooks the real mechanisms of subjection and wrongly leaves it to historians to find out how and why some dominate others in society. In opposition to this approach Foucault first tried out the knowledge (savoir)/power concepts, looking into how the distinctions between science vs unscientific, reality vs. illusion, valid vs. invalid knowledge function in the register of power and in the constitution of domains of objects and concepts. His point was to replace the focus on systems of dominant representations with the question or field of analysis of procedures and techniques by which power/knowledge relations are actually effectuated—discrediting some and validating other modes of knowledge production, voices and so forth.

Power-knowledge/regimes of truth

The second shift is from power-knowledge to government by regimes of truth. (9 Jan. p.12) “Government” is understood as the mechanisms and procedures intended to direct men’s conduct (direction), to conduct their conduct. In these lectures Foucault’s topic is government linked to the problem of truth and knowledge with respect to the constitution of the reflexive subject–the subject who has to know himself, say who or what he is, and who monitors, governs his own conduct the product of which is his subjectivity produced through the techniques and mechanisms of telling the truth about herself. Before getting into this I have a few observations and questions regarding ideology and ideology critique to pose:

First and I can’t let this pass, the Marxian (and Frankfurt) conception of ideology was and is much richer than Foucault’s rather simplistic opposition of true/false; reality and illusion makes it out to be. The modes of ideology critique to be found in Marxian critical theory are numerous including at the very least –unmasking critiques, de-fetishizing critiques, immanent critique, transcendent critique…and so on. Das Kapital’s de-fetishizing critique for example does not contrast truth to illusion but analyzes how in the domain of appearance, (not the same as illusion), the ideology of equivalence exchange is correct, apt or true insofar as it pertains to the market mechanism’s logic, while the point of de-fetishizing critique (Lukacs called it de-reification) is to reveal the dynamics by which relations between persons get turned into relations between things via the commodity form for labor. This is hardly a naive truth/illusion analysis nor even a mode of immanent critique (norm/deficient reality contrast). The relation between the ideology concept and reality is far more complex for ideology critics than Foucault’s caricature. So the question I have for Foucault- (ians) is whether there is a role for ideology critique or the concept of ideology in their understanding critical theory or whether they believe we should abandon it altogether. Put differently, should we construe the Foucaultian enterprise as a supplement, an alternative, as another and very important way of doing critical analysis or as a replacement? Why can’t we could understand, say, the critical analysis of capitalism, the concept of ideology and so forth as involving both aspects: i.e. how certain market subjects are produced through norms and techniques (facts), the mechanisms at stake and the role of the norms and discourses in all of this?

Silences: Weber/Foucault

Foucault’s analysis of the new specific modes of government of the self, via discourse and the imperative of saying who/what one is, and revealing and manifesting the deep hidden truth of oneself in Christianity as it developed over time, is fascinating and compelling as is the claim that the regime of truth at issue is distinctive and new vis a vis Ancient Greek or Roman philosophy and practices.

But there’s an absent presence in this text that is so overwhelmingly obvious to anyone who ever reflected n the religious origins of our contemporary conduct of life that the lack of any mention of his name or work is astounding. I am, of course, referring to Max Weber. It is hard to imagine that Foucault did not know his work…he was an educated man and many others in France referred to him. It’s true that Weber did not write on sexuality or on “subjectivation”, or talk about the production of the modern western subject per se, but he did write on the making of the modern Western individual, the cultural transformations and new techniques of discipline and self-interrogation involved in Christianity that contributed to the radically new modes of that individual’s conduct of life and individuation. Moreover he did traced all this back to developments and shifts within Christianity in relation to the anxiety around issues of salvation, confession and penance and the new disciplinary and self surveillance techniques that developed in the monasteries. Since the bulk of the lectures in On the Government of the Living is on Christianity, it is pretty disappointing and dismaying not to see any mention, engagement with or reflection on Weber’s work by Foucault. I am not simply referring to the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Weber was the master sociologist of religion of the early 20th century: just open Economy and Society for the hundreds of pages on the comparative analysis of religion, note his discussion of discipline, take a look at the books on religions of China, India, Ancient Judaism, look at his essays on religious rejections of the world and on the Protestant sects. You will see that the comparative focus on religions of salvation and the radical transformations within and wrought by Christianity in general and Protestant Christianity in particular, are central to his analysis of the modern self or Western individual. And you will see that he foregrounds the anxiety over ascertaining salvation, the incessant need to interrogate oneself and engage in conduct that shows that one is saved and the distinctive relation of that self and conduct of life the techniques of ascertaining salvation produce.

The point is not that Weber looked at religion in exactly the same way as Foucault… his interest was distinctive as was his focus, namely the relation between religious ethics (codes/modes of conduct), cultural transformation, techniques of self monitoring and discipline, and the transformation of the conduct of every day life these entailed particularly in the monasteries (other worldly asceticism) and then in the “inner-worldly asceticism” of the Protestant and the relation of all of this to capitalism. But it was Weber who zeroed in on the monastery, on the new disciplinary techniques within regarding the conduct of life, self surveillance, and the distinction between this systematic mode of government of the self from lay Catholic confession, with respect to the type of selves it produced and it is he noted it was Protestantism that led these disciplinary techniques of self government into the world via an “inner worldly asceticism” that dispensed with mediation (ecclesiastics) leading to the systematic perpetual self monitoring penitential conduct of the “anstandige” protestant man. (Foucault notes the key role of Protestantism on page 85 with no reference to Weber). Indeed it is Weber who distinguished between faith and the techniques entailed in l’aveu. Weber did not focus on dogma or ideology-critique but on the techniques of self -interrogation, self discipline, and the construction of an entirely new ‘ethical conduct of life.

My point is not to denounce Foucault for not citing a source, but rather to bemoan the absence of this presence because it could have led to a fascinating and illuminating comparison between the work of these two giants. For, Foucault’s approach is distinctive and original, and his questions are different from Weber’s. How so?  Weber did not focus on regimes of truth in general or on the discursive, manifestation of the self through talk, per se.   His focus was on the action orienting and reorienting ethics and structural relations involved in the relationship and mode of access to the transcendent type of god that linked up with the disciplinary interrogative and inner-worldly ascetic ethical conduct of life constitutive of the modern individual. Thus I think the key difference has to do with the emphasis on speaking, telling, on discourse. It is self -interrogation plus the requirement to tell the truth about oneself, to speak from the heart and manifest one’s deepest secrets in talk that is Foucault’s distinctive focus and contribution to the understanding of the modern mode of subjectivation and this certainly undergirds his critiques of psychoanalysis and identity politics in the History of Sexuality and later texts on the care of the self, etc., shows.

Regimes of Truth

Foucault’s aim in these lectures is to discover how is it that in our type of society, power can’t be exercised without truth having to manifest itself in the form of subjectivity, with effects that go beyond the realm of knowledge and belong to the realm of salvation and deliverance of each and all (30 January, p. 75). Why and how does the exercise of power in our society as government of men demand not only acts of obedience and submission, but also truth acts — a regime of truth indexed to subjectivity? (30 January, p. 80) with the obligation for individuals to become themselves the essential actors in the procedures of manifestation of the truth (alethurgy) in three respects:

The subject as operator spectator and object turning the subject into the active agent thanks to which the truth comes to light.

What is a regime of truth? Foucault states, “By regime of truth I mean that which constrains individuals to a certain number of truth acts, that which defines, determines the form of these acts and establishes their conditions of effectuation and specific effects. A regime of truth determines the obligations of individuals with regards to procedures of manifestation of truth. (6 February, pp. 93-4). Foucault notes that there are political regimes, penal regimes etc., so why not apply the term regime also to truth…why not speak of regimes by which individuals are bound and obliged to make well-defined truth acts?

Christianity’s two regimes of truth: the Faith/confession (l’aveu) binary 82

This binary together with that between the “schema of law” and the “schema of salvation” structure Foucault’s approach to modern subjectivity’s relation to government and power produced in Christianity. Foucault’s interest is not in the content of beliefs, faith (dogma/ideology?) but in the truth acts and techniques (penance, discourse, self interrogation of motives, and production of conscience) associated with avowal (l’aveu) (of course noting the ultimate link to faith of avowal via the anxiety of ascertaining salvation):

  • Faith entails: belief in god, Christ, revealed truth certainty, absence of doubt on the part of the believer that the religious truth is true, that what one is taught is true, that that which is revealed in Scripture is true… (13 Feb. p.127). This faith-truth regime matters because from it comes the needs to ascertain whether one is saved but as already indicated, neither the content of belief, nor the critique of belief is what interests Foucault. Rather it is
  • l’aveu…confession: (avowal) driven by fear and anxiety over whether one is saved and pure enough, and pertains the acts techniques, self interrogations, conduct self-conduct by which one shows/ proves to oneself that one is saved and the need to express say manifest who one really is, that matters to Foucault. It is the development and shifts in these techniques from earlier to medieval, via the monastery, to Protestant Christianity that he focuses on. Here we find the new distinctive relation between avowal, interrogation of one’s deepest motives, desires, finding out what, who one is, the search for authenticity and saying it, avowing it and governing oneself accordingly that produces conscience, (the guilty conscience?) governing the self that is the key to Foucault’s analysis of the modern subject. Foucault’s analyses here especially of the dangers of relapse are penetrating and fascinating as he shows that the anxiety (given the Fall) as to whether one is saved is and the need to interrogate oneself and prove to oneself (and directing us) ones purity is permanent as is insecurity. We never escape god’s gaze or, now, our own regarding our selves.

Thus Protestantism is distinctive for Foucault and fateful for our modern subjectivity in a slightly different (albeit quite related) way than to Weber or rather the emphasis for Foucault is on avowal, discourse as I indicated earlier. In Protestantism we have a certain way of linking the regime of avowal and the regime of truth…since precisely avowal and faith come together again in a type of truth act in which adherence to the dogmatic content has the same form as the relation of self to self in subjectivity exploring itself.” (30 Jan. 85)

This is the how, according to Foucault, Western (Christian) man bound himself to the obligation to manifest in truth what he himself is, whereby subjects are the operators, witnesses, objects and products of this truth act process. (6 Feb. 101) So government of the living pertains to government of the self, direction and subjectivation process involving speaking the truth about oneself through the various techniques and modes of direction invented by Western Christianity. Foucault to counter poses this to

Ancient modes of direction and self-reflection. That form of direction (guidance) involved getting the individual to communicate with the order of the world and so by obeying his own reason to comply with the reason that rules the world, such that becoming a master of himself he becomes master of the universe and remembers/ becomes as one with discovering the the higher reality that is in your soul (14,245-6 274). The goal of Greek askesis was autonomy: i.e. to get at the rational principles of conduct, not to reveal secrets of the heart. But once the ecclesiastical institution takes over memory and turns it into a relationship to the truth as dogma and a relation of the self to self the point now is not the rediscovery of being in the depth of oneself not to attain autonomy but to ensure submission. (20 Feb, p. 146)


  1. Weber’s is of course a secularization story regarding inner-worldly asceticism, the making of the modern individual and modern conduct of life. Capitalism needed religious supports but it no longer does once the system gets off the ground and so it dispenses with its religious orientation and foundation. Is Foucault’s a secularization story as well?
  2. Weber thought only new prophets (religious or secular) could develop new action orienting norms and meanings to break through the iron cage that the secularized disciplined self monitoring subjects live in and provide alternatives to the loss of meaning and loss of freedom he thought true of modern western society, yet he feared populist and plebiscitary prophets. What about Foucault? How to revalorize the world and develop an ethics of care of the self that escapes this Christian imaginary yet entails the reflexivity that Foucault himself displayed about identity including his own? Does one need to turn to new prophets (Khomeini) or what other way to generate the “new man”, the child? What new action re-orienting norms, mechanisms and practices and techniques would do the trick?


  1. Ideology too? []

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