François Ewald on “State versus Power: Michel Foucault and political philosophy”

By François Ewald

Translated by Raphaëlle Jean Burns

“It is true that the State interests me, but it interests me only differentially. I do not think that all the powers which are exercised within a society—and that ensure the hegemony of a class, an elite, or a caste in that society—can be entirely reduced to the system of the State. The State, with its grand judicial, military and other apparatuses, represents only the guarantee, the armature of a whole network of powers which passes through other channels, that differ from these main avenues. My task is to produce a differential analysis of the different levels of power in society. As a result, the State occupies an important place in this, but not a preeminent one.” (Dits et Écrits no. 163, II, p.812)

  1. With Penal Theories and Institutions, Michel Foucault sets the stage for his philosophy on political grounds. He reconfigures the game of traditional political philosophy by distinguishing the question of “power” (that he will reformulate from A to Z) from that of the State.

The thesis that I wish to put forward is somewhat paradoxical:

  • On the one hand, to grasp the question of “power,” to isolate its reality as it emerges in these lectures, one must cease to focus on the State and its apparatuses (terms drawn from the Marxist language available at the time, but one should say more generally from all the discourses on the “history of institutions” that make power a matter of State).
  • On the other hand, Foucault’s first take on “power” is precisely formed by way of an analysis of the exercise of State power, of a vast operation of repression against a popular rebellion, by means of a study of the constitution of an apparatus of State (the judicial and police apparatus), or better still, of a procedure (“armed justice”) through which the State manifests itself as a “body” distinct from the person of the king: the birth of the administrative State, with its “apparatuses;” the appropriation/expropriation of offices until then distributed between the nobility and the person of the king.

In fact, this is far from paradoxical: the State, its apparatuses and its institutions, are a screen that is always out of step, always late with respect to the realities of “power” (i.e. of power struggles). If one starts with the State, one misses power. If one starts with power, one understands the State (but also that it is not as essential as it may seem).

  1. In Penal Theories and Institutions, “power” (that is to say “power relations”) is grasped on three levels:

First, a political level: the rituals of a very particular and decisive “political ceremony,” the repression of a popular rebellion, that of the Nu-pieds, the moment of a singular battle in which the power of the State almost definitively annihilates its competitors.

Through an extremely precise description of this seizure of power, Foucault studies a specific form of power relation that he calls “system of repression” (at the time of these lectures, he had not yet elaborated all the vocabulary that he would go on to use to analyze power relations). “System of repression,” “repression”: the modern State (administration, justice, police) is established in function of a logic of repression of popular rebellions. It is a complete form of power relation (no doubt different from that of “sequestration” – The Punitive Society – which is not specific to the State). I say “complete form,” to emphasize that these lectures do not present the preliminary, still clumsy, outline of what we later find in Discipline and Punish for example. In Penal Theories and Institutions Foucault analyzes a specific regime of power – “repression” (a regime of State power) – that does not take the form of surveillance or of discipline, not even of control. It is a form to which he does not return in his later work.

Given Foucault’s critique of those who see repression as the very operation of power (see The Will to Knowledge) – deemed too narrowly juridical a view of the State and of power – it may seem surprising that I should assert the consistency of this figure of power. But there is no contradiction here. The power of the State can very well be repressive, without us having to reduce the multiplicity of power relations to this repression. Precisely, it can be said that the study of power relations at the State level, that is to say of power as “repressive,” concerns itself with the mechanisms that exist only at its own level, that of “political ceremonies,” that Foucault isolates, systematizes and theorizes (he discusses the “dynastic”) in Penal Theories and Institutions, but does not pursue further.

Second, the level of judicial institutions and practices is a micro level, a genealogical level. It is another level, another form of power relations, in no way related to the State. This form is rather that of dispersed micro-powers, relations between agents that are likely to be in conflict, or making claims against each other. The relation of justice is a relation of power: “The rule and the struggle, the rule in the struggle, that is the juridical.” (p.115).

Foucault puts into practice a very original philosophy of law in which the following elements can be distinguished:

  • On the one hand: the notion of “rights” (more so than of “law”). The “rights” correspond to unstable forms of power relations against a backdrop of perpetual and indefinite civil war. Hence the importance of the issue of “rights” for Foucault (even if his is a “critique of rights”).
  • On the other hand: the economic function of juridical relations. The rights are rights of property, that is to say forms of appropriation; it is the immediate economic dimension of power relations. In its (Germanic) origin, justice has no repressive function but one of circulating wealth. The judiciary takes on a repressive form only after a long process of appropriation/expropriation of justices by the State that seeks to make of the judiciary an instrument of the struggle against anti-sedition (here we witness the distinction between “civil” and “penal” law).

Finally the epistemological level of power-knowledge relations.

If we do not read these lectures as a preliminary version of later work, Foucault can then be seen to propose an analysis of power relations on three different levels: the political level (macro, State, dynastic), the juridical level (micro, the juridical is replaced by the normative, genealogical) and the epistemological level (critique). This would then be the theory of the three functions according to Foucault.

  1. This power/State dynamic – in which the two diverge and converge at the same time – continues in Foucault’s later work:
  • In The Punitive Society, the State is very absent. The relation of power is analyzed in its moral dimension: it is concerned with the soul.
  • In The Will to Knowledge, Foucault looks at forms of power relations (biopower) that are implemented for the most part at the level of the State. But the State is once again denounced as a mask: States can appear apposed at the level of juridical appearances and constitutional forms, but in fact they implement the same relations of power.
  • With Security, Territory, Population and The Birth of Biopolitics, the question of government allows Foucault to reformulate the program of the power/State differential. The State becomes the horizon of a governmental practice (reason of State) before the State itself becomes governmentalized (liberalism).

The same differential can be found in Foucault’s own political practice, where the question of the State is not eluded: the case of the GIP, the fight against “security” practices (Klaus Croissant).


Complementary readings in Dits et Écrits:

  • N° 98 : “Par-delà le bien et le mal”
  • N°105 : “Le grand enfermement”
  • N°106 : “Les intellectuels et le pouvoir”
  • N°108 : “Sur la justice populaire”
  • N°125 : “Prisons et révoltes dans les prisons”
  • N°163 : “Michel Foucault. Les réponses du philosophe”