Bernard E. Harcourt | Foucault and Marx circa 1978: The Owl of Minerva

By Bernard E. Harcourt

“Our Machiavelli of our own is indeed Marx: everything is said through him, even if it is not all located in his work.”[1]

It was in passing on 8 March 1978 in his lectures on Security, Territory, Population that Foucault made this aside—a minor comment what would turn out to be, in my opinion, a deeply insightful, important, and self-reflective diagnosis of his times and of the discourse in which he himself was embedded, perhaps felt trapped. Truth is, in the 1970s in France, most political theory was said through Marx, whether it was on the Left or on the Right, from Louis Althusser to Raymond Aron. That had certainly been the case for the early Foucault of the 1950s, but also of his first years at the Collège de France in the early 1970s—especially his lectures on Penal Theories and Institutions (1971-72) and The Punitive Society (1972-73).

Yet it is precisely by means of the specific notion of “security” at the heart of Security, Territory, Population—a term which Foucault would gradually subsume under the more copious rubric of “governmentality” during the 1 February 1978 lecture (see esp. STP French edition p. 111)—that Foucault would liberate himself from the problem of “the State” and of “State apparatuses,” a problem that had preoccupied him for so long and so centrally, as evidenced by those lectures in 1971-1972 and 1972-1973 on Penal Theories and Institutions and The Punitive Society. Foucault liberates himself from the notion of state apparatuses, in 1978, by going “outside” (« à l’extérieure[2] ») of the State, just as in Discipline and Punish he had gone “outside” the prison.

In his lectures in 1978, Foucault finally manages to place the State back within Western history, or at least French history. The State, he discovers, emerged at a given moment—with the birth of the doctrines and debates over political necessity or “raison d’État” at the end of the 17th century—and it emerged as one specific form of this art of governing that had previously taken the form of pastoral shepherding and that would eventually take the form of outsourcing, privatization, and reregulation, i.e. of American neoliberalism[3].

What Foucault would attempt to do, explicitly, would be to “place the emergence of the State as a fundamental political issue within a more general history that is a history of governmentality, or, better yet, within the field of practices of power.”[4] Thus, the State, somewhat like the conception of Man in The Order of Things, becomes an object-subject that emerges in the history of the art of governing, but that is perhaps in the process of dissolving today “just like, at the limit of the sea, a face drawn in the sand.”[5] “The state,” says Foucault, “is a peripeteia of governmentality.”[6]

It is in the development of this train of thought, in the context of a discussion of the debates surrounding raison d’État in the 16th century, that Foucault turns to Machiavelli, the foil for so much of the writing on the “true reason of state,” notably the very first text that would name the “reason of state,” the work of Botero by that name dating back to 1589. Within Machiavelli’s work itself, Foucault argues, there was no art of governing. Nevertheless, Machiavelli’s name would always be associated “at the heart of the debate during this entire period, from 1580 to 1650–1660.”[7] Foucault then goes on to say:

He is at the center of the debate insofar as everything is said through him, even though everything does not pass through him. […] He did not define the art of governing, but it is in what he said that they would all search for what the art of governing really is. After all, though, this is not new or unique—this discursive phenomenon where we go look for what is happening somewhere even though we are only trying in fact to say something through it. Our Machiavelli of our own, from this point of view, is indeed Marx: everything is said through him, even if it is not located in his work.[8]

In the very same breath, of course, Foucault would effectively overcome the problem of repressive state apparatuses by means of the very notion of “governmentality”: with that discovery, the State became no more than one moment of the long history of the arts of governing. And, in our neoliberal age, one compromised and fading moment—today, one mere element of a far larger Lernaean Hydra of multinationals, social media, retailers, etc.

One might wonder whether it was only when Foucault could utter this pregnant aside that he had fully liberated himself from Marx, that he had finally escaped the Althusserian problem of repressive State apparatuses. The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of dusk.



Portions of this essay are drawn from “Rereading Penal Theories and Institutions” in Three Essays in Criminal Justice (2015).

[1] « Notre Machiavel à nous, de ce point de vue-là, c’est bien Marx : ça ne passe pas par lui, mais ça se dit à travers lui. » Foucault, Sécurité, territoire, population, p. 249 ; translated slightly differently in Security, Territory, Population, at p. 243.

[2] STP, p. 120.

[3] Cf. STP, French edition at p. 120-122 and 253.

[4] STP, French edition at p. 253; English edition at p. 247

[5] MC, p. 398.

[6] STP, p. 253.

[7] STP, p. 248.

[8] Foucault, Sécurité, territoire, population, French edition at p. 249; translated slightly differently in Security, Territory, Population, at p. 243.