Matt McManus, Marx vs Foucault: Reflections on History and Power, Aero, August 29, 2019
Karl Marx and Michel Foucault are two of the most cited critical theorists in the world today, simultaneously revered or reviled, depending on who you talk to. Their work has been subjected to countless appraisals and debunkings and has met with everything from overzealous acceptance through well-reasoned critique to parodic and bad faith misinterpretations. One of the more interesting recent developments has been the tendency to conflate their thinking, and to present Foucault as essentially carrying on the Marxist tradition by other means. The most well known exponent of this position is Jordan Peterson. Drawing on books like Stephen Hicks’ Explaining Post-Modernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault (critiqued here), in Peterson’s lecture series and 12 Rules for Life, he makes the claim that Marxism was morally bankrupt by the 1960s, once the horrors of the Soviet Union had become widely known and accepted. Rather than abandon the cause, postmodern theorists like Foucault decided to repackage the Marxist framework to sell old wine in new bottles. Where Marx had focused on class oppression, Foucault generalized the oppressor/oppressed binary to claim that power impacted all areas of human life, not just economic and political relations. Therefore what was needed was a total critique of Western civilization and ways of life, which would leave nothing standing, and open the door to a new form of communism or socialism. While Peterson’s account has largely been dismissed as fantastic, even by critics of Foucault and postmodernism like Slavoj Zizek, it has garnered considerable popular support.
2 thoughts on “Marx vs Foucault: Reflections on History and Power (2019)”
Is it really “Foucault News” when a piece is published in a Sokal2 vanity “journal”? Maybe it is, but I can’t help but think that it should come with an objection attached, so here’s one.
The linked piece pretends Jordan Peterson is a good faith participant in scholarly response to Foucault and Marx. When Peterson “debated” Zizek, he opened with the admission that he’d never before even read The Communist Manifesto. The 12 Rules book shows no sign of Peterson’s having actually read Horkheimer or Derrida, though he purports to critique them. This article fails to follow the axiom: don’t feed the trolls.
Peterson is nothing more than a troll when it comes to critical theory in the humanities. His statements about Horkheimer in 12 Rules are so spot-on the same as Andrew Breitbart’s from a 2010 lecture at Redlands — still on YouTube — that watching after reading convinced me that Peterson may have just plagiarized Breitbart’s addled, ignorant complaints. (He didn’t really read Horkheimer either.)
And what does this piece have to say about Foucault? Just that his theory of power formulates it as sheer oppression. That’s a popular even hackneyed — and certainly reductionist — attitude about Foucault by detractors for decades, as if he didn’t open HS1 urging us to abandon the repressive hypothesis. There are smart versions of that argument (e.g. Nancy Fraser), but this piece isn’t one. And the exigency for the argument in this case is to separate Foucault from Marx to contradict the way that Peterson’s work supposedly conflates them. 12 Rules and other Peterson “texts” do collapse most critical theorists into a single tendency, but with less accuracy than scribbling notes while hiding around the corner from first-year university students chatting in the hall about assigned readings in a theory intro before they’ve had a chance to attend the pertinent class session. Peterson’s so-called work on theory is for a constituency that seeks confirmation bias for their bigotries and can be trusted not to check up on him by actually reading the work he spurns.
Even the abstract above offers a caricature of a Foucault who couldn’t possibly have written “What Is Enlightenment?” late in his career ’cause he was too busy trying to raze Western civilization to the ground. Really, could this account of Foucault appear anywhere but Areo or Quillette (the other bogus review that the author frequents)?
Thanks for this remark. I did think twice about posting this. I completely agree with you about Peterson and have commented to that effect in an earlier post on Foucault News. I like to keep people up to date with a range of what’s going on in relation to Foucault and I have noticed a growing volume of quite strident ‘disinformation’ in relation to his work – that I don’t give air time to on Foucault news. This one was sitting on the border.