Sun Dec 18, 2011, 08:32 PM
Deep13 (38,964 posts)
OWS, Foucault, and the Nature of Power [View all]
During the second half of the last century, French philosopher Michel Foucault developed a revolutionary theory of power relationships. Previous theories like Marxism and liberalism describe power as emanating from concentrations of power in the form of economic, social, and political elites. This power descends from the rulers to subjugated classes. Even in the liberal, democratic model, democracy merely serves as a check on power elites. What was different about Foucault was that he understood that centers of power were an illusion. It does not flow from the governing to the governed. Rather it is diffuse and decentralized touching everyone.
"When I think of the mechanics of power, I think of its capillary form of existence, of the extent to which power seeps into the very grain of individuals, reaches right into their bodies, permeates their gestures, their posture, what they say, how they learn to live and work with other people."
(Foucault, interview J.L. Brochier.) Power centers only work because a person’s behavior and thoughts are self-regulating. This is a direct result of the surveillance society. When Foucault spoke of surveillance, he did not mean a passive watching, but surveillance with active supervision. Again, it is important to understand the supervision is largely self-imposed. A person internalizes and naturalizes the values of her or his society and constantly checks her thinking and actions against that standard. This self-regulating behavior touches every aspect of our thoughts, feelings, and actions and informs our feelings on large-scale ideology like patriotism and religion, but also on the most intimate matters such as gender identity.
The cause of self-surveillance is the apprehension of authoritarian surveillance. Foucault illustrates the effect by describing a peculiar prison called the Panopticon. It consisted of a cylindrical arrangement of cells built around a single guard tower. The point is that the prisoners do not know when they are being watched, so they watch themselves and regulate their own behavior. The prison system classifies and compartmentalizes people into narrow categories, but it is not the only institution to do so. Surveillance, classification, compartmentalization, and objectification characterize every institution and aspect of culture and thought. This self-surveillance and regulation is what is meant by “knowledge is power.” The point of all this is that power does not belong to the powerful. It exists in every person in a very real sense. It is important to remember that Foucault presents a postmodern, industrial age phenomenon that has grown out of the classification, surveillance, and compartmentalization of modern life. Foucauldian power relations are not organic to human society generally.
This brings me to my main point. While Foucault was not a revolutionary philosopher like Marx was, his observations point to the vulnerability of the present system. Without the appearance or air of authority, the present power structure simply ceases to exist. The OWS movement implicitly understands this. It is not a revolutionary movement in the conventional sense. It does not seek merely to replace the heads of authority—whether governmental or economical. Rather, it seeks to replace the existing power structure entirely. Do not think of OWS as an interest group or a political party. When it claims to be (rather than to represent) the 99%, it means it literally. The entire 99% may not be on the street protesting and many of them are still stuck in their habits of self-surveillance and conformity. Nevertheless, the advent of instantaneous, decentralized communication has caused the masses to turn the surveillance tables onto the existing power elites.
I realize I am generalizing the OWS movement. Specific individuals want specific things of course and on some details they may even be at cross-purposes. On the large scale, however, OWS represents a genuine, inevitable, and irresistible threat to those who imagine themselves in power. The movement is in its infancy presently, but as the fascist-capitalist system creates more victims out of what was once the middle class, more and more will realize that there is no political remedy. In 2006 and 2008, the electorate demanded changed. Having failed to deliver fundamental change, the electorate again turned to its only option and put the Republicans back office. Now, approval ratings strongly suggest that most people have given up on the present system. Those with a vested interest in the present system—the military/prison/industrial complex—know they have reason to fear. A similar movement brought partial revolution to Egypt and Libya and hopefully will eventually bring down the Syrian dictatorship. Meanwhile, rioting against nationalized debt slavery fills the streets in Europe.
Consider another aspect of how self-surveillance turns the table of knowledge and power on the oppressors. In the 19th century, the white, Christian, heterosexual patriarchy established nuclear family model for the industrial, middle class. Our whole society was build around it: law, economy, church, school all caused people to engage in self-surveillance and self-regulation toward the white, male-dominated, hetero norm. Scientific and medical professionals increasingly classified sexual behavior that deviated from that norm as abnormal and criminal. The classification and compartmentalization of persons turned practices into identity. One went from performing sodomy to being a homosexual; sex went from a verb to a noun. This kind of objectification still exists in the penal system (a criminal, a drug offender, a pedophile) and in the medical system (a diabetic, an amputee, an alcoholic) as if that one aspect of a person defines the whole person.
By turning that knowledge-power around, object groups acquire subjectivity. For examples, gay rights advocates have taken the idea of sexuality as identity to press for civil rights with considerable success. This is despite the logical inconsistency of arguing both that alternative orientations are both atypical and in need of protection and a different kind of normal in need of acceptance. Feminism and gay identity politics is a direct threat to the white, hetero patriarchy and it knows it. The resistance to gay and female rights ought to make that obvious. If subjugated, objectified groups can find subjectivity in their own self-surveillance, what is to stop the rest of us? On a basic, possibly subconscious, level, OWS protesters know this.
There is no leadership, spokespersons, or official demands of OWS for the simple reason that the nation need not define itself in opposition to anything else. By creating demands or selecting leaders, the movement would define itself in opposition to the status quo casting itself as “the other” and apart from what is normal. Further, a specific leadership renders it vulnerable to decapitation by removing that leadership by arrest, death, or bribery. OWS and any larger movement that grows from it ought to continue to avoid that trap by remaining a decentralized movement. The goal of OWS is not to replace the existing power system or to put pressure on liberal or progressive (whatever that might mean) politicians. We are way beyond liberal solutions.
Liberalism holds that one can make improvements to the human condition within the institutional establishment by tweeking the existing system. In this sense, it is a close relative of conservatism, which holds that improvement comes by complying with existing rules. Liberal, representative democracy institutionalizes class conflict to create a struggle of interests within the legal system. In the case of the European power structure (including its settler states like the USA), that balance has been damaged to the point where the laboring classes no longer possess the political resources to exercise political agency. Instead of fixing or overthrowing the current system, OWS seeks an organic replacement. At some point, the movement will simply be the nation and perhaps more than that. After all, we will eventually have to admit that humanity has outgrown its collection of nation states.
During the French revolution, representatives of the third estate declared that they were the nation. That was a preindustrial society before mass communication, so they were being figurative. In our case it is close to literally true. The representatives of the third estate sitting as a committee simply became the national legislature. This is why distinctions between public and private resources or the idea of observing local property regulations is rather silly. OWS is no more trespassing on public land than Washington’s army was trespassing at Valley Forge. If we no longer recognize the authority of the Mayor or government of New York City, for example, then we do not recognize its ability to regular where, when, or how we assemble. It is absurd for us to decry the immorality of laws that allow banks to commit highway robbery while still fretting over camping regulations. It is not so much that the Constitution grants or protects the right to protest. Rather, OWS as the embodiment of the nation need not look to any authority above or outside itself. The fact that OWS is present on Wall Street or some other meeting place is its own justification.
If it seems like people who would ordinarily support the Democrats are skeptical or are unenthusiastic, it is because we know that the political contest is a sideshow. The reason it is “Occupy Wall Street” and not “Occupy the Capitol” is because we know that Washington is a puppet theater and that gambling on change by playing party politics is a sucker’s game. Again, the idea is not simply to replace leaders or to enact specific reforms. OWS seeks to replace the entire political, social, and economic culture with a wider sense of human community. It already conducts itself in that manner. Rather than leaders with the prerogative to make decisions for the group, OWS operates on consensus. It is clear from the past ten or twelve years that there is no political, institutional solution for what ails us. Fortunately, we do not need one.
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OWS, Foucault, and the Nature of Power [View all]
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