Sunday, 10 March 2013

Lukes on Foucault, Scott and false consciousness

The first edition of Steven Lukes' by now classic treaty Power: A Radical View (originally published in 1974) became famous for its discussion of a "third" dimension of power - the power to influence desires and beliefs - which existed next to the power to prevail in decision making and agenda-setting power. The new edition, from 2005, contains the entire original text plus two new chapters.  

One of the interesting additions is the confrontation with Foucault in chapter two. It is a pity that Lukes engages primarily with one particular foucauldian position, the “ultraradical” view that there is no escaping power and that the subject itself is entirely constituted by power, a position that would undermine any notion of freedom or rationality. Rejecting this position is fine, but Lukes would have benefitted, I think, from also engaging with Foucault’s other explorations in power, where there is much that I don’t think can be adequately captured by Lukes' classification of three faces of power. The idea of governmentality, for instance, led Foucault to theorize about the rise of a special kind of power, which he refers to as bio-power but which is perhaps better described as a regulation of self-regulation. This is a kind of power which is exercised over agents, institutions or systems, such as the economy, that are recognized to possess a relative measure of autonomy or freedom from direct intervention by outside agents. Lukes mentions governmentality in passing in order to claim that with these ideas Foucault somehow fell back into recognizing an autonomous subject (thus retreating from his ultraradicalism), but that's hardly a fair account of Foucault. The autonomy of the subject or of the systems which Foucault talks about is relative, itself a product of power, or, to be more precise, of the recognition by power-holders that things like the economy can only be indirectly steered if they are to produce the desired effects. What never appears to strike Lukes is that such a form of power doesn’t fit neatly into his three-fold classification.

I wonder if this does not point to a serious omission in Lukes’ classification. Apart from the rather sketchy “conceptual map” he provides in chapter two, he is concerned mainly with how power can make people agree or consent to domination. What seems to be missing here is the recognition that one important way in which power can be exercised is by inducing people to act in accordance with the aims or interests of power regardless of their conscious thoughts. Such mechanisms could for instance operate through the indirect steering described by Foucault. It can also operate through social mechanisms such as the “sorting” of young working-class lads described by Paul Willis in Learning to Labour. As Willis showed, power completely failed to produce “consent” among the unruly lads, but ironically this very failure steered them into low-paid working-class jobs. To put this in Marxist terms, the lads successfully resisted the hegemony of bourgeois values, but their very resistance turned out to have an ideological function. The possible objection that such an indirect mechanism of power is not real power since it is not - or at least is not openly admitted to be - intended or condoned by the powerful should hardly trouble Lukes, since he himself argues that the “third” form of power is often exercised to produce consent in such unintended fashion.

Speaking of ideology, I liked Lukes' provocative but refreshing defense of notions like “real” interests” and “false consciousness” near the end of chapter three. Notwithstanding his criticism of Gramsci and Lukács, Lukes ends up defending the possibility of what is essentially a (weak version of) ideology criticism. This is interesting considering how generally discredited the old jargon of “false consciousness” has become. Lukes makes ideology criticism palatable by pointing out, firstly, that employing a notion of “real interests” does not have to presuppose any privileged access to truth. What counts as “real interests” simply depends on the researcher's choice of theoretical framework. In a materialist explanation, “real interests” will be material interests, and so on. Speaking of “real interests” thus becomes a relative thing, subject to the same - ultimately hypothetical - status as all scientific theorizing. Secondly, he concedes that the “third” form of power is never more than partically successful. To use a simile, it might inebriate but it doesn’t produce cultural dopes. These two lines of defense seem quite sensible to me and also seem to be in line with the best Marxist theorizing. I think for instance of how ideology is theorized by critical theorists like Adorno who argue that the ideological Schein or semblance can never be total. Ideology must contain traces of the whole, of the real contradictions from which it springs.

Finally, I found myself agreeing with Lukes in his criticism of James Scott. Scott’s rejection of the idea of false consciousness in Domination and the Arts of Resistance probably fits those societies or situations best where coercion is overt and “free spaces” nevertheless exist where the oppressed can share their thoughts. “In societies and situations where coercion is less overt or absent, and inequalities more opaque, the question of how to interpret quiescence is all the more acute” (Lukes 2005:131). Lukes refers to Gaventa’s classical study of powerlessness as a useful study exploring this issue, and in relation to my own research I think that the trauma of defeat for a social movement may be one way in which such quiescence can be produced. Collective traumas can have as one of their effects what might be termed a discursive defeat that brings about a shattering of the subaltern narratives and discourses that Scott calls hidden transcripts. Trauma, then, may be one mechanism through which Lukes' "third" form power is exercised.

So let me sum up my harvest: Foucault is still fruitful to study. Ideology criticism is possible. Power may be exercised by traumatization.

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