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Karl Marx’s and Michel Foucault’s Analysis of the Concept Power

The writings of Marx (1818-1883) and Foucault (1926-1984) which had their roots in Social Theory generated a lot of debate as well as controversy. They both dwelt much on issues ranging from social, political to economics besides asserting and presenting different sometimes similar theories. Social behavior is a major subject in their works. Furthermore, their artistic works were considered to be very influential portraying significant trends of sociological thinking. One of the concepts in their literature is that of power. In this paper, I am going to inclusively compare and contrast their individual ideas on power.

Foucault discusses power more in its central point rather than the lower levels of it. The main concern, he says “should be the point where power surmounts the rules of right” (96). He feels that the origin and institutions of power play the most important role. The power of punishment according to Foucault has been incorporated in several other institutions both locally and regionally.

These institutions have been given the power to imprison and torture. He asserts that power should not be looked at from the “internal point of view” (Foucault 97). Whoever has power should not be the concern at all because power influence emanates from the outer spheres. Furthermore, Foucault asserts that power is executed through a “net-like organization” (98). Individual persons are found within this net of power and they also exercise the same power though under different capacities. They are used to transfer power from one point to another and generally act as blood capillaries in the human body. In the contrary, power is not directly applied through these persons; they can just experience the flow of power but they are powerless to exercise it.

However, an individual should not be misconstrued to be damaged as the network of power. Foucault believes that he is a “prime effect of power” (98). In other words, power cannot be articulated without the presence of an individual. Any positive or negative effects that power elicits are as a result of an individual.

At some point, the above writer takes a different course altogether. As much as power has an elaborate network of its operation, it cannot go beyond a certain point. Although we all have power in our bodies, Foucault notes that we should not agree that “power is the best-distributed thing in the world, although, in some sense, that is indeed so” (99). In his submission, he thinks that the other precaution to take when it comes to power is to avoid any attempt of deducing its epicenter with an attitude of discovering how far it goes deep down. It is, however, advisable, to analyze power from the base where structures are well established and known. He gives an example of the bourgeoisie class of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. If the descending analysis is done, it would be deduced that they were ever the most powerful, an idea with which the writer disagrees.

His fifth precaution on power is that “mechanisms of power have been accompanied by ideological productions” (Foucault 102). Several ideologies have been put forward for instance ideologies on education, monarchy, democracy, parliamentary among others. The writer disagrees with this saying what has happened is not ideological at all. It is either an excess or limited ideology. For example, instead of education, there has been the creation of a favorable ground for education to take place. When power is exercised through such mechanisms, it can transform a lot of things.

A new mechanism of power emerged during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This new form of power was completely different from the one before in the sense that “it is more dependent upon bodies and what they do than upon the Earth and its products” (Foucault 104). This power mechanism gives due importance to “time and labor, rather than wealth and commodities” (Foucault 104). It has to be supervised for it to work well. The bourgeoisie society is associated with this new kind of power. They pursued an economic policy of capitalism which made them powerful as they were. He adds that it is not a sovereign power but a disciplinary one. He further highlights that power is an “object of research” (123). It is used to explore different possibilities at different times by different players. According to him, power is used in war to learn more about the enemy and perhaps to test the weapon strength.

Marx Karl and Friedrich Engel however, discuss the concept of power in terms of class struggles. The economic strength and the policy of capitalism as propagated by German takes the center stage in their writing. As he notes down “in the development of productive forces there comes a stage when productive forces and means of intercourse are brought into being…” (“Marx-Engels Reader” 192). These forces of production are by themselves power. According to their opinion, these forces include money and machinery and they are indeed powerful. Unfortunately, these forces are not put to good use and they have turned out to be useless. As a result, a lower class, called the proletarians has to bear the burden of suffering. This is a class with the highest population in society. From it, a possible revolution may come but since they do not possess power, nothing significant can be achieved. Besides, it is only the ruling class (bourgeoisie) that can dictate when and how to apply money and machinery for the purpose of production. They hold the society at ransom when it comes to economic power. Lower classes are even compelled to revolt against the economically sound class but they cannot achieve this easily since their economic power is low. For all the revolutions, Marx and Engels say “the mode of activity always remained unscathed…” (“Marx and Engels Reader”193). Division of labor is done away with by the communist regime. It also abolishes any class domination and power. This exhibits itself as another wave of power that overrules even the bourgeoisie class. Communism eventually become extremely powerful and takes over the place of the seemingly powerful class.

The manifesto of the Communist Party was “published as the platform of the Communist League…” (Marx & Friedrich “Manifesto of the Communist Party” preface.). This manifesto was initially meant for Germany but it later spread internationally. It gained so much ground with the time that it became a “historical document” (Marx & Friedrich “Manifesto of the Communist Party” 6). As a result, no one could alter it and it became power by itself. Due to the strength of the Communist Party and its manifesto, Communism, according to Marx and Engels had been “acknowledged by all European powers to be itself power” (”Manifesto of the Communist Party” 6).

However, the co-writers explore more on the concept of power and economic class struggles involving the Bourgeoisie and Proletarians. These two societal classes based on economic strength seem to be the source of and end of power. Of great interest is the contemporary bourgeois society which “sprouted from the ruins of feudal society” (Marx & Friedrich “Manifesto of the Communist Party” 8). It is still pursuing class opposition as a source of power. In fact, it has created other classes; a new set of rules applied in oppression and replaced the old styles of struggles with the new ones. This is how they derive and control power. When America was invented, it fueled and strengthened the bourgeoisie. The Chinese and Indian markets to the East alongside American colonization and trading activities meant increasing power for the bourgeoisie (Marx & Friedrich “Manifesto of the Communist Party” 8). In this context, the modern bourgeoisie class is viewed as “a product of a long course of development…” (Marx & Friedrich “Manifesto of the Communist Party” 9). Their success and power are obtained from transitional changes arising from production and commerce. Whenever the bourgeoisie class progressed economically, it also grew politically and this meant more and more power. As one class advanced and became powerful, another one went down and would be oppressed even harder.

Marx and Engel continue to hurl insults to the oppressive bourgeoisie saying that “…it has torn away from the family its sentimental veil…” ( “Manifesto of the Communist Party” 10). The family value is no longer there. The fabric that unites the family is torn. It is money that defines a family. Money has turned all the good family values into a big mess. This is all because of the power-hunger by the bourgeoisie class. They feel that power is vested in money and that is why they give it all due respect. Moreover, they have exploited the market in a big way in order to remain powerful. As capital grows so are the bourgeoisie class and this is the same rate the contemporary working group also known as the ‘proletariat grows’ (Marx & Friedrich “Manifesto of the Communist Party” 14). These laborers only work to make a living and are worst affected by market rise and fall. They cannot compete with the superclass, the bourgeoisie. This means that they are powerless, being members of the lower class.

We have a lower level of the middle class comprising of shopkeepers, handicraftsmen, and other peasants eventually find their trap among the proletariat since their marginal capital is not adequate to compete with well-established capitalists among the bourgeoisie (Marx & Friedrich ”Manifesto of the Communist Party”15). The proletariat then supersedes them and they remain powerless.

In an interesting turn of events, the economically disadvantaged lot within the lower middle class begins to fight the powerful bourgeoisie so that they can also become powerful (Marx & Friedrich “Manifesto of the Communist Party” 17). They do this with the sole intention of protecting their survival. Marx continues to visualize the power concept in terms of capital. In his view, capital is not an individual product but more important is that it is “a social status in production” (21). In power terms, capital is a “social power” (Marx & Friedrich “Manifesto of the Communist Party” 21).

In a different perspective altogether, Marx explores the power of labor in relation to capital. According to him, labor is power because without it capital cannot be created. The working day should be commensurate to capital (Marx & Friedrich “Manifesto of the Communist Party” 147). The high class utilizes labor power from the peasants by poor reward and so they continue to remain powerful (bourgeoisie).

In conclusion, it is evident that Marx and Foucault discuss power from different perspectives but their ideas agree at some point. Their outlook on the concept of power triggers emotions at some point. However, it is evident that the influence of power forms a very integral part of any society. Depending on how it is exercised, power can generate either negative or positive results.

These authors explore mostly the undesirable impacts of power. They achieve this through different if not similar perspectives.

They strike a balance when both of them point out that power was mostly vested among the bourgeoisie. This was a very influential class that existed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. They had a very strong economic power.

It was a ruling class that controlled virtually every aspect of society. They pursued the economic policy of capitalism by investing more capital in both agricultural and industrial production. The proletarians on the other hand were the common working people. They had no power because of their marginal earnings. They could not invest heavily in up markets which were already being dominated by the Bourgeoisie.

Foucault, on the other hand, points out that the origin of power is internal rather than external. Power emanates from the outer spheres. The external source of power is more significant than the internal one. He further emphasizes that individuals are usually used as “vehicles” that transport power from one point to another. They belong to a power network. The network is like a string intertwined together. Besides, he has a general feeling that power cannot exist without the presence of individuals who make up power itself.

Works Cited

Foucault, Michel. Power/Knowledge, Selected Interviews and Other Writings. trans…Gordon, C. Marshal, L. Pantheon Books New York 1980.

Marx, Heinrich Karl, Friedrich Engels. Manifesto of the Communist Party in Basic Writings on Politics and Philosophy. pp.Anchor Pub. Co., Garden City, NY, 1959.

Marx, Heinrich Karl, Friedrich Engels. Marx-Engels Reader.2nd ed.W.W Norton &Company New York 1978, 1972.