Marx, Foucault and panopticism


As Marx began his analysis of capitalism with that of what lay at its heart, of what suffuses it – the commodity, Foucault began his analysis of western society by describing that society in panoptic extremis – during a plague: ‘It is a segmented, immobile, frozen space. Each individual is fixed in his place…Inspection functions ceaselessly. The gaze is alert everywhere’.1 As the leper was cast out from society into a leprous community, nineteenth century society with its asylums, penitentiaries, schools and hospitals was a composite of outcasts – one built on binary divisions (mad/sane, dangerous/harmless, normal/abnormal) – and against these separated outcasts are ranged the mechanisms of power.

Foucault’s analysis moves from an abstract ideal of power – the Panopticon (designed by Bentham – proponent of the greatest happiness and felicific calculus and author of ‘If pains must come, let them extend to few’) – to its development in panoptic capitalist society. Foucault concludes ‘Is it surprising that the cellular prison…should have become the modern instrument of penalty?’2

Where Bentham’s Panopticon is comprised of a ring of seen packaged around a hub of seeing, Foucault’s panoptic society is a study in the most subtle and unrelenting pain of observation and containment, of a society in which the few masters who view are unknown, diffused amongst their subjects, and whose subjects themselves are their own impossibility of release.

The Panopticon as society is a naturalist – observing, assessing and classifying. It is a laboratory for punishment and experimentation. It supervises – its mechanisms, its personnel, its director. It functions – optimising efficiency, at the basis of society, developing the productive forces. It is institutionally enclosing while societally enforcing – from exceptional discipline to a discipline without bars, locks or chains. The permanently seen, like the chained elephant, are their own benign subjugators. We, as individuals, have become the panoptic machine state – Leviathan gazing down.

Discipline – ‘a type of power, a modality for its exercise, comprising a whole set of instruments, techniques, procedures, levels of application, targets…a technology’3 – developed in knowledge and power, has grown from quarantined and institutional to distributed and panoptic. Disciplines are now co-extensive with the state. They maximise their intensity and profitability at the lowest possible cost. They increase docility and utility. They are the ever-so-discrete techniques of capitalism.

Foucault’s entire argument is abstract and nebulous. In his discussion of panoptic capitalism he referred to class domination and the bourgeoisie once each and not once to the working class. Surplus value becomes ‘surplus power.’4 He wrote that the panopticon ‘represented the abstract formula of a very real technology, that of individuals,’5 of ‘anonymous instruments of power.’6 Observation itself is democratised – anyone can exercise the power of the gaze – ‘The seeing machine…has become a transparent building in which the exercise of power may be supervised by society as a whole.’7 – it is a point that he repeats throughout the chapter. By so doing, he obscured, in effect denied class relations. ‘Disciplines’ and ‘power’ are intentional, not those who employ them, the agents of the dominant class. Foucault wrote ‘It (discipline) must also master all the forces that are formed from the very constitution of an organised multiplicity; it must neutralise the effects of counter-power…which form a resistance to the power that wishes to dominate it.‘8

Compare this with The Communist Manifesto in which the argument is materially anchored in production and the struggle of classes. Where Marx and Engels wrote of what the bourgeoisie do, Foucault wrote of what ‘discipline’ and ‘power’ do. Where the argument of Marx and Engels exposes materially, that of Foucault is autonomous, ominous and miasmic.

Foucault did not understand how nature works, that consciousness as manifest in ‘power’ and ‘discipline’ et cetera does not fundamentally determine the movement of matter, it is a manifestation of it. His account in this chapter is nihilistic – there is no hope, no redeeming truth or principle, no way forward. Foucault did not understand the nature of ‘panopticism’ in relation to capitalism. He argued the rise of panopticism is parallel to the rise of capitalism – that just as the economic take-off of the West began with the accumulation of capital, ‘the methods for administering the accumulation of men made possible a take-off in relation to power from traditional violent forms to subtle subjection.9

He added that these two processes cannot be separated, that the ‘problem’ of the accumulation of men required ‘the growth of an apparatus of production capable of both sustaining them and using them…the techniques that made the cumulative multiplicity of men useful accelerated the accumulation of capital.’10 Even here, where Foucault is at his most confusedly concrete, he thought that ‘each makes the other possible and necessary’11 rather than it being a single process whereby, on the basis of the objective development and refinement of the means of production there was a concomitant development and refinement in the processes of human relations, consciousness and domination.



1. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans., Alan Sheridan, Vintage, New York, 1995, 195

2. Ibid., 227-8

3. Ibid., 215

4. Ibid., 223

5. Ibid., 225

6. Ibid., 220

7. Ibid., 207

8. Ibid., 219

9. Ibid., 221

10. Ibid.

11. Ibid.


On the mystical shaping of self

Auguste Rodin, ’Le Penseur’, 1904, bronze, Musée Rodin, Paris. A testament to both patriarchy and the ‘feminine’ reason of the mystical.

One of the greatest, most fruitful and resonant metaphors in Western culture

From Plotinus:

‘But how are you to see into a virtuous Soul and know its loveliness? Withdraw into yourself and look. And if you do not find yourself beautiful yet, act as does the creator of a statue that is to be made beautiful: he cuts away here, he smoothes there, he makes this line lighter, this other purer, until a lovely face has grown upon his work. So do you also: cut away all that is excessive, straighten all that is crooked, bring light to all that is overcast, labour to make all one glow of beauty and never cease chiselling your statue, until there shall shine out on you from it the godlike splendour of virtue, until you shall see the perfect goodness surely established in the stainless shrine.’

The Enneads, Trans., Stephen MacKenna, Penguin, London, 1991, 54, 1.6.9

through Christianity:

‘A sculptor who wishes to carve a figure out of a block uses his chisel, first cutting away great chunks of marble, then smaller pieces, until he finally reaches a point where only a brush of hand is needed to reveal the figure. In the same way, the soul has to undergo tremendous mortifications at first, and then more refined detachments, until finally its Divine image is revealed.’

through Catholicism

through Cusanus:

‘For the wise thought as if [along the following line]: a craftsman [who] wants to chisel a statue in stone and [who] has in himself the form of the statue, as an idea, produces – through certain instruments which he moves – the form of the statue in imitation of the idea’

De Docta Ignorantia II.10, in Jasper Hopkins, Nicholas of Cusa On Learned Ignorance (De Docta Ignorantia, 1440), The Arthur J. Banning Press, Minneapolis, 1985, 112

through Nietzsche:

‘Man is no longer an artist, he has become a work of art: the artistic power of the whole of nature reveals itself to the supreme gratification of the primal Oneness amidst the paroxysms of intoxication. The noblest clay, the most precious marble, man, is kneaded and hewn here, and to the chisel-blows of the Dionysiac world-artist there echoes the cry of the Eleusinian mysteries, “Do you bow low, multitudes? Do you sense the Creator, world?”‘

Friedrich Nietzsche The Birth of Tragedy Out of the Spirit of Music (1872) Penguin, Trans., Shaun Whiteside, Ed., Michael Tanner 1993, 18

through Foucault:

‘This transformation of one’s self by one’s own knowledge is, I think, something rather close to the aesthetic experience. Why should a painter work if he is not transformed by his own painting?’

in Michel Foucault, Politics, Philosophy, Culture: Interviews and Other Writings 1977-1984,  Ed., Lawrence D. Kritzman, Routledge, London, 1990, 14

And what does the concealed priesthood in academic philosophy, who have failed so profoundly in their social and intellectual responsibility have to say about all this mysticism in their and our midst?

The stupid mystic Wittgenstein spoke for them: ‘What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.’

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921), Trans., D. F. Pears and B. F. McGuinness, Routledge, New York, 2005


Foucault’s shaped subject: from disciplined to the Neoplatonic aesthetics of Self

Michelangelo, ‘David’, marble, 1501-1504, Galleria dell’Accademia di Firenze (Florence)

Michelangelo, ‘David’, marble, 1501-1504, Galleria dell’Accademia di Firenze (Florence)

In Discipline and Punish Foucault developed a view of the subject in a carceral society, in the work of his later years he sought to develop one of an ethical subject with a care for self. Both views are built on a shaped subject – the former by a range of disciplines, the latter by self on a Classical and fundamentally Platonic/Neoplatonic model.

In the chapter ‘The carceral’ Foucault wrote that the opening of Mettray in 1840 was the baptism of a new type of supervision over individuals who resisted normalisation. In the functioning of Mettray were to be found ‘cloister, prison, school, regiment’1 This ushered in a new age of institutions and disciplines which grew from the carceral network, which Foucault called a ‘counter law’ and which the administrative power of state bureaucracies and agencies did nothing to restrict from expanding to dominate modern society.

In this de-centred archipelago of diffuse power, the bureaucrat and the lawyer give legitimacy to the power of wardens, doctors, psychiatrists and teachers who all make punishment seem constructive and humane. They extend the control of the regime by making power most economical and its processes most efficient through internalising it in the bodies of the individuals they work with. Doctors and teachers complement the network of prisons – hospitals and schools are equally instruments of subjugation and subjection. The power to punish is not different from the power to cure and educate. Foucault asked ‘Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons?’2

In a society where all relations are power relations, judges of normality are everywhere – the teacher-judge, the doctor-judge, the ‘social worker’-judge – the universal reign of the normative is based on them and all are subject to it. The carceral network is the greatest support in modern society of normalising power. Teachers, doctors and psychologists are tentacles of normalisation who disperse a manner of living and thinking that originated in the prison. All individuals are shaped by disciplinary power to the requisite form of subjectivity from cradle to grave – their bodies, behaviour and gestures. What we think are aspects of our socialisation and consider reasonable are in fact normalisation, gone beyond socialisation. The subject is not an expression of self. We have all been normalised, lulled into the carceral continuum. The ‘human sciences’ assist in this.

Foucault came to think that his writing in the period of Discipline and Punish put too much emphasis on disciplinary power and passive subjects, that he had not sufficiently considered how the subject constituted their self through their practices and ‘games of truth’. He discussed this in a interview in 1984, published as ‘the ethic of care for the self as a practice of freedom’. Rather than individuals being shaped by disciplinary techniques and prescriptive ethics, he theorised them shaping their selves on the basis of the Platonic and particularly, Neoplatonic model of an aesthetic care for the self.

Not only is power not an evil, it is the play of strategic games (rules for the production of truth) and such a model of care for the self obviated any requirement that the individual conform. When one thinks of, acts for and transforms oneself, one is thinking of others and the person who is thereby free has the power to speak the truth. The ‘beautiful’ individual is not the ‘normal’ person but one who has the courage to transgress. Foucault extended this into the notion of parresia or truth-telling in a rectangular field of competing values comprising isegoria (the right to speak/participate), ascendancy (who does speak?), normative truth and risk.

Foucault made liberty the criterion for an analysis of power. For the Greeks, having an ethos implied a competency to have relationships and to a place in the city and a city comprised of such citizens would function on a stable ethical principle. One only seeks to dominate others when one does not care for one’s self. In the case of pedagogical institutions the concern is not in the fact of the student being taught but in the mere exercise of power for its own sake. Such problems should be addressed through the law, the practice of self and the functioning of the community ethos.

Foucault argued that an ethics of care for the self was an urgent task. But this task is not the activity of an atomised individual, that self-formation requires a teacher and mentor. In the interview he referred to the end of the Alcibiades where that character, whose beauty was fading, said he will become the disciple of Socrates and Socrates his master, guiding him to true beauty. Foucault described this as the individual soul turning its gaze on itself in order to recognise itself and recall the truth to which it is related.

Plato describes this in the Phaedrus: ‘So each selects his love from the ranks of the beautiful according to his own disposition and, as if that love were the very god he followed, fashions and adorns him like a statue for himself, in order to honour him and celebrate his mystic rites. Thus those who belong to Zeus seek that the one loved by themselves should be Zeus-like in respect of his soul; so they look to see whether he is naturally disposed towards philosophy and leadership, and when they have found him and fallen in love, they do everything to make him like this.’3 The essence of this fashioning of another’s soul became the sculptor of Plotinus and Foucault’s real interest – the spiritual aestheticisation of self.4

In his attempt in the interview on care for the self to rise above a career of negativity Foucault is not convincing precisely because he looked not merely to a Classical but more specifically to a Platonic/Neoplatonic model which he agreed with the interviewer should be actualised.5 Foucault described this practice of the self as ‘ascetic’ saying that he used the word much as Weber had used it and this ‘asceticism’ can be traced back to Nietzsche.

In this interview on how to address core problems of modernity there is not merely an argument that if the self is formed ethically the community will reflect the benefits of this (a sound argument) but the ‘self’ referred to, as the man of ‘calling’ and overman in the writing of Weber and Nietzshe is inwardly focused. Further, not only is there a need of labour of self on self but that labour should be an occupation.6 But the interview ended with excellent words: ‘philosophy is precisely the challenging of all phenomena of domination at whatever level or under whatever form they present themselves – political, economic, sexual, institutional, and so on.’ If only that were true.



1. M. Foucault, Discipline and Punish, Trans., Alan Sheridan, Vintage, New York, 1995, 146
2. Ibid., 145
3. Phaedrus 252d5-252e5
4. Foucault said ‘I believe that, in ancient spirituality, there was identity or almost so between spirituality and philosophy. In any case, the most important preoccupation of philosophy revolved about the self, the knowledge of the world coming afterwards, and, most of the time, as a support to this care for self.’ ‘the ethic of care for the self as a practice of freedom,’ interview with Foucault 20.01.84 by Raúl Fornet-Betancourt, Helmut Becker and Alfredo Gomez-Müller.
5. ‘Q.: Should we actualise this notion of care for self, in the classical sense, against this modern thought? MF: Absolutely…’ Ibid.
6. Ibid.