Freedom and Resistance to Power: Reconciling Foucault and Spinoza

By Julian Roney

For Michel Foucault power is omnipresent. It may be violent or dominating, but it is within the more subtle tactics that coerce and structure the growth of individuals where it is most pervasive. The necessary immanence of resistance to relationships of power hangs problematically over Discipline and Punish, however it is not until The Subject and Power and later works where Foucault explains its practicability.[1] This essay will address Foucault’s continual reworking of his genealogy of power and his account of resistance to governmental technologies of power. In evaluating resistance against historical criticisms I seek to provide clarification on the efficacy, coherence and consistency of it and argue that Foucault’s account of the ethics of the concern for the self does not suitably address governmentality in relation to the body. The final section of this essay is dedicated to reconciling this through a Spinozist intertextual understanding. This essay begins by enquiring as to the nature of the subject which Foucault privileges, and the process by which the body is subjected to power relations.

As the strategic position necessary to analyse the constituting process of subjection, Foucault decentralises the subject of metaphysical discourses. The question to ask is not “what is enlightenment”, but “who is enlightenment”? The subject, for Kant and Descartes, is a consciousness which intuits objective knowledge of the necessary structures of its reality, “devoid of passions, committed solely to truth.” [2] The subject of the enlightenment remains immune to the historical conditions it is embedded in, as such, Foucault rejects a priori theories of the subject to analyse the relationship between that subject and practices of power.[3] As such, Foucault’s method is tasked with exposing the body, rather than the sovereign consciousness, as it is imprinted by history and the processes by which history produces the truth of the subject.[4] The subject which we are invited to free is therefore not a sovereign interiority, but a material form. The subject and the imprints of the body are the productive consequence of power relations.

The rise of the totalising techniques of governmentality, which began in the eighteenth century, celebrates the birth of the ‘modern state’ as it exists today.[5] Government, in Foucault’s use of the word, is best understood not as an entity, but rather a method, or as he describes at times, a certain rationale.[6] To govern then becomes a practice of guidance; to lead someone along a certain trajectory and to delimit and structure the possible field of their actions, as depicted in this essay’s title image.[7] Struggles of power in the governmental model are less a confrontation between opposing vectors than they are a recalcitrance of the will against more subtle techniques. The possible field of confrontation is itself demarcated within the matrix of governmental power. Resistance to governmentality must take on a different form to that of domination, and one which does not oppose power itself, but harnesses it. The question which must be answered to oppose the techniques of governmental power is this: how can the practice of freedom be made possible within a totalising schema of individualisation? The question which Foucault points to is in fact asked of Alcibiades: “what is the art with which we take care of ourselves?”.[8] In recourse to the Greeks, Foucault offers an account of resistance which originates within the subject itself. This involves an active fashioning or constitution of the self against the external powers which normalise, subjectivise and delimit the conduct of the individual. This may be effective against certain techniques of governmentality if, through the practice of freedom, an individual is capable of denying its teleological aims and recovering a larger field of possible conduct. Therefore, it is out of the art, or techne, of governing oneself that the oppositional techniques of governmentality can be resisted. The objective of resistance, then, is for an individual not to reject or confront power, but to wield it for productive means.

Throughout his oeuvre Foucault has explicitly spoken of the immanence of resistance to relationships of power. This has been consistent from D&P to Ethics and exploring it serves the function of establishing how, and on what, power operates. In D&P, Foucault foregrounds a ‘micro-physics of power’, wherein power is exerted on the body but operates on its forces.[9] The bio-political account of power can therefore be understood within the context where, while power is not something which is possessed, the relationship between power and the body depends on the body’s power of acting; the body is immersed in the web of power relations. This is consistent with Foucault’s later admission that a relationship of power is indirect, in that it cannot act immediately on others but acts upon actions themselves.[10] This is shown in the master-slave case. The extent to which a person is enslaved is dependent on their constraint; “the [hu]man…in chains” is physically determined insofar as their body has no power of acting.[11] For Foucault, it is only regarding absolute domination or physical restraint, where it makes no sense to speak of power. In this example, freedom, or at least resistance, is dependent on the body’s possibility of action, as “escape or …flight”.[12] Every relationship of power is therefore predicated on resistance, ‘in potentia’.[13] Consequently, where it is possible to speak of power, it is necessary to speak of the obstinacy of resistance, as it manifests in and is the precondition for relationships and struggles of power. There is continuity in Foucault’s work, which I have shown across D&P and S&P, regarding the site on which power relations occur. Power is an action upon an action, but occurring at the site of the body insofar as it maintains the possibility of resistance.

Historically, Foucault’s account of resistance has attracted significant attention with varying receptions, owing, at least in part, to Foucault’s somewhat ambiguous treatment of it. This essay will evaluate it against three criticisms. The first, as a matter of efficacy, is Edward Said, who criticises Foucault for offering a ‘profoundly pessimistic’ view of power which lacks interest in effective resistance against ‘tyrannical’ forms of power.[14] This claim may be reinforced by Foucault’s early focus on the micro-physics of power over a macroscopic account of collective revolts, such as the liberation struggle of colonised peoples or against the ‘tyranny’ akin to dictatorial power. However, as has been discussed, if freedom, or resistance, is the ontological condition of possibility for power to be exerted, then Said’s claim of pessimism is myopic; where there is power there is always resistance. The second objection I raise addresses Foucault’s explicit deconstruction of ‘the diseases of power’; Fascism and Stalinism.[15] If power is conceptualised outside of the superstructural positions of state and ideology, and as productive rather than prohibitive, then the totalising techniques of authoritarian regimes can be understood to their full effect.[16] Through an analysis of power at the micro-political level, Foucault exposes the point of conflict between the subject and larger regimes of power. As he states, “one must analyse institutions from the standpoint of power relations”.[17] Furthermore, Foucault affirms that an analysis of micro-powers “comes back without difficulty” to the problematic of government and state.[18] As such, Foucault’s account of resistance cannot be conceived as pessimistic or disinterested in the macro-political sphere of power relations.

The second criticism of resistance arises in respect to Foucault’s treatment of the question “why resist?”. Power relations are not bad in themselves—wielding power strategically is in fact part of sexual and amorous relationships—however they are always at risk of becoming states of domination. [19] Since “society cannot exist without power relations,” Foucault suggests that the problem then becomes how to govern relationships with as little domination as possible.[20] However, normative justifications for why freedom from domination is an ethically desirable objective remain absent in Foucault’s account of resistance. Jürgen Habermas’ criticism that resistance is deprived of its requisite “normative yardstick” is well put; Foucault cannot argue what is wrong with submission to governmental techniques of power without a moral criterion of correctness.[21] Muckelbauer suggests that there is purposeful rejection of normative ethical imperatives since they are premised on an assumedly free and autonomous agent.[22] For Foucault, there is no sovereign individual who engages in the world of her concern. If the un-coerced will is a utopian fiction, then one has to analyse the extent to which Foucault is expected to offer an ethics which ultimately assumes equal autonomy of all individuals.[23] The question to ask of Habermas’ criticism is: does this absence undermine the coherence of Foucault’s account of resistance? It seems that resistance is entirely possible even without it, though it proceeds with acknowledged limitations. Foucault tasks himself with exploring “the possibility of no longer being what we are and to give impetus to freedom” over prescribing an ethical criterion for resistance; as he states “the role of the intellectual is not to tell others what… to do”.[24] While a ‘normative yardstick’ remains absent in Foucault’s genealogy, it does not contradict his rather explicit program for freedom.

The third charge against Foucault, which Zizek upholds, offers two accounts of resistance which are ultimately irreconcilable.[25] What lies at the heart of Zizek’s criticism is Foucault’s theoretical shift within his genealogy of power in his later work. This shift allowed Foucault to expand his initial focus on docile bodies and domination in D&P in order to explore the relationship between the constitution of the subject and the powers of the state. This is expressed in the following statement: “If one wants to analyze the genealogy of the subject…he [sic] has to take into account…the points where the techniques of the self are integrated into structures of coercion and domination. The contact point… is… government”.[26] Foucault does not so much abandon his analysis of power as domination as realise that this cannot represent the entirety of the exploitation of asymmetries of power; domination is only one effect of technologies of government.[27] If, as Thompson suggests, Foucault came to favour his ‘later’ account of resistance then the theoretical shift represents less the positing of a ‘new’ theory of resistance than it does the continual reworking of an initial hypothesis so as to be able to account for different types of power.[28] Foucault’s account of resistance is not therefore limited by an ‘irreconcilability’ or indeed undermined by this charge in any significant respect

Absent in Foucault’s account of resistance, however, is an adequate explanation of how it relates to the body. This absence is relevant when examining the consistency of Foucault’s early and later texts; however in looking outside of Foucault’s work it is possible to articulate how resistance may implicate the body. This provides what Muckelbauer terms a ‘productive reading’ of Foucault’s theoretical shift, not through the re-articulation and criticism akin to ‘programmatic reading’ but attending to its conceptual plausibility.[29] I argue that a Spinozist reading is conducive to an understanding of the care for the self which is consistent with Foucault’s early concern for the body in D&P. This argument will not conflate the different accounts of resistance which Foucault offers, but rather seeks to provide a much needed account of resistance to governmentality in relation to the body, as the biopolitics of affective life. While Foucault acknowledges the Stoic heritage of his account of resistance, this is a similarity owing more to the generality of the question than to his method.[30] While Zizek likened the closest realisation of the Foucauldian care for the self to the ideal of ‘mastering the passions’, this was not explored in the depth it deserved.[31] As will be shown, Spinoza’s Ethics prefigures Foucault’s method in two ways: in Foucault’s focus on the affective body and in his later account of freedom from governmental technologies of power.

Firstly, the body is a privileged site for Foucault; systems of punishment implicate the body in its forces, docility and submission.[32] However the body is also a political concern, precisely because it is the site of power relations and its constitution becomes a reflection of the forces which operate on it. As Gilles Deleuze writes, “the inside…is the fold of the outside”, in that the interior space of the body is in fact an effect or product of power relations.[33] This correlates with Spinoza’s treatment of the body in ‘Ethics’ where he speaks of the “changes in the constitution of the body” undergone in affected states.[34] The modification which the body endures also reflects a change in the body’s capacity for acting, or potentia.[35] Potentia, or what a body can do, corresponds to “the nature and limits of its power to be affected”.[36] For Foucault, a body’s ability to be affected can be seen to correlate to the possibility of freedom and resistance; the absolute domination of the slave reflects the absence of a relationship of power because the body’s affectivity, in its possibility of resistance, is assuredly nil. For Spinoza and Foucault alike it is the affective body which is vulnerable to constitution and potential domination.

Secondly, the ethics of the care for the self bears consistency with Spinoza’s account of resisting ‘human bondage’.[37] In this way both Spinoza and Foucault are attending to the management of an effective life which maximises the body’s potentia in advocacy of practices of freedom. Governmental techniques of power designate the ways in which the conduct of an individual is directed.[38] This is why Foucault’s later account of resistance privileges practices of freedom over practices of resistance as effective opposing tactics to the techniques of power which delimit the possible fields of action. For Spinoza it is the effects, of which passions are a subset, which increase or decrease the body’s power of acting, insofar as they are either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ respectively.[39] If, for Spinoza, “freedom is achieved by mastering the passions,” then this is a task which necessitates an hermeneutical inquiry into not only what increases the body’s potentia, but also into the origins or real causes of affective states.[40] It is only by this process that the individual can moderate and protect themselves against affects which decrease the body’s power of acting. Techniques of the self therefore represent the way in which new potentialities of affective life may emerge. Returning to Foucault’s account of governmentality, it is evident that attending to the affective life of the body lends itself to conceiving resistance in terms of the body’s increased power of acting. In committing to practices of self-government, affects cease to be the ‘object-target’ of foreign power apparatuses and become a tool for the self-construction and management of an empowered affective life.[41] It is only then that power can be harnessed productively by an individual for the purposes of self-constitution.[42]

Though Foucault’s account of resistance is not irreconcilable with his earlier work, it is inconsistent. This represents a critical flaw in Foucault’s work. In attending to the biopolitics of affective life through the ethical care for the self, practices of freedom may represent the way in which resistance to governmental techniques of power can be reconceived through the body’s power of acting. While Habermas’ criticism identifies limitations on why an individual should resist coercion and domination, it does not affect the coherence of how resistance could take place. As such, resistance remains not merely an optimistic possibility for Foucault, but a practicable objective against the individualising and dominating powers of the modern state.

A recent graduate of the university’s extended major in philosophy, Julian works as an editor and writer, taking over the politics and philosophy corner of the online publication El Champ. With further intent to explore new paths of resistance and conceptualise political power dynamics in different frameworks, Julian will return to the university next year to write a thesis on the subject.


[1] Hereafter D&P and S&P respectively.

[2] Michel Foucault, “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,” in Language, Counter- Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews, ed. D.F. Boucahrd (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1971), 129-165.

[3] Michel Foucault, Ethics, trans. R. Hurley (New York: The New Press, 1994). 290.

[4] Foucault, “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,” 148.

[5] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish, trans. A. Sheridan (New York: Random House inc., 1977), 222.

[6] Michel Foucault, Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the College De France, trans. G. Burchell (Bassingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 1978), 51.

[7] Michel Foucault, “The Subject and Power,” in Michel Foucault, Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics, ed. Hubert Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1982), 221; Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 188.

[8] Plato, Alcibiades I, trans. B. Jowett (Adelaide, SA: University of Adelaide, 2014), 128A.

[9] Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 25-6.

[10] Foucault, “The Subject and Power,” 220.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., 225

[13] Ibid.

[14] Edward Said, “Foucault and the Imagination of Power,” in Foucault: A Critical Reader, ed. D. C. Hoy (Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1986), 3.

[15] Foucault, “The Subject and Power,” 209.

[16] Foucault, Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the College De France, 94.

[17] Foucault, “The Subject and Power,” 222.

[18] Foucault, Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the College De France, 455.

[19] Foucault, Ethics, 298; Thomas Lemke, “Foucault’s Hypothesis: From the critique of the juridico-discursive concept of power to an analytics of government,” Parrhesia, no.9 (2010): 38.

[20] Foucault, Ethics, 298-9.

[21] Jurgen Habermas, “Taking Aim at the Heart of the Present. in Foucault: A Critical Reader, ed. D. C. Hoy (Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1986), 108.

[22] John Muckelbauer, “On Reading Foucault Differently: Through Foucault’s Resistance,” College English 63, no. 1 (2000): 71-94.

[23] Foucault, Ethics, 298.

[24] Michel Foucault, “What is Enlightenment,” in The Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984a), 46; Michel Foucault, “The Concern For Truth” in Politics Philosophy Culture: Interviews and Other Writings 1977-1984, ed. L. Kritzman (New York: Routledge, 1984b), 266.

[25] Aurelia Armstrong, “Beyond Resistance: A Response to Zizek’s Critique of Foucault’s Subject of Freedom,” Parrhesia 5 (2008).

[26] Michel Foucault, “About the beginning of the hermeneutics of the self (Transcription of two lectures in Dartmouth on 17 and 24 November 1980),” Political Theory 21, no. 2 (1993): 203-4.

[27] Thomas Lemke, “Foucault, Governmentality, and Critique,” Rethinking Marxism, 14, no.3 (2002): 53.

[28] Kevin Thompson, “Forms of resistance: Foucault on tactical reversal and self-formation,” Continental Philosophy Review, 36 (2003):124.

[29] Muckelbauer, “On Reading Foucault Differently: Through Foucault’s Resistance,” 73

[30] Foucault, “About the beginning of the hermeneutics of the self,” 206

[31] Slavoj Zizek, The Sublime Object of Ideology (New York: Verso, 1989), XXIV.

[32] Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 25.

[33] Gilles Deleuze, quoted in Muckelbauer, “On Reading Foucault Differently: Through Foucault’s Resistance,” 76.

[34] Baruch Spinoza, Ethics Demonstrated in Geometrical Order, trans. Jonathan Bennett (Early Modern Texts, 1665), III-59,

[35] Spinoza, Ethics, III-D3.

[36] Gilles Deleuze, Expressionism in philosophy: Spinoza, trans. Martin Joughin (NYC, NY: Zone Books, 1992), 218.

[37] Spinoza, Ethics, IV.

[38] Foucault, “The Subject and Power,” 221.

[39] Spinoza, Ethics, IVpref.

[40] Aurelia Armstrong, “The Passions, Power, and Practical Philosophy Spinoza and Nietzsche Contra the Stoics,” The Journal of Nietzsche Studies 44, no.1 (2013): 8; Spinoza, Ethics, II/283.

[41] Ben Anderson, “Affect and biopower: towards a politics of life,” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 37 (2011):32.

[42] Owing to constraints, this intertextual reading addressed the relation of the philosophies of Spinoza and Foucault in relation to potentia and practices of freedom. However, a further comparison deserves significant attention; especially concerning the process of self-constitution, Dawney’s (2013) investigation into subjectivation and affect and Juniper and Jose’s (2008) concern for a shared philosophy of immanent causality.

Works Cited

Anderson, Ben, “Affect and biopower: towards a politics of life,” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 37, no.1 (2011): 28-43.

Armstrong, Aurelia, “Beyond Resistance: A Response to Zizek’s Critique of Foucault’s Subject of Freedom,” Parrhesia, 5 (2008): 19-31

———. “The Passions, Power, and Practical Philosophy Spinoza and Nietzsche Contra the Stoics,” The Journal of Nietzsche Studies, 44 (2013): 6-24.

Dawney, Leila, “The interruption: investigating subjectivation and affect,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 31 (2013): 628-44.

Deleuze, Gilles. Expressionism in philosophy: Spinoza, Translated by M. Joughin. NY: Zone Books, 1992.

Foucault, Michel. “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History.” In Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews, edited by D.F. Bouchard, 129-65. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1971

———. Discipline and Punish. Translated by A. Sheridan. New York: Random House inc, 1977.

———. Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the College De France. Translated by G. Burchell. Bassingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 1978.

———. “The Subject and Power.” In Michel Foucault, Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics, edited by H. Dreyfus & P. Robinson, 208-26. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1982.

———. “What is Enlightenment.” In The Foucault Reader, edited by Paul Rabinow, 32-50. New York: Pantheon Books, 1984a.

———. “The Concern For Truth”. In Politics Philosophy Culture: Interviews and Other Writings 1977-1984, edited by L. Kritzman, 255-267. New York: Routledge, 1984b.

———. “About the beginning of the hermeneutics of the self (Transcription of two lectures in Dartmouth on 17 and 24 November 1980.” Political Theory 21, no. 2 (1993): 198–227.

———. Ethics. Translated by R. Hurley. New York: The New Press, 1994.

Habermas, Jurgen. “Taking Aim at the Heart of the Present.” In Foucault, A Critical Reader, edited by D. C. Hoy, 103-9. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1986.

Juniper, James, and Jose, Jim. “Foucault and Spinoza: philosophies of immanence and the decentered political subject,” History of the Human Sciences 21, no. 2 (2008): 1-20.

Lemke, Thomas. “Foucault, Governmentality, and Critique.” Rethinking Marxism 14, no. 3 (2002): 49-64.

———. “Foucault’s Hypothesis: From the critique of the juridico-discursive concept of power to an analytics of government.” Parrhesia 9 (2010): 31-43.

Muckelbauer, John. “On Reading Foucault Differently: Through Foucault’s Resistance.” College English 63 (2000): 71-94.

Plato. Alcibiades I. Translated by B. Jowett. Adelaide, SA: University of Adelaide, 2014.

Said, Edward. “Foucault and the Imagination of Power.” In Foucault: A Critical Reader, edited by D. C. Hoy, 149-55. Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1986.

Spinoza, Baruch. Ethics Demonstrated in Geometrical Order. Translated by Joshua Bennett. 1665.

Thompson, Kevin. “Forms of resistance: Foucault on tactical reversal and self-formation.” Continental Philosophy Review 36 (2003): 113-38.

Zizek, Slavoj. The Sublime Object of Ideology. New York: Verso, 1989.

Featured image from Nicolas Andry via Wikipedia Commons


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