Many months ago, my colleague William Robert brought me back a book from his sabbatical in Paris: Jacques Bidet, Foucault avec Marx. Bidet is an emeritus philosophy professor at Paris-X and honorary director of the socialist journal, Actuel Marx. I hadn’t heard of him before William brought me the book, but apparently, Bidet is an important and persistent voice in the growing French socialist philosophical subfield that studies the co-thinking and co-implications of the works of Foucault and Marx.
I enjoyed the book, despite my sense that Bidet flattens the name (or what Foucault calls the author-function of), Marx, to refer simply to a specific critique of market economy. I suppose if we suspend critical disbelief and assume with Foucault’s teacher, Althusser, that for Marx it really is the economy in the last instance, then the argument is incontrovertible; but even without this critical suspension, I find Bidet’s argument worth pondering.
The center of his argument is a “metastructural” approach that posits a dialectic between the structural (market) pouvoir-propriété of the capitalist, which Marx emphasizes, and the nominalist (organizational) pouvoir-savoir of labor, which Foucault emphasizes. It would have been intellectually satisfying if Bidet had noted how this same dialectic operates at the level of the authors’ names—that is, how the use of ‘Marx’ and ‘Foucault’ are commoditized objects that sell a certain scholarly privilege by signaling the requisite structure of scholarly production, a structure that stands in dialectical tension with the use of ‘Marx’ and ‘Foucault’ as particular organizational practices that forward thought about certain and various socio-political conundrums. But even as it stands, and even if we disagree with a rather econo-centric Marx, Bidet’s arguments are smart and useful.
I found it helpful to translate the dialectic between pouvoir-propriété and pouvoir-savoir into that between the capacity to hoard or circulate matter (things, machines, money, real estate), and the capacity to withhold or enact various skills, (welder, seamstress, typist), practices (careful listener, never misses work, keeps a neat workspace, good at prioritizing tasks), and attitudes (obedient, respectful, flexible, affable). The first pulse of this dialectic is about capital, its ability to devour and to transform, and its vampiric tendency to suck life from labor in order to reproduce itself to the (material) profit of the capitalist-owners. The second pulse of this dialectic is about competencies, the necessary disciplining of bodies and time (of bodies in time) in order to reproduce the workforce for each day.
One of the most useful parts of Bidet’s argument, to me, is the way this metastructural dialectic between property and knowledge, or valued matter and affective practices transmutes discussion of class relations (relations, in French, which signify micrological, interpersonal relations) to class as a particular set of relations meshed or networked within capitalist society (rapports, in French, which signify macrological and structural relations). I appreciate this restatement of class struggle, because it reminds me that the problem is not just the manager who tells me, “smile and I’ll let you work here another week,” but also the fact that the manager’s manager and the regional cadre of managers, are all stressing to get their employees—under duress of losing their jobs—to smile more, and more genuinely. Very few are exempted from the material-practical dialectic of disciplined norms of life until one peeks at the very tippy top of society. Not the dingy factory room beneath the free space of civil society where workers bid their labor to employers as free and equal humans, and not even Mr. Moneybags at home with his wife and children, recharging for another anxious day of making money, but rather the low-oxygen eyrie of the likes of Donald Trump or a philanthropic celebrity, where cruelty or compassion seems squirted or oozed out at random and where the capacity to feel (much less what is felt) seems raw or alien, that is, unaffected by the matrix of valued matter and affective practices that catch up and bind down the rest of us.
Bidet’s more recent book is on neoliberalism. I am keen to read it.