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State, space and self: Poulantzas and Foucault

on governmentality.
Christopher M. Green
Paper given at the Goldsmiths Graduate Conference ‘Crisis and
Critique of the State’, Goldsmiths Col lege, University of London,
25th October 2013.
To talk of a relationship between the work of Poulantzas and Foucault would
already be to say too much—especially in regards to Foucault, who if he
was aware of Poulantzas’ work saw no reason to comment on it in partic-
ular (though his remarks towards state theory in general are dismissive at
best). Yet as has been noted, not least in Bob Jessop’s definitive scholar-
, the influence of Foucault on the development of Poulantzas’ thought
is unavoidably clear. In State, Power, Socialism Foucault’s work makes, in
Stuart Hall’s words, ‘many pertinent and contradictory appearances’
, both
in direct confrontation with a reading of his texts, and in discursive choices
and turns of phrase that are perhaps unconsciously—though unmistakably—
Foucauldian. State, Power, Socialism is a text which attempts to think the
idea of the state through not only a political crisis of capitalism but also
through an epistemological crisis of Marxism, a crisis which inevitably has
Michel Foucault as its figurehead. However, the Foucault that seemingly fas-
cinated and frustrated Poulantzas in equal measures for his decentred analy-
ses of disciplinary power appears almost to acquiesce to the immediacy of the
state and its apparatuses in his accounts of the development of techniques of
governmentality, paradigms of security and the rise of biopolitics—work that
reached maturity in Foucault’s lectures at the Collège de France given af-
ter Poulantzas’ tragic death in 1979. The interrogative challenge that opens
The most comprehensive account can be found in Bob Jessop, State Power: A
Strategic-Relational Approach (Cambridge: Polity, 2008), 140-54.
Stuart Hall, “Introduction to the Verso Classics edition” in N. Poulantzas, State,
Power, Socialism (London: Verso, 2000), xiii.
State, Power, Socialism—‘Who today can escape the question of State and
power? Who indeed does not talk about it?’
—foreshadows a development
in Foucault’s later work that seems to struggle with this very question.
Yet beneath the occasional derision of state theory that Foucault espouses
lies an important point for attempts at both theorising the state, as well as
for political movements and actions which take the state as a point of refer-
ence, or a target of reform, reclamation, or dismantlement. In his lecture at
the Collège de France from 1 February 1978, Foucault talks of an ‘overvalua-
tion of the problem of the state’ which can take two forms: firstly, that of the
tragic, Nietzschean ‘cold monster’ which immediately confronts us, but also
of a paradoxical overvaluation through reduction.
In what appears a rather
thinly veiled reference to Althusser and others, the apparent reduction of the
state to a number of functions, ‘for example, the development of the produc-
tive forces and the reproduction of the relations of production’ nevertheless
privileges the position of the state in political, philosophical and sociological
It is precisely here that I believe that the importance of a reading of
Poulantzas with Foucault lies. This paper will not attempt to provide a
comprehensive historical or theoretical account of either writer or of their
relation, not least to avoid producing a poor facsimile of the scholarship
already done in its documentation. What interests me in reading these two
thinkers together is not simply that there is an often striking similarity in
their work and concepts—undoubtedly this is the case, but this itself can
lead to an unhelpful analysis. The temptation can be to use the similarity to
conclude that Foucault was really ‘one of us all along’, that he never escaped
the implications of a Marxist theory of the state and can rightly be brought
back into the fold—or that Poulantzas should admit defeat and give up on
trying to rehabilitate state theory in the face of new paradigms in the study
of power. To do so would be to do a disservice to both thinkers. Instead
where I believe a reading of Poulantzas and Foucault should begin is not in
their similarities but in their differences, or rather the most striking difference
between the two: that in spite of these similarities, one considers the state
the key object of theoretical analysis, and the other is almost at pains to
Nicos Poulantzas, State, Power, Socialism, trans. Patrick Camiller, 11.
Michel Foucault, Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Collège de France
1978-1979, trans. Graham Burchell, ed. Michel Senellart (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmil-
lan, 2009), 109.
avoid using the term. This is I argue largely due to the primacy Poulantzas
places on the class struggle in the application of power within capitalist
societies, and the ways in which the state is present at the constitution of
class relations—an engagement with the state I believe Poulantzas is right
to insist upon. Once this point is clear, a space for a productive dialogue
between the work of these two thinkers appears more accessible.
Insofar as this is therefore broadly a methodological discussion, the second
methodological precaution from Foucault’s 14 January 1976 lecture at the
Collège de France is an important place to begin. Here, Foucault warns
against studying power at the level of intentions, of asking the questions ‘so
who has power? What is going on in his head?’
The point for Foucault
rather is, as is well known, to study power at the point of application, the
level of the procedure of subjugation of bodies, and the normalisation of
behaviour. Against a Hobbesian model of the state as Leviathan, Foucault
argues that
rather than asking ourselves what the sovereign looks like from on
high, we should be trying to discover how multiple bodies, forces,
energies, matters, desires, thoughts, and so on are gradually, pro-
gressively, actually and materially constituted as subjects, or as
the subject.
This analytical perspective is reflected in Poulantzas’ description of the state
as a ‘strategic field and process of intersecting power networks’, traversed by
tactics which intersect and conflict, and ‘eventually map out that general line
of force, the State’s “policy”.’
Here is a causality which is strategic rather
than structural ; a decentered political agency which allows the explanation
of state policy as ‘a process of strategic calculation without a calculating
As Jessop points out this description of the development of state
policy implies that while power is exercised on this field with multiple aims
and objectives, the final outcome (as state policy) is the result of ‘conflicting
micro-power plays’ and cannot be said to have been chosen by any indi-
vidual or group. Political class domination for Poulantzas is therefore both
Michel Foucault, Society Must Be Defended: Lectures at the Collège de France
1975-1976, trans. David Macey, eds. Mauro Bertani and Alessandro Fontana (London:
Penguin, 2004), 28.
Poulantzas, State, Power, Socialism, 136.
Jessop, State Power, 128.
‘intentional and non-subjective’.
However, in abandoning the model of the Leviathan both Foucault and
Poulantzas appear to have been left with a rather stark choice between claim-
ing the state is everywhere and claiming the state is nowhere, and on first
glance it can appear that they have done so. Poulantzas argues that
we cannot imagine any social phenomenon (any knowledge, power,
language or writing) as posed in a state prior to the State: for
all social reality must stand in relation to the state and to class
At the other end of the scale Foucault’s comments on the overvaluation of
the state appear to treat it as merely an ensemble of institutions with no
inherent power or privileged position.
Similarly, the infamous line from
his 31 January 1979 lecture on how he must ‘do without a theory of the
state, as one must forgo an indigestible meal’
, appears to point towards
either its non-existence, or at least its non-importance. When Foucault says
that ‘[a]fter all, maybe the state is only a composite reality and a mythicized
abstraction whose importance is much less than we think’, it is fairly clear
that this is a question to which we should not lose any sleep over.
It might be tempting at this point to dismiss the question as a matter
of semantics, clearly both Poulantzas and Foucault are talking about the
same phenomenon, i.e. power, and one chooses the discourse of the state,
the other of governmentality. Yet to view this as merely a stylistic decision
would be to miss something which this apparent gap points to, within a
paradox of the state itself. As Jessop puts it, on the one hand the state is
just an ‘institutional ensemble’ among many within a social formation, but
on the other it alone is charged with the responsibility of maintaining the
cohesion of the social formation as a whole. The state is paradoxically both
a part of society and the whole of society.
This is something that appears
to be fully grasped by both thinkers, albeit with different conclusions. As
Poulantzas, State, Power, Socialism, 39.
Foucault, Security, Territory, Population, 109.
Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France
1978-1979, trans. Graham Burchell, ed. Michel Senellart (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmil-
lan, 2010), 76-7.
Poulantzas, State, Power, Socialism, 109.
Jessop, State Power, 7.
Foucault explains immediately after his comment on the indigestible nature
of state theory, his genealogical work has always been concerned with the
ways in which disciplinary mechanisms and techniques and practices of power
are continually taken over by the state, brought under state control. His
resistance to state theory is to a form of analysis which considers the state a
political universal—to Foucault, the state is neither ‘universal nor in itself an
autonomous source of power’, it is ‘the effect, the profile, the mobile shape of
a perpetual statification’.
He goes on to conclude that the state ‘is nothing
else but the mobile effect of a regime of multiple governmentalities’, and
that his analysis must aim not to try and elicit the secret of the state from
itself, in the way that ‘Marx tried to extract the secret of the commodity’,
instead moving on to question the ‘problem of the state’ through the study
of practices of governmentality.
Yet when Marx attempted to ‘extract the secret of the commodity’ it was
not by looking to the commodity in of itself, but to the social relations of
production and exchange which are constitutive of commodities—the com-
modity itself is not treated as a universal, or as an autonomous source of
value, but as a social relation through which labour-power is valorised and
the extraction of surplus value is facilitated.
The paradigmatic legacy of
Poulantzas’ work on the state—the idea that the state is a social relation—
here allows a new perspective on what Foucault sees as the overvaluation
of the problem of the state: that, like the commodity, the state is a social
relation between subjects which appears as something independent. This is
precisely why Poulantzas resists any general theory of the state, arguing that
The specific autonomy of political space under capitalism—a cir-
cumstance that legitimizes theorizations of that space—is not the
flawless realization of the State’s supposed autonomy of essence,
but the result of a separation from the relations of production
that is peculiar to capitalism.
It is here that the fundamental difference between Foucault and Poulantzas
can be found. Foucault is dismissive of state theory, of a fetishised analy-
sis of governmental practices. For Poulantzas, this fetishisation is already
present in the constitution of power relations, in the material condensation
Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics, 77.
Ibid, 78.
Karl Marx, Capital volume 1, trans. Ben Fowkes (London:Penguin, 1976) 163-77.
Poulantzas, State, Power, Socialism, 22.
and institutionalisation of class power and class struggle. Foucault’s third
methodological precaution in his 14 January 1976 lecture warns specifically
against regarding power ‘as a phenomenon of mass and homogeneous domi-
nation’, and specifically mentions the domination of one class over another—
power is not something divided between those who have it and those who do
not, but is something which circulates.
The mistake Foucault makes here
though is to conceive of the class struggle in this way, as a relation between
separate homogeneous groups of those who hold power and those who are
subject to it. For Poulantzas recognises that political-ideological relations
are already present in the actual constitution of the relations of production,
not merely in their reproduction.
The model Poulantzas describes is not
one that views social class as the source of power, but the political class
struggle as the field in which power operates. Rather than being the priv-
ileged source of power, class is always overdetermined by the political and
ideological which are present at its very constitution, acting upon objective
positions within the relations of production and constitutive of social re-
Under capitalism, producers are not simply separated from the
object and means of their labour in ‘the economic property relation but also
in the relationship of possession.’
Through juridico-political involvement
the state—which atomises the body-politic into individual subjects—is al-
ready present at the constitution of social classes. For Poulantzas, the state
has a primary relation with social classes and the class struggle, and must
be conceived of not simply as an instrument of class domination, but as a
strategic field through which the hegemonic fraction organises the power bloc
and disorganises the masses.
This point has clear implications for strategies
of class struggle for Poulantzas, for he argues that even if a left government
has control over certain state branches and apparatuses, even if these are the
dominant ones within a state, the institutional structure of the state allows
the ruling class to move power between apparatuses and secure hegemony.
While it may not seem particularly insightful to point out that Foucault
underestimates (or, if you prefer, properly discounts) the importance of class
struggle, what this reading hopefully demonstrates is that the stark difference
Foucault, Society Must Be Defended, 29.
Poulantzas, State, Power, Socialism, 26.
Ibid, 14-19.
Ibid, 18.
Jessop, State Power, 123.
Poulantzas, State, Power, Socialism, 138.
in how himself and Poulantzas view the state—in both its material imme-
diacy and conceptual usefulness—is intrinsically linked to how each thinker
treats questions of class. For Foucault, both class and state are somewhat
unnecessary abstractions from the real circulation of power. For Poulantzas,
the primacy of the relations of production means that to talk of the state
and class is unavoidable. When Foucault argues that power only looks to be
divided neatly between those that have it and those that do not when looked
at ‘from a great height and from a very great distance’, he is stating some-
thing which is at the heart of Poulantzas’ work.
For Poulantzas, classes are
not homogeneous entities or privileged sources of power, but are positions
within a strategic field of social relations through which power operates. The
paradox of the state—in that it represents both a part of and the whole of
a divided social body—is further problematised by the fact that the very
division of the social into formally equivalent individual subjects is a process
that involves the state; not just in its reproduction (through ideological and
repressive state apparatuses) but more importantly in its very installation
and organisation.
The point Poulantzas makes (indeed he describes it as ‘the essential prob-
lem for the theory of the State’
) is that individualisation—which is so fun-
damental to the organisation of capitalist social relations—is ‘a terribly real
It does not appear prior to contractual relations between
commodity-owners, nor is it simply ‘a mystifying appearance belonging to
the realm of commodity fetishism’. The constitution of ‘individuals-persons-
subjects’ is ‘the original ground of classes in their capitalist specificity’.
Poulantzas recognises the value of Foucault’s analysis of normalisation and
disciplinary techniques in the process of individualisation, in particular in
the material techniques of power ‘which shape even the corporality of[...]sub-
And while this is certainly the case, it is Foucault’s later work on
governmentality that has the potential to enrich Poulantzas’ analysis. No-
tions of population as the object of mechanisms of security that Foucault
develops in his Collège de France lectures provide conceptual material to
think through Poulantzas’ framing of the state as a strategic field traversed
by a multiplicity of tactics. Foucault’s analysis highlights how once the idea
Foucault, Society Must Be Defended, 29.
Poulantzas, State, Power, Socialism, 138.
Ibid, 64.
Ibid, 63-67.
Ibid, 66-71.
of the population—inherently linked to the development of new knowledges
such as statistics—becomes paradigmatic, governmental reason moves away
from tactics of exclusion and prohibition and towards the management of
probabilities towards favourable or optimal outcomes.
This way of thinking
about the governmental rationality of security provides Poulantzas’ account
of the strategic field of the state with complimentary material for conceptu-
alising how diverse, intentional tactics can develop and crystallise into state
projects and institutions.
Yet Foucault links this paradigm shift with the development of economic
thought, and the statification of the government of economies.
This con-
ception relies on an autonomy of political space, which Poulantzas argues
is an appearance resulting from the separation of the productive forces that
is peculiar to capitalism.
For a productive analysis of contemporary state
power and governmental practices, it is not enough to think of the state as
Foucault does, as the ‘principle of intelligibility’ around which governmental
practices are articulated.
This is not to deny that the idea of the state has
an organising effect on practices of power, but to privilege this ideological
function is to ignore the very real way the state atomises the social body
and creates individuals in the production and reproduction of the relations
of production. In order to properly assess Foucault’s insights on the state’s
objectivisation of the population, the role of the state in constituting that
population—through the production of space and political subjects—cannot
be underestimated.
Against all others, the most striking similarity between Foucault and
Poulantzas might be that they both volunteered explanations for the lack
of direct references to Marx’s texts in their respective works. For Foucault,
the reason was simple: against criticisms that he was unfamiliar with Marx’s
work, he pointed out that everywhere he quotes Marx without quoting him.
In the same way a physicist would not feel the need to directly quote from
Newton and other greats, so he did not feel it necessary to reference Marx
directly, and that any unfamiliarity with Marx’s writings lay entirely with
those who were reproaching him.
Poulantzas’ reason, given in the preface
Foucault, Security, Territory, Population, 20.
Ibid, 33.
Poulantzas, State, Power, Socialism, 21-2.
Foucault, Security, Territory, Population, 286-7.
Michel Foucault, “Prison Talk”, Power/knowledge, ed. Colin Gordon (New York:
Pantheon, 1980), 52.
to State, Power, Socialism, is that he does not cite the classics of Marxism
‘[for] there can be no such thing as orthodox Marxism. No-one can presume
to behave as the keeper of holy dogmas and texts; and nor have I sought
to clothe myself in them.’
There is a certain irony here in that Foucault
himself became the keeper of Marxist dogma, precisely by failing to critically
engage with it. Poulantzas’ work in State, Power, Socialism shows not only
how a Marxist theory of the state can avoid instrumentalism and class reduc-
tionism, but also incorporate insights from theorists and projects that reject
its very foundations. If one piece of Marxist dogma should be retained it is in
the ‘ruthless criticism of all that exists’
—and that must include Marxism
itself. That Poulantzas and Foucault share many similar insights is perhaps
interesting; that they have different conclusions is why they should be read
Poulantzas, State, Power, Socialism, 8.
Karl Marx, Letter to Arnold Ruge, 1843.
Works cited.
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Pantheon, 1980.
Foucault, Michel. Society Must Be Defended: Lectures at the Col lège de
France 1975-1976. Translated by David Macey. Edited by Mauro Bertani
and Alessandro Fontana. London: Penguin, 2004.
Foucault, Michel. Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Col lège
de France 1978-1979. Translated by Graham Burchell. Edited by Michel
Senellart. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.
Foucault, Michel. The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Col lège de France
1978-1979. Translated by Graham Burchell. Edited by Michel Senellart.
Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.
Hall, Stuart. “Introduction to the Verso Classics edition” in N. Poulantzas,
State, Power, Socialism. London: Verso, 2000.
Jessop, Bob. State Power: A Strategic-Relational Approach. Cambridge:
Polity, 2008.
Marx, Karl. Capital. Volume 1. Translated by Ben Fowkes. London:Pen-
guin, 1976.
Marx, Karl. Letter to Arnold Ruge.1843. Available at: [accessed
Poulantzas, Nicos. State, Power, Socialism. Translated by Patrick Camiller.
London: Verso, 2000.