Posted on my site michel-foucault.com
Relations of power are not in themselves forms of repression. But what happens is that, in society, in most societies, organizations are created to freeze the relations of power, hold those relations in a state of asymmetry, so that a certain number of persons get an advantage, socially, economically, politically, institutionally, etc. And this totally freezes the situation. That’s what one calls power in the strict sense of the term: it’s a specific type of power relation that has been institutionalized, frozen, immobilized, to the profit of some and to the detriment of others.
[Michel Foucault. Power, Moral Values, and the Intellectual. An Interview with Michel Foucault by Michael Bess, History of the Present 4 (Spring 1988), p. 1]
Random thoughts in response
This is one of my favourite interviews with Foucault and was conducted in French in 1980 while he was at Berkeley. In this interview he explains a number of his ideas very clearly and simply and also indirectly addresses a number of perennial criticisms of his work, such as accusations of moral nihilism. I have posted up a couple of remarks made by Foucault in relation to how he describes his ‘morals’ over the last couple of months.
In this particular passage, after having explained earlier that power is a relation, he goes on to talk about the way relations of power are institutionalised in a way that can produce the illusion that power is a fixed essence that some people have and others don’t and that little can be done about this beyond destroying those who have this power. By arguing that power is a relation between people and that particular social institutions have to work very hard and continuously to maintain particular relations of power, Foucault opens up the hope that every person, no matter how low down in the hierarchy, has the capacity to disrupt and change relations of power and have a destabilising impact on the system even if at a miniscule level.
Even the most rigid institution and arrangement of power relations is inherently unstable, and concerted and unspectacular non-cooperation by those involved can lead to change. This is not to say however, that the cost to individuals for such resistance might not be high, but it does bring action to within the realm of everyday possibility rather than it being a matter of waiting for the grand moment of violent revolutionary overthrow. At the same time, this also means that everyone becomes responsible – not just a few. Seemingly insignificant acts of compromise all contribute to the ongoing fossilisation of unjust and oppressive systems just as an accumulation of seemingly insignificant resistances can ultimately lead to their breakdown.