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       mf : In your book you defend an “ordinary” and “pluralist” understanding of the political which strikes us as very close to Foucault’s analysis of power – as developed, for example, in the fourth chapter of the first volume of the History of Sexuality. In effect, you define this “pluralist” understanding by means of three propositions: 1) the order of the political is diffuse; 2) its institutionalization takes place under many different forms, not reducible to those that are legitimated in the context of official political organs; 3) collective action of the political kind takes place in disperse modalities. Consequently, “the order of the political cannot be thought as though it were completely disconnected from the ordinary life of the members of a society”; on the contrary, “an ordinary understanding of the political dwells in citizens”. Do you in fact see a relation between this ordinary and pluralist understanding of the political and a Foucaldian analytics of power? And could you explain more precisely how you interpret the relation between the order of the “political” and the order of the “everyday” (of the language and life of individuals)? Finally, in your opinion, what are the advantages, theoretical and practical, of thinking politics from this ordinary and pluralist perspective, rather that in more traditional ways (essentialist, absolutist, or institutional)?

       S. Laugier, A. Ogien : There is in fact some proximity between our extended understanding of politics and Foucault’s thesis regarding the relational nature of power. But they are, at the same time, considerably different. Your question allows us to discuss again the distance between these two approaches to the political, and to clarify our reasons for not deploying the concepts of liberal governmentality and bio-power, when the tone of our analyses suggests that these concepts should have been used. Why don’t we use them?

The difference stems from the fact that the horizon for Foucault’s work lies in the concept of power, while ours lies in the notion of ordinary political activity. On the first case, one assumes the existence of an alienation (or an episteme’s capacity to impose) from which individuals must find the means to extract themselves. Foucault understands this power in a non absolutist manner, as he makes clear in the first volume of the History of Sexuality[1]: “The analysis in terms of power should not postulate, as initial data, the sovereignty of the state, the form of the law, or the global unity of domination; this are rather resulting forms” (p. 121). For Foucault, to speak of power is not to denounce a domination imposed by a dominant class that would be conscious of its interests and capable of using violence to ensure that these are always satisfied. It is rather to take interest in the “moving base of force relations that endlessly bring about states of power, always local and unstable. […] Power is everywhere; it is not what encircles all, it is what comes from everywhere […] it is the name given to a complex strategic situation in a determinate society” (p. 122).

Foucault does not attribute to power the capacity to subject individuals through a set of institutions and mechanisms that would enforce the application of laws whose sole purpose would be to perpetuate an established order. We know that Foucault’s procedure consists in replacing the constrictive violence of the law with the notion of an intrinsic force of the norm. In the first volume of the History of Sexuality, he makes his position clear through five propositions: (1) power is not something acquired, seized or shared; (2) power relations are not external to, but immanent to all issues (political, juridical, economic, moral, etc.) affecting a collectivity; (3) power comes from below; (4) relations of power are at once intentional and non-subjective; (5) resistance is intrinsic to power and never external to it. This leads him to affirm: “There is not, therefore, in relation to power, a place for the great Refusal – the soul of the revolt, the source of all rebellions, a pure revolutionary law. Rather, there are resistances which are cases of a species: possible, necessary, improbable, spontaneous, savage, solitary, concerted, rampant, violent, irreconcilable, ready to negotiate, interested or sacrificial” (p. 126). In short, Foucault’s method is built upon this postulate: “to decipher mechanisms of power on the basis of a strategy that is immanent to relations of force” (p. 128). And these relations of force play out within an apparatus that provides a framework for them, as, for example, the apparatus of sexuality.

Our procedure differs from Foucault’s in that we begin with the phenomenon of civil disobedience, which we understand as a full-fledged form of political action. Thus, we do not postulate the perpetuation of power or alienation, but we take into account the fact that citizens contest the legitimacy of a law or a regulatory text which they are under an obligation to apply. In short, we draw the limits of the political by fixing our attention on disobedience as the criterion for the political, rather than fixing the criterion a priori from the point of view of a theory. In this way we leave behind the restricted conception of the political (used by experts, pollers, constitutionalists, political scientists or intellectuals) that locates it in a series of specialized institutions and in the game of possession and conquest organized according to the rules of a representative democracy. Our understanding of the political order – which we call “ordinary” – is wider. It is based on the analyses of anglo-saxon anthropology and political sociology, which are pragmatist in inspiration and assume a pluralist and open point of view.

If our work bears, as you accurately point out in your question, an air of family resemblance to Foucault’s, it is to the extent that it manifests an equal degree of sensibility to the extreme lability of the world and the vulnerability of arrangements that are provisionally, and not always explicitly, established. Briefly, it is because our approaches, however different, both admit pluralism and the dynamics that are constitutive of action. But although the ordinary conception of the political we defend leads us to adopt methodological principles identical to those used by Foucault in the analysis of power relations (they are not in a position of exteriority but immanent to the political, juridical, economic, moral, issues confronted by a community; they arise within ordinary activity; they are intentional and non-subjective; resistance is intrinsic to them), we apply them not to the analysis of power but to that of political activity, adding, as supplementary hypothesis, that these principles are part of what we call the “political know-how” of citizens.

[1] M. Foucault, La volonté de savoir, Gallimard, Paris 1976.


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