Graeber critiques Vulgar Foucault & ANT

Universalizing elite perspective is the characteristic danger of an anti-sociological philosophy.

“Vulgar Foucauldianism came to dominate so many ostensibly oppositional academic disciplines at the time—came to enshrine the particular class experiences of the professional-managerial class as universal truths: that is, a world of networks and networking, where games of power create social reality itself, all truth-claims are merely stratagems, and where mechanisms of physical coercion are made to seem irrelevant (even as they became ever more omnipresent) because all the real action is assumed to take place within techniques of self-discipline, forms of performance, and an endless variety of dispersed and decentered flows of influence. As a description of academic life, or for that matter professional life in general, such descriptions are often spot on. But it’s not what life is like for most people on earth and never has been. Indeed, the very fact that it was being posed not as a type of class experience but as a universal truth (in fact the only universal truth, since all others are denied) demonstrates just how wrong-headed the tendency, at this time, to dismiss older forms of ideology really was…

“Vulgar Foucauldianism simultaneously developed the subjective experience of professional-managerial work arrangements as the basis for a universal principle of human sociality, and denied the central importance of either capitalism, or the threat of direct physical violence, at exactly the moment the threat of direct physical violence was becoming central to the operation of capitalism.

But the same effacement can be observed even in those approaches that most loudly claimed to be doing the opposite. Proponents of actor-network theory, for instance, insist that they were “doing the work” of unearthing the connections that were simply presumed by theorists of “the social.” But in reality what ANT mainly does is translate academic politics into the very constitutive principle of reality. ”

— Graeber 2014. Anthropology and the rise of the professional-managerial class.

“Radicalism is not a form of experience. Once the foundation of real experience has been abandoned, a hierarchy of radicalism rises above it. This can be surpassed, it would appear, only by further radicalism. A mystical constellation is formed that can be overcome only by doing away with the inverted relation between the two levels of radicalism—in other words, by going back to experience itself. When Marx says that being radical means nothing more than getting hold of things by their roots, and that the root of a human being is the human being, it becomes clear that radicalism in analysis and struggle can only be intensified downward. It is a bourgeois reflex to process it upward, toward ideas, platforms, and authorities. The only reliable means of penetrating this veil is the “materialist instinct” of the masses. In fact, this instinct acts like an emergency brake in bringing the entire train to a halt, as is proved in the case of all counterrevolutions.” –Negt & Kluge 1993 Public Sphere and Experience: 93.

 “In those areas of society where this hybrid of proletarian interests and universal, ubiquitous bourgeois norms of organization develops, it is no longer possible to speak simply of a bourgeois public sphere. It is decaying in these areas, but it still exists in this decayed state. The type of proletarian public sphere that has developed by using bourgeois organizational forms not only binds together real proletarian interests and experiences but concentrates them into a specific stage of a proletarian public sphere. This sphere distinguishes itself from the bourgeois in its external forms—the workers’ association, the working-class housing estate, and the trade union.

 At this level, proletarian interests participate in the movement of society.

Insofar as they do, this is not a mere semblance but real participation. Not only can the apologists of the existing system point to this fact, but the workers themselves rightly see some of their demands thereby fulfilled while regarding others as promises for the future, as granted in principle. This assumption is not a total delusion. Their interests have in reality been incorporated into the social context of living—as they will also be in the future programming and consciousness industry—but they are incorporated as merely objective interests, as the satisfaction of reified needs. The integration begins with the fact that their marriages are modeled on the bourgeois family; that they employ the language and culture of bourgeois society; that they have to frequent institutions or organizations—generally centralized ones—to maintain this status quo. This results in an aporia: they are unable to abandon this manifestation of the proletarian public sphere that restricts them to a passive standpoint, for if they did they would have to cut themselves off from their experiences and interests that have been organized by it and have taken on its forms. But neither are they able, on the other hand, to maintain this state of affairs. They remain blind to the laws of the movement of capital and the whole historical process if they simply try to maintain the status quo defensively— even if defense appears to be their strength. At the least sign of crisis or of a change in the status quo—for instance, through additional political repression— this state of affairs, which has been accepted as stable, works to the disadvantage of the workers. They become the object of redistribution or the more the mere raw material in the process of social exploitation.” –Negt & Kluge


What’s interesting to me about Negt & Kluge‘s social-philosophical/antisociological (anti-comparative) formulation is that when they—rarely– try to give examples of their idealist assertions—eg. asserting that a bourgeois marriage standard is carried by the working class, they fly far apart from empirical reality—particularly outside of the notable core social democratic failures of the German-speaking Catholic conservative states and the English-speaking bourgeois states. Even in Anglo-American states, feminists observe that the single-parent household is the family form of poverty under capitalism.

As is so often the problem in English-language societies, our abstractions are borrowed from the German (often via the French), and so they, and our analytical apparatus are rooted in their very particular geopolitical position and historical accidents.

Nowhere is sociology, particularly comparative empiricism, more important than in societies that have to borrow their philosophy from other societies. It becomes a check on abstraction excesses in accounts of the social.


Zamora, D. 2016. “Michel Foucault, Neoliberalism…” In These Times.

U Chicago’s Critical Inquiry used to have Becker & Ewald’s lecture/discussion on Foucault posted. But they removed it.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s