Foucault’s History of Sexuality

Why should socialists care about Foucault’s History of Sexuality? He is, after all, widely promoted as the bald-headed and turtle-necked prophet of postmodernism, long the pseudo-radical arch rival to Marxism in the halls of academia. In his writings, many a smug first year social theory student has found justification for the idea that any project for comprehensive social transformation would end in the gulag, and self-assurance that the only alternative strategy of resistance is on a localised and decentralised basis.

And whatever the distortions that Foucault’s work has suffered, particularly as it was banalised into the generic soup called “French theory” doled out at university tutorials, he did repeatedly declare Marxism an obsolete creature of the 19th century, and interpreted events such as the May 1968 student-worker general strike in Paris and the Iranian revolution as repudiations of Marx’s theories.

Despite this, Foucault’s writings on sexuality still broke important ground on a number of historical and theoretical issues, and can be fruitfully engaged with by socialist readers. What emerges from a serious reading of his arguments is a very different picture of Foucault than that usually presented to us in academia and by many of his erstwhile followers.

Rather than being simply a theorist and historian of discourses, cataloguing changes in the ideologies of societies, Foucault draws on transformations in the nature of society in order to explain changes in sexuality.

His starting point is that the key link between sexuality and society is the need to regulate sexuality in the interests of social order. Repression obviously plays a role in this, and contrary to some critics and supporters, he does not believe that it is “a matter of saying that power in societies such as ours is more tolerant than repressive”.

Rather, he seeks to create a more serious analysis of the place sexuality holds in modern society, which can take into account the dramatic increase of discourse around sex since the rise of capitalism.

He argues that behind this encouragement to speak about sex were changes in the structures of society. In particular, it was rooted in the concerns that institutions of early industrial society had in regard to “population”. As Foucault points out:

“Governments perceived that they were not dealing simply with subjects, or even with a ‘people’, but with a ‘population’, with its specific phenomena and its peculiar variables: birth and death rates, life expectancy, fertility, state of health, frequency of illnesses, patterns of diet and habitation.”

This meant that, in regard to sex, “one had to speak of it as of a thing to be not simply condemned or tolerated but managed, inserted into systems of utility, regulated for the greater good of society. Sex was not something one simply judged; it was a thing one administered”.

It’s important to understand the context in which Foucault is making his argument: the Western world in the aftermath of the upheavals of the ’60s and ’70s. Foucault points out that many on the left had a crude idea that the only way capitalism could relate to sexuality was by suppressing sexual expression, and this in turn reinforced the idea that sex itself was something transgressive or even radical.

However, in the post-sexual revolution world, this became harder to sustain. It became increasingly clear that, in response to struggles and changes in society, capitalist countries were willing to accommodate various sexual relations, attitudes and representations that had previously been excluded.

This paved the way for a whole range of bohemian, free love “radicals” to accommodate themselves to the system. For them it seemed that what was at fault was simply the older generation’s conservative culture around sex. While there were still many issues to work on, for instance the rights of lesbians and gays, this could be expected to change over time. A symbiosis between liberal democratic capitalism and sexual freedom emerged.

This is the context in which Foucault is dealing with these questions. He wants to assert that we cannot have a liberated relationship with what we understand as sex under the current set-up of power. This is also particularly relevant for the modern world, in which sex can saturate culture and having a healthy sex life can be seen by almost everyone as essential, even though at the same time we can be so alienated from our sexuality.

To look further, Foucault carries out an important investigation into sexuality during the Victorian era. He explores how the emergence of capitalism radically transformed sexuality during this period. In the initial stages of the industrial revolution, questions of sexuality were seen as issues simply for ruling class and middle class families, who were unconcerned about the sexuality of those whom they exploited for as long as they possibly could be.

Foucault argues that this started to change with the development of modern industry, which required a stable workforce, as well as the emergence of the means to regulate mass sexuality – i.e. educational, medical and administrative institutions capable of being opened up to regulating the lives of the mass of working people.

Foucault’s argument here has parallels with those made by socialist writers who point to the socially constructed nature of sexuality, and in particular in this period the need of the ruling class to reinforce the deteriorating working class family in order to reproduce the next generation of labour as fresh workers from the countryside dried up.

This is not to say that there aren’t weaknesses in Foucault’s book.

He repeatedly returns to the question of why modern society needs to regulate sexuality, and is unable to come up with a clear answer. What he is struggling with, I think, is that he associates analyses that root social relations in economic relations with the various shades of crude Stalinist Marxism dominant in France, and the world more generally, at the time.

So although his analysis on one level points in that direction, he backs away from it. However, by refusing to grapple with the underlying question of class and capitalism in a more serious way, he leaves serious holes in his analysis, which are explored in more detail in my article in the latest Marxist Left Review. These weaknesses are rooted in his broader conceptualisation of power and in his inability to find a subject of history capable of fighting for emancipation from that power.

From Foucault, then, we can learn a lot about how sexuality has developed, and even some of the why. But as with other non-Marxist theorists, his useful insights need to be integrated into a broader conception of the world rooted in an analysis of capitalism. Only then can Foucault’s insights be integrated into a strategy for human liberation.

“Foucault’s History of Sexuality: a Marxist engagement” by Jordan Humphreys is available in Marxist Left Review 14.