Michel Foucault: Power/Knowledge


We cannot understand the world around us without a sophisticated understanding of the complex but intimate relationship between knowledge and power. One of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth century, Michel Foucault, crafted a radically different understanding of this relationship. Instead of seeing power in brute force, he saw power as being the ability to shape knowledge. To understand Foucault, we must let go of our comfortable and conventional understanding of Truth as an objective and factual entity which exists outside time and history, and which cannot be manipulated by ordinary mortals. Instead, we must learn to see Truth as a social product, which is created and shaped by politics and power. As Foucault said, “My job is making windows, where there were once walls.” Absorbing Foucauldian insights opens windows onto entirely new ways of seeing the world.

Instead of the simplistic binary understanding of ideas — as being either true or false — Foucault offers us a dramatically different perspective: “We have to be there at the birth of ideas, the bursting outward of their force: not in books expressing them, but in events manifesting this force, in struggles carried on around ideas, for or against them.” The concept of Power/Knowledge is best understood by illustrating how it is used with concrete and specific examples.

Consider the question of how we can achieve good governance in Pakistan. Using the orthodox and conventional understanding of knowledge, we would take it for granted that “good governance” is desirable, and the discussion would be confined to current failings in this dimension, and measures we could take to improve governance. However, someone who has absorbed Foucault’s message about the Power-Knowledge nexus would approach this question differently. Instead of being trapped by the framework created by the question, we can turn the tables by asking why this question is under discussion. Foucault invites us to study the “archaeology of knowledge”: search the historical archives to ask about the birth of the idea. Doing so, we find that the question gained prominence in global discourse only after the 1989 World Bank (WB) report: Sub-Saharan Africa: From Crisis to Sustainable Growth. The report announces the discovery of a fundamental flaw in the prevailing development paradigm, and states the need for “not just less government, but better government.” We must dig into history to find out why the need arose for this about-face, which contradicts several precepts of neo-liberal thought. Among the established precepts of free market thought is the idea that governments are inherently corrupt and inefficient, and so privatisation is always a good policy. The idea that good governance is possible, and indeed, necessary, contradicts this; if good governance is possible, then there can be well-governed, productive and efficient public enterprises. Similarly, free market thought asserts that private enterprise is the key to rapid growth, and the best a government can do is to keep out of the way. But now we are saying that good governance is required for development. Once this is admitted, the door is open to understanding that free markets by themselves do not suffice, and that governments play a crucial role in development.

What desperation made it necessary for the World Bank, guardian of the temple of free-market thought, to admit this wild horse into the premises? Digging deeper into the historical archives, we find that Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs), enforced all over the globe by the WB & the IMF, had become immensely unpopular. As just one among many witnesses to their failure, a senior adviser to the WB, William Easterly, described the WB as “a bloated, unaccountable foreign aid bureaucracy out of touch with sound economics that is running amok.” Among the thousands of tragedies, great and small, created by the SAPs all over the world, David Graeber mentions his experience on the island of Madagascar. Forcibly imposed austerity led the government to shut down an effective and essential anti-Malaria programme, leading to the death of 10,000 citizens. Many researchers, both inside and outside the WB, produced compelling evidence that by demanding reductions in government spending on social welfare, the SAPs were a major cause of poverty all over the globe.

It became essential for the WB to find a scapegoat, some other factor to blame for the failure of the SAPs. Thus, following its launch in the 1989 report, a virtual avalanche of reports from a wide variety of global organisations started to focus on governance, democracy, institutions and other ideal forms. The official story line became that SAPs were well-designed policies which would have worked wonders IF the governments had been less corrupt, and a strong institutional framework to implement policies had existed. This campaign was highly successful in shifting the blame from the WB onto the governments which had been forced to implement WB policies. No one asked the obvious question about why the WB took several decades to realise that the SAPs would work only in a Utopian world with perfect democracies and efficient institutions, where they would be unnecessary. Instead, developing economies all over the world accepted their guilt, and began soul-searching conferences to improve governance and eliminate corruption. The East Asian Crisis in 1997 saw an instant replay of this successful strategy. While the crisis was obviously and directly caused by enforced financial liberalisation, post-crisis the blame was shifted to corruption in the form of “crony capitalism” and many other weaknesses supposedly specific to East Asian economies.

This analysis of governance is meant to illustrate the Foucauldian method, not to argue that we should ignore governance. We must distinguish between the “narrow” and “broad” interpretations of governance. No one could object to the narrow version, focusing on improving efficiency of public administration and building good institutions. But the broader interpretation uses ideal forms of democracy, human rights, social development, and other intangibles to create impossible goals which must be met as a pre-requisite for development. We would be well advised to ignore this counsel of despair, and to set our own agenda and priorities, focusing on realistic targets suitable for our particular circumstances.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 12th, 2016. My author page on LinkedIn. Links to Other Works: Index. More material on Power/Knowledge.


  1. The shifting of blame from culprit to the victim is a continueos process. We have examples in case of European Union where Victims are held responsible for the crisis, though Champions never cared about the repercussions of their nasty egos.

  2. Nietil said:

    “No one could object to the narrow version, focusing on improving efficiency of public administration and building good institutions.”

    Why not ?
    A true Foucauldian would ask why ‘efficiency of public administration’ and ‘good institutions’ (whatever that means anyway) have been granted such unobjectionable normative value. In other words, why the question of whether they ought to be sought after has NOT been asked. Or why the question of what objective should be focused upon has not been asked either.

    • Alan said:

      Quite so. There’s danger in “focusing on improving efficiency of public administration and building good institutions”. He has whole books and courses of lectures on just this, Foucault:

      You see, what I want to do is not the history of solutions-and that’s the reason why I don’t accept the word alternative. I would like to do the genealogy of problems, of probtematiques. My point is not that everything is bad, but that everything is dangerous, which is not exactly the same as bad. If everything is dangerous, then we always have something to do. So my position leads not to apathy but to a hyper- and pessimistic activism. I think that the ethico-political choice we have to make every day is to determine which is the main danger.

  3. I guess I am a false Foucauldian. More seriously, a pilot circulation of draft did not have the last paragraph. Some readers came away with the impression that the point of the analysis was to show that governance was a red herring — and furthermore, if Foucauldian analysis leads to this conclusion, then it is dangerously wrong, because governance is in fact important. To avoid this problem, and ensure focus on what Foucault is saying, I modified the last paragraph to put it into its current form, suitable for an audience ignorant of the basics of power/knowledge. For a more intellectually sophisticated audience, the last paragraph is a red herring which takes attention away from the main point.

    • Alan said:

      He’s not a Utopian. I think the the issue, as he states in the Bess interview linked to above, is the “crystallization” of power relations:

      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.

      So you can trace how what start out as reforms become a new type of repression. He does not have a solution; just an ethics of never-ending resistance.

      Listen, listen. . . How difficult it is! I’m not a prophet; I’m not an organizer; I don’t want to tell people what they should do. I’m not going to tell them, “This is good for you, this is bad for you!” I try to analyze a real situation in its various complexities, with the goal of allowing refusal, and curiosity, and innovation.

      There are some interesting parallels with Adam Smith, also one who declines Utopian thinking, and who mocks the Man of System, and who mounts an attack on the various self-interested factions who benefit from the crystallization of power relations under Mercantilism. Smith’s great misfortune is that economists have transformed him into a mythological father to justify their own crystallizations of power relations.

      • Reformation does not mean to build an Utopian state. We can have both use and misuse of power. But that does not mean we have to close our eyes to realize the best.

      • Alan said:

        @aadilganaie77 s

        “Reformation does not mean to build an Utopian state.” No one claimed that it did.

  4. What is wrong in the crystallization of power if it benefits the whole society.

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