Capitalizing on “The Body”

By Ed CohenJuly 25, 2014

The Productive Body by Didier Deleule and Francois Guéry
La société punitive by Michel Foucault

BY NOW you’ve probably heard the news: Marx is back on trend. Thanks to the French economist Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, even The New York Times’s Fashion & Style section has recognized Marx’s Das Kapital as the latest word in intellectual retro chic. Yet this is not the first time a French thinker has “returned to” Capital and thereby catapulted himself to international renown. Almost 50 years ago, in 1965, Louis Althusser published two books, Pour Marx and Lire le Capital (along with Étienne Balibar, Roger Establet, Jacques Rancière, and Pierre Macherey) that proposed a radical reorientation of prevailing interpretations of Marx.

In mid-20th-century Paris, two schools of Marxist thought reigned. The first, promulgated by the French Communist Party (PCF), adhered to Stalinism’s “dialectical materialist” line, affirming that political economy determines social and historical developments which the State in turn adopts. For the PCF, immanent economic contradictions drove history, and class struggle constituted the subject of historical change. The second position, espoused by Jean-Paul Sartre, Lucien Goldman, Henri Lefebre, and André Gorz, among others, proposed a “humanist” Marx, grounded in Marx’s earlier, more Hegelian writings.

These thinkers held that individual human agency, rather than economic determination, was the proper subject of political transformation. In this view, revolutionary politics should liberate an essential human nature, an essential nature that historically existing forms of political economy oppressed or “alienated.” In contrast to the predominant interpretations of Marx, Althusser propounded a “theoretical” or “scientific” Marxism that questioned the assumptions underlying these competing Marxisms and sought to affirm the “truth” of Marx’s thinking. (Even if Marx himself did not necessarily know what this truth was, Althusser thought he did.) Althusser held that neither the State nor the individual were real. Instead he asserted that both are ideological ruses that inhibit a scientific analysis of the “real” conditions of economic production and reproduction. Analysis unclouded by dogma was, for Althusser, the only way to map economic and social landscapes and thereby discern optimal opportunities for revolutionary change.

Althusser’s “theoretical anti-humanism” established him as a celebrated political thinker during the late 1960s, even as historical events including the Prague Spring, the Vietnam War, anti-colonial movements, and nascent second-wave feminism, complicated previously held certainties about how revolutionary struggles could (or should) transpire. The events of May 1968 in France —which Althusser unwittingly missed because he was in a psychiatric hospital, an untimely lapse for which he was frequently criticized— exacerbated these troubles, especially since the PCF failed to support the student uprisings, leading many on the left to dismiss its political credibility. Indeed, given the PCF’s reticence, Michel Foucault reportedly suggested the PCF’s motto ought to be: “Not here, not now, not you.” In the wake of the realignments among French leftists that followed, Althusser (who remained a devout member of the PCF) wrote a lengthy essay that he believed would help reclaim the political ground that the PCF had ceded. Alas his fellow party members did not necessarily concur.

Written in 1969, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” remains one of the most important statements of 20th-century Marxist theory. In it Althusser sought to shore up his “scientific” reading of Marx by analyzing how and why those who are systematically exploited and made miserable by capitalism continue to “work all by themselves.” Rejecting the concepts that underwrote both humanist and economic determinist readings of Marx, Althusser claimed instead that the materiality of ideological practices helped explain how capitalism persistently reproduces itself. This reproduction was essential, since as he wrote, "every child knows that a social system which did not reproduce its conditions of production at the same time it produced would not last a year.” Rather then assuming that individuals create their own histories, Althusser held that all situations —societal, economic, cultural —preexist those who experience them, molding those individuals’ identities, thoughts, and actions.

“Subjects,” meaning those who conceive themselves as agents of their own actions (like the subject of a verb), are only constituted as subjects in and through their subjection. In other words, the subject becomes both subject and direct object, both the actor and the recipient of that action. This seemingly contradictory proposition confounded the dominant trajectory of modern philosophy, which since Descartes had taken the individual subject as its foundational atom. Althusser’s critique suggested that rather than reducing human nature to thinkers thinking thoughts, as Descartes’s Cogito famously avowed, thinking and thinkers constitute two faces of a psycho-social human complex. Althusser characterized ideology as simultaneously constituted by, and constituent of, the practices through which any historically realized social formation perpetuates the conditions of its existence insofar as it “interpolates” individuals as their agents. Thus, Althusser argued, the very categories through which we imagine our selves as “free” subjects who able to choose among options, bind us to our subjection, as those categories actually give us our identities.

As this summary suggests, while Althusser’s analysis offered important philosophical insights about impasses that both dialectical materialist and humanist Marxism encountered — primarily that of explaining why most workers did not become revolutionaries given their ongoing experiences of exploitation or alienation — it did so at a very high level of abstraction. His incisive analysis was highly compelling, challenging his contemporaries to elaborate alternate visions of how Capitalism’s inequities both came to pass and to endure. In response to its profound political and conceptual impact, two years later, two distinct (yet ultimately related) replies appeared: Francois Guéry and Didier Deleule’s The Productive Body and Michel Foucault’s lectures at the Collège de France entitled La Société Punitive. While the first has largely been forgotten (until its current translation it was primarily known via a footnote in Foucault), the second provided the basis for Foucault’s seminal work Discipline and Punish (in which said footnote appeared). In part this discrepancy in reception can be attributed to the fact that Guéry and Deleule remained ensconced within an explicitly Marxist idiom, returning again to Marx’s Capital, which Althusser’s prior return had reanimated, while Foucault moved beyond Marx’s discourse even as he expressed a sympathetic divergence from it. Be that as it may, taken together these two works not only provide important evidence about the intellectual and political developments that transpired in France in the wake of May 1968, but also offer significant insights into how (bourgeois) individualism came to seem — and continues to seem—the best, if not the only, form of human personhood.

Althusser argued that individuals only become individuals insofar as we are subjected to ideology, or as he put it “ideology interpellates individuals as subjects.” While this formula helps explain individualism’s double-bind (we become “free”subjects only by being subjected to it), it does so at a structural rather than a historical level. Therefore, Althusser can use the example of religious subjection (God as the Subject to His subjects) to illustrate his claims. This example, however, unwittingly eliminates the possibility of understanding either historically changing forms of subjectification, or the ways in which subjects live their historical subjection as corporeal, as well as ideological, beings. In their different idioms, both Guéry and Deleule’s The Productive Body and Foucault’s La Société Punitive seek to redress this problem by returning to “the body” as the individual’s vital locus (although as we will see they mean very different things by body).

For G&D the most salient issue concerns how the mode of production transformed from a feudal to an industrial economy during the 17th and 18th centuries. Taking Part IV of Capital, vol. 1, “The Production of Relative Surplus Value,” as their point of departure, G&D posit a trifecta of embodiment, “the biological body,” “the social body,” and “the productive body” (all of which are abstract “bodies”) in order to explain how the individual producer becomes deracinated from production. This disconnection from the means of production obscures the social nature of the production process and individuals, therefore, fail to recognize the connection. This failure seems to G&D to account for why individuals under Capitalism by and large have not become revolutionaries. Foucault adopts a completely different strategy: rather than beginning from the self-evidence that Marxism attributes to labor and production as the epicenter of historical development, he seeks to understand why imprisonment has come to seem as if it were a necessary, if not natural, form of punishing criminality.

Locating the rise of the penitentiary as the favored site of punishment in the late 18th century, Foucault explicates the bio-logic of incarceration by linking it to the emergence of wage labor as a quantification of “life-time”during the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Hence, while both G&D and Foucault turn to the body to trouble the abstractness of Althusser’s rereading of Marx, their senses of the body could hardly have been more different.

In the 21st century, many might regard individualism as necessary and natural when, in fact, it is neither. For most of human history, the form of life that we now consider “the individual” did not exist. This is not to say that people did not distinguish themselves from one another or that they did not consider themselves particular. Yet the ways of making such particularity meaningful did not involve affirming the kind of singularity that “being an individual”demands. In the occidental Christian World, the soul constituted a person’s most essential aspect: the true nature of your being resided in your soul rather than in your body, which housed the soul only temporarily. Christians belonged to the Church (or after the Reformation, their churches), their nations, their communities, their families, and the social order more generally as beings endowed with souls.

Arthur O. Lovejoy famously referred to this soulful hierarchy as “the great chain of being,” and it persisted as the dominant mode for construing human existence in Europe at least until the 17th century. However, soon thereafter the period stretching from the late 16th century’s wars of religion, though the Thirty Years’War and the English Civil War, the ideas that formed the foundations of individualism as a philosophical, legal, political, and economic framework rapidly evolved. One important shift was the move away from conceiving “the soul” as the most vital dimension of personhood to considering" the body ”as the place where “the person” lives. The framing of this new perspective often gets attributed to the writings of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, both of whom certainly helped it into the world, but its origins predate their writings.

One factor precipitating both Hobbes’s and Locke’s theories was the 17th century’s judicial-political challenge to the concept of the divine anointment of sovereigns. According to this absolutist political theology, God invests a monarch with “divine right” insofar as the monarch incorporates a salvific function with respect its subjects; i.e., the monarch’s job is to save subjects’souls. As a corollary, however, absolute monarchs also claimed that the entire nation, all its land, people, livestock, and wealth were bound up in and by the monarch’s anointed spiritual body. This claim relied on a further notion that King had two bodies— a mortal body that was born and would die, and a spiritual body coextensive with the nation itself that could never die. This duplicity explains why when a King died, the cry went up: “The King is dead, long live the King.”

Unfortunately for their people, such theological investments afforded monarchs a fair amount of legal latitude. Moreover, it made opposition to monarchal misrule fairly precarious since as ensouled beings, people risked not only legal prosecution but also eternal damnation for challenging their God-anointed sovereigns. Of course, this theory suffered somewhat of a setback when one of these absolute monarchs, Charles I, lost both his kingdom and his head in 1642. Following an interregnum during which Oliver Cromwell interposed himself as head of state, Charles’s son Charles II returned to the throne and attempted to take up his father’s and grandfather’s absolutist mantle. However, times had changed and being a divinely anointed monarch was no longer what it once was. The new limits on monarchal power rested in part on the shift from the soul to the body as the basis for legal and political personhood signaled by two historical landmarks.

Firstly, in Leviathan (1650), Thomas Hobbes argued not only that sovereignty did not require divine anointment, but that such claims actually made monarchs vulnerable to overthrow by believers who felt that God directed them to such actions (as was the case for Dissenters during the Civil War). To preempt these possibilities in the future, Hobbes advocated a political physics he thought invulnerable to upheaval because it was rooted in a Gallilean natural philosophy predicated on bodies and movement. As a result, “the body” (which at this point did not mean a living body, but simply a mass that could be moved) provided the natural bedrock for a political theory that seeded legal individualism on English soil, or actually in English bodies.

Secondly, however, the Habeas Corpus Act of 1679, codified the precept that no legal subject could be imprisoned with out due process of law. It specified that “whoever has the body” must, on being presented with a writ of Habeas Corpus, produce “the body” before a judge in a court of law. By legally stipulating the body in lieu of the person — i.e., literally as the place of the person—the Act specified the body as the natural ground for claiming legal rights, a ground that still supports most personal rights claims. Thus, both Hobbes and Habeas Corpus offered “natural” grounds for opposing the monarch’s claims to divine right by locating the nature of the legal and political person in “the body,” which henceforth provided — and continues to provide — the basis for being an individual. At the end of the 17th century to be an individual, legally and politically (if not yet biologically), came to mean, “to have a body.”

With this history in mind, we can now approach the question of the body in a Marxist context. In The Productive Body, Guéry and Deleule tease out the implications of Marx’s arguments about the shift from absolute to relative surplus value. In Capital, Marx argued that the emergence of industrial capitalism in the late 18th and early 19th centuries leans on prior transformations from a feudal/guild economy to a manufacturing economy. In a guild economy, in which both artisanal work and its workforce were regulated by guild regulations, increases in profit could only accrue to extensions of the time during which workers worked (absolute surplus value). When manufacture by machine began first to augment and then to supplant artisanal production, new opportunities for the extraction of profit appeared. In the artisanal workshop where apprentices trained, journeymen refined their skills, and masters produced masterpieces, the integrated arrangement of the division of labor ensured that all workers apprehended the entirety of the production process.

Labor relations were both biological and social relations. With the appearance of machine manufacture, and especially with the further application of non-human or animal forms of power, the manufacturing process splintered. The new division of labor meant that workers no longer participated in or apprehended the entire process in which they were engaged. In other words, they began to lose their savoirfaire to the machines they tended. Because the machines belonged to their owners, the collective ensemble of working relations became obscured and what had previously appeared as the eminently social context of the workshop, in which apprentices entered in youth and worked until they died, now loomed over and against the workers as the property of their employers. This de-socialization of work relations, which G&D describe as the displacement of the biological body of the laborer from the social body of labor relations, created the conditions in which a worker now understood work relations primarily in terms of a personal contract with the employer, i.e., as wage labor. In this context, the organized process of production begins to homogenize work, constraining the worker’s experience of what Marx calls “the natural instruments of production, i.e., his own bodily organs.” The automatization of the working process, according to Marx, “produced such a revolution in the mode of labor as well as the character of the social working organism that it is able to break all resistance […and] produced a surplus working population which is compelled to submit to the dictates of capital.”

Extending Marx’s analysis, Guéry and Deleule contend that the transition from feudalism to manufacture to industry also severs the biological body from the social body. This disconnection is such that the biological body appears to exist exclusively in relation to a productive process from which it is henceforth constrained to derive its subsistence. Only through the sale of their vital powers on the labor market as a commodity in their own right, can the laborers earn the wages from which food, shelter, and clothing must be paid. This process underwrites what G&D call “the individualization of the productive body.” For them, the productive body hypostatizes the abstract labor that mediates between the living organism (on which the productive process depends) and the means of production (that the capitalist owns). From this tension arises what they term “productivity”: “productivity is a state of scission of force from itself, of the body from its powers. To increase the productivity of the productive body is […] to increase its dependence and undermine its integrity.” Under the industrialized mode of capitalist production, the labor “produced”by a laboring body exists apart from the laborer — who, according to John Locke’s famous formulation, now legally “owns” both this body and its labor—and for this reason it can be sold on the labor market.

However, the bifurcation of labor/laborer on which this commodification is predicated divides the biological body from its vital powers. G&D argue that capital effects “the complete dissociation of the productive body and the biological body, the displacement outside the biological body of all the productivity that it previously contained.” In other words, for G&D, capitalism subjects the biological body as the political, legal, and economic ground of personhood to the extractive bio-logic of capital such that the biological body no longer recognizes itself as socially engaged with other biological bodies in the productive process. Instead, divided against itself, the laboring body knows itself only in opposition both to other laboring bodies (with whom it competes for employment) and to its employer (who seeks to minimize its wages and maximize its productive efforts). Hence, the self-division of individual wage-laborers within industrial capitalism also divides them from each other, limiting their possibilities for socially recognizing their shared condition, not to mention for effecting revolutionary change.

While G&D’s return to Marx’s Capital certainly helps elucidate the historical context within which Althusser’s structural explication of Capitalism’s double-bind occurs, it still retains some of the abstractness that characterizes Althusser’s earlier analysis. The “bodies” that G&D evoke in order to explain the debilitating paradox that lies at the heart of individualism do not represent living organisms entangled in a complex life world, but conceptual persona enmeshed within a Marxist storyline that assumes labor as human history’s most decisive factor. While clearly sympathetic to Marxism’s indictment of the systematic immiseration that Capitalism requires, Foucault rejects its critical assumption that labor self-evidently constitutes an essential form of human activity. Instead he seeks to understand how labor attains this seeming self-evidence within the emerging forms of subjectification that characterize the modern era.                  

While this project concerned Foucault from the late 1960s to the mid-1970s, roughly the period between the publications of The Order of Things (1966) and The History of Sexuality, vol. 1 (1976), one of its main articulations appeared in Discipline and Punish (1975), in which Foucault elaborates how discipline constitutes a mode of subjectification that produces “docile bodies”within a wide range of contexts (e.g., schools, hospitals, barracks, asylums, and factories). Moreover, Foucault argues that Capitalism incorporated such discipline in order to produce and reproduce the conditions of industrial production. (It is in support of this point that Foucault cites G&D’s book.) People are not naturally endowed with a biological capacity to work long hours on soul-crushing assembly lines. Yet, for Foucault, neither Althusser’s nor G&D’s analysis suffices to explain the fact that many people do submit to such conditions of employment as if it were their natural lot.

In order to elucidate the contradiction that Althusser underscored, Foucault begins from a seemingly tangential point (at least from a Marxist perspective): the emergence of incarceration as the preferred legal punishment at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries. Foucault begins to sketch out his hypothesis in La Société Punitive, the lectures he gave at the Collége de France in 1972-1973, and these lectures then served as the basis for the argument of Discipline and Punish that appeared two years later. In the lectures, Foucault takes up his analysis by considering “penality as an analyzer of power.” While “power”will become one of Foucault’s most famous concepts, at this point he evokes it as a type of “permanent civil war,” thereby distinguishing his analysis from Marxism’s “class struggle”: “[C]ivil war inhabits, traverses, animates, invests all parts of power. […] The daily exercise of power must be able to be considered as a civil war: to exercise power is in a certain way to conduct a civil war, and all of its instruments, its tactics that one can situate, its alliances, must be analyzable in terms of civil war.”

Within this horizon, punishment serves as one of power’s most labile instruments, one of its most effective tactics. However, the question then arises as to why prison becomes the most general form of modern punishment. In answer Foucault suggests that once wage labor begins to characterize economic relations — or actually in order for it to do so —“the time of life” (le temps de vie) succumbs to capture by power: “From the clock in the workshop to the pension fund, capitalist power clings to time, seizes time, renders it saleable and utilizable.” Capitalism colonizes time, Foucault suggests, by making saleable-time coincide with time of life, with the vital time lived by human organisms throughout the duration that we call a lifetime. This temporal capture of life as a vital duration, spatially localized within the domain we call “the body,”helps explain incarceration’s transformation from a highly specific to the most general form of punishment: 

Just as wage labor pays for the hard work that has been bought from someone, the penalty responds to the infraction, not in terms of reparation or exact adjustment, but in terms of quantity of free time. […] Just as one provides a wage for a time of work, inversely one takes a time of freedom for an infraction. Time being the sole good possessed, one buys it for labor and takes it for an offense. Wages serve to remunerate for the time of work, time of freedom is going to serve to pay for an infraction. […] The time that remains to live, that is what society is going to appropriate in order to punish the individual.

Here Foucault substantially revises Marxism’s narrative about labor. It is not labor that marks the essential way that power attaches itself to human existence, but rather the appropriation of time now construed as a quantum of life that makes both wage labor and incarceration mutually constitutive. During the modern period, the individual who labors, or who is imprisoned, lives for a finite duration within the body’s spatial locus (as distinct from a Christian understanding of the immateriality and immortality of the soul). This spatio-temporal localization constitutes the individual as such and renders individuals who experience themselves in these terms (i.e., those who rely on wages to subsist, or who end up in prison for whatever reason, or even worse both) subject to Capitalism’s temporal bio-logic. For Foucault, individualism is neither an ideological subjectification, nor a class-based phenomenon predicated on the extraction of surplus value, rather it emerges as a new form of life that plots human existence within a quantifiable time that concomitantly constitutes “the body” as our most vital resource.

Today it probably seems unremarkable to most of us that we “have a body.” Moreover, as wage-labor has been rampantly globalized as the dominant form of subsistence, sucking all remaining traditional economies into its maw, “the body” increasingly appears to be the primary form of capital available to most of the Earth’s six billion or so human denizens. Yet this form of vital capital is not a naturally exploitable resource. It has only come to seem so over the last three centuries as the individual has increasingly appeared to provide the political and legal basis for personhood. Yet, if Thomas Piketty now alerts us to the deleterious consequences of Capital in the Twenty-First Century, perhaps it might also be useful to remember that, as Guéry and Deleule affirm: “capitalism is the sophisticated and materialized form of the hatred of Man and of his body.”


Ed Cohen’s most recent book is A Body Worth Defending: Immunity, Biopolitics and the Apotheosis of the Modern Body (Duke University Press, 2009).

LARB Contributor

Ed Cohen is Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers University. His most recent book is A Body Worth Defending: Immunity, Biopolitics and the Apotheosis of the Modern Body (Duke University Press, 2009).


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