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The political function of the intellectual

The political function 01 the
intellectual
Michel Foucault
~.

The text here translated consists of extracts,
published in Politigue Hebdo No. 247, 29 November
1976, from a preface to the Italian translation of a
collection of articles and interviews by Michel
Foucault, entitled ‘Microphysics of Power’, to be
published shortly by Einaudi, Turin. The preface
is in the form of an interview with Alexandra
Fontana and Pasquale Pasquine.

(Michel Foucault recommended this piece to us for
translation in preference to the interview we
published in Radical Philosophy 16. )

For a long time the ‘left’ intellectual spoke and was
acknowledged to have the right of speaking in the
capacity of master of truth and justice. He was
heard, or purported to make himself heard, as the
representative of the universal. To be an intellectual meant to be, a little, the consciousness / conscience of everyone. I think we encounter here an
idea transposed from Marxism, from a faded
Marxism indeed: just as the proletariat, through
the necessity of its historical position, is the bearer of the universal (but its immediate, unreflected
bearer, scarcely conscious of itself as such), so
the intellectual, by his moral, theoretical and political chOice, aspires to be the bearer of this universality in its consciOUS, elaborated form. The
intellectual is supposed to be the· clear, individual
figure of a universality of which the proletariat is
the obscure, collective form.

For some time now, the intellectual has no longer been called upon to play this role. A new mode
of ‘connection between theory and practice’ has
been established. Intellectuals have become accustomed to working not in the character of the ‘universal’, the ‘exemplary’, the ‘just-and-true for
all’, but in specific sectors, at precise points
where they are situated either by their professional
conditions of work or their conditions of life (housing, the hospital, the asylum, the laboratory, the
university, f 4 milial and sexual relations). Through
this they have undoubtedly gained a much more concrete awareness of struggles. They have also there·
by encountered problems which are specific, ‘nonuniversal’, often different from those of the
proletariat and the masses. And yet, I believe that
they have really come closer to the proletariat, for
two reasons: because it has been a matter of real,
material, everyday struggles, and because they
often came up, even though in a different form,
against the same adversary as the proletariat, the
peasants and the masses, namely the multinational
corporations, the judicial and police apparatuses,
property speculato,rs etc. This is what I would
call the ‘specific’ intellectual as opposed to the
‘universal’ intellectual.

‘Universal r or ‘speci fic’

This new configuration has a further political significance: it makes it possible, if not to integrate,
at least to rearticulate categories which were previously kept apart. The intellectual p~r ~xcellence
12

had hitherto been the .writer: as universal consciousness, free subject, he was counterposed to
those who were merely competent instances in the
service of State or Capital (technicians, magistrates, professors). Since politicisation has begun
to take place on thel basis of each individual’s
specific activity, the threshold of writing, as the
sacralising mark of the intellectual, has disappeared. And transverse connections have been
able to develop between different areas of knowledge, from one focus of politicisation to another:

magistrates and psychiatrists, doctors and social
workers, laboratory workers and sociologists have
been able, each in his own field and through mutual
exchange and support, to participate in a global
process of pOliticisation of intellectuals. This
process explains how, even though the writer tends
to disappear as a figurehead, the lecturer and the
university emerge, not perhaps as principal
elements, but as ‘exchangers’, privileged points
of intersection. If the universities and education
have become politically ultra sensitive areas, this
is no doubt the reason why. And what is called the
crisis in the universities should not be interpreted
as a loss of power, but on the contrary as a
multiplication and reinforcement of their powereffects as the centre of a multiform ensemble of
intellectuals who practically all pass .through and
relate themselves to it…

It seems to me that this figure of the ‘specific’

intellectual has emerged since the Second World
War. Perhaps it was the atomic physicist – let’s
say in a word, or rather a name: Oppenheimer who acted as the point of transition from universal
intellectual to specific intellectual. It’s because he
had a direct and localised relation with s~ientific
knowledge and institutions that the atomic scientist
could make his intervention; but because the nuclear
threat concerned the entire human race and the fate
of the world, his discourse could be at the same
time the discourse of the universal. Under the cover
of this protest which concerned the entire world,
the atomic expert brought into effect his specific
position in the order of knowledge. And for the first
time, I think, the intellectual was hounded by political powers, no longer on account of the general
discourse he conducted, but because of the knowledge at his disposal: it was at this level that he
constituted a political threat •..

The end of the writer
One can suggest that the ‘universal’ intellectual as
he functioned in the 19th and early 20th century was
in fact derived from a very particular historical
figure: the man of justice, the man of law, he who
opposes to power, despotism, the abuses and arrogance of wealth the universal~ty of justice and the
equity of an ideal law. The great political struggles
of the 18th century were fought over the laws, justice, the constitution, what is just in Teason and
nature, what can and must apply universally. What
we today call ‘the intellectual’ – I mean the intellect·
ual in the political, not the sociological or profes-

sional sense of the word, in other words the person
who makes use of his knowledge, his competence,
his relation to truth in the order of political
struggles – was born, I think, out of the jurist, at
any rate out of the man who invoked the universality
of a just law, on occasion against the legal professions themselves (Voltaire, in France, is the
prototype of these intellectuals). The ‘universal’

intellectual derives from the jurist/notable and
finds his fullest expression in the writer, the
bearer of values and significations in which all can
recognise themselves. The ‘specific’ intellectual
derives from quite another figure, not the ‘jurist/
notable’ but the ‘savant/expert’ ..•
Let us now turn to more detailed issues. Let’s
acknowledge, with the development of technicoscientific structures in contemporary society, the
importance acquired in recent decades by the
specific intellectual. And also the acceleration of
this movement since 1960. The specific intellectual
encounters certain’ obstacles and faces certain
dangers. The danger of immersing him in conjunctural struggles, in pressing claims within
particular sectors. The risk of letting himself be
manipulated by the political parties or union
apparatuses directing these local struggles. Above
all, the risk of being unable to develop these
struggles for want of a global strategy or of outside
support; also the risk of not being followed, or
being followed only by very limited groups. In
France we have before our eyes at the moment an
example of this. The struggle over the prisons,
the penal system, the police / judicial system,
because it has developed ‘in solitary’ among social
workers and ex-prisoners, has tended increasingly
to separate itself from the forces which would
have enabled it to grow. It has allowed itself to be
penetrated by a whole naive, archaic ideology
which makes the criminal into at once the innocent
victim and the pure rebel, society’s sacrificial
lamb and the young wolf of future revolutions.

This return to anarchist themes of the late 19th
century was possible only because of a failure of
integration of current strategies. And the result
has been’ a profound divorce between this campaign
with its monotonous, lyrical little song, heard
only among a few small groups, and the masses
who have good reason for not accepting it as valid
political currency but who also, because of the
studiously cultivated fear of criminality, tolerate
the maintenance, or rather reinforcement, of the
judicial and police apparatuses.

The politics of truth
It seems to me that we are now at a stage where

the function of the specific intellectual needs to be
reconsidered. Reconsidered, but not abandoned,
in spite of the nostalgia of some for the great
‘universal’ intellectuals (we need, they say, a
philosophy, a vision of the world). It’s sufficient to
consider the important results that have been
achieved in psychiatry: they prove that these local,
specifiC struggles haven’t been a mistake ,and
haven’t led to a dead end. One can even say that the
role of the sp’ecific intellectual must become more
and more important in proportion to the political
responsibilities which he is obliged willy-nilly to
accept, in his character as nuc.1ear scientist, genetiCist, data processing expert, pharmacologist
etc. It would be a dangerous error to discount him
politically in his specifiC relation to a local power,
on the pretext either that this is an affair for
specialists and doesn’t concern the masses (which

is doubly wrong: they are already aware of it, and
in any case they are implicated in it), or that he
serves the interests of Capital and State (which is
true, but also reveals the strategic position he
occupies), or again that he propagates a scientistic
ideology (which isn’t always true, and is certainly
a matter of secondary importance compared with
what is primordial: the effects proper to true
discourses).

The important point here, I believe, is that truth
isn’t outside power, or deprived ‘of power (contrary
to a myth whose history and functions would repay
further study, it isn’t the ~eward of free spirits,
the child of prolonged sOlitudes, or the privilege of
those who have been able to liberate themselves).

Truth is of the world: it is produced by virtue of
multiple constraints. And it induces the regular
effects of power. Each society has its regime of
truth, its ‘general politics’ of truth: that is, the
types of discourse it harbours and causes to function as true; the mechanisms and instances which
enable one to distinguish true from false statements, the way in which each is sanctioned; the
techniques and procedures which are valorised for
obtaining truth; the status of those who are charged
with saying what counts as true.

In societies like ours the ‘political economy’ of
truth is characterised by five historically important trails: ‘truth’ is centred on the form of scientific discourse and the institutions which produce’it;
it is subject to a constant economic and political
incitation (the demand for truth, as much for
economic production as for political power): it is
the obj€ct, under diverse forms, of an immense
diffusion and consumption (it circulates in apparatuses of education and information whose extent is
relatively wide within the social body, notwithstanding certain strict limitations); it is produced and
transmitted under the control, dominant if not exclusive, of a few great political and economic
apparatuses (university, army, writing, media••. );
lastly, it is the stake of a whole political debate
and social confrontation (‘ideological” struggles).

Local not sectoral
It seems to me that what must now be recognised in

the intellectual is not the ‘bearer of universal
values’; rather it’s the person who occupies a
specific position – but with a specificity, in a
society like ours, linked to the general functiOning
of an apparatus of truth. In other words, the intellectual has a three-fold specificity: specificity of
his class position (a petty-bourgeois in the service
of capitalism, an ‘organic’ intellectual of the proletariat); the specificity of his conditions of life
and work, linked to his condition as an intellectual
(his domain of research, his place in a laboratory,
the political or economic demands which he submits to or rebels against, in the university, the
hospital, etc); lastly, the specificity of the politics
of truth in our societies.

And it’s with this last that his position can take
on a general significance and his local, specifiC
battle can carry with it effects and implications
which are not Simply professional or sectorial.

He can work and fight at the general level of that
regime of truth which is so essential to the structures and functioning of our so c,iety . There is a
battle ‘for tru~~’, or at least ‘around truth’ – it
being understood once again that by tI’1.lth I do not
mean ‘the ensemble of truths which is to be discovered and given acceptance’, but rather ‘the
13

CAPITAL & CLASS
The Bulletin of the Conference of Svcialist Economists will in 1977 be produced in a new printed
form, under the title CAPITAL & CLASS.

The CSE is committed to the development of a materialist analY5is and critique of capitalism which
is not constrained by an academic division of labour into ‘economics’, ‘politics’, ‘sociolcJy’,’historY’,etc. We want to communicate with all who are
interested in questions of marxist political economy.

of the first issue, Spring 1977, include:

Pannekoek,’The Theory of the Collapse of Cap~
italism’

Brighton Labour Process Group, ‘The Capitalist Labour Process’

Andy Friedman, ‘Responsible Autonomy vs. Direct Control over the Labour Process’

Penny Summerfield, ‘Women Workers in Britain
in the Second World War’

Rakovski, ‘Marxism and Soviet Societies’

plus Notes, Debates, Reviews.

CO~TENTS

ensemble of rules according to which true and false
are separated and specific effects of power attached
to the true’; it being understood also that it’s not a
question of a battle ‘in favour’ of truth but of a
battle about the status of truth and the economic /
political role which it plays. It is necessary to
think the political problems of intellectuals not
in terms of ‘science’ and ‘ideology’, but in terms
of ‘truth’ and ‘power’. And it is here that the
professionalisation of the intellectual and the
intellectual/manual division of labOtir can be
envisaged in a new way.

Some propositions
All this must seem very confused and uncertain.

Uncertain, yes, and what I’m saying here is, above
all, in the nature of a hypothesis. In order for it to
be a little less confused, however, I would like to
advance a few ‘propositions’ – which are not hard
assertions, but are simply put forward for future
essays and tests.

– By ‘truth’ is meant a system of ordered procedures for the production, regulation, distribution
and circulation of statements.

– ‘Truth’ is linked by a circular relation to systems
of power which produce it and sustain it, and to
effects of power which it induces and which redirect
it. A ‘regime’ of truth.

– This ‘regime’ is not merely ideological or superstructural; it has been a condition of the formation
and development of capitalism. And it’s the same
regime which, subject to certain modifications,
operates in the socialist ‘countries (I leave open
here the question of China, which I do not know
suffi’Ciently well).

– The essen.tial political problem for the intellectual is not that of criticising th~ ideological content
to which science is linked, or to bring it about that
his scientific practice should be accompanied by a
correct ideology. But of knowing that it is possible
to constitute a new politics of truth. The problem
is not one of changing people’s ‘consciousness’ or
what’s in their heads; but the political, economic,
institutional regime of the production of truth.

– It’s not a question of emancipating truth from
every system of power – which would be a chimera,
because truth is already itself power – but of detaching the power of truth from the forms of
hegemony (social, economic, and cultural) within
which it operates at the present time …

(translated by Colin Gordon)

14

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ON IDEOLOGY
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Beneficent Roguery: The Oetectlve in the Capitalist City

Edeen Sypher
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Toward a Theory of the Lyric:: Georg Lukks aM Christopner Caudwen
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My Education
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