At his death in 1984, Michel Foucault left a letter stating that he wanted no posthumous publication of his work. He should have known better: The hunger for further clarification and elaboration of the master’s positions would prove irresistible. So too has been the flow of posthumous publications, the most eagerly awaited of which have been the dozen or so book-length compilations of his annual lectures at the Collège de France, which began to appear in English translation in 2003.

The shape of Foucault’s intellectual trajectory was already controversial during his lifetime. Readers asked, for example, whether his late turn to the ethics of self-care was a betrayal of his earlier Nietzschean prophecy that the concept of “man” was destined to disappear. How could he distinguish between right and wrong in human actions without a commitment to the self and the human? Had Foucault finally renounced Nietzsche, and if so, was that a good or bad thing?

The lectures, diverging as they often do from the books that made Foucault famous, only added to the controversy. They are—along with various manifestos, unpublished drafts, interviews, and other miscellaneous writings—now also the subject of two fascinating new books by Stuart Elden: Foucault: The Birth of Power and Foucault’s Last Decade. In the former, Elden tries to soothe some of the long-standing tensions between Foucault and Marx, in part by displaying hidden continuities between Foucault’s early work on madness and knowledge and his later work on power. In the latter, Elden deals with the 10 years after Foucault finished the manuscript of Discipline and Punish and began (on the same day!) The History of Sexuality. He shows how much of Foucault’s interest in sexuality was actually an interest in governmentality, or technologies of rule. When Foucault talked about subjectivity, Elden argues, he was also talking about the formation of subjects in the political sense, or how human beings become subjected to power.

Elden doesn’t claim that his answers are definitive. He notes that more than half of the 110 boxes of Foucault’s papers, classified by France as a national treasure and held at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, remain closed to researchers, thus leaving all interpretations provisional. But one collateral payoff of his close look at Foucault’s career is what he reveals of Foucault’s own confusions and uncertainties about his project and what he was really trying to do.

Reading Elden, one gets to watch one of the last century’s most celebrated thinkers in the unfamiliar role of a stumbling dissertation writer, hesitantly trying out different answers to that dreaded question: “What is your basic idea?”

Thanks to Foucault, generations of students have been instructed that power is not what or where you might expect it to be. It should not be imagined sitting grandly at the top of a pyramid where the sovereign alone has the final say. The French Revolution having come and gone, it was finally time, Foucault declared, to cut off the king’s head in political theory. Power should no longer be imagined as residing only within institutions like the state and its police force. Power does not need to send tanks rumbling down the main arteries of the capital; rather, it flushes quietly and continuously through society’s capillaries, where it tends to pass unnoticed. Power can also be gentle and relatable. It doesn’t always tell you no; often it encourages you to pursue your desires. It doesn’t always shut you up; often it encourages you to talk, especially about yourself.

In all these ways, power is more effective and more insidious. The opening of Discipline and Punish, a set piece by which many thousands of undergraduates have been initiated into the mysteries of higher education, contrasts the gory and excruciating public torture and execution of a would-be assassin in 1757 with a simple timetable of the activities at a reformatory in 1838. In the prerevolutionary world, power is explicit, crude, and violent; in the postrevolutionary world, it expresses itself through mere scheduling. Coercion, Foucault tells us, can be painless, nonpunitive, and apparently humane. All that microscopic scrutiny of your habits and activities can look as though it were motivated by nothing but a desire for your rehabilitation.

In retrospect, Foucault’s revised theory of power seems to have emerged out of the protests of May 1968. Foucault missed those upheavals; he was teaching in Tunisia. But they galvanized him, directing much of his energy in the 1970s toward activism and, through activism, toward theorizing the nature of modern power. Foucault’s early work, sometimes described as “archaeological,” focused on how what was known and said was constrained by invisible discursive structures. Foucault’s idols, in this phase, were literature, art, and madness, all of which could be credited with exposing the arbitrariness of existing knowledge, or at least standing outside its ordering categories. This early work was certainly subversive—if questioning the foundations of knowledge isn’t subversive, then what is?—but it was not self-evidently political in the sense of fighting for or against anything.

Elden doesn’t dispute this narrative, but he does argue that Foucault’s writings became political earlier than is generally thought and stayed political to the end. A major object of his first book is to link up Foucault’s developing concept of power with his activism in the early ’70s, especially on psychiatry and the prison. The cover of Foucault: The Birth of Power is a photograph of Foucault speaking into a bullhorn at a post-1968 demonstration (the bullhorn is so close to the inclining head of the aged Jean-Paul Sartre that you tremble for his auditory well-being). This activism happened while Foucault was still in his archaeological period. In the second book as well, Elden shows that Foucault didn’t need to use the word “power” in order to address it.

Interestingly, it appears that when Foucault did start focusing on power, the more strenuous forms of activism dropped out of his own timetable. Of course, he maintained the habits of petition-signing and name-lending—duties expected of all French intellectuals as the price of membership. But he directed most of his energy toward writing. A compulsive, meticulous scholar, Foucault was known to spend 12 hours a day sitting in the Bibliothèque Nationale. You can see why he developed a theory of the “specific” intellectual, whose political engagement is restricted to and shaped by his workplace.

Born in 1926 in Poitiers, Foucault was the son and the grandson of highly successful provincial doctors. Given the medical thinking on homosexuality at the time, it is not surprising that despite his academic brilliance, his youth was not a happy one. Nor is it surprising that he revolted against his mother’s Catholicism and the bullying of his medical patriarchs. But Foucault’s ability to do well in school got him out: At the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, he professed himself lucky in the mentors he found, including the existentialist Jean Hyppolite, the physician and philosopher of science Georges Canguilhem, and the Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser.

While representing the French government abroad at several cultural centers—his animosity toward the state was clearly not unlimited—Foucault came upon the subject of his dissertation: He began to fashion out of his influences a unique and compellingly revisionist view of mental illness and how it had been defined by and against the Enlightenment. His 1960 thesis, published in English as Madness and Civilization, was celebrated by many but largely ignored by the French left. How the line between sanity and insanity was drawn had not (yet) become a leftist issue.

This neglect wounded Foucault deeply. As he broadened his scope to other so-called abnormalities, he sometimes went out of his way to provoke his Marxist contemporaries. And yet, as Elden shows, there were many positive references to class and modes of production in the lectures—often more than in his books. Those who have found Foucault too anti-economistic, too literary, or too enamored of the powers of discourse, Elden argues, are missing Foucault’s own interest in the materiality of the world.

That interest becomes particularly clear in Elden’s elucidation of the term dispositif, which rose to prominence in Foucault’s later work along with his innovative notion of power. Commonly translated as “apparatus,” “mechanism,” “organization,” or “infrastructure,” a dispositif is not just a collection of hidden rules governing what can be said or known; it’s a collection of “relations of power, practices, and actions.” In other words, it’s material, even materialist. Foucault’s vocabulary here, though, seems studiously neutral, as if he is suggesting that, embodied in infrastructures, power too might be neutral—not the enemy of those striving against injustice, but (as Marxists might say) something that had to be taken over and repurposed.

For Elden, it was not just the latent materialism in Foucault’s early work that reveals its political implications: His interest in the mores around madness and sexuality was itself about power. When Foucault swings his attention from madness to sexuality, it’s not because the norms surrounding the body are more material than those of the mind. Foucault was interested in sexuality and the body less for their own sake than for their place in the larger history of subjectivity, which is itself part of power’s still larger and more important history.

When Elden proposes that power is already present as a theme in “The Order of Discourse,” even if “the language is still largely absent,” he reveals a neglected continuity within Foucault’s thought. He is also making a delicate dig at Foucault’s embrace of the idea that history is fundamentally discontinuous: If period X has different names for certain concepts, the argument goes, isn’t it really dealing with different things? No, Elden replies, in effect Foucault was at work developing his idea of power even before he had the word for it.

Elden’s argument is refreshing, but one wonders why he is so intent on giving Foucault the gift of consistency. There is an obvious irony in seeing Foucault treated here as an “Author” in the most reverential sense, as if the author of “What Is an Author?” had not taught us to be skeptical about scholarship’s habit of using an author’s name to impose consistency on a body of writing that often responded to different situations and therefore exploded off in different directions.

On discontinuity, as on so much else, Foucault’s most powerful inspiration came from Nietzsche. Whether or not Foucault always saw “the will to know” as inextricable from Nietzsche’s “will to power” (Elden says the answer is yes, always), Nietzsche taught him to be wary of viewing any advances of knowledge in a progressive and linear fashion, an error that Nietzsche saw as characteristic of modernity. And like Nietzsche, Foucault also harbored an enormous tenderness for those natural, instinctive, not-yet-classified ways of being that exist outside a normalizing modernity.

But Foucault and Nietzsche differ in their reading of who the deviants are: For Nietzsche, they are the strong (the infamous “blond beasts”), whereas for Foucault, they are the weak. And it is here that one begins to see a more significant political difference as well. For Nietzsche, slave morality was logical; it was a move in a class war. Though it involved a major sacrifice (of sensual pleasure and immediacy), it was also a winning move: The weak won out over the strong, bending the old aristocratic barbarians to an egalitarian morality that was alien to their nature. For Foucault, the ruling class did not invent the dispositif of sexuality in an act of class war against the working class; rather, he believed, they invented it for themselves.

Foucault’s narrative is perplexing for a variety of reasons. Why would, for example, the ruling class want to do such a thing? And if the new regime of sexuality served no one’s interests, why has it prevailed? Like his somewhat ghostly understanding of power as something that exists even if no one possesses or enjoys it, Foucault’s vision of morality—in particular, sexual mores—seems to entail a war without a victor.

Foucault’s more ecstatic followers have embraced his defiance of the logic of subject and object as a brilliant and unquestionable philosophical doctrine. In their reading of Foucault, no one is coercing or defeating or profiting; concepts like profit and victory are too crude. But these questions matter a lot right now because, in 1978–79, Foucault had the uncanny foresight to dedicate some of his Collège de France lectures to the subjects of neoliberalism and what he called “biopolitics.” At the time, “neoliberalism” had not yet become today’s clear favorite in the contest to name the dominant ideology, as it has in the past four or five decades. And biopolitics, or politics working at the level of bodily life, had not yet become a fashionable slogan for those on the left who did not see the point of politics in the old-fashioned sense—that is, politics at the level of the state. But, looking back from the vantage of 2017, one intriguing and, in any case, inescapable issue for Foucault’s followers is whether he should be considered a prescient critic of neoliberalism or an early adopter of its militant anti-statism. Did he help, from the left, the rise of the right’s dominant ideology? Or were his lectures—collected in the 2008 volume The Birth of Biopolitics—a source of prophetic and practically useful insight into the specific nature of power in our time?

On the subject of neoliberalism, many of Foucault’s followers downplay the agency of corporations. For them, neoliberalism isn’t a set of powerful interests in pursuit of higher profits, but instead a vague and somewhat mysterious “rationality” or “governmentality” without any particular origin. No one would dispute that this rationality now pervades a great many institutions, but what gets missed by this train of thought is how neoliberalism is also nothing if not a strategy to increase capitalists’ share of the world’s resources by dismantling the regulatory agencies of the government. It is, therefore, a part of a more elaborate class war between ruling and financial elites and those who are disempowered.

Thanks to Elden’s scholarship, we can distinguish between Foucault and many of his followers. An earlier version of one of the chapters of Foucault: The Birth of Power was published as “A More Marxist Foucault?” and in that chapter, Elden shows how Foucault, more the careful historian than the philosopher, filled his lectures with an acute consciousness of class interests and subordinated voices—voices “silenced in the book that follows.” Discipline and Punish may have featured a “curious absence” of “those subjected to power,” but his lectures did not. And yet the question remains: Why did his books diverge so significantly from the lecture courses and activist dossiers that he wrote around the same time? Elden doesn’t offer any answers, but it’s better to now have an understanding of the more Marxist Foucault, however inconsistent that makes him.

In the United States, Foucault’s readers have tended to assume that if he talked about neoliberalism, he was against it. That is at best a half-truth. Foucault showed some enthusiasm for the neoliberal economist Gary Becker, who wanted to take morality out of society’s treatment of crime. The fact that Becker’s motive was to cut government budgets (imprisonment is expensive for the taxpayer) was secondary in Foucault’s reading, though he would no doubt have had something to say about the irony that decades of neoliberal anti-statism, after his death, would result in intensified state coercion and a vast expansion of the prison population. Foucault’s target during much of his activist years was the moral norms that made psychiatric patients, gays, and others into so-called “abnormals,” and this would possibly have remained his primary focus even if he had lived to decide, with the feminist social philosopher Nancy Fraser, that the recognition of marginalized identities had become the basis for a “progressive” or Clintonian neoliberalism.

On the other hand, Elden shows us a Foucault who, luckily for us, does not flee from inconsistency. Unlike Nietzsche, he didn’t always deplore the moral norms of democracy. If politics, as Foucault insists in one of his characteristic reversals, is merely war pursued by other means, it seems inconceivable that the side of the powerless (call it the left) has never won a victory or that the democratic reforms and improvements of the past two centuries are all scenes of defeat. Modernity cannot be all power, all the time.

One advantage to pairing Foucault’s life with his ideas is that, in Elden’s biography, we are given ample evidence that Foucault was not wedded to this belief. As Elden observes, Foucault rejoiced in 1981 when the new Socialist government abolished the death penalty in France, which many commentators attributed to his and his friends’ work throughout the 1970s. He was also open to working for François Mitterrand’s government and was disappointed when he was passed over.

The turn to ethics in Foucault’s final years, which Elden discusses in both books, is one more example of the productivity that Foucault derived from his inconsistencies. Here, too, he backs off from the premise that moral norms are nothing but weapons that power turns against the powerless. In one sense, Foucault is consistent in his earlier repudiation of knowledge: It’s better to care for the self, he says now, than to seek to know it. In another sense, he contradicts his earlier repudiation of humanism: The self and its freedom are no longer mere ideological illusions, and Foucault comes close to recognizing that, as a producer of knowledge, he himself has been exercising power. The moral is: The apparatus of knowledge—to which he so richly contributed—is only as good or as bad as the uses to which it is put.

Elden doesn’t quite say so, but for the late Foucault, the turn to ethics also became something of a proto-politics. It’s as though he were proposing his “care of the self” as the one sure way not to tyrannize over others. Not to tyrannize—call it 
democracy—suddenly becomes the operative premise. Here is Foucault, the radical democrat, struggling to break free of his own brilliance.