Tag Archives: foucault

Another college essay. I found writing this useful in clarifying my understanding of subjectification in Foucault, perhaps others will too.

[I]t is not power, but the subject, which is the general theme of my research.” Explain what Foucault means by this remark.

Foucault’s works are often read as theorising a kind of cold monolithic structuralism, in which power is determinate and human subjects are merely its passive products, whose conscious intentions are more or less irrelevant. (Heller, 1996, pp. 78-9) Indeed, when Foucault tells us, for example, that “individuals are the vehicles of power” and that “[t]he individual… is not the vis-a-vis of power… [but] one of its prime effects” (Foucault, 1980, p.98), it is difficult not to envision the human subject as merely a leaf caught in a storm, helplessly blown this way and that by monstrous flows that are essentially beyond her control. Does Foucault’s picture of modernity, as Habermas (1986, p.106) alleges, not simply reduce to “a senseless back-and-forth of anonymous processes of subjugation in which power and nothing but power appears in ever-changing guises” – power as the real subject of history, abstract and inhuman? And yet Foucault insists that his analytics of power is secondary to his interest in subjectivity. (Foucault, 1982, pp. 208-9) My aim here will be to offer an explanation of Foucault’s interest in the subject in the light of the apparent structural determinism that is so often attributed to him, which entails discussion of (1) the relationship between power, the subject and resistance in Foucault, and (2) Foucault’s approach to theory as a desubjectifying and transformative practice.

Foucault claims that the central concern of his work is to produce “a history of the different modes by which… human beings are made subjects”. His work focused primarily on three inter-related modes of subjectification: (1) the modes of inquiry (sciences) which produce the human subject as an object of knowledge, (2) “dividing practices” which divide the subject both within herself, and from other subjects according to a binary logic of norm and deviance, and (3) practices of self-governance by which the subject (re)produces and transforms herself as subject. Within these modes of subjectification, Foucault detected a form of power for which traditional modes of inquiry lacked adequate analytical tools, that is, a form of power whose effect is to attach the subject to her own identity: “a form of power which makes individuals subjects”. (Ibid., p.212) For Foucault, the analysis of this subjectifying power entailed a shift to the outside in relation to traditional understandings of power. The conception of power as coextensive with the will of the sovereign (the juridicial conception of power, as it appears e.g. in Hobbes’ Leviathan) is rejected by Foucault, (Foucault, 1980, p.97) as it the theorisation of power based on the immanent logic of institutions (the conception of power in terms of the problematics, functions, and objects presumed by institutional logics). (Foucault, 2009, pp.117-8) Rather, Foucault seeks to analyse power in terms of strategies, but insists on a form of strategic analysis in which strategy is not conflated with the intentionality of a subject: “Power relations are both intentional and non-subjective… they are imbued, through and through, with calculation… but this does not mean [they] result from the choice or decision of an individual subject”. (Foucault, 1998, pp.94-5) Power relations are an immanent feature of human relationships, and arise wherever one acts on the action of others to constrain or direct the present or future effect of potential of that action. (Foucault, 1982, p.220) There is no power as such as a kind of universal substance, but rather powers which are immanent to relations between subjects and exist only through their application (Ibid., p.219)

Thus, in contrast to phenomenology, for which the subject is a kind of primary transcendental substance (Foucault, 1991, p.31), Foucault’s subject is always already implicated in circuits of power, an emerges in the context of a strategic field where she is always simultaneously undergoing and exercising power, and it is within this context of the strategic interplay of power relations that “certain bodies, certain gestures, certain discourses, certain desires come to be constituted as individuals” (Foucault, 1980, p.98) – a kind of folding or doubling of the field of force relations, in which the subject is always the product of the interiorisation of her relations with the Other. (Deleuze, 1988, p.98) Foucault’s subject, then, is neither a radically free or self-originating agent nor the passive interpellate of some overdetermining structure, but is always in some sense an active participant in the interplay of power relations which produce her as a subject. Consequently, resistance is always possible – the exercise of power is always vulnerable to reversals, disruptions, refusals – but resistances never originate from a position of exteriority to power, rather a plurality of points or strategies of resistance exist within the web formed by power relations, as its immanent and irreducible opposite. (Foucault, 1998, pp.95-6)

Foucault’s interest in subjectivity, then, can perhaps be summarised as seeking to understand the power relations which form us as subjects and the strategies by which we might seek to transform the power relations to which we are subject and thus transform ourselves as subjects. Theory itself, for Foucault, can be such a transformative strategy. Inspired by the works of Nietzsche, Blanchot and Bataille, Foucault conceives of theoretical practice as a kind of desubjectifying “limit experience”, such that the subject is torn from herself and produced as something other than herself. Foucault’s historical inquiries (however rigourous) are concerned only secondarily with the production of truths – the primary concern is that of the experience of history as a transformation of the self, as the production of new understandings and new relations to the present. (Foucault, 1991, pp.30-6) “A book… is a little machine” (Deleuze & Guattari, 2013, p.2), and Foucault’s machines are built with a particular purpose in mind: that of allowing the subject to transform her relations to the games of power in which she is constantly and inextricably implicated. This is the second sense (which ultimately produces the first) in which Foucault is a thinker first not of power but of the subject: the analytics of power is always motivated by the problematics of our existence as subjects within particular constellations of power. “Knowledge is not made for understanding; it is made for cutting.” (Foucault, 1984, p.88)


Deleuze, G. (1988). Foucault. US: University of Minnesota Press.

Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F. (2013) A Thousand Plateaus. UK: Bloomsbury.

Foucault, M. (1980) Power/Knowledge. U.K.: Harvester.

Foucault, M. (1982) “Afterword: The Subject and Power” in Dreyfus, H.L. and Rabinow, P. eds. Michel Foucault: Structuralism and Hermeneutics. US: University of Chicago Press.

Foucault, M. (1984). “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History” in Rabinow, P. ed. The Foucault Reader. New York: Pantheon.

Foucault, M. (1991) Remarks On Marx. Trans. Goldstein, R.J. and Cascaito, J., US: Semiotext(e).

Foucault, M. (1998) The Will To Knowledge: The History of Sexuality Volume 1. UK: Penguin.

Foucault, M. (2009) Security, Territory, Population. UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

Habermas, J. (1986) “Taking Aim at the Heart of the Present” in Hoy, D. ed. Foucault: A critical reader Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Heller, K.J. (1996) “Power, Subjectification and Resistance in Foucault”. SubStance, Vol. 25, No. 1, Issue 79, pp. 78-110.

This is an essay I wrote for my Critical Theory class. We had to respond to a passage from Marcuse (below). It’s a bit hurried towards the end and a bit messy in its organisation, but I’m generally fairly happy with the argument I make here. The extract:

6. The Happy Consciousness – the belief that the real is rational and that the system delivers the goods – reflects the new conformism which is a facet of technological rationality translated into social behaviour. It is new because it is rational to an unprecedented degree. It sustains a society which has reduced – and in its most advanced areas eliminated – the more primitive irrationality of the preceding stages, which prolongs and improves life more regularly than before. The war of annihilation has not yet occurred; the Nazi extermination camps have been abolished. The Happy Consciousness repels the connection. Torture has been reintroduced as a normal affair, but in a colonial war which takes place at the margins of the civilized world. And there it is practiced with good conscience for war is war. And this war, too, is at the margins – it ravages only the “underdeveloped” countries. Otherwise peace reigns. (p. 84)

Who is the Marcuse of One Dimensional Man? That is: who is the subject that can pose, as critique of society, the proposition that society now forecloses all possibility of radical critique? It is my contention that this Marcuse is impossible: that one cannot coherently speak from the subject-position Marcuse claims for himself; that the mere fact of posing such a critique performatively contradicts its substance. (Or, at the very least, to claim such a position contradicts the materialist presuppositions of Marcuse’s critique, and instead takes us into the magical-idealist realms of a Great Man theory of philosophical knowledge.) And yet, in a certain sense, leaving historical details aside, Marcuse’s account of the closure of discourse, of thought, seems strangely apposite to the post-industrial, post-crisis, neoliberal context in which we read him today. Today “[i]t’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism” (Fisher, 2009, p.1). Our time is characterised by the seeming impossibility of conceiving of an alternative to the world of capital and by “the morose conviction that nothing new can ever happen” (Ibid., p.3) to which only a pathological consumerist indulgence – a “depressive hedonia” (Ibid., p.21) – appears as a possible response. Today, it would seem that the total identification of the real, the rational, the good and the possible identified by Marcuse (2002, pp.87-8) or, somewhat equivalently, the domination of the social by an unquestionable spectacular reality in which “[w]hat appears is good [and] what is good appears” (Debord, 2004, pp.9-10) is more complete than ever. If Marcuse is on unstable epistemological ground, it appears he is nonetheless capable of expressing a truth. We are left with the question: how can one lament the disappearance of a possibility of which one holds oneself to be incapable of conceiving? How can one desire an escape from that which sets the very limits of the desirable? This, I claim, is the paradox of Marcuse’s Happy Consciousness, which will serve as the central problematic of this essay. My contention is that Marcuse offers a unitary conception of the fetisished forms of late-capitalist social relations, which fails to grasp the fundamentally unstable and contradictory mode of existence of these forms, leaving Marcuse trapped in the pessimism of the world of surface appearances, and that the resolution of this paradox is to be found in the apprehension of the dual character of these fetish forms.

For Marcuse, the transition to the consumerist phase of capitalism has brought about a great enclosure of thought and a massive expansion and development of the forms of administration and control – what he calls the “administered society” (2002, p.243) – and with it, the recession of the possibility of the revolutionary transformation of society. Capital has achieved what he calls “the conquest of the Unhappy Consciousness” or “repressive desublimation” (Ibid., p.59), that is to say, capital has effectively abolished the ability of culture to express an authentic protest against or critique of existing society by “the flattening out of the antagonism between culture and social reality through the obliteration of the oppositional, alien, and transcendent elements in the higher culture by virtue of which it constituted another dimension of reality.” (Ibid, p.60) Capital no longer operates primarily through repression, but rather has incorporated desire into the process of accumulation by offering the fulfillment of human needs that it simultaneously produces. (Ibid., p.78) As a result, culture is no longer capable of articulating a need that capital cannot meet, so even apparent rebellions are recuperated into the univocal valourisation (in both senses) of the existing society: “reality surpasses its culture. Man today can do more than the culture heros and half-gods; he has solved many insoluble problems.” (Ibid., p.60) The gap between cultural and social reality, which in previous stages of development was a source of antagonism, collapses to a single dimension, and in the process destroys the dimension of alienation in art. (Ibid., p.73) Language too is impoverished, robbed of its immanent spaces and tensions, and therefore left unable to differentiate between “reason and fact, truth and established truth, essence and existence, the thing and its function”. (Ibid., p.89) The result is “The Happy Consciousness — the belief that the real is rational and that the system delivers the goods” (Ibid, p.87) – a new conformist subjectivity that is unable to conceive of its own alienation. Put simply: the proletarian subject, seduced by material abundance, is now trapped in the recuperative circuit of her own desire, robbing her of the possibility of developing a critical political subjectivity.

As a hermeneutical point, it may be useful here to reflect on emphasis Marcuse places on vertical relations throughout his elucidation of this thesis. For Marcuse, it was precisely the transcendent elements in higher culture (Ibid., p.60) which in previous phases of development gave art its revolutionary significance. Moreover, critical theory too, for Marcuse, must aim at adopting a relation of transcendence vis a vis social reality, albeit of a “rigorously historical” rather than “metaphysical” character. (Ibid., pp.xli-ii) This, to me, is indicative of a continuity with classical Marxism in thinking about class consciousness – e.g. Lenin’s claim that the proletariat is on its own capable only of a trade union consciousness and requires the Party to bring it to a revolutionary consciousness (Lenin, 1902), Lukacs claim that the Party is required to disclose the “appropriate and rational reactions ‘imputed’ to a particular class situation” to a proletariat trapped in the world of reification (Lukacs, 1972, p.51) – that is, the proletariat is constructed as an external object by the theorist (who is somehow able to stand above society and apprehend objectively its relations) and it is deduced, in one way or another that it is incapable of achieving the correct form of consciousness, which therefore requires correct class consciousness to drop as a blessing from above (albeit, in this case, it is the artist or philosopher rather than the Party which takes the role of transcendent agent). Marcuse fails to grasp that the revolutionary discovery of the Enlightenment was precisely that of the “plane of immanence”, which placed the question of the direction of human society squarely in the hands of the multitude, to which dominant classes opposed a transcendental apparatus of capture. (Hardt & Negri, 2000, pp.70-83) What would it mean for Marcuse’s critical theory to take seriously the revolutionary potential of immanence and to conceive of the political subjectivity of the multitude not in terms of a vertical relationship between theory and practice (or rather, theorists and practicers), but rhizomatically, that is, in terms of connective, communicative, and immanent relations between a non-ordered multiplicity of heterogeneous singularities that form a collective assemblage? (Deleuze & Guattari, 2013, pp.5-8) We will return to this question.

Additionally, Marcuse inherits from Freud a problematically essentialist theory of desire which underpins his historical thesis. In his History of Sexuality: Volume 1, Foucault (1990) offers a devastating critique of the “repressive hypothesis”, which holds that previous historical periods were characterised by an overall repression of sexual desire, from which we are now beginning to emerge. Rather, Foucault demonstrates how sexuality has in different periods been actively produced through the incitement to discourse (from the confessional, to sexology, to psychoanalysis) and through the effects of disciplinary power which involved “refusal, blockage and invalidation, but also incitement and intensification”. (p.11) If we admit this discovery, it renders impossible any distinction between one’s “true” desire and that which is constructed by consumer capitalism – desire can only be understood as a contingent social product of a particular historical conjuncture. “Need”, which has a somewhat ambiguous relation to desire in Marcuse, must also be understood as a properly historical product. The “manipulation of needs by vested interests” (Marcuse, 2002, p.5) is not a peculiar feature of late capitalism, but is in fact precisely what occurred in the “deterritorialization of the socius” that enabled the encounter of “decoded flows of production in the form of money-capital, and the decoded flows of labor in the form of the the ‘free worker’” which birthed the capitalist mode of production. (Deleuze & Guattari, 1983, p.33). Simply: in order to “destroy the possibilities that had emerged from the anti-feudal struggle” (Fedirici, 2004, p.11), a process of violent dispossession was unleashed by the ruling class, producing particular relations of need (essentially, workers with no means of support other than to sell their labour) which produced the conditions for the ascendance of the bourgeois class and of the capitalist mode of production. The above problematises the historical rupture detected by Marcuse: if the relations of “need” and “desire” were always already contingent on the development of class struggle then this cannot be a new innovation of capitalist domination particular to late-capitalism. Since its inception, capital has manipulated need and desire to diffuse class struggle and to ensure the continuation of the accumulation of capital. If this is the case, to source the impetus for revolutionary struggle in the supposed “authenticity” of pre-social need is wholly ahistorical. The question then presents itself: whence the impetus for class struggle?

It is crucial to understand the fundamentally contradictory and unstable nature of capitalist social relations. What may appear as a unitary edifice of domination is founded on an ontological division which capital is necessarily unable to resolve. Capital is the product of the fracturing of the social flow of labour, which is necessarily also the fracturing of the subject (Holloway, 2010, pp.28-31), the becoming-alien of a portion of our subjectivity that becomes objectified as a commodity (it is of no significance here whether the commodity is a material or immaterial product of social production). The constituted forms of capitalist social relations, including fetishised forms of thought, therefore, are never merely established facts, but are dependent on the continuous reproduction of this division, the continued reiteration of a subjective violence. (Ibid., pp.88-91; Holloway, 2011) What Marcuse presents, therefore, is only one face of a duality: the apparatus of reterritorialisation that reincorporates our lines of flight into the logic of capitalism, but not the movements of deterritorialisation that challenge and disrupt the prevailing codes, which characterises the schizophrenic dynamic of struggle in capitalist society. (Guattari, 2009, p.52) It is hardly surprising that for Marcuse “[t]he critical theory of society… remains negative” (Marcuse, 2002, p.261) when it is predicated on a monist ontology that sees only the uninterrupted history of domination that progressively entraps the subject, but not the agency of the subject that pushes back against its cage – the occlusion of the “transcendental” representation of alienation in culture, but not the immanent division of the social and the subject itself that renders the spectacular “pseudo-justification for a counterfeit life” (Debord, 2004 ,p.23) always minimally unsatisfying. It is not the didactic pedagogy of art or philosophy that in the end pushes us into antagonistic relations to capital, but the frustration of our own potencies and desires which capital cannot avoid, which is then, perhaps, represented or communicated through art or philosophy.

Reading Marcuse in the light of the conditions of contemporary capitalism, it is clear that Marcuse’s pessimism suits the dominant affective composition of society, and the paradox of Marcuse’s critique is also that of much contemporary critical theory. In the age of real subsumption and the social factory we live in greater intimacy than ever with capital, and its destructive and constrictive impact on our consciousness is certainly similar to that described so vividly by Marcuse. But paradoxically, this situation also increases the potential for liberation (Hardt & Negri, 2000, pp.43-44), as the colonisation of social life means that resistances that were once marginal now strike at the omnipresent centre. (Ibid., p.26) “[I]f the capital relation is now reproduced everywhere, then capital is contested everywhere” albeit in “low intensity conflicts” rather than dramatic confrontations. (Free Association, 2001) In assessing Marcuse, then, one might say that Marcuse has only interpreted the conditions of late-capitalist ideology, but the point is to disrupt them.


Debord, G. (2004) The Society of the Spectacle. UK: Rebel Press.

Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F. (1983) Anti-Oedipus. US: University Of Minnesota Press.

Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F. (2013) A Thousand Plateaus. UK: Bloomsbury.

Fedirici, S. (2004) Caliban and the Witch. US: Autonomedia.

Fisher, M. (2009) Capitalist Realism. UK: Zero Books.

Foucault, M. (1990) The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction. London : Penguin.

Free Association (2001) ‘Anti-capitalist movements’. Available at: (Accessed: 1 April 2014)

Guattari, F. (2009) Chaosophy: Texts and Interviews, Lotringer, S. ed. US: Semiotext(e).

Hardt, M. and Negri, A. (2000) Empire. US: Harvard University Press.

Holloway, J. (2010) Change The World Without Taking Power. UK: Pluto Press.

Holloway, J. (2011) ‘Class and Classification’. Available at: (Accessed: 1 April 2014)

Lenin, V.I., (1902) What Is To Be Done. Available at: (Accessed: 1 April 2014)

Marcuse, H. (2002) One Dimensional Man. US: Routledge.


The genie will not go back into the bottle. The recent Cambrian explosion of critiques of the Left – deploying the concepts of intersectionality and privilege – is not a reversible process. The old and comforting unities that have been disaggregated by these critiques cannot be reassembled – or at least not in the same way. Whether one is happy about this or not, intersectionality is now an active element of the Left, and the pre-intersectional Left cannot be recovered, even if one wished to.


Those who insist upon rejecting intersectionality in toto – whether due to nostalgia for previous compositions of the Left from previous phases of struggle, or to utopian visions of what the Left could be – have retreated into idealism. They construct transcendental standards of what the Left must become (once again) against which the Left is compared and inevitably found wanting. Such an approach cannot succeed. The immanent self-development of the Left can only be a process of self-transformation reckoning with and utilising the material of the actually-existing Left.


Intersectionality is not a ruling class conspiracy to destroy the Left. It is a critique of the Left from within the Left. Or, as Foucault would perhaps put it, an “insurrection of subjugated knowledges” within the Left. (Society Must Be Defended) It is the collective discursive assemblage deployed by minorised subjects within the Left to combat their marginalisation – a cutting tool to break through the ossified exclusions of Left theory and practice. Those who respond by waging a rhetorical war of annihilation against intersectionality and privilege have, as Mao might say, clearly gone wrong.


There are no purely creative or productive transformations. Creation always entails a measure of destruction. The Left must continuously be destroyed in order to be produced anew. “The passion for destruction is a creative passion, too!” (Mikhail Bakunin, The Reaction in Germany)

This does not, however, mean that all destruction is also creation. There exist negations that are not dialectical. An atomic bomb does not produce a resurrection after it destroys.


If intersectionality is to be a force of revitalisation of the Left, how could it proceed but through negation? If the collective assemblages of the Left are ineffectual, stultifying, exclusionary, they must be broken apart – and parts thrown away, perhaps – before they can be assembled differently. The expectation that the intersectional transformation of the Left proceed only through pure positivity is in effect the demand that it not proceed at all.


If one is working on an old house, one is likely to uncover elements of toxicity and decay – asbestos, mould, rats, damp, cracked walls, rotting beams, even shaky foundations. While it might seem as though the problems uncovered have appeared as a result of the work undertaken, the truth is they were there already. The Left is an old house.

Intersectionality as a process has uncovered relations within the Left that are toxic. These are often unpleasant to deal with. But putting the carpet back down does not stop the floorboards rotting.


Fixing the Left is not an end-in-itself. It is not enough to get all of our internal relations in perfect balance. We are building a war machine, not an ornament.


The Left has always been angry. The Left has always been animated by the anger of the oppressed and exploited, as well as our hopes, desires, loves and aspirations. A Left that is not angry has succumbed to centrist capitulation, bureaucratic drudgery or hippy escapism.

The Left has never been unified. There has always been conflict and disagreement, sometimes bitter, because our divisions matter. A Left that has done away with all internal conflict is a Left that has given up all serious ambitions of transforming society and retreated into pantomime.

Why then has the presence of anger and conflict within the Left suddenly become intolerable?


Anger is political. It is gendered and racialised. The question of when, how and by whom anger is to be expressed is a matter of political contestation. One might reasonably be troubled at the intensity of anger within a discourse, but any remedy to the problem must not involve resubmerging the anger of the oppressed beneath a cold ocean of silence.


Anger is more than a mere feeling: it is an energy, a potential. It is a creative moment of an individual. It is not enough for that anger to find expression and recognition – that is a circuit of containment – it must be allowed to flow – to produce, transform and overthrow according to its own immanent truth – and not merely diffuse. It is a matter for the individual to develop such an ethical relationship to their anger, and not for any external apparatus of policing or mediation.


“Nobody in the world, nobody in history, has ever gotten their freedom by appealing to the moral sense of the people who were oppressing them.” (Assata Shakur)

Moralism is not the same as ethics. The former is based in what Nietzsche calls ressentiment, a resentment of the powerful that accepts the inevitability of one’s own powerlessness, and aims only at constraining the actions of the powerful, while valorising the condition of powerlessness. Moralism operates by setting up transcendental standards of good and evil which by the force of their ethical rightness are expected to determine the behaviour of individuals. In this sense it is an ineffectual idealist approach to ethics that can challenge power only in the abstract, rather than transforming the material conditions that enable that power.

For those struggling to make justice a material reality, moralism is a condition to be escaped or warded off. This does not, however, entail an abandonment of ethics, or a rejection of micropolitics. Any social movement that aims at being transformative must produce and practice a counterethics that aims at displacing and abolishing the dominant ethics by sweeping away the material mechanisms of the dominant ethics on all levels (individual, intersubjective, and social). Rejecting moralism in no way implies that we must compromise on our ethics, but rather that we develop a materialist and transformative approach to ethics – a counterethics conceived of as a component of a revolutionary machine.

This is an essay I wrote for my Political Theory class. The exposition of anarchist theory is pretty basic due to space requirements (1,000 words is a ridiculously short essay). Also the centralisation of class here is not really in line with my current theoretical position, but again space requirements prevented any real discussion of intersectionalism beyond a fly-by citation. I think the interesting/useful part is the critique of Rawls and Nozick, who appear to be the boring utopians du jour of university politics departments. 

In what ways, if any, do freedom and equality conflict?

Virtually all political ideologies claim to protect or promote freedom and equality in some form, even if they may appear to others to embody the precise opposite. For example, the War on Terror, which has involved the military invasion and domination of Afghanistan and Iraq, the creation of an underground extralegal prison network, the normalisation of torture and extrajudicial execution, the indefinite suspension of a wide range of civil liberties, and the use of racial profiling, is fought in the name of “freedom”. (Agamben, 2005) Clearly, then, there can be no universal definition of freedom or equality that is prior to politics; the concepts are always already embedded in a political discourse. This essay will oppose understandings (specifically those of Rawls and Nozick) of freedom and equality that presuppose the state and capitalism, and which efface or misunderstand class relations, noting the conflicts between the two concepts that arise within the capitalist paradigm, and argue for an anarchist vision in which freedom and equality need not conflict.

Both Nozick (1975) and Rawls (1999) comment on the relationship between freedom and equality within the context of a capitalist paradigm. For Nozick, property rights are natural rights that form the basis for all other rights. Consequently, freedom is understood in market terms as the freedom to acquire, exchange and make use of property without restriction. Formal legal equality – the equal right of all to such freedoms – is the only form of equality to be enforced by the state or any other actor; either equality of access to goods or equality of opportunity are ruled out, as both necessarily require the violation of property rights. For Rawls, on the other hand, inequality can only be justified if that inequality is in the interest of everyone in society. Distributive inequality is understood as limiting the freedom of those who have less as they have fewer choices and a lesser ability to determine the course of their lives. Rawls therefore advocates redistribution (via a welfare state) to address inequality.

Both theorists, in problematising distribution rather than production, obscure class division within society. As such, both start with the presupposition of ontological monism: that is, that the social sphere is a single undivided sphere within which universal principles of justice (be they liberal or libertarian) can be derived (the moralist psuedo-Marxism of G.A. Cohen (1995) also takes this position) and enshrined in law by the state. This starting point produces an endlessly circulating discourse regarding which particular (and possibly arbitrary) set of abstract rights to elevate to the universal. The perspective of class, on the other hand, acknowledges that the social sphere is fundamentally divided. While under capitalism we are formally free and equal before the law (there is no group of people legally constituted as serfs or slaves), the discourse of legal rights is, as Foucault (2003, pp. 34-40) argues, wholly inadequate for understanding power relations under capitalist society. The emergence of capitalism was also the emergence of new techniques of power (Foucault, 2008, p.317) and a new form of exploitation: the wage-labour relation which, in separating the producer from the product of her labour, constitutes the proletariat as a class. (Holloway, 2010b, pp. 109-14; Bowman, 2012; Marx & Engels, 1994) This fracturing of the social sphere does not merely produce a simplistic binary opposition of two classes, rather it produces “a multiplicity of antagonisms, a great heterogeneity of conflict,” (Holloway, 2010a, pp. 38-42) including fractures along lines of gender and race, which mutually inflect one another. (Rowe, 2013) Thus there can be no general interest on which to base a universalist theory of justice: the interests of those who control the means of production and live off the exploited labour of the majority are irreconcilable with the interests of that majority. (Bowman, 2012) The freedom of the capitalist to accumulate capital, which is predicated on the monopoly of the capitalist class over the means of production (i.e. on an inequality), is necessarily opposed to that of the worker (Marx & Engels, 1994) which can only be fully realised by “wiping out the… socio-political role and function” of the capitalist. (Žižek, 2012, pp. 33-4) Thus, as Lenin (1965) argues “until classes are abolished, all arguments about freedom and equality should be accompanied by the questions: freedom for which class, and for what purpose; equality between which classes, and in what respect? Any… evasion of these questions inevitably turns into a defence of the interests of the bourgeoisie.”

The ontology of political space presented above is not inevitable nor transhistorical, but historically-specific to capitalism. The engagement between Rawls (1999) and Nozick (1975) (which, for illustrative purposes, are taken here as opposing poles of possibility within the statist/capitalist paradigm) illustrates the contradictions between differing forms or conceptions of freedom, equality and “the good” which are produced by the historically-specific contradictions of capitalist society. We should not limit our vision to what is possible within the context of capitalism, which implies an uncritical acceptance of the tyranny of the real over the possible. The reality of capitalism (and by implication the impossibility of universal freedom and equality) exists always, dialectically, in tension with the possibility of a radically different society. (Holloway, 2010a, pp. 6-8)

The anarchist vision of an alternative to capitalism can perhaps best be summarised by the aphorism “liberty without socialism is privilege, injustice… socialism without liberty is slavery and brutality.” (Bakunin, 1973, p.127) That is, freedom must be both individual and collective and equally available to all: one is only free among others who are equally free. (Ibid., p 76.) Equality and freedom are thus understood as necessary conditions for one another. The existence of private property (Proudhon, 1876) and the private ownership of the means of production (Kropotkin, 1906, p.15) are inconsistent with either freedom or equality; freedom and equality are only possible with the abolition of capitalism (and of social classes) and the collective and directly democratic ownership of the means of production. (, 2010a) This necessarily means the abolition, rather than the capture, of state power, as state socialism inevitably reproduces the domination of capitalist society in the power of the state over the population. (Bakunin, 1990, p.178;, 2010b; Holloway, 2010a, pp.11-8)

In conclusion, as I have argued, particular conceptions of both freedom and equality are always already situated within a political discourse. There is no a priori definition of either freedom or equality that can be universal to a society in which social classes exist. Such classes always exist antagonistically to one another: the freedom of the capitalist is predicated on domination and exploitation. Thus to speak in the abstract of freedom or equality is, covertly, to speak in the interests of a particular class, and to elevate those interests to the status of universal moral principles. It is only with the abolition of class society (of capitalism and the state) that universal freedom and equality become possible.


Agamben, G. (2005) State of Exception. US: University of Chicago Press.

Bakunin, M. (1973) Bakunin on Anarchy, ed. Dolgoff, S. UK: Allen & Unwin.

Bakunin, M. (1990) Statism & Anarchy. UK: Cambridge University Press.

Bowman, P. (2012) “Rethinking Class: From Recomposition to Counterpower”in Irish Anarchist Review, 6 (Winter), pp. 3-7.

Cohen, G.A. (1995) Self-ownership, Freedom and Equality. UK: Cambridge University Press.

Foucault, M. (2003) Society Must Be Defended. UK: Pearson.

Foucault, M. (2008) The Birth of Biopolitics. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Holloway, J. (2010a) Change The World Without Taking Power. UK: Pluto Press.

Holloway, J. (2010b) Crack Capitalism. UK: Pluto Press. (2010a) “What could the economic structure of anarchy look like?”. Available at: (Accessed:18 April 2013) (2010b) “Why do anarchists oppose state socialism?”. Available at: (Accessed: 18 April 2013)

Kropotkin, P. (1906) The Conquest of Bread. London: Chapman & Hall.

Marx, K. and Engels, F. (1994) ‘The Communist Manifesto’ in Simon, L.H. ed. Karl Marx: Selected Writings. US: Hackett.

Lenin, V.I. (1965) “On the Struggle of the Italian Socialist Party” in Lenin’s Collected Works, 4th English Edition. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Nozick, R. (1975) Anarchy, State and Utopia. UK: Blackwell.

Proudhon, P.J. (1876) What Is Property? An inquiry into the principle of right and of government. US: Benjamin R. Tucker.

Rawls, J. (1999) A Theory of Justice. UK: Oxford University Press

Rowe, A. (2013) “The Politics of Voices: Notes on Gender, Race & Class” in Irish Anarchist Review, 7 (Spring), pp. 23-5.

Žižek, S. (2012) The Year of Dreaming Dangerously. London: Verso.


I have a piece in the next issue of Irish Anarchist Review that offers an epistemological, metaphysical, political and  pragmatic justification for the adoption of intersectionality by class-struggle anarchist groups. This post attempts to address a common objection to intersectionality that came up repeatedly in discussions on the topic, namely, that class is in some way special and  different to other “axes of oppression”, and therefore to regard class through an intersectional lens minimises its importance and fails to grasp its unique character.

The reflexive response that privilege discourse conditions us to make is that this objection is merely a case of privileged people trying to exclude challenges to their privilege within the anarchist movement. I think that response is both unhelpful and unfair. Unhelpful, because it places intersectional theory above criticism, and unfair, because those making the objections are often sincerely concerned with avoiding the marginalisation of women, queers, people of colour, etc. within the movement. Nonetheless, the discourse of “class exceptionalism” often has precisely that effect (a point I’ll return to later).

The following two examples give a fairly clear exposition of the exceptionalist position. The first is Slavoj Zizek:

The third thing to underline is the fundamental difference between feminist, anti-racist, anti-sexist and other such struggles and the class struggle. In the first case, the goal is to translate antagonism into difference (the peaceful coexistence of sexes, religions, ethnic groups), while the goal of the class struggle is precisely the opposite, to turn class differences into class antagonisms… What the series race-gender-class obfuscates is the different logic of the political space in the case of class: while anti-racist and anti-sexist struggle are guided by the striving for the full recognition of the other, the class struggle aims at overcoming and subduing, annihilating even, the other – even if not a direct physical annihilation, it aims at wiping out the other’s socio-political role and function. In other words, while it is logical to say that anti-racism wants all races to be allowed to freely assert and deploy their cultural, political and economic strivings, it is obviously meaningless to say that the aim of the proletarian class struggle is to allow the bourgeoisie to fully assert its identity and realize its goals. In one case, we have a “horizontal” logic of the recognition of different identities, while, in the other case, we have the logic of the struggle with an antagonist.

The Year of Dreaming Dangerously, pp. 33-4

(Interestingly this analysis seems to be copy-pasted almost word-for-word from an earlier essay that is available online.) The second is Paul Bowman in the last Irish Anarchist Review:

Otherness is socially constructed. Through socialisation we become either man or woman, white or black, straight or queer, normal or other. In the social construction of otherness, both poles of the relation must be explicitly present. The normal defines the other by projection in ways described by feminist or queer theory authors or Edward Said’s criticism of “orientalism” or Deleuze & Guattari’s becoming-other. These mutually defining poles of subjectification multiply and proliferate in the social sphere and can be combined through conjunction.

But class, as we have seen, is not an identity, nor a socially constructed role. Hence the conjunction of otherness breaks down at the class line. There is no contradiction in the conjugation of othernesses when a person identifies, for example, as a woman AND as black AND as queer. We understand that each category of otherness neither wholly encompasses nor wholly excludes the others, that their conjugation is a process of defining the overlapping of these sets that are inscribed within the same social plane that constructs identities and particular oppressions through the operation of polarising normativities in contrast to othernesses. But when we try to add class to the chain of conjugation – woman AND black AND queer AND working class – something jars. Consciously or not, we perceive that something about the last term in the conjugation does not fit with the previous ones. Society not only does not contest that the speaker is a black queer woman, it asserts it before she even speaks. In drawing attention to these identities the speaker is only re-asserting what is already socially constructed, or imposed, as fact – even if the speaker is challenging the meaning of these social facts, or the power that constructed them. But in relation to class there is no such social recognition forthcoming, on the question of whether class is a social fact in the same way as femininity, blackness or queerness, there is only silence. And as Derrida taught us, we must listen for the silences because they teach us most of all.

Without pursuing that further, at this stage, we see also that there is a problem with the process of defining class on this basis, which after this conjugation is made, must, retrospectively, be carried out in an analogous manner to other particular oppressions. Because otherness is defined through exclusion and oppression, then class in turn must also be so defined. The experience of class then becomes reduced to social exclusion – the snobbery and exclusivity of the “middle class” – and the oppressions of economic deprivation – poverty. But to reduce class to a relation of economic oppression by poverty, is to reduce economic life to that privileged sphere of capitalist universality – consumerism. So long as class is reduced to economic oppression which is in turn reduced to relative deprivation in command power in the market for consumer goods, then it loses any meaning in relation to exploitation, the production of surplus value and the valorisation of capital and, ultimately, the active production of the totality of social relations. It becomes a passive category, a doubly passive one when we take on board the failure for it to be actively constructed by the dominant social discourse, as already noted. Reduced to this doubly passive status, the category of class becomes a mere ghost compared to the identities actively produced by the discourses of power, and must ultimately fade into the universalist background.


The attempts by some to create a mono-dimensional category of “intersectionality” where particular identities/oppressions intersect with each other, and class as another identity, within a unified plane of oppression, are driven by the search for a universal category. By projection, they assume that those defending the particularity of class, must equally be proposing it as a competing universal category. Indeed, there actually are some – the “class reductionists” – who make that very mistake. However the argument between the “intersectionalists” and the “reductionists” over whose category is the truly universal one, is simply a competition within the same framework – that of universalism itself.

Rethinking Class: From Recomposition to Counterpower

While these two quotes may superficially appear to be saying the same thing, there are important differences that should be recognised prior to a response. Most significantly, Zizek offers a much cruder essentialist analysis. There are, for Zizek, races that will survive the demise of racism, and which have “cultural, political and economic strivings” collectively. In Paul’s analysis, otherness is socially-constructed and can therefore presumably be deconstructed and eradicated. The purpose of including both is to tackle both the essentiallist and social-constructivist versions of the argument. In addition, Zizek’s picture of class struggle is simplistic: the class struggle is a struggle of two antagonistic classes of people, contradicting his exposition in the previous chapter of the possibility of “capitalism without a bourgeoisie”, which rests implicitly on the assumption that the proletarian struggle is fundamentally with capital (an inhuman force) rather than with the bourgeoisie as such. (Consistency doesn’t seem to be much of a concern in his writing.)

It’s also worth noting that neither analysis precludes revolutionary organisations from struggling on issues of gender, race, sexuality etc. – indeed Paul goes to great lengths to emphasise the importance of such activity in his piece. Nonetheless, I have three responses to exceptionalist position:

  1. Like class, neither gender nor race can be reduced to identity.
  2. The class-struggle is not the same from all social locations, and therefore something like intersectionality is necessary to allow a deeper theorisation of class.
  3. Even if (1) and (2) do not hold, there are pragmatic reasons to adopt an intersectional mode of analysis.

1. Theorising gender & race: beyond identity

As Richard Seymour points out “the concept of ‘intersectionality’ is a way of posing a problem, not an ultimate theoretical solution” and it’s usefulness “depends entirely on the wider theoretical articulations that the concept is embedded in”. Liberal proponents of intersectionality often make precisely the error of reducing class to classism and poverty, which can then be recited as part of a list of “isms” – bad or discriminatory ideas – which we must combat. (One of the frustrating things about Patricia Hill Collins’ recent lecture in Dublin was that she did this repeatedly.) This liberal reduction of class to classism functions to strip class of its transformative potential, confines class politics to the realm of state policy and cultural values, and reinforces the privileged role of academics in developing state policy to mediate social conflict (liberal capitalism doesn’t, for the most part, function by brute domination: amelioration of the conditions of the lower classes is permitted to a certain degree and many supposedly dissident academics feed into this) – pace whatever discourse of “social justice” it is articulated within.

My contention here is that, just as it is reductive and depoliticising to consider class struggle and classism to be identical, it is equally so to see in gender and race only identities (whether essential or socially-constructed), to fail to theorise gender and race as social relations pertaining to systems of social organisation, exploitation and domination, to see both merely in terms of “mutually defining poles of subjectification” as if both were free-floating artifices with no objective component, or to limit the horizons of these struggles to the “full recognition of the other” rather than “wiping out the other’s socio-political role and function”. I will sketch the argument here that gender constitutes a system in its own right that is neither reducible to identity, nor entirely contained within nor isomorphic to class. A similar claim can be made in the case of race, although I don’t feel I am able to do the argument justice at this point (I haven’t learned enough).

Regarding Zizek’s implicit claim that there are two sexes which might one day come to fully recognise one-another, I have three responses. First, as Judith Butler argues, there is no “sex” that is not a product of social construction – that is, a result of a socially-constructed categorisation of bodies according to their perceived (or socially-assigned) function. Neither is there a meaningful distinction between sex and gender, whereby some deterministic process “inscribes gender meanings on anatomically differentiated bodies” that does not ultimately reduce to “the biology-is-destiny formulation.” (Gender Trouble, p.8) Second, as Monique Wittig argues, “sex” as a category is inseparable from the power relations in which it is constructed. “It is oppression that creates sex and not the contrary.” (The Category of Sex) Third, even if we attempt to reduce sex to some politically-neutral observation about bodies, as Foucault points out in Discipline and Punish, bodies themselves are at least in part materially socially-constructed by disciplinary mechanisms. Thus it is meaningless to talk of what sex or gender would look like after the success of feminism. (I give a slightly more detailed argument on this here.)

The above argument already hints at my main point: there is something deeper going on here than just “identity politics”. In fact, what we are looking at is what Foucault termed “biopolitics” – the rationalisation and control of phenomena of populations of living beings by political powers –  and in particular, the social organisation of sex as a key concern of biopolitics. In ‘Marxism, Method & State’ Catherine McKinnon lays out the argument:

Sexuality is to feminism what work is to marxism: that which is most one’s own, yet most taken away. Marxist theory argues that society is fundamentally constructed of the relations people form as they do and make things needed to survive humanly. Work is the social process of shaping and transforming the material and social worlds, creating people as social beings as they create value. It is that activity by which people become who they are. Class is its structure, production its consequence, capital its congealed form, and control its issue.

Implicit in feminist theory is a parallel argument: the molding, direction, and expression of sexuality organizes society into two sexes – women and men – which division underlies the totality of social relations. Sexuality is that social process which creates, organizes, expresses, and directs desire, creating the social beings we know as women and men, as their relations create society. As work is to marxism, sexuality to feminism is socially constructed yet constructing, universal as activity yet historically specific, jointly comprised of matter and mind. As the organized expropriation of the work of some for the benefit of others defines a class – workers – the organized expropriation of the sexuality of some for the use of others defines the sex, woman. Heterosexuality is its structure, gender and family its congealed forms, sex roles its qualities generalized to social persona, reproduction a consequence, and control its issue.

Understood in this way, it is clear that while identity is an aspect of the gender system – perhaps the most obvious aspect, or the aspect most immediate to one’s experience – it is not the whole picture. Gender identity is in fact constructed according to one’s role in an economy of sex in which the sexuality of one sex is expropriated. While clearly the logic of the political space is not identical to that of class, the condition of women’s liberation is clearly not the mutual recognition of each gender’s social role but the annihilation of the socio-political role and function of men and women. (I think it is important to point out here that just as the bourgeoisie are constructed by capitalism, men are constructed by patriarchy, and neither are necessarily conscious of their role as dominants and exploiters. I think it is incorrect to conceive, as some radical feminists do, of patriarchy as being the conscious construction of men as a class. Rather, it is an inhuman system which produces men and women in antagonistic relations to one another.)

2. Class struggle? Whose class struggle?

One of the key insights of intersectional theory is that in any resistant politics, questions of race, gender, class etc. are always-already posed. The totality of social relations is composed of interlocking, mutually constructing and supporting systems of oppression, which combine to produce any particular experience of the social world. It is therefore impossible to develop a generic class politics, separated from any analysis of race or gender, which holds in all social locations: the class struggle simply isn’t the same, in either its subjective or objective dimensions for all observers.

When we conceptualise The Worker as an ideal type around which to build a theory we already have somebody in mind. Even if, like a more radical Rawls, we attempt to produce a “veil of ignorance” in our heads behind which is a disembodied, genderless, raceless, abstract proletarian and attempt to imagine the class struggle from their perspective, we find ourselves in a web from which we cannot untangle ourselves. Gender and race are so embedded in our thought and language that they cannot be overcome: they are preconditions for legible humanity. Our Worker is always-already inflected with racial and gendered meanings whether we are conscious of them or not: if he is not a woman he is by default a man; if he is not of some particular race he is by default white. The dominant category is understood as universal, the subordinate as particular; the post-gender, post-race subject is beyond the limits of our imagination at this moment in history.

This is not merely a problem of imagination, however. The unity of interests presupposed and embodied by the idealised Worker is a false unity established through the occlusion of real antagonisms within the class. To take a concrete example, both the racialised undocumented migrant worker and the white unionised worker are both basically of the same class, but experience a very different class struggle. Moreover, there are real antagonisms between both; the power of the union which protects the white worker may well be undercut by bosses exploiting undocumented migrant labour, while the racialised migrant may well be excluded from the same union. The classic leftist call for unity in a universalist project of class struggle across such divides ignores the reality that the immediate goals of one are not the same as the other, and may in fact contradict. Which set of interests are most likely to win the race to become those of the generic worker?

Intersectional theory tells us that any movement of workers must learn to act with those contradictions intact, without domesticating either (by, for example, adopting an on-paper opposition to racism, while in practice focusing on the struggles of more privileged groups of workers), or it will continue to reproduce various forms of marginalisation in the name of unity.

3. Discourses and their effects

In Society Must be Defended, Foucault asks the following questions of Marxist proponents of “scientific socialism”:

What types of knowledge are you trying to disqualify when you say that you are a science? What speaking subject, what discursive subject, what subject of experience and knowledge are you trying to minorize when you begin to say: ‘I speak this discourse, I am speaking a scientific discourse, and I am a scientist.’ What theoretico-political vanguard are you trying to put on the throne in order to detach it from all the massive, circulating, and discontinuous forms that knowledge can take?

By analogy, we should ask whose interests, experiences and politics can more readily be spoken through the discourse of class struggle? What precisely are the power-effects of refusing intersectionality and insisting on class exceptionalism?

Moreover, if the discourse of class centricity can adequately accommodate the political demands of feminists, queers, people of colour etc., then adopting an intersectional position offers no threat. If it can’t, then why bother defending it? Does the theoretical project of proving that class is special move us closer to the eradication of relations of domination and exploitation? If not, what good is it? The empirical fact of the continued marginalisation of these groups within even the most progressive of anti-capitalist movements speaks to the need for something like intersectionalism, in the sense of adopting a conscious practice of analysing class always alongside race and gender, even if we can do without it in theory.

This is an essay I wrote for my Feminism Today! class last semester, which was really useful in helping to clarify my thoughts on issues of sexuality and gender.

Feminism would hold that sexuality is socially constructed. Discuss how and why women’s sexuality and femininity is socially constructed and how these constructs may be the site of oppression, regulation and control.

Sexuality – its origin, content, and political meaning – has been an important concern for the feminist movement. Key in understanding and articulating a particularly feminist picture of the sexual has been the idea that sexuality is socially-constructed. This essay explores the ideas of social construction and anti-essentialism in the context of female sexuality. No definition of the sexual is taken, rather I agree with Stevi Jackson that ‘an act is not sexual by virtue of its inherent properties… [but] becomes sexual by the application of socially learned meanings’.1 The construction of sexuality involves complex interactions between the body, the self, culture, power, the state, etc., which are explored throughout the essay. First, the issue of essentialism and the meaning of the categories of ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ are discussed. Next, Freud’s account of psychosexual development is discussed in relation to critical feminist perspectives. Drawing on Foucault’s analysis of power and of social control, a framework for understanding the mechanisms by which sexuality is constructed is sketched. Next, with Foucault still in mind, the analyses of radical feminists are drawn on to discuss the political implications of normative forms of sexuality. Finally, the tensions between ‘sex-positive’ and ‘sex-negative’ feminism as forms of resistance are briefly discussed.

As it’s presently constructed, to talk of sexuality presupposes gendered subjects. Consequently, to understand how female sexuality is socially constructed, one must first understand how women are constructed as women, by looking at the social construction of sex and gender. Most feminists hold that gender difference is largely if not entirely socially constructed. However, there has always been an essentialist current within feminist thought, which holds that femininity is biologically determined (for example, Naomi Wolf’s recent book Vagina: A New Biography2), but contests the patriarchal conception of femininity as inferior. This viewpoint is criticised by Andrea Dworkin, who argues that essentialism is always reactionary (Fascist, even) in its political implications.3

Many feminists maintain a radical separation between ‘sex’ and ‘gender’, with ‘sex’ referring to the biological differences between male and female bodies and ‘gender’ referring to masculine and feminine behaviours, attitudes, identity, modes of thought etc. However this sharp distinction, while useful in some respects as a counter to reactionary bio-essentialist arguments, is problematic. The sexing of the body is also an act of interpretation, and as such relies on a socially-constructed interpretive framework within which gendered meaning can be ascribed to (or imposed upon) bodies: this or that particular feature of the body (such as the capacity for reproduction, or a certain arrangement of chromosomes, or a certain morphology) is taken as the salient feature of that body and its associated sex.4 In the case of intersex bodies, this act of interpretation is often accompanied by the physical imposition of this interpretation via coercive surgery on infants to ‘normalise’ their bodies within a schema of anatomical norms. Transexual individuals, by radically decoupling bodily sex as interpreted by medical professions from sex as a lived experience, and, in some cases, by transforming their bodies to match their understanding of themselves, also undermine notions of an underlying biological facticity of ‘sex’.5 As such, ‘sex’ is not a neutral pre-discursive surface on which gender is inscribed, but rather the construction of ‘sex’ is an aspect of the social process of gender formation.6

In Gender Trouble Judith Butler argues that gender (including ‘sex’) should be viewed as a performative utterance: a discursive act which brings into being that which it names.7 In this, she echoes Monique Wittag’s argument8 that ‘sex’ as a category is inseparable from the power relations in which it is constructed. ‘It is oppression that creates sex and not the contrary.’ To argue the contrary would be to naturalise the oppression of women with reference to a constitutive difference between the sexes that exists prior or external to society, either biologically (the physical sense) or ontologically (the metaphysical sense).9

Among the first feminist works to contest the idea of a ‘natural’ sexuality existing prior to culture is Ann Oakley’s Sex, Gender and Society.10Drawing on anthropological evidence, she compares (hetero)sexual attitudes and behaviours among various indigenous groups, and discovers a wide divergence. Commonsense notions of a qualitative difference between male and female sexuality, in which the male is active and the female is passive (her sexuality is held to involve ‘long arousal and slow satisfaction, inferior sex drive, susceptibility to field dependence… and romantic idealism’), are found to be culturally-specific rather than universal. Cultures are also found to vary widely in the meaning and importance afforded to sexual activity. Oakley’s work provides an empirical support to an anti-essentialist account of human sexuality.

Psychoanalysis is among the key analytical tools for the understanding of sexuality. Sigmund Freud’s male-centric analysis of the psychosocial construction of sexuality, which has had an important influence both on academia and in shaping commonsense understandings of sexuality in wider society, has been contested by feminists. One such critique of Freud is offered by Stevi Jackson.11 She rejects the notion that sexuality is driven by some ‘animal’ or ‘instinctual’ side of human ‘nature’ which is then repressed and shaped by social forces – the Freudian libido – rather it is produced socially, with the biological serving merely as the surface onto which socially-learned meanings are inscribed. Sexual learning involves the assimilation of these social meanings into one’s self-concept, rather than learning to repress or express one’s innate desires. For Freud, libido is an active masculine force, symbolised by the phallus, and the female is defined and understood in terms of its absence, not just sexually, but in her whole personality. Women are, he says, from an early age overcome by an intense envy of the penis and a concomitant feeling of being mutilated which determines her entire personal and sexual development. This assertion, according to Jackson, is unfounded: there is no reason to assume that little girls evaluate themselves negatively on encountering the penis, let alone that penis envy develops to the obsessive proportions Freud gives it. In making this leap, Freud is in fact imposing his own meanings upon children’s behaviour. Simone de Beuvoir12 argues that Freud’s theory makes little effort to study female psychosexual development in itself, rather he simply modified his masculine model, and in doing so obtained the conclusion that the female is a mutilated male, a complex deviation from the human norm, who is male. She argues that while for little boys, who obtain a living experience from their penis, the penis may be a source of pride, little girls are often only dimly aware of the male genitalia, and thus there is no necessary corollary that they should be humiliated by its absence in them. Further, she argues that Freud’s generalisation of the male Oedipus and female Electra complexes (i.e. that a boy’s affection for his mother and a girl’s for her father during their development have a distinctly genital aspect) is spurious and without foundation, particularly in the case of girls.

The regulation of sexuality per se and women’s sexuality in particular has often been a pre-occupation of political powers. This, according to Foucault, is due to sexuality’s two-fold importance: on the one hand, powers are concerned with the regulation and discipline of bodies, on the other with the regulation of populations.13 ‘Regulation’ here should not be confused with ‘repression’: the exercise of control over sexuality may involve ‘refusal, blockage and invalidation, but also incitement and intensification’.14 From the 18th century onwards, Foucault argues, biopolitics – that is, a governmental practice concerned with the rationalisation and control of phenomena of populations of living beings, such as birthrate, health, hygiene, etc. – increasingly formed part of governmental practice and became and important concern of governmentality.15 It is important to note here that, while power often acts through the state, the state should not be seen as a universal and autonomous source of power with a will or intent of its own, but rather as a conduit and series of mechanisms through and by which powers act.16 In Discipline and Punish, Foucault develops two particularly important concepts in this regard. First, biopolitics involves the development of technologies of the body, often diffuse in application and effect, by which the body, understood more or less as a machine, can be explored, shaped and reorganised by disciplinary institutions according to the logic of various powers. These processes produce ‘docile bodies’ shaped and habituated to practices of submission.17 Second, the ‘panopticon’ is used by Foucault to denote a society in which people are subject to continuous surveillance, which functions to remove the need for coercive force in the exercise of social control. The subject of surveillance, aware of her own visibility, is made to apply constraints automatically to herself, and thus becomes simultaneously both agent and subject of her own subjection.18

For Foucault, power is not held or exercised by one group over another, rather it is composed of ‘multiplicity of force relations immanent in the sphere in which they operate and which constitute their own organization’.19 As a result Foucault arguably offers a somewhat depoliticised account of the regulation of sexuality: there is no patriarchy as such in Foucault’s analysis; gender is not of particular concern: it is just one sphere of regulation among many.20 Nonetheless, feminists have found in Foucault important analyses and tools which aid the understanding of female sexuality – in particular, a move away from understanding social control as purely a repressive force, which allows for a more nuanced discussion of how and why female sexuality is repressed in certain directions and encouraged in others. Susan Bordo21 draws on Foucault’s ‘docile bodies’ in discussing how particularly gendered forms of submission are inscribed onto female bodies. Andrea Dworkin’s description of women as being ‘made for intercourse’ (discussed later) can be read in this light.

Radical feminists in particular have been significant in theorising the political significance for women of various forms of normative socially-constructed sexuality. Adrienne Rich, writing in the context of a period of feminist debates on the role of lesbians and lesbianism within the feminist movement, identifies ‘compulsory heterosexuality’ and lesbian erasure – i.e. the idea that women have an innate orientation towards men and the definition of lesbianism as less natural, deviant, a product of bitterness towards men, or an alternate lifestyle choice to the heterosexual norm – as an important form of male power.22 She details a range of manifestations of male power ‘ranging from physical brutality to control of consciousness’ which, in aim or effect, subtly or forcefully, convince or coerce women towards heterosexuality (particularly within the marriage construct) and away from lesbianism, in the furtherance of a male-oriented political economy of female sexuality.

In Intercourse23, Andrea Dworkin critically interrogates the act of heterosexual intercourse within the context of a patriarchal society. Within this context, intercourse is understood as both a physical and metaphysical occupation of a woman’s body, which places her in a subordinate position and denies her the integrity and privacy of her own body. She is ipso facto less human than a man, for whom being physically entered is never a normative use of his body. In male discourse, she argues, this is simultaneously both the proper use and a violent abuse of a woman. It further dictates that intercourse is synonymous with and totally delineative of sex. Since men control both the terms on which the act takes place and the ways in which the act may be understood, and since it takes place within a context of fear and inequality, women never fully have ownership of the experience, even if they formally consent to, or even desire intercourse. For Dworkin, private sexual activity is not discontinuous with the social or political spheres: women’s position in the bedroom and in society are inter-related and co-productive of one another. Women must make and remake themselves into the objects of men’s fantasies, failure to do so leaves a woman no longer legibly human. Dworkin leaves open, but does not presume, the possibility that intercourse can survive the dissolution of male power and represent an expression of sexual equality; however, in order for this to happen, women must be equally empowered both to control both the physical and experiential content and to produce the metaphysical meaning of sexual activity.

Dworkin’s argument should be read carefully, however. While she explicitly denies the interpretation that all intercourse is rape24 there is nonetheless a failure to adequately delineate discourses from essences, which leaves similar interpretations open. Read together with Foucault, one might agree that intercourse means violation and domination, and that women may be socialised to experience that domination bodily as pleasure and as desire, but it is not essentially so. It does not follow immediately that entering a person’s body dehumanises and objectifies them – discourse and power relations make it so.

The critical analyses of radical feminists, such as Dworkin, have been criticised by ‘sex-positive’ feminists on the grounds that they are ‘sex-negative’ – i.e. that they reproduce sexually-repressive conservative moralism within the feminist movement in a way that ultimately harms women’s ability to self-determine their sexuality. On her blog25, Lisa Millbank attempts to sketch an ‘authentic’ (non-pejorative) sex-negative feminism, based in the understanding that sex is often in varying ways an imposition, to which feminists can positively subscribe. She argues that sex-positive and sex-negative feminism needn’t be seen as opposed to one another, but rather, that both can act in concert as progressive forces in opposition to patriarchal demands on women. That is: sex-positivity acts as a countervailing force to sex moralism while sex-negativity acts against compulsory sexuality, both of which co-exist as contradictory regulatory forces acting on women. Ariel Levy26, meanwhile, while not opposing sex-positive feminism as such, criticises the utilisation of sex-positive narratives which reposition the sexualising demands and sexually exploitative practices of patriarchy as forms of feminist liberation. These issues are significant when we move from describing the social forces that construct sexuality to formulating a praxis of effective resistance: progressive intentions, such as the creation of counter-hegemonic spaces in which sexuality is celebrated, are susceptible to recuperation by patriarchy, turning them against other women in complex and often unpredictable ways.

In conclusion, a multiplicity of forces and interests are involved in shaping female sexuality. Often, these forces act to naturalise the present position of women by reference to some essential true sexuality: biologically determined, in the case of the bio-essentialists, or ontologically in the case of Frued et al. However, as seen above there is no truth of sexuality that is prior to culture, only discourses and mechanisms which both produce and constrain sexuality according to the logics of various political powers. Patriarchy is the key focus of feminist agitation, but patriarchy is not a monolith, and women are often made to embody contradictory demands simultaneously: for example, that women must be continually sexually-available, but must never be sexual in their own right. Agreeing with Judith Butler, what is clear is that, given the diffuse and multifaceted character of women’s oppression, there ‘is no one site from which to struggle effectively. There have to be many, and they don’t [necessarily] need to be reconciled with one another’.27


Bordo, Susan, “The Body and the Reproduction of Femininity” in Writing on the body: Female embodiment and Feminist theory, eds. Katie Conboy, Nadia Median and Sarah Stanbury, 309-26. US: Columbia University Press, 1997.

Butler, Judith, Gender Trouble. London: Routledge, 1990.

Butler, Judith, Undoing Gender. London: Routledge, 2004.

De Beauvoir, Simone, The Second Sex. UK: Vintage, 1997.

Dworkin, Andrea, “Biological Superiority: The World’s Most Dangerous and Deadly Idea” in Feminism and Sexuality, A Reader, eds. Stevi Jacson and Sue Scott, 57-61. UK: Edinburgh Univerity Press, 1996.

Dworkin, Andrea, Intercourse. New York: Basic Books, 2007.

Foucault, Michel, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. UK: Penguin, 1991.

Foucault, Michel, The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France 1978-1978. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

Foucault, Michel, The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction. London : Penguin, 1990.

Jackson, Stevi, “The Social Construction of Female Sexuality” in Feminism and Sexuality, A Reader, eds. Stevi Jacson and Sue Scott, 62-73. UK: Edinburgh Univerity Press, 1996.

Levy, Ariel, Female Chauvanist Pigs, US: Free Press, 2005.

Millbank, Lisa, “The Ethical Prude: Imagining An Authentic Sex-Negative Feminism,” A Radical TransFeminist, February 29 2012,

Oakley, Ann, “Sexuality” in Feminism and Sexuality, A Reader, eds. Stevi Jacson and Sue Scott, 35-9. UK: Edinburgh Univerity Press, 1996.

Osborne, Peter and Segal, Lynne, “Extracts from Gender as Performance: An Interview with Judith Butler”. Theory.Org.Uk. Accessed 26 November 2012,

Moore, Suzanne, “Naomi Wolf’s book Vagina: self-help marketed as feminism”. The Guardian, 5 September 2012. Accessed: 1 December 2012.

Rich, Adrienne, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” in Feminism and Sexuality, A Reader, eds. Stevi Jacson and Sue Scott, 130-43. UK: Edinburgh Univerity Press, 1996.

Scott, Sue and Jackson, Stevi, “Sexual Skirmishes and Feminist Factions: Twenty-Five Years of Debate on Women and Sexuality” in Feminism and Sexuality, A Reader, eds. Stevi Jacson and Sue Scott, 1-31. UK: Edinburgh Univerity Press, 1996.

Wittag, Monique, “The Category of Sex” in Sex in Question: French materialist feminism, eds. Diana Leonard and Lisa Atkins, 24-9. UK: Taylor & Francis, 1996.


1Stevi Jackson, “The Social Construction of Female Sexuality” in Feminism and Sexuality, A Reader, eds. Stevi Jacson and Sue Scott, 62-73. UK: Edinburgh Univerity Press, 1996.

2Suzanne Moore, “Naomi Wolf’s book Vagina: self-help marketed as feminism”. The Guardian, 5 September 2012. Accessed: 1 December 2012.

3Andrea Dworkin, “Biological Superiority: The World’s Most Dangerous and Deadly Idea” in Feminism and Sexuality, A Reader, eds. Stevi Jacson and Sue Scott, 57-61. UK: Edinburgh Univerity Press, 1996.

4Peter Osborne and Lynne Segal, “Extracts from Gender as Performance: An Interview with Judith Butler”. Theory.Org.Uk. Accessed 26 November 2012,

5Judith Butler, Undoing Gender. London: Routledge, 2004 pp.4-5

6Judith Butler, Gender Trouble. London: Routledge, 1990, pp.6-7.

7Judith Butler, Gender Trouble. London: Routledge, 1990; Peter Osborne and Lynne Segal, “Extracts from Gender as Performance: An Interview with Judith Butler”. Theory.Org.Uk. Accessed 26 November 2012,

8Monique Wittag, “The Category of Sex” in Sex in Question: French materialist feminism, eds. Diana Leonard and Lisa Atkins, 24-9. UK: Taylor & Francis, 1996.

9For the remainder of this essay I will discuss ‘femininity’ and ‘female sexuality’ in terms of cisgendered and cissexual women – i.e. those with normative gender identity, gender expression and bodily sex – and accept, for example, the normative assumption that men have penises and women have vaginas. However, with the above discussion in mind, it is important to note that to do so is, in itself, an act of social construction with political consequences.

10Ann Oakley, “Sexuality” in Feminism and Sexuality, A Reader, eds. Stevi Jacson and Sue Scott, 35-9. UK: Edinburgh Univerity Press, 1996.

11Stevi Jackson, “The Social Construction of Female Sexuality” in Feminism and Sexuality, A Reader, eds. Stevi Jacson and Sue Scott, 62-73. UK: Edinburgh Univerity Press, 1996.

12Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex. UK: Vintage, 1997, pp 70-4

13Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction. London : Penguin, 1990, pp145-6

14Ibid. p.11

15Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France 1978-1978. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008, p.317

16Ibid. pp.76-8

17Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. UK: Penguin, 1991, pp 135-69

18Ibid. pp 195-228

19Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction. London : Penguin, 1990, p.92

20Sue Scott and Stevi Jackson, “Sexual Skirmishes and Feminist Factions: Twenty-Five Years of Debate on Women and Sexuality” in Feminism and Sexuality, A Reader, eds. Stevi Jacson and Sue Scott, 1-31. UK: Edinburgh Univerity Press, 1996.

21Susan Bordo, “The Body and the Reproduction of Femininity” in Writing on the body: Female embodiment and Feminist theory, eds. Katie Conboy, Nadia Median and Sarah Stanbury, 309-26. US: Columbia University Press, 1997.

22Adrienne Rich, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” in Feminism and Sexuality, A Reader, eds. Stevi Jacson and Sue Scott, 130-43. UK: Edinburgh Univerity Press, 1996.

23Andrea Dworkin, Intercourse. New York: Basic Books, 2007, pp 153-82

24Ibid. pp xxxii

25Lisa Millbank, “The Ethical Prude: Imagining An Authentic Sex-Negative Feminism,” A Radical TransFeminist, February 29 2012,

26Ariel Levy, Female Chauvanist Pigs, US: Free Press, 2005.

27Peter Osborne and Lynne Segal, “Extracts from Gender as Performance: An Interview with Judith Butler”. Theory.Org.Uk. Accessed 26 November 2012,