Power and Emancipation: Karl Marx and Michel Foucault

Power is crucial in structuring society. The definition of power, its nature and its impacts on society has been expounded by many social theorists.  This paper evaluates the notion of power and domination as described by two key social theorists, Karl Marx and Michel Foucault. Marx’s and Foucault’s notions of power bear huge differences, probably because they were exposed to different environments back then. Marx’s concept of power is more from an economic standpoint and explains that the ruling class (the bourgeoisie – the owners of the means of production) has the power and domination over the working class (the proletariat). Foucault, on the other hand, explicitly describes power as knowledge which is inherent in the individuals rather than in a certain dominant class in the society. Both the theorists also have their unique ideas of emancipation. This paper further provides a comparative analysis on how power might be used to cultivate practices of emancipatory change from Marxist and Foucauldian perspectives.

Karl Marx: Power and Emancipation

       Karl Marx did not explicitly theorise power in his works but conceptualised it through the relations of the classes in society. According to Karl Marx, those who have control over the economy have the power over the rest of society. This control of the economy is possessed by the elite class and hence they are the ones having power in the capitalist system.  In this sense, Marx’s idea of power is that it structures society based on the nature of the economy.  The domination as a result of exercising the concentrated power is exuded by one class on the other rather than by an individual on the other. Economic power can also take the form of political power resulting in the oppression of one class (proletariat) by the other (bourgeoisie). The capitalists gain power through the labour of the workers. Marxian theories suggest that the production of commodities by the workers under capitalism is synonymous with the production and reproduction of power which is given to the capitalists and in turn, the workers are themselves making their own exploitation possible. Marx also mentions the labour-power which the workers exercise but have to yield it to the capitalists as commodities. This power, therefore, looks feeble, as the proletariats have no choice but to sell it to the ruling class to sustain their living. In other words, the power that the bourgeoisie has is strong enough to dominate the working class. The labour of the workers is the source of economy for the capitalists and since the workers have to sell their labours to survive, there is an existent domination from the capitalists; even the produced goods are the property of the capitalists and workers have no power over them. This way, the bourgeoisie increases their capital, and consequently their power by exploiting the proletariat. The power is also used to instil the belief in the working class that the ruling class ideology is universal, also referred to as ‘false consciousness. This idea of Marx where the ruling class tries to take control and dominate the society by representing their interest as the common interest of the society is evident in the mainstream media today. A few wealthy people control the mainstream media by endorsing their beliefs that capitalism is beneficial and exploitation of the workers is normal

According to Karl Marx, the deposition of capitalism is the only way to emancipate the proletariat. They will no longer be exploited when the power (in the form of wealth and property) is shifted to them from the ruling class through revolution, also referred to as redistribution. Marxism emphasizes that the emancipation of the dominated working class is possible when they seize the power from the elites in order to overthrow capitalism. Marx and Engels argue that when capitalism is defeated by the proletariats, a society will be created where the wealth, land, industry and labour will be shared amongst all the people and this gives them the liberation from oppression.

Michel Foucault: Power and Emancipation          

       Michel Foucault’s definition of power is different from Karl Marx’s in the sense that he does not support the idea that power is always repressive. Foucault recognises power as being correlational with knowledge.  Power is not something that is owned by a dominant class in the society but a strategy that brings along resistance with it. It runs through society as a productive component. Although domination and repression can be one of the many features of power, their scope is not only limited to them. Foucault was also a firm believer in the fact that politics and the economy had complex relations and to understand it, the composition of power should be understood without the economic analysis. Foucault emphasises the importance of discourse to understand power and knowledge relations.  The identification of dominant discourse in a specific situation will help answer the question such as ‘who has the power in that situation?’ Foucault believes that to understand the disposition of power in society, discourse plays an important role as it helps to correlate knowledge and power. Foucault also connected Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of genealogy with discourse to explain power. Genealogy is the investigation of the history which gives an analysis of the present that gives power to the people to identify spaces for freedom. Genealogy as described by Foucault goes against the traditional practice of understanding history through philosophical assumptions but rather aims at discourse to give the power of rationality. It helps to identify the nature of the current situation by analysing the link between contemporary power and knowledge relations. Genealogy directs people towards discourse and since identifying the dominant discourse provides the understanding of who the bearer of power is in that context, genealogical analysis provides the foundation for power analysis. Foucault did not understand power as a negative component of society. In his most acclaimed work ‘Discipline and Punish’, Foucault talks about disciplinary power articulating that power and domination is exercised by institutions such as prisons, militaries, etc. through disciplinary measures. The power is concentrated on the ones who are at the top of the hierarchy. It is believed that the ones at the top positions (generally supervisors) are constantly watching the ones at the bottom (workers), but in fact, the workers are being watched occasionally. This creates discipline in those being watched and gives power to those who are watching. An example of this is the issue at Amazon, an e-commerce company, where the workers at the warehouse are monitored and their bathroom visits are regulated. Here, the workers have the feeling of being watched constantly and have to perform to satisfy the key performance indicators set by their managers/supervisors and even be wary about not spending more than allocated time to use the bathroom. Foucault’s disciplinary power is highlighted here where the power and domination lies in the supervisors over the workers. This relates to the concept of ‘Panopticon’ which he uses as a metaphor to build on the concept that discipline is used to exude power. In this concept of Panopticon (an architectural design) the prisoners are apparently under constant surveillance and hence they are in control.

For emancipation, Foucault emphasises on the practices of freedom rather than the process. However, he does not disregard the importance of process either. His idea of emancipation requires people to understand the truth that are the bases on which they can identify what behaviour is appropriate. In other words, liberation is possible through reasoning and rational thinking. Understanding power by understanding the dominant discourse fosters emancipation. Foucault’s idea of analysing the power relations is the key to emancipation as it produces discourse and gives knowledge. In a sense, Foucauldian perspective of emancipation is to rethink the subject (being self-aware). Foucault introduces the process ‘technology of the self’ which allows people to transform themselves and emphasises on the ‘self’ for bringing about change. This process of emancipation is different from the conventional form of liberation as defined by other key social theorists. It deals with the way in which people experience transformation in themselves when they govern their own ways by constructing meaning into their lives to create novel ways of their being.


Comparative analysis of the idea of power and domination as theorised by Marx and Foucault provides colossal differences.  Power, according to Marx, is retained in the upper class of the society and the working class is therefore dominated by the elite groups of people. Those who control the economy are at the top of the hierarchy in terms of power and therefore the ones at the bottom are constantly exploited by them. Foucault’s notion of power is different from Marx’s in the sense that he says knowledge gives power and both of them are correlational. He does not include an economic base to decipher power like Marx does and says that economic process alone cannot give the complete ownership of power. While power is always repressive from Marx’s perspective, Foucault denies this fact and firmly believes that power can be constructive too. Although Foucault’s idea of disciplinary power looks repressive and seemingly concurs to Marx at first glance and contradicts what he says about power, he insists that disciplinary power is the means to rather raise productivity in the people and not to dictate them. However, this still seems dubious because he says that in different institutions such as prisons, hospitals, schools and military the power lies in the ones who are on the top of the hierarchical position, which means that he still talks about power lying in a certain group of people in the society. Marx says that power is mutually exclusive in a society which means that it cannot be held by both classes at the same time. Foucault, on the other hand, believes that power can lie in individuals regardless of their so-called class. As opposed to Marx who considers materials as the basis of power, Foucault takes discourse (an abstract entity) as the basis of power. The idea of emancipation also differs totally between these two theorists. Marx believes that emancipation of the repressed proletariat is only possible when they revolt against the capitalists; a revolution that overthrows capitalism and ends economic exploitation and class domination. In his view, liberation is possible by the defeat of the capitalistic system. Foucault’s meaning of emancipation, on the other hand, is about understanding the dominant discourse, knowing the truth and having knowledge. It is more about improving the self. He does not talk about the violent movement of one class to overthrow the other but emphasises that attaining power is a subtle process which is possible through acquiring knowledge. According to him, the discourse of power and knowledge is central in liberating people as it gives the real picture of the situation.

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I am Sabal Ghimire, residing in Australia. I have my Master's degree in Social Work (Qualifying) from University of the Sunshine Coast, Sunshine Coast, Queensland, Australia. I am currently working as a Social Worker in Tasmanian Health Service, Department of Health and Human Services in Australia. I have more than 6 years of experience working in human rights, community development, health, and education in Nepal. I have worked with several INGOs including UNDP, IOM, ILO, to name a few.