Power and Alienation


Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979), a famous Frankfurt school philosopher and Michel Foucault (1926-1984), a philosopher, psychologist and teacher, have very different ideas about sexuality, power, economy and pleasure. While Marcuse maintained the idea that the body should be used as an instrument of pleasure over labor, Foucault believed that society should strive for a new economy characterized as bodies and pleasures. Both give great insight and detail to their arguments, but Marcuse makes a greater gesture toward the image of the liberation of Eros. Thinkers Marcuse and Foucault both have certain visions and ideas about the liberation of Eros and ways in which to create enhanced societies, but Marcuse has the more compelling ideal.


Marcuse speaks of the possibility of making “the body an instrument of pleasure rather than labor.” As a Marxist, he believes that individuals have the ability to live together happily through very distinct moral and social change. Marcuse strived for political freedom, true human emancipation and a practical way of living through the distribution of wealth and labor. He felt that reason and happiness along with rationality and sensuality would change life and form a Utopian society. Marxists would say, “Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness is determined by life.” Marcuse believed that social conditions were the real source of the world’s problems and that doing away with capitalism, greed, war and alienated labor would benefit society to extreme amounts. Marcuse was very interested in Marx’s claim that people were alienated in three ways due to the conditions of capitalist society. The first manner of alienation is the fact that the things a person produces, does not belong to them; they belong to the owners of capital… a system of theft. Second, people are alienated from each other and are forced to compete for jobs. Lastly and most importantly, workers experience self alienation, the effect of being alienated from the very activity that makes a person distinctly human; the essence of who people are. To deal with these modes of alienation Marcuse felt that a new set of conditions needed to be made, technology advanced, and power maintained through consent and not force, along with reducing all social life to a science. He states, “In advanced capitalism, technical rationality it embodied, in spite of its irrational use, in the productive apparatus. This applies not only to mechanized plants, tools, and exploitation of resources, but also to the mode of labor as an adaptation to and handling of the machine process, as arranged by scientific management” (22). Marcuse also felt that heterosexual monogamy sustained capitalism and that more repression would get rid of rebellion. Using the body as an instrument of labor would make it possible to abolish scarcity and poverty, as well as traditional religious gestures that created social control. He also believed that the pleasure goal of Eros was a desire to go to a state of fulfillment where all tension was released.


Foucault strongly believed in the discourse, control and will to knowledge in order to obtain power (in a very Nietzschean sense). He believed that sexuality was invented by the bourgeoisie and had its explosion of discourse at the height of the Victorian Era. Foucault however, rejected the repressive hypothesis of Marcuse and Freud and focused on how and what effects sexuality has in relations to power. As stated in his book The History of Sexuality, “As far as sexuality is concerned, we shall attempt to constitute the political economy of a will to knowledge” (73). He gestures toward the possibility of a “new economy of bodies and pleasures” based on sexual liberation, the will to power through instincts and innate desires, psycho-social architecture, and reality itself as a human construct. Foucault’s main belief was that sexuality was socially constructed and becomes the anchor, then transfer point of power.


Marcuse and Foucault both have very conflicted beliefs and ideals. Marcuse is a Marxist, who focuses on pleasure, socialism, universalism, life, Eros and truth while Foucault is an anti-humanist, anti-socialist who focuses on the ideas of Nietzsche, post-structuralism, power, relativism, death, and truth as the will to power. Marcuse focuses on the vision of the liberation of Eros through abolishing alienated labor, while Foucault defines sexuality and its constructs related to power and post