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Intellectuals should use their specialized knowledge to expose the machinations of power, utilize their position in institutions to amplify the voices of people struggling against oppression, and work tirelessly to reveal the ways that they themselves are agents of power.
Michel Foucault (1926-1984)
Michel Foucault was a French historian, social theorist and philosopher whose writings about power have had a profound impact on the humanities and the social sciences. The basic premise of Foucault’s work is that power today is not something that a small number of people possess and exert on everybody else, but rather a force that acts through every institution and relationship in society, so that our very sense of self is a product of its shaping force.
Power, according to Foucault, is diffuse, decentralized and emanates from every corner of society, not just the official seats of government. Resistance, too, is everywhere. Everywhere that people refuse to cooperate with institutional authority or to uncritically accept established patterns of social behavior, every time they attempt to re-organize social relationships according to different principles or rhythms, they resist power.
People can only resist what they can see, however, so power is most effective when it remains invisible. People perceive power dynamics as immutable facts of life rather than as a historical situation that could be renegotiated. For this reason, intellectuals, engaged in the production of knowledge, particularly social scientific knowledge, are inextricably linked to the operation of power — but also, potentially, to its resistance.
Intellectuals, as Foucault uses the term, are people who supply other people with mental frames for understanding, interpreting and interacting with the world. Scientists and engineers who work for big tech companies are intellectuals, as are freelance software developers, amateur bloggers, professors and school teachers, doctors, lawyers, advertisers and bureaucrats of every stripe.
For Foucault, the proper role of an intellectual is to expose the machinations of power and the systems of knowledge that justify, naturalize or conceal the operations of power. People who face the business end of domination and exploitation don’t need intellectuals to tell them that they are oppressed — they know perfectly well. What they need from intellectuals is not leadership, but resources, technical knowledge and assistance in navigating dense webs of institutional power.
Intellectuals act as agents of social change when they translate expert discourses such as law or economics into accessible language. Intellectuals, for Foucault, are at their best when, rather than telling us how the world should be, they show us that it could easily have been otherwise and, more importantly, that it need not remain the same.