Benjamin, Foucault, Marx

Image: Jornal de Resenhas - Thyago Nogueira


Two diverse and complementary readings of the first book of Capital

This article examines how Benjamin and Foucault, from the reading of different pages of the first book of The capital, dealt in a different (but complementary) way with the subjection of individuals to the modern capital relation. Against the background of the classic pages in which Marx leads the reader to the “secret laboratory of production”, in the punitive society and watch and punish Foucault genealogically investigates the constitution of the productive subject and the processes of “accumulation of bodies” necessary for the “accumulation of capital”.[I]

When rereading the well-known Marxist passages on the fetishism of commodities, in Baudelaire and Passage work, Benjamin reconstructs, on the contrary, an archeology of the modern that analyzes the way in which commodities, with their phantasmagoria and their promises of happiness, aim to imprint the relationship of capital on individual and collective subjectivity.[ii]

Foucault and Marx

As Etienne Balibar has observed, Foucault's melee with Marx reaches its peak in the early 1970s.[iii] Between 1971 and 1976 Foucault enters that “political or political cycle” during which his conception of power “was centrally determined […] from a comparison with Marx”.[iv].Against vulgar Marxism – but also against Althusser's theory of “ideological state apparatuses”[v] – in those years Foucault reinterprets the Marxist issue of class struggle, arguing that “the networks of domination and the circuits of exploitation overlap, support and interfere with each other, but do not coincide”.[vi]

For him, power “crosses the entire social body”, and it is the set of “power relations immanent to a social body” that stabilizes the class order that is affirmed there.[vii] Foucault goes so far as to maintain that “power é the class struggle” and that this corresponds to “everything we experience”.[viii] The class struggle is fought within an “archipelago of different powers” ​​that root society and microphysically manufacture that “productive subject” without which neither the capital relation nor its valorization[ix] would exist. Thanks to an instrumental relationship with Marx,[X] Foucault then dedicates himself to creating a genealogy of the “productive subject” composed of two distinct parts: one investigates the material production of “docile bodies” in the modern age, the other analyzes the genesis of proletarian morality.


In a 1978 interview, Foucault argues that one of the main sources of his genealogy is the “second book of Capital”.[xi]. He was evidently referring to the second volume of the French edition, which contains the fourth section of the first book.[xii] Here, in chapters XI and XIII, Foucault claims to have found “historically concrete analyzes of the genesis of capitalism”.[xiii] He sees in the work a non-legal analysis of domination, focused on the material power “exercised by the owner of a workshop”.[xiv] The Marxian analysis of power investigates the material subjection of bodies within a device – the factory – in which, through discipline, “a certain type of efficiency, a certain type of attitude”[xv] is produced positively.

In this sense, Foucault states that his work on the discipline “still remains intimately related to what Marx writes”.[xvi]. In the third part of Discipline and Punish: Birth of Prison – in which he investigates the production of “docile bodies” and the processes of “accumulation of men” necessary for the “accumulation of capital”[xvii] – he always keeps in the background the Marxian lesson about the close interdependence between “the technological mutations of the production apparatus, the division of labor and the elaboration of disciplinary procedures”.[xviii] What he calls an “analysis of the problem of discipline in the army and in the workshops”, as well as Marx's investigations into the problems of the division of labor carried out by an analogy that goes back to military tactics, guide him in the genealogy of disciplinary power.[xx]

With Marx, Foucault learns that the capitalist command needs a whole technology of power to subject the workers' activity. In watch and punish, he quotes a passage from Chapter XI of the first book of the Capital where Marx writes: “Just as the attack force of a cavalry squadron or the resistance force of an infantry regiment differ substantially from the attack and resistance forces developed by each knight or soldier, so the mechanical sum of forces of each worker is substantially different from the social strength potential that develops when many arms cooperate simultaneously in the same undivided operation".[xx]

What interests Foucault, as Pierre Macherey has pointed out, is the way in which Marx apprehends “the 'mechanisms' by which capital develops its authority over work, exploiting the workforce to improve 'productivity'”.[xxx] Control over the “cooperation of salaried workers”, over their “unity as a global productive body”, takes place through the disciplinary microphysics of capitalist command, which aims to capture “the productive force specific to the agreed workday” and subsumed to “productive force of social work [which] derives from cooperation itself”.[xxiii]

For this to be possible, however, the living, who make this cooperation possible, must “become productive subjects, fully immersed in the “force of a mass” (Marx), that is, in a collective body outside which they have no power. more reality”.[xxiii] In other words, Marx shows that capitalism does not only produce goods, but also subjects, since without the subjectivity of workers, the “living source of value” would be missing.[xxv]: “the production of capitalists and salaried workers […] is, therefore, a fundamental product of the process of valorization of capital”[xxiv]. Without the “constant perpetuation of the worker, [which] is a condition sine qua non of capitalist production”, the valorization process would not even exist.[xxv]

Continuing all of this, Foucault poses “the problem of the production of the workforce, of 'manufacturing' and of the discipline of the subjects that it is a question of obliging to work in a subordinate position within manufacturing and nascent industry”.[xxviii] Arguing with the young Marx, Foucault argues that work is not “the concrete essence of man”.[xxviii] In order to have docile bodies and productive subjects, “complex operations through which men are really […] linked to the production apparatus for which they work” are necessary.[xxix]

It is not true – as the Hegelian-Marxist vulgate maintains – that work is an integral part of human nature and that the capitalist system is simply that “which transforms this work into profit, surplus profit or surplus value”. On the contrary, this same system “penetrates much more deeply into our existence”: the production of the productive subject (the worker) requires an entire “institutional kidnapping network” that – as a “sub-power” or an “infra-power” – assumes “almost all of the time of individuals” and transforms it into a useful force.[xxx]

Socially disseminated in a capillary fashion, in modernity the “institutions of 'kidnapping'” aim to bend each and every one to capital relations, making “the time and body of men, their lives, a productive force”.[xxxii] Its purpose, according to Foucault, is to make “the time of life is transformed into work time and that this, in turn, is transformed into work force and that the work force becomes productive force”.[xxxi] As summarized by Sandro Mezzadra, “the working body is an eminent target of disciplinary power, because the 'work force' contained in it must be transformed into a 'productive force'”[xxxii].

In the wake of Marx, then, in watch and punish Foucault shows how the constitution of productive subjects historically occurred through those disciplinary techniques that, making “the cumulative multiplicity of men useful, accelerate the movement and accumulation of capital”.[xxxv] From the seventeenth century, the institutions of disciplinary power – factories, factories, schools, armies, hospitals, prisons, families (which Foucault defines as the “essential, absolutely indispensable point of articulation for the functioning of all disciplinary systems” and “the point of conjunction and exchange” between one and another disciplinary device[xxxiv]) – aimed at the production of docile bodies, subject to norms and, therefore, easily subject to the capital relation[xxxiv]: bodies whose “'political' force” should be reduced to a minimum and whose “useful force” should be, on the contrary, maximized.[xxxviii]

Accomplices were the separation, coordination and control of crowds, whose time, whose gestures, whose forces were progressively assumed by an “operational scheme that it was possible to transfer easily from the groups to submit to the mechanisms of production”. But for the purpose of constituting the productive subject to be actually achieved, it was necessary for individuals to internalize the work ethic.


It's in the course the punitive society that Foucault dedicates himself to a genealogy of the processes of “bourgeois moralization of working life”. In 1973, these processes appeared to him as a tactic with which the bourgeoisie fights the class struggle – part of a more extensive “general war through which power is exercised” – aiming to produce the docile soul of the proletarians to place them them effectively and continuously at work.[xxxviii]

Against traditional Marxism, which conceived morality as an ideological superstructure, Foucault understands it as a strategic weapon through which the bourgeoisie seeks to guarantee the productive force of the worker for the valorization of capital. For this to happen, however, the social body must be protected by the undisciplined and reckless body of the worker. That is to say, it must be immunized from the main risks that this entails: withdrawal and dissipation.

With the progressive affirmation of industrialization and the capitalist economy, workers increasingly work in direct contact with bourgeois wealth (stocks, machines, raw materials, merchandise). At the beginning of the XNUMXth century, the growing risk was that it would be looted or destroyed: “from the daily looting of stored products to the great collective destruction of machinery, a perpetual danger threatens [then] the wealth invested in production equipment”[xxxix].

Popular illegality, once tolerated, is now progressively criminalized. Now it is no longer the destitute, beggars and vagabonds who frighten the bourgeoisie, but the working class "insofar as it works"[xl]: “The dangerous class is the working class” – says Foucault in a silent dialogue with Louis Chevalier[xi]. To combat the risk of looting, it is necessary to control the workers' desire, tie them to work and moralize their conduct. The modern police and “the great edification of the penitentiary system of the XNUMXth century”.[xliii]

Em A Treatise on the Police of the Metropolis (1797), Patrick Colquhoun theorizes the first, establishing some pillars of bourgeois morality: the penal system must be founded on morality, penal laws must oppose the very principle of rebellion; “a good police” guarantees order and security through careful surveillance of the morality of citizens and “a whole set of controls over daily life”; your target are the lower classes, the “bad guys” who – with political conspiracies and plots in the factory or in the working-class city – put the development of capitalism and the order of the State at risk: the “essential agent of morality”.[xiii]

In continuity with these principles, the penitentiary system will legitimize itself as a corrective instrument for the wild and instinctive nature of the “inferior class”: of those workers, that is, who in the discourses of the time often become the privileged transgressors of the social pact, the “enemies of the very body of wealth" and of "society in general"[xiv]. Prison will then be “the end of the game of rewards and punishments […] with which people sought to moralize and penalize popular life”: those who do not accept that their time of life becomes “work time” exchanged for a salary in the capital relation, he will pay for the infraction with the discount of a part of the only good he owns: the “time of freedom”[xlv]. The “prison-form”, twin of the “salary-form”, is a fundamental weapon in the “war of the owners against those who have nothing, of the bosses against the proletarians”.[xlv]

The risk of dissipation is even more serious. The worker who dissipates his strength in idleness and addiction in fact attacks the workforce as such, preventing its transformation into a productive force and undermining capital accumulation at its root. Against the refusal of work, then, a whole moral literature of a bourgeois character appears that will condemn intemperance and alcoholism, improvidence and lack of parsimony, early marriages and turbulence, anarchic passions and the rejection of the law (or the education and training), lack of hygiene and misuse of leisure, debauchery and nomadism, gambling, parties and laziness.[xlv]

These forms of dissipation – argues an observer of the time quoted by Foucault – make the working class similar to the “barbaric, undisciplined, ragged, marauding hordes of which armies were composed twelve hundred years ago”. Therefore, it is necessary to dominate the dissipators, who never cease to oppose the “synthesis of life in productive work” and sabotage “the naturalization of work as the essence of man”.[xlviii] Workers need a soul supplement that ensures “ethical behavior useful to the ruling class”[xlix].

Industrial capitalism, in fact, needs “energetic, intense, continuous work”: more than the technical qualification of the worker, it needs the “moral quality of the worker”.[l] Popular life must, then, be framed within a subtle “mechanism of existence penalty” that socially capillarize the instance of judgment,[li] To moralize misconduct at work, new paracriminal devices appear, such as measures to control drunkenness or the obligation of the work card to be presented from boss to boss (under penalty of imprisonment for vagrancy).

Progressively, the principle of savings was imposed, which “derives from the need for employers to try to tie the working class to an apparatus of production, to avoid worker nomadism”. For Foucault, savings accounts and investment banks are, above all, forms of moral framing against dissipation. All these techniques of power, which emerged in the first half of the XNUMXth century, accustom men to naturalize work and transform its “explosive energy into a continuous labor force continuously offered on the market”.[liiii] That is to say, they aim to manufacture the productive subject that generates surplus value, making the time acquired with the salary “be integrated into the production apparatus in the form of workforce”.[iii]

By politicizing the critique of capitalism and continually dialoguing with the movements of the early 1970s, Foucault uses Marx to go beyond Marxist economics. He then resumes the question of “elements of extra-economic coercion […] constitutive of the capitalist mode of production […] that Marx had analyzed with regard to the so-called original accumulation”[book]. “A bit like a “new left” Marxist, critical of both social democracy and Stalinism”[lv], Foucault shows that disciplinary power and strategies for moralizing working life are not mere appendages of the capitalist system.

They are not even “the internal consequence of a kind of essence of capitalism” and do not derive mechanically from the imperatives of capital appreciation[lv]. In the words of Sandro Chignola and Alessandro Pandolfi, they aim to “transform the crowd into a workforce”[lviii]: developing the central function of constituting productive subjects and curbing the plasticity of life in the capital relationship, they are characterized as “factories of the workforce”[lviii]. Or, if you prefer – to resume an intuition of Christian Laval –, as “historical a priori” of capitalism and “political instruments” that guarantee its development.

Benjamin and Marx

although in the punitive society, Foucault argued that “leisure […] is the way in which leisure was codified, institutionalized” and integrated “within a system of consumption”, he never placed the relationship between the subject and the commodity at the center of his research.[lix]. In its course in France secondary school of 1978-79, he will, in fact, distance himself from the critical theories that denounce “a society of standardization, of mass, of consumption, of entertainment and so on”[lx].

He is convinced that neoliberalism – whose already imminent hegemony in the West clearly sees – wants a “business society”, not a “supermarket society”; subject to “competition dynamics”, not “commodity effect”[lxi]: formed by entrepreneurs of themselves, not consumers and spectators. He will, therefore, be of little interest either in the famous passages of The capital of Marx on commodity fetishism and in Benjamin's great unfinished works, where these passages are re-read to understand the subjection of the living to the society of commodities.


In the 1930s, Benjamin faces a capitalism that shows how to “endure in catastrophe and between a permanent state of emergency”[lxii]. According to a fertile hypothesis by Mario Pezzella, the question then arises what leads men to “tolerate despair, emergency, the crisis of capital” and to submit themselves “to new forms of domination”[lxiii]. To respond, Benjamin takes up the Marxist hypothesis according to which “value does not carry what it is written on its forehead”, but “transforms each product of work into a social hieroglyph”[lxiv].

In other words, to last “throughout and beyond crises”, capital must practice “a magic-fascinating transfiguration of exchange value”[lxv]. For that, “dream images” are needed with which to root themselves in the collective unconscious and generate voluntary servitude to its movement of abstraction. That is to say, value must be embedded “with fetishes and phantasmagoria that hide its desolation”[lxvi]: to immerse himself “in the body and soul of his subjects, he must reformulate their desire for happiness in his own way”.

To provide an answer to the enigma of voluntary servitude and the long duration of capital, in Passage work and Baudelaire Benjamin returns to the triumphal moment of capitalism in Second Empire Paris. Indeed, it is here that the phantasmagoria of the commodity progressively led the masses to identify themselves with the “One infinitely ethereal and abstract of money and value”[lxv]. And it is here that, in order to “continue and renew Marx’s historical materialism”, Benjamin investigates the effective potency of commodity fetishism, following it archaeologically “even in the oneiric sphere of consciousness: in the dreams and promises that the commodity exposed in shop windows knew how to evoke with its seductive and dazzling display”[lxviii].

All objects from Passage work are led back to the “fetishistic character of the commodity” of which Marx had spoken in the first book of the Capital[lxix]. This “character” finds its place of emergence in the Universal Exhibitions, which Benjamin defines as “a school in which crowds, violently excluded from consumption, permeate themselves with the exchange value of goods, to the point of identifying themselves with it”[lxx]. “Places of pilgrimage to the fetish of merchandise”, the Exhibitions become the “incubators” of “a phantasmagoria into which man enters to allow himself to be distracted”, thus enjoying “his alienation from himself and from others”.

Benjamin takes up here the Marxist intuition according to which in Modernity the commodity has become something “sensibly supersensitive” – “full of metaphysical subtlety”[lxxi] –, and develops it by showing how it knows how to radiate deeply into the cultural terrain, activating new mythologies. For Benjamin, not only the metaphysics of the commodity is of interest, but also its microphysics. How Adorno, in fact, considers central the way in which commodity fetishism becomes socially effective and “produces consciousness”[lxxiii].

Indeed, it is thanks to the production of subjectivity that – abstracting “precisely from the fact of producing commodities” – the commodity society can hide its misery, impose yourself as second nature and fix its appearance in the myth[lxxiii]. The phantasmagoria of the commodity – which makes it possible to hide the secret laboratory of production where “the real, earthly work force of the living” is exploited every day – finds its chosen terrain in the big department store: the “last sidewalk” of the flâneur, the one in which the stroll becomes “functional for sales”[lxxiv].

To increase sales, “theological whims” are necessary[lxxv] of merchandise, which – conveying the axiomatics of abstract value – are reflected “in the same spirit in which advertising […] begins to present its articles”[lxxvi]. Advertising embodies the Marxist intuition according to which merchandise “does not just have its feet on the ground; In the face of all other commodities, she presents herself, as it were, upside down, and from her thick head come the fantasies more fantastic than if she started to dance.[lxxvii]. Commodity fantasies and their theological vagaries determine “the fashions of meanings”, which “changed almost as rapidly – ​​writes Benjamin – as the price of commodities now changes. And, in fact – he adds – meaning means for the commodity: price”[lxxviii].

“Price” refers to the realm of abstract value, whose dominance over subjects is mediated by the phantasmagoria of the commodity: by dreamlike images with which the collectivity tries to “transfigure the imperfection of the social product, as well as the defects of the social productive system”[lxxix].The phantasmagoria prefigures “a happiness that attracts desire” and promises an imaginary “end of history, pain and exploitation”[lxxx].However, this “utopia of capital” cannot fulfill what it promises, because it “postpones the fulfillment of desire for the next commodity, for the further expansion of capital, confirming and expanding its relations of production and the servitude of abstract labor”[lxxxi].

In this sense, for Benjamin, phantasmagoria is not limited to masking value, but is its “direct expression”[lxxxii]. There is no redemption possible in the modern capitalist universe. For Benjamin, moreover, “the eternity of hell” takes shape, since “the face of the world never transforms precisely into what constitutes the new [which] remains the same in all respects”. Under the weight of commodity fetishism – which is “the leveler born” –, humanity is condemned to play “the role of the condemned”, because the newness of the commodity is “as little capable of providing a liberating solution as a new fashion for renewing society”[lxxxiii].

Thus, “the collective consciousness falls into a deeper and deeper sleep”[lxxxiv]. For Benjamin, capitalism did not just rationalize the world. It also enveloped him in a "new sleep full of dreams", capable of reactivating "mythical forces"[lxxxv]. Not without resistance, the dreaming collectivity was thus subjected to the capital relation. In Benjamin's reinterpretation of the Marxist pages on fetishism, the commodity is not just the ideological veil of economic exploitation or the “index of the suffering of human labor in the production process”[lxxxvi].

It is also, and above all, an “image of desire” that promises happiness and “goes to a kingdom that welcomes the free play of human faculties”[lxxxvii]. That is to say, it contains “capitalist deceptions” and “utopian aspirations”[lxxxviii]. For Benjamin, therefore, it is not so much a question of unveiling “the hidden truth content of the fetishized commodity”, but of redeeming its dreamlike element.[lxxxix]. O Passage work wants to contribute to awakening the dreamy collectivity from the long capitalist sleep, freeing its aspiration for happiness from the clutches of exchange value. For this reason, it can be read as “the Marxist version of Sleeping Beauty"[xc].


In a letter from August 1938, Benjamin writes to Horkheimer that one of the themes on which the second part of his Baudelaire will be centered is the “entrance of the mass of large cities into the new literature”[xci]. In fact, he analyzes The Man of the Crowd by Edgar Allan Poe and takes up the theme of the flâneur, here identified precisely with the man in the crowd[xcii]. Benjamin follows the flâneur deep inside “a large crowded department store”, where he “roams in the labyrinth of merchandise as he used to wander in that of the city”[xciii].

Your idle wandering is caught here in the spiral of value. “At the mercy of the crowd”, “sharing the situation of goods”: a particularity of which he is not aware, but which, in any case, “invades him like a drug capable of compensating him for many humiliations”[xciv].In the crowd, merchandise becomes drugs: that is why “the tide of customers” resounds around it[xcv]. Like flies, they seem to be drawn to “the soul of the commodity which Marx jokingly refers to whenever necessary” – writes Benjamin[xcvi]. For Marx, the commodity is “always ready to exchange not only the soul, but also the body with any other commodity”[xcvii].

Benjamin follows intuition. If the soul of the commodity existed – he writes – “it would be the most empathetic that has ever existed in the realm of souls. Because he should see in each one the customer in whose hands and in whose home he wants to settle down”[xcviii]. Not only does the buyer identify, then, with the commodity, but, as in a kind of fusional ecstasy, the commodity also “identifies with the buyer”[xcix]. With its ecstatic and empathic power – argues Benjamin with Baudelaire (here identified precisely with the commodity) –, it can animate and penetrate “with its talent” anywhere: “in the mask of anyone”[c].

However, he also knows how to be unsympathetic. She does not identify with the “poor devil who passes in front of a window of beautiful and expensive things”[ci]. In fact, he enjoys looking like a “fetish” to her.[cii] elusive. As in the religious analogy developed by Marx in The capital, the commodity thus becomes “an object whose material character is transfigured and honored by a tribe”[ciii]. Devoutly, the crowd of believers is ready to worship her as an idol.[civ].

Also in Baudelaire – it was Benjamin who wrote it expressly for Horkheimer – the “fetish character of the commodity”, therefore, plays a conceptually central role.[cv]. The commodity “dominates the very men” who produce it – writes the philosopher quoting Otto Rühle: “once it has escaped from the hands of its producer” it acquires “a spectral objectivity and leads a life of its own”[cvi].Under its dominion – Marx had argued – the “determined social relationship between men” assumes “the ghostly form of a relationship between things”[cvii]: “Instead of controlling their material production, men are controlled by it; they are governed by their products which have become independent, just as in religion”[cviii]. In a fetish position, the commodity then acts “according to its own laws, like an actor on a chimerical stage”[cix].

Marx shows that the development of modern capitalism makes the commodity the dominant structure[cx]. Benjamin adds that the “mass of customers created by the market” confirms the role of the new idol: it increases its charm by generating the “religious intoxication of big cities”, whose true and “unknown subject” is precisely the merchandise[cxi].

No The spleen From Baudelaire's Paris, Benjamin reads the analogy between the commodity and the prostitute: like the latter, the commodity “donates itself entirely, poetry and charity, to the unforeseen that suddenly appears, to the unknown that passes by. In a kind of “holy prostitution of the soul” – writes Benjamin – the commodity becomes both goddess and prostitute[cxii]. Its temple is the big department store. Here, “the circus and spectacular element of commerce” matures and “for the first time in history consumers begin to feel mass”[cxiii]. Thus, the human environment “assumes, with ever more evidence, the expression of merchandise” and “advertising is on the verge of masking the commodity nature of things with its gloss”[cxiv].

Like Marx in The capital, Benjamin reads commodity fetishism as a form of social discipline. He highlights, therefore, its ability to conceal the real essence of capital's command and to naturalize the determined and social character of human work. He shows how, in the Modern, the commodity becomes “a necessary form of perception of reality within society”[cxv]. Fetishism seems to him to be the secret that capital society cannot reveal.

Through commodity fetishism - Benjamin argues with Karl Korsch- “the actual fundamental social relations” are removed from the collective unconscious[cxvi]. The bourgeois ideals of freedom and formal equality (and of the “free” sale of the “labor-power commodity”) are the result of this removal: they are “the representations related to the fetishism of the commodity”[cxvii]. “The commodity-fetish – writes Benjamin – moves in a Juggernaut, the chariot of the Lord Shiva, which flattens everything under its wheels [and] makes everything equal”[cxviii]. It is the perpetual movement of abstract value that generates formal equality. This functions as a “drug”, as the phantasmagoria of the commodity from which the subject extracts that “particular ivresse religieuse des grande villes, which is nothing more than the intoxication of identification with the fetish itself”[cxix].

The theology of the commodity thus leads the faithful to internalize its command, seeking to subject them “to the constitutive abstraction of capital”[cxx]. Under the rule of the invisible god of value, “work exists only as wage labor”[cxxi]. And, having “no property but his labor power” - Benjamin argues with Marx -, the worker becomes “the slave of other men who have become owners of the material conditions of work”[cxxii].

Em Passage work and Baudelaire, Benjamin analyzes capital as a device for the production of economic value and the symbolic order. For him, as for Marx, “the economic universe and the symbolic universe are one and the same”[cxxiii]. Between structure and superstructure there is no relationship of subordination, but of “expression”: the second expresses the first and both produce the subjects of capital[cxxiv]. The symbolic order is not the “ideological ornament” of the economic structure, but it is what allows the forms of capital to take root “in the bodies and in the psyche, pre-forming and conditioning their modes of expression, determining the limits and possibilities of perception"[cxxv]. Only the unconscious adhesion to the symbolic order of capital can generate voluntary servitude and “ghosts are as necessary for this as the screws of the machines”[cxxvi].


From the reading of The capital, Foucault and Benjamin approach the genealogy of the subjection of individuals to the modern relationship of capital in a different way. The profound differences between the two analyzes do not prevent their convergence towards a well-structured critique of modernity.

On the one hand, Foucault's genealogy shows how disciplinary biopower and moralizing strategies constituted the productive subject, subjugating him to the wage regime and capitalist accumulation; On the other hand, Benjamin's archeology analyzes the role of the dreamlike and phantasmagoric device of capital in subsuming the desire of the living to the idol of merchandise and the abstraction of value. In modernity, trying to align subjective behaviors with wishes from the capital, the two devices marched together.

That is why they must be analyzed together. At a time when the valuation machine tends to the full subsumption of bios, and commodity fetishism spreads on a global scale thanks to “smart objects” that innovate “forms of governing behavior and managing populations”[cxxvii], update the analyzes of Foucault and Benjamin -as the great Marxist lesson from which they derive -it becomes important. What is at stake is the elaboration of critical thinking up to the times, capable of conceptualizing the way in which new subjects of capital are materially produced.

These are subjects whose ways of life - as Alain Brossat recently noted when updating Benjamin's lesson - are constituted more and more through the medium of those state-of-the-art technological products that, like the smartphones, permanently shape our perception and sensitivity. The interaction with these “intelligent fetishes” is very different from that with “a nice car or an electric coffee maker”[cxxviii]. In fact, they are not mere objects, but “constitute an expansion of ourselves”: they are “elements of our subjectivity, extensions of our memory, of our relational system”[cxxix].

To proceed with their criticisms, then, it is not necessary to consider them “objects of the devil”, it is rather necessary to resist “political and commercial strategies that implant them as vectors of a new form of voluntary (and euphoric) servitude and of new forms of in somnambulism social"[cxxx]. For this reason – as Thomas Berns and Antoinette-Rouvroy have shown, resuming some precious conceptual tools from the Foucaultian box – it is necessary to investigate in depth the devices of “algorithmic governmentality” through which the new capitalism deepens the extraction of value from the very lives of subjects, and no longer just their productive bodies[cxxxi].

With the proviso that this specific form of government of the living aims, above all, to direct the behavior of the network without resorting to discipline, censorship or coercion. Precisely while subjects feel free and autonomous, in fact, in the network, algorithmic governmentality reduces their subjectivity to a plurality of fractals to be profiled, then reassembling it in packets of “infra-individual data, insignificant in themselves ”, but rich in economic value[cxxxii].

* Alessandro Simoncini is a professor at the Università per Stranieri di Perugia. Author, among other books, of Governare lo sguardo. Potere, art, cinema tra primo Novecento and last capitalism(Arachne).

Translated by Juliana Hass.


[I] FOUCAULT, M. Keep an eye on and punish. Paris: Gallimard, 1975, p. 257. Italian translation Tarchetti, A. Sorvegliare and punire. Birth of Prigione (1975). Turin: Einaudi, 1976, p. 240.

[ii] BENJAMIN, W. DasPassagenwerk. FranhfurtamMain: SuhrkampVerlag, 1982. Translation SOLMI, R. et al. I “Passages” di Parigi. Torino: Einaudi, 2002.

AGAMBEN, G.; CHITUSSI, B.; HӒRLE, C.-C. (the cure di). Charles Baudelaire. A lyric poet at the forefront of advanced capitalism. Vicenza: Neri Pozza, 2012.

[iii] BALIBAR, E. Foucault's anti-Marx. In: LAVAL, C.; PALTRINIERI, L.; TAYLAN, F. Marx & Foucault. Lectures, usages, confrontations. Paris: La Découverte, 2015, pp. 86 and ff. See

ELDEN, S. A More Marxist Foucault? Historical Materialism, 23, 2015, p. 149-168.

[iv] Ivi, p. 88.

[v]See PALLOTTA, J. L'effetAlthussersurFoucautl: de la societé punitive à la théorie de la reproduction. In: LAVAL, C.; PALTRINIERI, L.; TAYLAN, F. Marx & Foucault, cit., pp. 129-142 and BALIBAR, E. Lettre à l'editeurducours. In: FOUCAULT, M. Théories et institutions penales. Cours au Collège de France, 1971-1972. Paris: Gallimard-Seuil, 2015, pp. 285-290.

[vi]Questions à Michel Foucault sur la géographie. In: Herodotus, I, 1976, pp. 71-85, now In: FOUCAULT, M. Dits et écrits, Paris: Gallimard, 2001, vol. II, p. 35. Translation FONTANA, A.; PASQUINO, P. Domande to Michel Foucault sulla geography. In: FOUCAULT, M. Microfisica del potere. Intervenpolitici. Turin: Einaudi, 1977, p. 156.

[vii]Inédit entretien entre Michel Foucault et quatre militants de la LCR, membres de la rubrique culturelle du journal quotidien Rouge (Juillet 1977). In: Question Marx, June 2011, online, pp. 12 and 7.

[viii]Ivy, p. 8. South puntocfr. Laval, C. La productivité du pouvoir. In: LAVAL, C.; PALTRINIERI, L.; TAYLAN, F. Marx & Foucault, cit., p. 33.

[ix]FOUCAULT, M. Les mailles du pouvoir (1976). In:Id., Dits et écrits, cit., vol. II, 2001, p. 1006.

[X]See, LAVAL, C. The productivité du pouvoir, cit., pp. 33 and ff.

[xi]FOUCAULT, M. “Considerazioni sul marxismo, la phenomenologia e il potere (1978)”.In: Micromega, 2, 2014, p. 115.

[xii]Sull'errore di Foucault cfr. LEONELLI, RM “L'arma del sapere. Storia e potere tra Foucault e Marx”.In: Id. (the cure di).Foucault-Marx. Parallel and Parallel. Rome: Bulzioni, 2010, pp. 113-142 and Id. “Foucault lecteurdu Capital”. In: LAVAL, C.; PALTRINIERI, L.; TAYLAN, F. Marx & Foucault, cit., pp. 59-70.

[xiii]FOUCAULT, M. Considerazioni sul marxismo, cit., p. 115.

[xiv] ID., Les mailles du pouvoir, cit., p. 1006.

[xv]Ibid., su cuicfr. LAVAL, C. The productivité du pouvoir, cit., p. 33.

[xvi]FOUCAULT, M. Considerazioni southern marxism, cit., p. 115.

[xvii] ID., Supervise and punish, cit., p. 240.

[xviii]Ibid, pp. 240-241.

[xx] ID., Les mailles du pouvoir, cit., p. 1006.

[xx]FOUCAULT, M.Supervise and punish, cit., p. 179; MARX, K. Das Capital. Kritik der politischen Oekonomie. Band I, 1867. Translation Delio Cantimori. The capital, Book I (2). Rome: Editori Riuniti, 1973, p, 22.

[xxx]MACHREY, P. “Le sujetproductif”. In: La philosophieausens large, 15 maggio 2012, online.Translation Gianfranco Morosato.Il soggetto productivo. From Foucault to Marx. Verona: Ombre cut, 2013, p. 80.

[xxiii]MARX, K. The capital, I(2), cit., pp. 28-29 and p. 26. On the theme cf. Mezzadra, S. Nei cantieri marxiani. The soggetto and its production. Rome: Manifestolibri, 2014, pp. 89-93.

[xxiii]MACHEREY, P. The Productive Soggetto, cit., p. 70.

[xxv]MARX, K. floorplans derKritikderpolitischenÖkonomie (1857-58). Enzo Grillo translation.Lineamenti fondamentali della critique dell'economia politica. Firenze: La nuova Italia, 1978, vol. I, p. 280

[xxiv]Ivi, Vol. II, p. 145.

[xxv] ID., The capital, I(3), cit., pp. 14-15. About point cf. CHIGNOLA, S. Foucault oltre Foucault. A policy of philosophy. Rome: Derive approdi, 2014, pp. 45-70; MEZZADRA, S.; NEILSON, B. Confini e frontiere. The moltiplicazione del lavoro in the global world. Bologna: Il Mulino, 2013, pp. 240-250; MEZZADRA, S. Nei cantieri marxiani, cit., pp. 58 and ff.

[xxviii]MEZZADRA, S. “Cattiva condotta in forma operaia”. In: The poster, 11 February 2014. About otemacfr. BRION, F. “Foucault avec Marx: généalogie de la force de travail”. In: Id., "Cellules avec vue sur la démocratie".In:Culture & Conflicts, 94-95-96, 2014, pp 135-201.

[xxviii]FOUCAULT, M.The truth and the legal forms. In: Id., Sayings and writings, cit., vol. I, p. 1489. Translation Lucio d'Alessandro,The truth and the forme giuridiche. Napoli:La città del sole, 2007, p. 148.


[xxx]Ivi, p. 141.

[xxxii]Ivi, p. 146.

[xxxi]Ibidem. See CHIGNOLA, S. Foucault oltre Foucault, cit., p. 65 and ff. and Id., Give it inside. Biopolitics, bioeconomics, ItalianTheory. Rome: Deriveapprodi, 2018, pp. 121-124.

[xxxii]MEZZADRA, S.captive condotte.

[xxxv]FOUCAULT, M. Supervise and punish, cit., p. 240.

[xxxiv] ID., Le Pouvoirpsychiatrique. Coursau College de France, 1973-1974. Paris: Gallimard-Seuil, 2003, p. 82.Translation Mauro Bertani.Il potere psychiatrico. Milano: Feltrinelli, 2004, p. 86, on which cf. IOFRIDA, MD Melegari, Foucault. Rome: Carocci, 2017, pp. 161-166.

[xxxiv]About otemacfr. LEGRAND, S. Les norms with Foucault. Paris :Presse Universitaire de France, 2007, pp. 81-104.

[xxxviii]FOUCAULT, M. Supervise and punish, cit., p. 241.

[xxxviii]FOUCAULT, M. The punitive society, cit., p. 244. Cfr. Also Id.“Le jeu de Michel Foucault”. In:Sayings and writings. Paris: Gallimard, 2001, vol. II, no. 206, p. 307. On pointcf. NICOLI, M.; PALTRINIERI, L. “Qu'est-ce qu'une critique transformatrice? Contrat psychologique et normativité d'entreprise”. In: LAVAL, C. PALTRINIERI, L. TAYLAN, F. Marx & Foucault, cit., pp. 329-333 and NIGRO,R. “Communiste nietzscheen. Foucault's L'experience Marx”. In:ivi, pp. 71-83.

[xxxix]FOUCAULT, M. The punitive society, cit., p. 275.

[xl]Ivy, 188.

[xi]Ibidem. About pointcf. HARCOURT, b. Situation du cours, cit., p. 198, note 8 and PANDOLFI, A. “Le pene dei poveri. Delinquenti e proletari nella Foucauldian genealogia della penalitàmoderna”.In: Quaderni materialisti, 15, 2018, p. 123, no. 10.

[xliii]FOUCAULT, M. The punitive society, cit., p. 178.

[xiii] Ibid, pp. 124-125.

[xiv] Ivi, p. 178.

[xlv]FOUCAULT, M. The punitive society, cit., p. 83.

[xlv]Ivi, p. 35.

[xlv]See Ivie, pp. 203-217 where Foucault analyzes the following texts: GRÜN, A. From the moralization of labor classes. Paris:Guillaumin,1851,; THOUVENIN, J.-P. “De l'influenceque l'industrie exercises sur la santé des populations dans les grands centers manufacturiers”. In : Annales d'hygiene publique, 36, 1846;CHEVALIER,M. From l'industrie manufacturière en France. Paris: Jules Renouard, 1841.

[xlviii]NICOLI, M. PALTRINIERI, L. “It'sstilldayone. Dall'imprenditore di sé alla start-up esistenziale”. In: aut-aut, 376, 2017, p. 91.

[xlix] ID., Qu'est-ce qu'une critique transformatrice?, cit., p. 331. Cfr. also EWALD, F. L'État Providence. Paris:Grasset, 1986, cit., p. 120.

[l]FOUCAULT, M. The punitive society, cit., p. 210.



[iii] Ivy, p. 247. A point, this one, is also well evidenced in AMENDOLA, A. “Produzione di merci/produzione di soggettività“. In:GIORGI, C. (a cura di).Rileggere il capitale. Rome: Manifestolibri, 2018, pp. 185-196.

[book]MEZZADRA, S. Cattiva condotta in opera form, cit., but cf. also TAYLAN, F. “Une histoire 'plus profonde'ducapitalisme”. In: LAVAL, C. PALTRINIERI, L. TAYLAN, F. Marx & Foucault, cit., p. 20-28.

[lv]MELOSSI, D. “Carcere e factory quarant'anni dopo: Penalità e critique dell'economia politica tra Marx e Foucault”. In: D. Melossi, PAVARINI, M.. jail and factory. Bologna: Il Mulino, 2018, p. 27.

[lv]LAVAL, C. Laproductivité du pouvoir, cit., p. 38.

[lviii]CHIGNOLA, S. “Foucault, Marx: le corps, le pouvoir, la guerre“”.In : LAVAL,C. PALTRINIERI, L. TAYLAN, F. Marx & Foucault, cit., p. 58.

[lviii]PANDOLPI, A. “Foucault, biopotere, biopolitics and egemony”. In: historical materialism, 1, 2017, p. 206-211.

[lix]FOUCAULT, M. The punitive society, cit., p. 206.

[lx] ID., Naissance of biopolitics. Coursau College de France, 1978-1979. Paris: Gallimard-Seuil, 2004; Translation Mauro Bertani and Valeria Zini.Born of biopolitica. Corso al Collège de France (1978-1979). Milano: Feltrinelli, 2005, p. 131.

[lxi]Ivi, p. 130.

[lxii]PEZZELLA, M. Insorgenze. Milano: Jaca Book, 2014, p. 159.

[lxiii] Ibid, pp. 159-160.

[lxiv]MARX, K. “Il Capitale”, I (1), cit., p. 87, cit. In: BENJAMIN, W. I tickets, II, cit., p. 729.

[lxv]PEZZELLA, M. Insorgenze, cit., p. 160.

[lxvi] Ivi, p. 165.

[lxv] Ivy, p. 165. On point cf. also WITTE, B. TopographienderErinnerung: zu Walter BenjaminsPassagen. Würzburg:Königshausen&Neumann, 2008, pp. 115.

[lxviii]BALDI, M. DESIDERI, F. Benjamin. Rome:Carocci, 2010, p. 80.

[lxix]MARX, K. The capital, I (1), cit., pp. 84-97. Benjamin familiarizes as a theme in 1924 through theStory and coscienzadi class, by Lukacs. See LÖWY, M. “Walter Benjamin critique of civilisation”.In:BENJAMIN, W. Romanticism and critique of civilization.Paris: Payot, 2010, p. 11. According to Tiedemann, the Berlin philosopher will deeply elect the first book of theCapitalonly in 1935, after Adorno's criticisms of the first ExposesuParigi, lacapitaledel XIX century. TIEDEMANN, R. DialektikimStillstand. Versuchezum Spӓwalter benjamin twerk. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, ​​1983, p. 24 and Id., Introduction. In: BENJAMIN, W. I tickets, I, cit., p. XXII. On the relationship between Adorno and Benjamin, cf. at least PEZZELLA,M. Insorgenze, cit., pp. 183-200; BALDI, M. DESIDERI, F. Benjamin, cit., pp. 147-154 and DESIDERI, F. The Phantom of the Opera.Genova:Il Melangolo, 2002, pp. 126-132; CHITUSSI, b. Imagine and myth. A carteggio tra Benjamin e Adorno. Milano: Mimesis, 2010.

[lxx]BENJAMIN, W. I tickets, I, cit., p. 24.

[lxxi]MARX, K. The capital, I (1), cit., p. 84.

[lxxiii]ADORNO, TW “Letter to Benjamin of August 2-4, 1935”. In: BENJAMIN, W. I «passes», II, cit., p. 1096.

[lxxiii]BENJAMIN, W. I «passes», II, cit., p. 743.

[lxxiv]BENJAMIN, W. I «passes», I, cit., pp. 19 and 13. About extinctionflâneur as a “social species”, cf. S. Buck-Morrs, cit., voirle capital. Théorie critique et culturevisuale. Paris: Lesprairiesordinaires, 2010, pp. 58-78.

[lxxv]MARX, K. The capital, I (1), cit., p. 84, cit. In: BENJAMIN, W. I «passes», I, cit., p. 10.

[lxxvi]BENJAMIN, W. I «passes», I, cit., p. 10.

[lxxvii]MARX, K. The capital, I, (1), cit., pp. 84-85. On the point, cf. TRONTI, M. dello spirito libero. Milano: Il Saggiatore, 2015, pp. 122-149.

[lxxviii]BENJAMIN, W. I «passes», I, cit., p. 409.

[lxxix] Ivy, p. 6. On this point cf. VINCI, P. Il capitale come forma di vita. A confrontation between Benjamin and Marx.In:PONZI, M. Karl Marx and the crisis, cit., pp. 181-183.

[lxxx]PEZZELLA, M. Insorgenze, cit., p. 183.

[lxxxi]Ibid, pp. 183-184.

[lxxxii]CARMAGNOLA, F. "Non seppe fino a che punto aveva ragione”. The original contribution of Walter Benjamin to Marx-Forschung”.In: CINGOLI,M. and MORFINO, V. (the cure di). Aspetti of Marx's pensiero and his successive interpretation.Milano: Unicopli,2011, p. 390. But on the subject cf. alsoWOHLFARTH, I. “Die Passagenarbeit”.In:LINDNER, B. (a cura di).Benjamin-Handbuch: Leben – Werk – Wirkung. Stuttgart-Weimar: Metzler, 2011, pp. 251-274.

[lxxxiii] Ivi, I, p. 20.

[lxxxiv] Ivi, I, p. 433.

[lxxxv]BENJAMIN, W. I «passes», cit., I, p. 436. Cfr. VINCENT, JM. Max Weber or la démocratieinachevée. Paris: Félin, 1998, pp. 233-234. On the subject of dreams and awakenings in Benjamin cfr. WEIDMANN, H. “Erwachen/Traum”. In: M. Opitz, WIZISLA, E. (the cure di).Benjamins Begriffe. Frankfurt aM: Suhrkamp, ​​2000, pp. 341-362.

[lxxxvi]GILLOCH, G. Walter Benjamin. Bologna: Il Mulino, p. 178.




[xc]BUCK-MORRS, S. See the capital, cit., p. 26.

[xci]BENJAMIN, W. Gesammelte Briefe.GÖDDE,C. and LONITZ, H. (the cure di). Franhfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1995-2000, vol. VI, p. 150.

[xcii] See D'URSO, A. “South Baudelaire by Walter Benjamin Dalla theory of translation and sociology of letteratura”.Enthymema, 13, 2015, p. 114-119.

[xciii]BENJAMIN, W. Charles Baudelaire, cit., p. 671-672.


[xcv]Ivi, p. 673.


[xcvii]MARX, K. The capital, I, (1), cit., p. 99.

[xcviii]BENJAMIN, W. Charles Baudelaire, cit., p. 673.

[xcix]Ivy, p. 570. On this point, cf. BROSSAT, A. Metamorphoses et migrations de l'objet dans le Baudelaire de Walter Benjamin. In:Here and elsewhere, 23 giugno 2015, online.

[c] ID., Charles Baudelaire, cit., p. 673.



[ciii]WITTE, B. Messianic materialism. La recezione Benjaminiana di Karl Marx. In:PONZI, M. (the cure di).Karl Marx and the crisis, cit., pp. 167-168.

[civ]On the coining of the concept of fetishism in Marx from the study of Du cultedesDieuxfetiches, by Charles de Brosses (1760), cfr. IACONO, AM Study of Karl Marx. La cooperazione, l'individuo sociale e le merci. PisaEts: 2018, pp. 101-109.

[cv]BENJAMIN, W. GesammelteBriefe, cit., vol. VI, p. 149.

[cvi]RÜHLE,O."Karl Marx", Hellerau, 1928, pp. 384-385, cit. In BENJAMIN, W. Charles Baudelaire, quote., P. 834.

[cvii]MARX, K. The capital, I, (1), cit., p. 86.

[cviii]JAPPE, A. “Le sottigliezze metafisiche della merce”. In: Agalma, 1, 2000, p. 44. Benjamin reports a passage from Capital in which Marx writes that “the production process standardizes men, and man still does not standardize the productive process”. MARX, K. The capital, I(1), cit. P. 95, cit. In: BENJAMIN, W. I «passages», II, cit., p. 730,

[cix]RÜHLE,O. Karl Marx, cit., p. 384. In: BENJAMIN, W. Charles Baudelaire, cit.,“Decantatore 834” (Presenze grafiche).. On the subject, with reference to the interpretation of the commodity fetish. In Marx, cf. WEIGEL, S. Enstelltesimilarity. Walter BenjaminstheoretischeSchreibweise. Frankfurt a. M.: Fischer, 1997, pp. 42-43.

[cx] See BASSO, L. RAIMONDI, F. “Soggettività e oggettività in Marx: Tra ideology e feticismo”. In: BASSO, L. et al, Marx and the Production of Soggetto. Rome: Deriveapprodi, 2018, pp. 105-142.

[cxi]BENJAMIN, W. Charles Baudelaire, cit., pp. 673-674. About point cf. BOLZ, N. DerbucklichteZwerg. In: BUCHHOLZ, R. KROSE, JA MagnetischesHingezogenseinoderSchauderndeAbwehr. Walter Benjamin 1892–1940. Stuttgart-Weimar: Metzler, 1994, pp. 54 and ff.


[cxiii]Ivi, p. 835.

[cxiv] ID., Central park, in ivi, p. 581.

[cxv]BASSO, L. RAIMONDI, F. Soggettività and oggettività in Marx, cit., p. 125.

[cxvi]KORSCH, K. Karl Marx, cit., pp. 75-77. Then BENJAMIN, W. Charles Baudelaire, cit., P. 830.

[cxvii]Ibidem. On the point, cf. M. Pezzella, Insorgenze, cit., p. 176.

[cxviii]BENJAMIN, W. Charles Baudelaire, quote., P. 905.


[cxx]PEZZELLA, M. Insorgenze, cit., p. 166.

[cxxi]BENJAMIN, W. Charles Baudelaire, quote., P. 906.

[cxxii]MARX, K. Randglossen zum Programm der deutschen Arbetpartei(1875), Berlin-Leipzig, 1922, p. 22, cit. In BENJAMIN, W. Charles Baudelaire, cit., p. 836.

[cxxiii]PEZZELLA, M. Insorgenze, cit., p. 200.




[cxxvii]BROSSAT, A. Metamorphoses et migration de l'object, cit.




[cxxxi] See T. Berns, A. Rouvroy, Gouvernementalitéalgorithmique et perspectives d'émancipation. Le nonsense commeconditiond'individuation par la relation ?, in «Resaux», 1, 2013 and A. Rouvroy, The end(s) of critique: data-behaviourism vs. due process, in M. Hildebrant, E. De Vries (eds.), Privacy, Due Process and the Computational Turn. Philosophers of Law MeetPhilosophers of Technology, Routledge, London, 2013.

[cxxxii] T. Berns, A Rouvroy, Gouvernementalitéalgorithmique et perspectives d'émancipation, cit., p. 172. I deepened the theme in Vecchi e nuovi scenari dello spettacolo. In CINGARI, S. SIMONCINI, A. post-democratic class, Perugia University Press, Perugia, 2016, pp. 201-216. But on the point cfr. G. Griziotti, neurocapitalism, Mimesis, Milano, 2016 and the work of Collettivo Ippolita, among the texts stand out: Nell'acquario di facebook. La resistibile ascesa dell'anarcho-capitalismo, Ledizioni, 2012, online; The net is free and democratic, False!, Laterza, Rome-Bari, 2014; electric anime, Jaca Book, Milano, 2016 and Domain technology. Lessico minimo di self-defense digitale, Meltemi, Milano, 2018.


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