Society Must Be Defended

Foucault, Michel. 1997. Society Must Be Defended: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-1976

He starts the lectures defining “subjugated knowledges,” as those that have been both written out of history and submerged in it in a masked form. He calls them “Knowledges from below” and a “historical knowledge of struggles” (7). Genealogy, he suggests, is a way of getting at these knowledges and struggles; “they are about the insurrection of knowledges” (9). He moves from this discussion to begin talking about a “certain” economism of power; that is, the view held in both liberal and Marxist thought that power is a thing that can be invested, withdrawn, possessed, surrendered, etc as if it were a commodity. He suggests that rather than seeing power this way, we should first be analyzing it in terms of conflict, confrontation and war, inverting Calusewitz’s proposition to say that politics is the continuation of war by other means.

This is all driving his notion that if we are to “make a concrete analysis of power relations, we must abandon the juridical model of sovereignty. That model in effect presupposes that the individual is a subject with natural rights or primitive powers; it sets itself the task of accounting for the ideal genesis of the state; and finally, it makes the law the basic manifestation of power” (265). Since the Middle Ages, the “theory of right” was the essential way in which the legitimacy of power was established and centralized (“right,” in terms of law, but also institutions, apparatuses, rules, etc).

He gives a summation of his approach to power: “Our object is, on the contrary, to understand power by looking at its extremities, at its outer limits at the point where it becomes capillary; in other words, to understand power in its most regional forms and institutions and especially at the points where this power transgresses the rules of right that organize and delineate it, oversteps those rules and is invested in institutions, is embodied in techniques and acquires the material means to intervene, sometimes in violent ways” (27-28; 29 also has important comments on how he views power).

“Rather than orienting our research into power toward the juridical edifice of sovereignty, State apparatuses, and the ideologies that accompany them, I think we should orient our analysis of power toward material operations, forms of subjugation, and the connections among and the uses made of the local systems of subjugation on the one hand, and apparatuses of knowledge on the other” (34). He suggests that we have to abandon the model of the Leviathan and study power at its infinitesimal points of (usually material) implementation, the techniques, and the tactics through which it circulates.

The third lecture is a forceful critique of the juridical concept of sovereignty and its basis in “right” or attendant legitimacy, which assumes some kind of pre-formed subjects. “How are these subjects formed?” is what Fouault sees as the first question that needs to be asked. “The manufacture of subjects rather than the genesis of the sovereign: that is our general theme” (46). Here is where his discussions on war and race enter in and become important to his broader arguments.

In the longue durée of European nation-and-state formation, Foucault is telling us a history of conquest in which war is not only the physical act, but more importantly the discourse that is relied upon to explain state formation. He notes a fundamental paradox: While war-making was increasingly being monopolized under a centralized authority, there’s a simultaneous proliferation of war as the discourse that is used to understand, trace-in-history, justify, and explain the emergence of this authority. (War-making was being repealed from the social body; no longer were local nobles and other warrior classes allowed to autonomously engage at will in war-making.) Foucault shows how this happened in large part through the conceptualized development of relationships of force within society between and among different groups.

He begins to trace a discourse that perceived the creation of law and order via war; but post-war does not mean the dawn of peace in this discourse, but rather the continuation of war by other means (politics, relations of force). This new historico-political discourse of war establishes a link between “relations of force and relations of truth” (52). Truth being made through a kind of historicism in this discourse, and one of its more interesting aspects is its efforts to reveal “the blood that has dried in the codes” (56, 270)—i.e. the constitutive violence of the law, the truth, that implicitly questions the making of political society.

The perpetuity of war in the social body begins to be cast in terms of race. But while the battle may have been at first between “distinct” races in the way we may think of two nations at war, in this case the two races at war are internal to the social body. This takes on a biological transcription of race struggle that turns later into the social struggle between classes. From “we have to defend ourselves against the enemy who are making our state and laws the means of our own subjugation,” to “we have to defend society against all the biological threats posed by the other race that we are, despite ourselves, bringing into existence” (paraphrase 61-62).

The making of this internal subrace works through the early stirrings of nationalism. This transition is paralleled and works through a move from the history of sovereignty and its basis in rights to a history of conquest and its binary underpinnings (he calls the latter a “counter history”). He quotes Marx and Engels: “You know very well where we found our idea of class struggle; we found it in the work of French historians who talked about the race struggle” (79). In this vein, the State becomes the guarantor and protector of the superiority and purity of the race” (81). On page 103 he notes the importance of colonialism in creating and shoring up the work of these discourses in Europe.

With this emergence of “nation,” broadly conceived, a new type of knowledge was necessary that was both administrative and historical. The relations of force within society itself become a necessary object of knowledge, and this knowledge is wielded by various groups within the social body. “At this point it all comes together: History functions within politics, and politics is used to calculate the historical relations of force” (164). Foucault credits Boulainvilliers with this insight: For this historian, “relations of force and the play of power are the very stuff of history. History exists, events occur, and things that happen can and must be remembered, to the extent that relations of power, relations of force, and a certain play of power operate in relations among men” (169).

In the final move of the lectures, Foucault begins to introduce biopolitics: “we see the emergence of the idea of an internal war that defends society against threats born of its own body. The idea of social war makes, if you like, a great retreat from the historical to the biological, from the constituent to the medical” (216). The vitality of “a” nation within the social body becomes hooked into the idea of the State. The greater the capacities of the state, the stronger the nation will be (223).

“Power’s hold over life” (239) is the crescendo in this broad trajectory: war seen as a grid for understanding historical processes, with it becoming regarded as a war between races; this notion of war being eliminated from historical analysis by the principal of national universality; and how racism becomes grafted within the state. The right of sovereignty was the right of the sword: the right to take life or let live. But with increasing state control over the biological, over life itself, the right becomes: the right to make live and let die.

Discipline’s field of application was on the body, the individual, but with this new form of biopower is directed not on man-as-body, as in discipline, but on man-as-species. He clearly defines this transition on page 245. The effect of this form of power is not that man-as-species is disciplined, but rather “regularized” (247). Foucault hints that this emergence of “population” as a political problem is directly tied to the growth of capitalism: “It is as though power, which used to have sovereignty as its modality or organizing schema, found itself unable to govern the economic and political body of society that was undergoing both a demographic explosion and industrialization” (249).

Discipline and the regulatory worked in modulated tandem, and then you have the norm, traversing both the body and the population, the disciplinary and the regulatory. The articulation of these two technologies of power is what Foucault calls the normalizing society

Disciplinary Power and Biopower
Disciplinary Regulatory
Body Population
Organism Biological Processes
Institutions State
<– Norm and Normalizing Society –>

Racism of course works in population as the production of categories that serve as the conditions of possibility for particular tactics and technologies of biopolitics. Letting die and killing become operationalized through this racism, or as Foucault puts it: “racism justifies the death function in the economy of biopower by appealing to the principle that the death of others makes one biologically stronger insofar as one is a member of a race or a population, insofar as one is an element in a unitary living plurality. Racism is a mechanism that allows biopower to work.

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