Foucault’s Lectures on the Punitive Society VII.1

Lecture of 14th February 1973

Foucault says he has just analysed control in England made necessary by two things: 1. the movement of individuals; new places where wealth is located. As the 19th century comes closer the people in charge of the control are now petit bourgeois people in religious groups. The control is wit those closer to power: merchants and aristocrats. There is also a change in the target of control. The target is not so much those at the margins, and more the whole working class, it is the control of one class over another.


The form of the process of different in France. Economic depression and social crises in the seventeenth century do not lead to an English style bourgeois revolution [the seventeenth century was of course the age of the English Civil War leading to the republican revolution of 1649, and then after an intervening restoration of monarchy the parliamentary-limited monarchy revolution of 1688, the Glorious Revolution], but a counting monarchy trying to deal with these problems. It only has the army and the judicial system as methods of control and repression. From the close of the Middle Ages [the fifteenth century?] to the seventeenth century, corruption meant the judicial system was a method of private accumulation wealth, in which functions were inherited and were a means of benefitting financially from the money making possibilities of the system. Those working in this system had interests in common with the major financiers. The growth of royal taxation combined with economic depression made those in the judicial system more restless than the population as a whole [presumably because they lost out both from royal taxation and the decline of money available to bribe them through the judicial system].

The judicial system showed itself to be inadequate to the royal state for purposes of repression and the use of army was expensive both for the state and the population where it was sent, so that both costs to the state and sources of rebellion were increased. It was cheaper, and more politically advisable, to take pre-emptive action including imprisonment of dangerous elements. This required two other apparatuses of power other than the judiciary and the army: an apparatus that was both administrative and para-judicial, a system of ‘intendants’ of justice, police and finance; a police apparatus directly controlled by the monarch, through police chiefs. Both had the right to intervene in judicial areas. So police officials could made judicial decisions with regard to vagabonds.

These two powers could also use administrative powers as a substitute for judicial powers, as with regard to extradition and banishment from districts and the use of imprisonment. The system had some lasting success so that there were those who wanted it introduced into England. It remained in place in France, despite and apparent breakup after the 1789 Revolution, as was apparent in Thermidor [that is the 1794 reaction both against the Terror of the Committee of Public Safety and all of the more radical-democratic aspects of the Revolution). It was  means of raising taxes on all classes and dispossessed those living from feudalism [that is the remaining traces of feudal obligations at at that time] and the ‘parlements’ [local assembles of local judges drawn from the aristocracy, which administered the court system, and which also claimed some representative function with regard to local reactions to royal laws].

In nineteenth century historical writing the ‘lettre de cachet’ [royal document commanding imprisonment] was seen as the symbol of royal autocracy and arbitrary power. It was a way in which the king was present i the everyday life of individuals. Most of the ‘lettre de cachet’ did not originate with the monarch, but with requests from individuals, families, religious groups, notables, legal professionals, and corporate bodies. Some of the requests came from a lower social level that included villagers, small traders, and artisans. Requests were directed to an ‘intendant’ in the provinces and a police chief in Paris. The requests were an expression of local opinion. They came from the lower level and were authenticated at the level with regard to actions which can only from above authenticated by the king.

A ‘lettre de cachet’ was usually revoked by administrators rather than by the king. The ‘lettre de cachet’ referred to to acts that were not illegal but were considered disturbing by individuals and local micro powers including: marital infidelity, debauchery, waste of an inheritance, irregularity, disturbance. The major categories were disorder and violence. It could ask be applied in cases where the law had been broken but it was not convenient to use the law, as with regard to sorcery. The ‘lettre de cachet’ could be used in new situations were law and legal procedures did not yet apply. This is case for workers’ strikes of the 1720s.

(Referring to La société punitive: Cours au Collège de France. 1972-1973. Ed. by Bernard E. Harcourt under the direction of François Ewald and Alessandro Fontana. Paris: Seuil, 2013)

One thought on “Foucault’s Lectures on the Punitive Society VII.1

  1. Pingback: Barry Stocker on Foucault’s The Punitive Society VII 1 and 2 | Progressive Geographies

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