Foucault’s Lectures on the Punitive Society IX

Lecture of 28th February, 1973

Rural illegality went under the same transformation as the urban illegality described in the last lecture. It was a part of the survival strategies of the poorest peasants who were using common and uncultivated land. Goods taxed by the office of the ‘régie’, salt and tobacco, were smuggled. There was a change in the second half of the eighteenth century due firstly to growing population, and then from 1730 an increase in tax revenues which made land more economically interesting, and finally a great demand to invest in land. The abolition of feudal rights and and large scale transfer of property during the Revolution contributed to the change. Landed property became a part of simple contract (presumably because of the abolition of feudal constraints).

This had negative effects on peasant who lost traditional de facto rights of ‘illegality’ and communal rights through the increasingly consistent and properly enforced juridical framework, and through the land they were working being bought and sold in large packets. The most extreme example was the exploitation and surveillance of forests, which lost their status as refuge due to exploitation of stronger property rights. Old illegalities intensified before the revolution in the for of vagabondage, uprisings to seize wheat, spontaneous (presumably violent mass action) taxation to the benefit of the poorest. The contractual rights already widespread in towns were popular with peasants as a way of reducing the feudal rights of rich proprietors, however there was also a reaction against the constraints on peasants through illegalities. Civil marriage was one such constraint, which might be entered into by peasants in order to avoid military conscription.

The great armies of the Eighteenth century armies had a large part to play in illegalities. That was partly because they soaked up those engaged in illegality as soldiers or were used to repress the most extreme illegalities It was also because of the impunity of soldiers, habits of pillage and vagabondage picked up in the army, o because they provoked increasing illegalities such as the refusal to be conscripted into them, which was increasing issue from year II. Year II is a reference to the calendar adopted by the French Revolution and refers to 1793. Foucault is referring to the wars of Revolutionary France with the European monarchies and the great enlistment of a citizens’ army in France, which itself provoked greater efforts at recruitment in enemy countries. The recruitment of those who had been engaged in illegalities led to exchange between the illegality of the town and the countryside and an intensification of illegality amongst discharged soldiers.

The reaction from the bourgeoisie (Foucault here seems to be largely referring to writers and officials associated with the French Revolution as a way of defining the emergence of an economic, if state linked bourgeoisie, with notions of respectability rooted in political notions of proper citizenship and support for the new public authorities). The bourgeois-official attitude to the illegality of peasants turned to a view of them as brutal, cruel, cannibals, barbaric and so on. Foucault points to the role of peasant revolts in the Vendée, (a major aspect of counter-revolutionary violence, defining a highly violent opposition between revolutionary-republican and conservative-royalist France, one of the deepest traumas of modern  French history).


Foucault takes a sceptical view of the French Revolution in terms which are partly Marxist influenced, but also oppose a view of the French Revolution taken by many Marxist historians. Again Foucault is closer to anarchists of a rather spontaneous tendency than to organised Marxist party politics, and the version of Marxism in which heroic bourgeois revolution provide a model for heroic proletarian revolution. The references to peasant resistance to revolutionary have very obvious application to conflicts between the Russian Bolshevik-Communist state and land holding peasants. In what seems like a relatively sympathetic view of the conservative rebels of the Vendée.

(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)

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