Foucault’s Lectures on the Punitive Society X

Lecture of March 7th 1973

Foucault continues a discussion from the last lecture of the lawyer Guy-Jean-Baptiste Target, he refers to there in connection with the dehumanised account of peasant rebels against the regime of the French Revolution. Foucault goes on to say that Target defines a difference between classes in moral terms, so that one is characterised by virtues and the other by vices. The morally bad class is like a stranger within the social body. Foucault suggests a convergence with the (Anglo-American) Quaker view (discussed in earlier lectures) according to which the state is a necessity for absorbing evil with an order of goodness. In both cases the state is necessary to correct the moral delinquency of the lower class, which is the class of the economically poor as well as the morally deficient.

Foucault goes onto discuss the role of fear in organising penalty in the nineteenth century. This comes from urbanisation as a population arrives in tons from the countryside that appears rootless, marginal, unemployed and dangerous, so opposed to the population that works. He mentions the novels of Eugène Sue, a nineteenth century novelist of enormous popular appeal, who was republican-socialist in politics, though Foucault does not mention that. What he does mention is the relation between the dangerous class and virtuosi workers. Foucault links the treatment of this issue in Sue’s 1844 novel, Wandering Jew with a religious sermon expressing panic about the threat coming from the dangerous class beyond the understanding of the more respectable. The dangerous class is thought of as hiding in the shadows planning violent revenge on the rich.

The issue by this time is not urbanisation, but a new mode of production, in which accumulated capital is invested visibly in stocks (presumably of goods needed in industrial processes), machines, primary materials, merchandise. Propertyless workers are now in contact with wealth. The body of the worker is physically present, desiring that wealth. The bourgeois fear is quite realistic as there is now a constant daily risk of theft and the sabotage of machines. Now it is the class that works that is dangerous rather than the beggars and vagabonds. The working class is now the dangerous class, and there is literature about there immorality and danger, which included medical reports.

The fear of illegality now shifts to laziness and drunkenness, the self-inflicted harm of workers who fail to respect property that belongs to their employer, that is the body that performs the work to earn a salary. Foucault links this kind of moralising wish to control the body of the worker with a drive to keep salaries down to the edge of survival (perhaps thinking of the pessimistic assumptions about wages and over-population discussed by Ricardo and Malthus, the fatalistic element of the British government reaction to the Irish potato famine of the 1840s, or at least these are relevant to Foucault’s thoughts here about the industrial revolution and urbanisation in the early nineteenth century when it was possible to think in terms of mass and possibly unavoidable immiseration, ‘unavoidable’ within the capitalist economy or the ‘natural’ market, depending on one’s point of view). Foucault very briefly suggests that the limit reactions of capitalism to control of workers’ salaries comes through corporatism (presumably co-operation between unions, employers and government) and military force. Both are joined in fascism (which is accurate in that fascism and related ultra-conservative movements, tended to rest on corporatist cross-class co-operation ideologies, backed up by military force against those unwilling to work with that structure).

The idea of a voluntary social bond at the basis of law was used in the eighteenth century to condemn the criminal as against the social contract, as an enemy of society. The idea does not disappear in the nineteenth century, but becomes more directed towards the immorality of a worker who does not have a health-moral life of a kind that supposedly maximises production. Surveillance and moralisation enter more into nineteenth century attitudes. Even before that the criminological writings of Cesare Beccaria in the eighteenth century refer both to a purely positive view of law (law is what the state says it is through the appropriate law making procedures, so does not rest on morality or any sense of ‘natural law’) and to an interest in moral reform. The moral aspect becomes medicalised in the nineteenth century, and that extends to psychiatric medicine and a concern with ‘monomania’. Foucault is suggesting that the discourses of moral condemnation, fear, and purist application of law, are all part of the drive towards psychiatric medicine.

(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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