Blogging Foucault’s most recently published lectures, Théories et institutions pénales. VIII 1972

(Commentary on Theories et institutions pénale. Cours au Collège de France, 1971-1972. Paris: Seuil/Gallimard, 2015)

19th January 1972

Foucault continues his discussion of 17th century rebellion in Normandy in the era of Louis XIII and Cardinal Richelieu, now moving on from the events to the aftermath. Philippe Séguier, the Chancellor, working under Richelieu, was the royal man in charge of restoring and reinventing order in Normandy. In Foucault’s account he increasingly appears as the focus of a new kind of power, acquiring some of the morally ambiguous heroism or anti-heroism surrounding Richelieu, the most famous architect of the early modern French state and of of the most influential European state architects of the time in Europe.

Foucault may not be deliberating playing on the association of Séguier with Richelieu’s role, the stuff of historical novels and mythologised history, but the changing place of the king’s person and body is one theme of these lectures. The main thrust of that change is that sovereignty is less associated with the body and person of any individual. Accordingly, Louis XIII is almost completely absent from Foucault’s reconstruction of the history, and even Richelieu has become a rather shadowy presence.

Séguier is at the centre but does not emerge as a personality. He is  not directly given the mixture of grandeur and immoralism conventionally attributed to Richelieu, though at least a little of that sticks to him, since he is at the centre of a process which Foucault describes as both brutal and creative. The process is one in which the restoration of order in Normandy, particularly Rouen, is also part of the emergence of a more bourgeois and less feudal order.

Foucault describes this emergence in terms of two paradoxes. The first paradox is that the population must be disarmed to prevent future popular uprisings, but arming some part of the population is necessary in order to have sufficient forces available to uphold state order. The second paradox is that the state is reducing the ability of feudal lords to gather rents, but needs to raise revenues which it had tended to raise by centralising the proceeds of feudal rent.

The solution for the first paradox is to arm the ‘bourgeoisie’, the prosperous urban citizens outside the aristocracy, so the merchants and upper professionals. Foucault refers to a social cleavage between the bourgeoise and aristocracy on one side pitted against the peasants, labourers and artisans on the other side. The arming of the bourgeoise as a local pro-state militia foreshadows the formation of a national guard after the 1789 Revolution and similar measures taken in Italian states during the nineteenth century. Foucault does not refer directly to the event of 1789 and after, but it is not possible to avoid some sense of a retrospective  historical perspective here, even if Foucault is one of the main critics of historical teleology. The Italian history of the nineteenth century is at no point an obvious interest of Foucault’s, but is worth mentioning as part of the afterlife of the 1789 Revolution, and for emphasising how important what Foucault discusses here is.

The solution for the second paradox is for the state to raise revenues from taxes on land. Here Foucault sets up a context for the major French economic ideas of the seventeenth and eighteenth century around Mercantilism and Physiocracy, which he had already discussed in The Order of Things and its sequel Archaeology of Knowledge. Mercantilism is particularly associated with Louis XIV’s minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert, in association with general process of consolidation of state revenues through keeping wealth in France, that is economic protectionism, and stat projects to promote production in France.

Foucault is sceptical about the results of this process in his brief remarks here referring to it as a long term effort which did not find a good answer. The Physiocrats are the eighteenth century economists associated with free trade, laissez-faire, and the priority of agricultural land in national wealth. The Physiocratic ideas of tax on land are seen by Foucault as an attempted solution to the mid-seventeenth century problem. In terms of state power, the problem is a wish to reduce the power of a feudal land owning class and of law courts made up of local notables, parlements (further discussion of this institution in earlier posts), while finding some property owning support for the regime. The solution must include a tax raised by the state through a central bureaucracy, which the state must make seem aligned with the interests of the bourgeoise against ‘feudal’ privileges.

The state bureaucracy becomes active in efforts to support the bourgeoise through security measures, public works and so on, providing the conditions for Mercantilist state policy. In summary, the rise of a class of private property owners is assisted by the state, or at least the state attempts to gain the loyalty of the bourgeoisie through measures that supposedly assist it. There is a hint of the issue of changing forms of punishment when Foucault states that the penal measures of the expanding royal bureaucracy do not have incarceration at the centre. As Foucault discusses elsewhere, the Physiocrats disputed the efficacy of such measures and Foucault appears sympathetic to their critiques. If we think about Foucault’s own alignment, he seems to be aligned both with Marxist leaning accounts of popular struggle and class politics, and with liberal leaning critiques of statist policies.

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