Security, Territory and Population Part 6: Pastoral Power and Interim Conclusion of Series

In his lecture of February 8, 1978, Foucault takes up the issue of “pastoral power”. He says that the idea that one could govern men has its origins in the Mediterranean East, Assyria, Egypt, the Levant, and Israel, where it applies both to the government of souls by religious leaders and to the government of societies by secular rulers, both claiming the authority of the Almighty. The model for pastoral power is the New Testament figure of the Good Shepherd. “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.” John 10:11.

Most people are familiar with this set of ideas about governance, as it is common in religious groups, and in secular governments as well. It is fundamentally beneficent, especially as compared to the idea of government in ancient Greece and Rome, where the idea of power is primarily centered around wealth and strength, with less regard for the interests of the members of society.

Foucault concludes the lecture with this:

Of all civilizations, the Christian West has undoubtedly been, at the same time, the most creative, the most conquering, the most arrogant, and doubtless the most bloody. At any rate, it has certainly been one of the civilizations that have deployed the greatest violence. But at the same time, and this is the paradox I would like to stress, over millennia Western man has learned to see himself as a sheep in a flock. … Over millennia he has learned to ask for his salvation from a shepherd (pasteur) who sacrifices himself for him.

The idea of the pastoral power, both in civil and religious government, leading western people to see themselves as members of a flock asking for salvation from the Good Shepherd, opens a lot of space for thinking about the development of politics in the US. One common explanation of right-wingers voting against their economic interests has to do with the idea that they have authoritarian personalities. As a group, right-wingers are more religious, and more willing to act on guidance from their religious leaders, or so we think. They generally show great deference to their lawful leaders. Foucault’s explanation, that they see themselves as sheep in the flock, seeking salvation by following the leader, makes sense.

I’m not so sure the authoritarian personality explanation works for liberals. They aren’t generally authoritarian; in fact many are activated by a suspicion of authority. Instead, they vote on policy and expect that policy will be driven by reasoned responses to real problems and that experts will have a strong say in formulation of policy. They feel the same way about their religious leaders. As a simple example, liberal Catholics loved most of the doctrines of Vatican II. They looked for ways to put those ideas into practice in their personal lives and worship, but not through the Catholic hierarchy, which they saw as outside their reach, even though as it was taught to me, the hierarchy was meant to serve the People of God, and therefore should have been the subject of the will of the People of God. Then they were demoralized by subsequent popes and US Bishops who reversed those changes. It was because of those revanchists that many liberal Catholics left the Church. Conservative Catholics had exactly the opposite responses, including returning to the Church as the changes were abandoned.

Nevertheless, liberals seem to have unrealistic hopes for secular salvation through elections. When their candidates win, they act as if that were all they need to do, and as if it isn’t necessary to keep up the pressure for action. They seem to think that the liberal institutions and groups they support will handle the policy input. For liberals, at least, Foucault’s formulation seems much more useful. They expect that salvation will come from winning elections, especially the Presidency.


I won’t be able to continue this series, as much as I enjoy this book. I hope things will change and I’ll be able to pick it up again, but we’ll see.

Now my first thought was to do a series on Possession by A. S. Byatt, or maybe even Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, as a way of getting over the results of the last election. I’ll do that privately, though, unless someone knows a website that wants the thoughts of old white guys on these fantastic books. Instead, I’m going to be looking in some new areas.

When I took up the overall project of trying to see how we got into the neoliberal trap and trying to find a way out, I thought we’d have several years to work out the practice of fighting and the theory we would need to move forward. I thought the bulk of the elites of both legacy parties were neoliberals. I figured Clinton would win, and that the problem would be to resist the dominant neoliberal sector of elected Democrats and their Republican colleagues and push in a new direction, one even further from neoliberalism that the road proposed by Bernie Sanders. That turns out to be wrong.

It turns out that the Republicans are solely motivated by helping the rich at the expense of everyone else, and by the exercise of power, both political and military. I expect nothing but random policy from the Republicans, based on whichever ideologue gains the ear of the Tsar. We will need all hands to deal with the fallout as best we can. And I expect the Democrats to continue to push neoliberalism as their road back to power, leaving us fighting on two fronts: a double war pitting the rich against everyone else.

A huge number of people in this country reject the “elites”, a code word for smart people, and for educated people. They fit firmly in the long tradition of US anti-intellectualism. Here’s a bit from a recent New York Times article:

Ms. Adams says her daughter is just as stubborn when it comes to politics. “Nancy puts up a wall,” she said. “If you don’t vote the way she does, you’re voting wrong.” She added: “Democrats are always trying to talk you out of your ideas.”

Ms. Adams thinks it’s bad for people to discuss political ideas seriously. Of course, ideas are, or should be, the lifeblood of politics in a democracy. And lefties are generally better at explaining our views than Trumpheads who can’t defend their own ideas and want to be allowed to justify their opinion on the basis that they believe them because they saw something on Facebook. We can’t allow that. We have to show them the damage that racism, homophobia and xenophobia are doing to our fellow citizens, and to make it personal; and we need to point out the enormous economic losses the Trumpheads and the rest of us are going to incur as elite Republicans continue to wreck government and the economy for their own benefit. I plan to do my part.

Maybe it’s time to reread Richard Hofstadter’s book, Anti-Intellectualism In American Life.

19 replies
  1. bevin says:

    “A huge number of people in this country reject the “elites”, a code word for smart people, and for educated people. ..”

    It is also a code word for the class which has ruled the USA, in its own interests, since the beginning of the revolution, and their agents, the supporting cast, running the Academy, the media and the ideological infrastructure.

    You call this a tradition of anti-intellectualism. If it is so it is because the intellectuals have, largely, betrayed the people. They still do by defending a system which becomes more and more partial in its allocation of the proceeds of the social exploitation of the country and its labour. Hofstadter after all called Populism ‘anti-intellectualism’ too.

    Throughout the descent into neo-liberalism the intellectuals have done their job of trivialising the protests of the masses while excusing the transfer of social wealth to the real elites. For this they have not suffered and the fact of their prosperity has not escaped the notice of the disinherited and disenfranchised.

    So far as Trump is concerned his victory is a sign of the crisis in US society, a sign that things are falling apart. You feel that this will lead to even more confiscatory economic policies- I don’t think that that is possible. There really isn’t much more to confiscate from the poor and there is good reason to believe that are no longer persuaded that resignation to the inexorable forces of the market God will benefit them. They’ve tried that and they were conned.

    The one good thing about Trump, which hopefully will have an internal economic impact by cutting military expenditures (which after decades of liberal rule are ridiculous, corrupt and an appalling burden for the taxpayers), is that he is, unlike Clinton not firmly committed to the expansion of wars in the middle east, to dangerous confrontations with Russia and China and to ‘trade deals’ designed to extend monopolies enjoyed by corporations in such areas as medicines.

    Trump may turn out to be no better but he can be no worse than Clinton was promising to be. Peace in Syria and Ukraine may be of little interest to US residents, who appear to have grown accustomed to the fact that hundreds of thousands of people are regularly killed as part of US foreign policy, but to the people of Syria, Ukraine and Yemen any respite from military adventurism, from wahhabi terrorism and from regime changing would be a tonic. Clinton was committed to killing Syrians and Yemenis. She and her neo-con supporters were ‘rarin’ to go.’ Who is not happy that they were stopped in their tracks?

    As to domestic policy in the US, that is up to the people to sort out. As they do so they will recognise how little Obama or Clinton did to assist them in securing the most minimal assistance in workplace organisation and how much they did to ensure that a militarised gendarmerie stands between popular politics and governmental responsiveness. The lessons of Occupy still need to be properly understood.

    Obama, famously, boasted to Wall St-which paid him well for his assistance- that he was all that was standing between them and the ‘pitchforks.’ Now he is lamenting that those who hold the pitchforks did not put them aside for a day to vote for Hillary, more of the same only more so.

    • Ed Walker says:

      I don’t exactly disagree with you about the elites or the supporting class of elites. In fact, I have made a big point of arguing that the financial and economic elites have adopted the principles of economic neoliberalism, and that the rest of the governing class of elites have adopted the neoliberal project as it applies to international matters. I spent weeks reading introductory Econ texts and demonstrating that they had no connection to reality. In doing that, I engaged in the principle activity of intellectualism, reading, comparing the results of that reading to the facts as I can see them, and calling out the people by name who push these ideas,  and those who use them to make money for their sponsors and themselves.

      Now perhaps I’m not the kind of elite you are talking about, but I’ll guess that most of the educated people who left or were driven out of small town America are the people Ms. Adams, the woman quoted in the post, are talking about. We are the dominant group of Democratic voters, and no doubt voted overwhelmingly either for Clinton or against the Republicans. As I see it, we are just as betrayed by the neoliberals in the Democratic Party and their enablers as many Trump voters. .

      Now that we’ve seen the kinds of people Trump puts in power, and have seen Paul Ryan”s plans for running the government, how can you say that electing Republicans is less bad than electing Clinton?  I think the word you are looking for is kleptocracy. Or maybe kakistocracy.


  2. bloopie2 says:

    Yet another thought provoking post, thank you.  I’m curious—what countries have recently been ruled
    by other than those dreaded ‘elites’?  For example, the ancient Greeks noted by Ed, we are told in school, selected as their governors the aristocrats (‘aristos’ means ‘best’, so ‘aristocracy” is ‘government
    by the best’).  And haven’t most all successful politicians been suave and smart and likely educated and moneyed (i.e., ‘elite’)–either that, or military tyrants who don’t fit our discussion?  I mean, how often do you get people with an IQ under 100, or 125, running a nation state?  And who really wants such a low IQ with his finger on the button?  Thanks for your assistance; I’m trying to get a handle on whether ‘elite’ should be a pejorative.. (Proposed answer: Sometimes yes, sometimes no.)

    • lefty665 says:

      Think George Wallace who was on a track to overthrow the Dems until he was shot.  He was bright, but fit none of your other criteria. Dunno that I’d ever call Trump “suave”, or how bright he is – the pathological narcissism masks it, but he’s not dumb.

      Look to Congress for a bunch of not too bright lights. They’re not all dumb, but that doesn’t seem to be a barrier to election.

      In the context of US politics in general and Dems in particular elite is absolutely a pejorative that is paired with neolib and liberal hawk for some of the worst policies since Herbert Hoover. It is specifically in contrast to the inclusive vision of New Deal Dems before the Party abandoned them for the right wing, DLC, Repub wanna be, greedy, corrupt, neolib, elitist Clintons in ’92.

      The neolib elites need to be purged from the party if Dems are going to have a chance to be in the majority again. It is still “the economy, stupid” and 90% of the country has not had a raise since 1978.  That’s what drove Trump’s victory. Dem elites had/have no clue and money can’t buy one.

    • Rayne says:

      Thanks for the link, Alan. Very interesting piece, assuming moral education driven by economics, but IMO weak as it does not take into consideration power dynamics based in gender nor does it more deeply examine the deep stratification of British society based on capital.

      • Alan says:

        I would argue that it’s not about economics; it’s about a process of social interaction. Smith didn’t reduce everything to economics, far from it. The “everything is economics” school is latter day Chicago School (Becker, Posner, et al. –see Foucault’s discussion of Becker in the following lecture series) which they then project back onto Smith.

        • Rayne says:

          Let me guess you haven’t read James Fordyce’s Sermons to Young Women which Jane Austen cites in P&P as reading material offered to cousin Collins from the Bennet family’s books.

          Fordyce’s ‘Sermons’ is a real text; it was used to police women’s behavior outside the marginalizing enculturation they also received within their church-centered communities. It’s absolutely ridiculous to assume that women were making the same kinds of moral decisions — and according to the essay you shared, influenced by Smith — that men made, in spite of the norms across their entire society under which both sexes were supposed to operate. Fricke even notes that Darcy says he had been taught good principles but applied them meanly. Women weren’t permitted that in social stratum below the wealthiest gentry and peers because their social value was based on submission apart from any actual capital.

          Jane Bennet is one example of the cowed, submissive woman who lived to the norms of both society and church — we’d have said butter didn’t melt in her mouth. She also failed her own interests and that of her family by her excessive compliance.

          Ditto for younger sister Mary, who clung to religion-based mores like a weapon, as if openly espousing submission would be enough to resolve her moral challenges for her. (This clearly failed her since cousin Collins couldn’t be bothered with her though he was a man of the cloth and selected Fordyce as entertainment material.)

          Through Elizabeth, Austen rejects the moral framework forced inequitably on women, demonstrating the largest moral problem is  failure to transcend economic barriers with communication. At least Fricke got the importance of communication right.

          Fricke’s essay never even mentions Fordyce in her work; Austen never makes a direct reference to Adam Smith. I don’t know how Fricke could have placed more weight on Smith and less on Christian texts let alone Fordyce’s ‘Sermons’.

  3. Rayne says:

    Thanks for this essay, Ed. I’ve wondered for some time about the nuances we miss as English speakers when reading Foucault, like his emphasis on the pastoral — of the pastor. In French the word is pasteur, which refers to a shepherd, but so did the word berger or bergère (the latter = shepherdess).

    At some point the word berger across northwestern Europe shifted from shepherd to a person who lives in a market town. The word further matured into burgeis and then the bourgeoisie.

    I wonder if there is a subtle and implicate meaning in the choice of pasteur, avoiding the berger and the shift toward a leadership with emphasis on market-based community.

    • bloopie2 says:

      Agree as to nuance.  In my college we studied Ancient Greek and French, not so much to learn the languages per se but to learn about language, meaning, nuance, and translation.  But I suggest that such is well beyond the scope of a basic public school education, which is already so lacking in so many things.  Only elites can hope to attain that. Sorry.

  4. Alan says:


    “I’m not so sure the authoritarian personality explanation works for liberals. They aren’t generally authoritarian; in fact many are activated by a suspicion of authority.”

    The transformation of the pastorate doesn’t operate simply through a sort of authoritarian relationship. See the discussion of the repressive hyothesis in the first volume of The History of Sexuality or the discussion of the entrepreneur of the self in The Birth if Biopolitics. I think this is a key part of the critique: power operates very efficiently through a process of subjectification.

    For an essay on pastorate, its relationship to the modern state and modern subjectivities, and resistance see Golder’s  Foucault and the Genealogy of Pastoral Power. SSRN Scholarly Paper. February 24, 2009.

  5. Bay State Librul says:

    “It turns out that the Republicans are solely motivated by helping the rich at the expense of everyone else, and by the exercise of power, both political and military. I expect nothing but random policy from the Republicans, based on whichever ideologue gains the ear of the Tsar. We will need all hands to deal with the fallout as best we can.”

    Agreed — that’s why I will always vote Democratic.

    “And I expect the Democrats to continue to push neoliberalism as their road back to power, leaving us fighting on two fronts: a double war pitting the rich against everyone else.”

    Disagree – That’s why I will always vote Democratic.

    Conclusion: We have one war to fight.

  6. bloopie2 says:

    All you folks talking about Jane Austen–do you think anyone who is not an “elite” gives a damn? Or knows, or understands? If not, then what the f**k are you doing? Talking to your echo chamber?

    • Rayne says:

      Pride and Prejudice is one of the most popular books *EVER*. Like in the top 20. It’s been read as part of English and Literature curriculum in public high schools for +60 years.

      What the fuck are you doing bitching about discussion related to a book even most high school students have been introduced to? Are you illiterate?

      Are you a complete pop culture drop out, because Pride and Prejudice is one of the most adapted books *EVER*, based on the number of films, stage productions, fan works, pastiches, television series originating from this novel.

      And why are you bitching about it in comments related to a thread about the work of a French philosopher to whom most public high school students are not introduced? Or are you just a fucking hypocrite?

      Perhaps just a plain old misogynist because, eewww, girl cooties from a 200-year-old girl author writing about a girl?

      Get your head on straight, bloopie. Crack a fucking book once in a while — like the average American high school student.

  7. x174 says:


    Thanks for delving into the world of thinker-writers. I especially appreciated your insight that the future appears as a grim dilemma:

    “And I expect the Democrats to continue to push neoliberalism as their road back to power, leaving us fighting on two fronts: a double war pitting the rich against everyone else”

    A while ago, i suggested that you consider Ortega y Gasset’s “Revolt of the Masses” to add to your analysis of Western power structures. From my understanding of “Revolt,” Ortega is going after the pseudo-intellectual elites of academia. The mass men (and women) are people who have lost the ability of self-ideation; they will follow blindly along the well rutted road, never lifting their heads up, because they already know all the answers. Trump and his followers also well fit this bill. That “elites” and “intellectuals” are synonyms seems over-determined to me. I no a good many elite academics who haven’t a single piece of imaginative thought that they can call their own. Often, it is just these people who use the structure of the institution to ensure their superiority and power to ward against any encroachments on their elitist citadel. Many of the great thinkers in the West and East were entirely aware of these dullards (Socrates, Rabelais, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Marquez and Gasset.

    Conflatng elite with intellectual i think does a great disservice to both: the elite believe that they are better than anyone else as a matter of bloodline and pedigree; in contrast, many intellectuals are fiercely independent and willing to defy authoritarianism to the bitter end (Giordano Bruno).

    How to battle the anti-intellectual Trumpsters and the brain-dead elitist neo-con/neo-liberals may be simplified if we can somehow figure out how to get them to fight each other to the death.

    mahalo nui

    • Ed Walker says:

      Thanks for the suggestion, and for reminding me about it. I checked wikipedia, and it looks interesting, especially in light of some of the other comments on this post.

      As Bloopie2 points out, we are usually governed by elites, but in the US there has in the past been the thin veneer of helping everyone. That’s gone now, especially among the Trumpheads, but among Republicans generally. Noblesse oblige has turned into gimme more and then into I’ll take that away from you. The pre-fascists are a plausible place to look to see what can be done to resist.

      At least for now, my reading time is restricted, but I will try to get to this work.

  8. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Nice work, Ed. Hope to read more of it. Neo-liberalism is a project of the economic elite (DuPonts, Mellons, Scaifes, Olins, Kochs, and now the Bezos and their ilk) – and has been for many decades – because it slavishly promotes a narrow, brutal self-interest. That the vast majority of Americans pay heavily for neo-liberal policies while seeing government support, protection and action for their interests vanish is a design feature. It is Jack Londonish on a global scale. Establishment Democrats have long thrown in their lot with the neo-liberals. That leaves the majority of people outside of institutional politics. It’s a political weakness we have no choice but to make an opportunity.

    Trump will make a desert of the society and government Americans rely on and are subject to. He will call it peace – and victory. He will privately laugh at his supporters who believe his sales talk that they, too, will benefit from his actions (as he has always laughed at his former partners, creditors, employees, suppliers and customers), then he’ll walk away with all the marbles. Opposing such aims is a marathon, not an editorial. Thanks for showing one way to run it.

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