Pastoral Power

Index to posts in this series

Related posts

Posts on The Dawn Of Everything: Link
Posts on Pierre Bourdieu and Symbolic Violence: link
Posts trying to cope with the absurd state of political discourse: link
Posts on Freedom and Equality. link

In his paper The Subject And Power, Foucault moves from a focus on individual resistance to power to a focus on the power of the state. There is no transition, but we can draw an inference. The examples he uses are personal and individual, women resisting male oppression, children struggling against the authority of their parents, and sick people struggling against the medical profession. For centuries, oppressed people looked to religion for surcease from their earthly misery. Now, both the dominant and oppressed people appeal to the State to support their positions. Foucault thinks the state can respond to the demands of the oppressed because it has assumed what he calls “pastoral power”.

We first saw the concept of pastoral power in one of my early posts on Foucault, a discussion of a series of his lectures published as Security, Territory and Population. The first part of that post gives a good picture of the pastoral power, and some of its implications.

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 .…

In the paper, Foucault points out that the pastoral power is directed at the individual, specifically at the spiritual salvation of the individual. The pastor will do anything to insure salvation for each member of the flock, including self-sacrifice. Foucault says that the pastor can only succeed by knowing everything about the individual. Thus, the power is individualizing, as well as totalizing.

The ecclesiastical form of pastorate doesn’t have the same power it did 300 years ago, but the form has shifted to the secular power. In theory, at least, the goal of the secular pastorate is to insure human flourishing, in the language we use today. The state may not be willing or able to sacrifice itself to secure human flourishing, but it does demand the right to total knowledge, or something close in practice.

Foucault thinks the modern state should be seen from its birth in the late 1700s

… as a very sophisticated structure, in which individuals can be integrated, under one condition: that this individuality would be shaped in a new form and submitted to a set of very specific patterns.

Over time, all of the institutions of society are reorganized to include the forms of pastoral power, the police, private institutions (professional associations, corporations, foundations, universities), the family, and even to some extent the economy. At least in theory, they all take responsibility for creating conditions suitable for individual flourishing. Foucault writes

…the multiplication of the aims and agents of pastoral power focused the development of knowledge of man around two roles: one, globalizing and quantitative, concerning the population; the other, analytical, concerning the individual.

Foucault’s concern is that the totalizing State has the power to tie people to specific identities, which bind and limit people, and which can be used to restrict fundamental freedoms. Foucault asks what kind of human develops in this setting. What are we? Not what am I, as Descartes asks, but what is the nature of humans in this setting. This is the conclusion of this section of the paper:

The conclusion would be that the political, ethical, social, philosophical problem of our days is not to try to liberate the individual from the state and from the state’s institutions but to liberate us both from the state and from the type of individualization which is linked to the state. We have to promote new forms of subjectivity through the refusal of this kind of individuality which has been imposed on us for several centuries.


1. The concluding statement takes us back to the project laid out in The Dawn Of Everything: how did we get stuck in this place? What other forms of society have existed in the past that might shed light on new possibilities? As we will see there is a connection between the priestly/pastoral power and the mammoth increase in organized wheat cultivation in the Nile Delta beginning around 4500 BCE. See p. 404 et seq. The connection also extends to the origins of a kind of state power.

Roughly the story is that the priests started teaching that dead kings required offerings of wheat beer and leavened bread in order to cross over to the afterlife. Gradually everyone wanted the same food and drink for the journey of their own beloved dead. The increased demand for wheat led to more intensive agricultural practices and to the cultivation of less arable land. That required different social organization. Poorer people went into debt to get these essentials, and that led to a more complex economy.

All this was in furtherance of a religious belief, a belief that was only, if vividly, imaginary. I’ll come back to this in discussing Chapter 10.

2. Foucault doesn’t use the term “human flourishing”, but that’s what we call it now. One question we might ask is are there ranges of human flourishing that we can’t perceive because we are so wrapped up in the totalizing power of the pastorate as instated in our contemporary capitalist society? To start with an easier form of this question, consider the movies. Currently we are swamped with superheroes, and our screens are dominated by chiseled bodies and preposterous plots. I’m a bit worried that this does affect our collective imagination.

3. Not everyone loves the idea of a pastoral government, Some people don’t want to help others. Some really hate the idea that, in Lincoln’s formulation (not Jefferson’s), all men are created equal. Some believe government should not take care of people because that’s the role of religion and charity as it was in some early Christian societies. All of these people resist the current vision of the pastoral power of the state.

These and others have worked assiduously to persuade people that state exercise of pastoral power is illegitimate. That’s one way to read the political history of the US since the Reagan Administration. The pendulum has been swinging away from pastoral power to power based on strict market discipline. Maybe some of the other events we’ve seen lately are signs of people pushing back against what they perceive as illegitimate state exercise of pastoral power.

  • Chinese anger over zero-Covid policies
  • The uprising against the morality police in Iran
  • The rise of authoritarians like Victor Orban supported by the very rich
  • Our barely functioning politics coupled with judicial overreach working together to limit the power of the federal government to help people flourish
34 replies
  1. John Lehman says:

    “The uprising against the morality police in Iran”
    The fanaticism of the Iranian clergy has been a horribly shameful issue in Iran since the middle of the 19th century.

  2. earlofhuntingdon says:

    About all “men” are created equal, there is a considerable portion of the wealth elite that doesn’t think the state or religion or charities should help the needy. They are needy because God made them that way: “If She had not intended they be shorn, She would not have made them sheep,” as the Seven’s Calvera might have said.

    The attitude is ruthlessly selfish and self-serving, the opposite of Christianity’s primary message. Robber Barons and Social Darwinists, their philosophical acolytes, made much of it, but it’s an attitude that’s been around since the first jawbone of an ass became a weapon. Today’s monstrous level of wealth inequality makes the attitude even more prominent.

    • Ed Walker says:

      You really have to wonder about the moral sense of people who push this. I was thinking about the odious John Bolton in this context: how does he justify his aggression, his apparent loathing for anything he thinks is weak or vulnerable.

      • Ginevra diBenci says:

        John Bolton? He’s just a fairly minor soldier in the cultural war that vanquished Jimmy Carter, a real Christian, and replaced him with the winner-takes-all religion of “prosperity Gospel” and Trumpian bullying. I am haunted by the close vote in Georgia’s run-off last week. Almost half the electorate showed up not for a candidate but for a party that stands for nothing but the consolidation of power, by any means–even Herschel Walker.

        Remember how relatively few years of Reaganomics it took us to get to “Greed is good.” The irony with which Wall Street’s creators intended that line has worn off over the time since.

      • earlofhuntingdon says:

        John Bolton is a good example of how weak men are addicted to extremes that punish the average person so that they can pretend to be strong.

  3. GSH says:

    There are clearly many exceptions…But once the gold is in your hand, it’s interesting how avarice/greed seems to always take the lead regardless of how devout the following of the 7capital virtues.

  4. wasD4v1d says:

    It is interesting to note that word ‘pastor’ is derived from the Latin word for ‘shepherd’.

    All of Ed’s posts here I have bookmarked in a special folder. I can refer to them when my sense of the world loses traction and I require a dose of sanity.

  5. AgainBrain says:

    Ed / Mr. Walker, your posts always push me to read and learn more, and I find that the most incredible gift of all. Thank you for all your efforts, and thank you in general to everyone “behind” Emptywheel!

    • Ed Walker says:

      Thanks for the kind words. Much of what we are taught in our early years is only partially true. Expanding on that is the work of a lifetime.

  6. bgThenNow says:

    Reagan’s chickens coming home to roost. His terrible legacy, reaping the whirlwind now. Thanks for this post.

    • Ed Walker says:

      Indeed. We are so warped by our recent jackass we forget the genuine disaster wrought by Reagan and his band of economic warriors, and the genuine evil of W. Bush and his mafia of war criminals.

  7. Ken Muldrew says:

    I think the jump from agrarian empires of domination to pastoral governance into today’s world is too dependent on social continuity throughout that vast time span. In particular, the massive upheaval of industrialization has to be taken into account. Here I think we would do well to follow Ernest Gellner’s framing of nations and nationalism to understand the “pastoral power” of modern states.

    In brief, nationalism is not an ideology but rather an inevitable response to industrialization. An industrial economy needs a literate, numerate, and generically trained workforce that can be re-trained when necessary to adapt to the continuous change that comes with the need for innovation in an economy based on economic growth. Furthermore, this workforce must be comfortable with the total interdependence of individuals within the society; nobody can opt out of this faustian bargain.

    If we think of the state as that entity that has a monopoly over the legitimate use of violence within its territory, then the nation is the entity that has a monopoy over the legitimate use of education within its territory. The nation and state necessarily become congruent because the state is the only entity that can provide for the education and welfare of an entire populace (requiring about 50% of GDP be taken in taxation to fund this effort).

    How nations were formed during the nascent industrialization of the world’s regions, grafting particular high, literate cultures onto convenient folk cultures, while consigning all the other folk cultures (and many literate cultures that weren’t strong enough to form states) to the dustbin of history, is behind many of our problems today. There are many converging forces attempting to re-nationalize (or re-litigate the nationalizations that occured), both from within and without the nations of the world. It wasn’t just indigenous or 3rd world cultures that were buried, either. Fifty years ago, nobody thought that Welsh or Gaelic, as just two examples, would ever be spoken again once that current generation had died. The resurgence of cultural identities is destabilizing for nations, and the strong bonds between nations and states means that malicious actors who wish to disrupt or weaken states are using this resurgent re-nationalization for their own purposes. Social media is, of course, driving the attempts to reorganize nations and so subversion of social media is a multiplier of its efficacy.

    To return to Foucault, the pastoral power of states is part and parcel of the nationalism that is an inevitable and necessary part of the transition from agrarian to industrial society. The state must shape individuals to the needs of the economy because the industrial transition is an irreversible commitment.

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      A little overdetermined. The whole point of the Dawn of Everything was to consider how else society and its state might develop.

      • Ken Muldrew says:

        I’ll concede I was a bit too absolutist here, but mostly due to my inability to write concisely.

        In The Dawn of Everything, Wengrow and Graeber set out to show that early societies were able to anticipate the gravity of adopting innovations and so set out to engage in “play” activities where the new technology or way of organizing society would only be partially adopted so that the consequences (both intended and unintended) could be discovered and debated before making a conscious decision to accept the innovation or not. They don’t actually present any evidence of this ever happening, but the idea lies at the heart of their argument that social, environmental, and historical constraints don’t matter very much. They wish to refute Marx when he said, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please”.

        I believe they are entirely mistaken in this hypothesis, having mistaken individual reversibility for collective irreversibility. When reversibly adopting a new path, an individual may reverse course at any time, but the knowledge they pass on to their successors (through the hang-around-and-find-out apprenticeship method) neglects to include the knowledge of the former path and so is not learned by the successors. The knowledge that is written down is woefully incomplete (both for pedagogical reasons and because so much is just learned by hanging-around-and-finding-out). The next generation cannot go back.

        At any rate, they don’t address industrialization and that is quite obviously irreversible at this point (subsistence agriculture could not support much more than a tenth of the world’s current population).

        • Lika2know says:

          You are taking them out of context: The Dawn of Everything is pre-industrial by thousands of years. The authors do provide evidence that a variety of governing mechanisms have been tried, and that past assumptions about things like agriculture are too strongly drawn.

          • nord dakota says:

            Isn’t this kind of like how the neural system develops in a human being? A lot of pathways open up but then are pruned, with subsequent paths branching off from those remaining, but not like you can go back and start from the roots.

            • timbozone says:

              It’s also how vicariant genetic diversity arise and decline, intersecting with related niche pressures, in evolutionary theory.

              These are all planetary and solar energy flow systems, subject to geography and chance—seemingly stochastic events and processes; the total ecology of the Earth system if you will. Human being populations, our biology, along with all life on Earth’s, are all subject and reflective of these mechanisms of energy and matter transport.

          • Ken Muldrew says:

            What you say is true (except for mistaking that the context for industrialization was Foucault), but unrelated to my comments.

  8. Chris papageorgiou says:

    “pastoral power”
    Shepherd & Good Shepherd & Bad Shepherd.
    Who decides who is who ? How do we know unless we practice “Just Culture” ?
    ” Know thyself ” …(γνῶθι σαὐτόν)
    “ When you learn to be led, then you will know how to lead ”… “άρχεσθαι μαθών άρχειν επιστήσει”
    Currently, we deal with authoritarian power grab uneducated know it all Demagogues who convinced masses of ignoramus individuals.

    • Ed Walker says:

      In case anyone is not familiar with Vermeule’s ideas, this is from an article in The Atlantic (

      This approach should take as its starting point substantive moral principles that conduce to the common good, principles that officials (including, but by no means limited to, judges) should read into the majestic generalities and ambiguities of the written Constitution. These principles include respect for the authority of rule and of rulers; respect for the hierarchies needed for society to function; solidarity within and among families, social groups, and workers’ unions, trade associations, and professions; appropriate subsidiarity, or respect for the legitimate roles of public bodies and associations at all levels of government and society; and a candid willingness to “legislate morality”—indeed, a recognition that all legislation is necessarily founded on some substantive conception of morality, and that the promotion of morality is a core and legitimate function of authority. Such principles promote the common good and make for a just and well-ordered society.

      This is a truly bizarre idea: that strong rulers should enforce moral principles, selected by what, courts? Vermeule? A tribe of philosopher kings guided by the wisdom of Edmond Burke and Mark Zuckerberg? The religious book chosen by a minority of true believers?

      What he and other conservatives don’t like about liberalism is the idea that social mores change. They do not believe that all men are created equal, and they don’t want courts to make that the decisive rule in any case. They certainly aren’t fans of Abraham Lincoln’s formulation “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

      • earlofhuntingdon says:

        “Bizarre” is being kind. I would add anachronistic. Vermeule is talking about reading into the institutions and principles of government and the texts of its law his personal sense of superiority and what constitutes a correct moral order.

        Fitting with the S.Ct.’s current majority, he believes in a theocratic Catholic world government. Apostolic succession is more important to his faith than scripture or textual analysis. That is, it’s the successive men in charge that count, and who determine both meaning and leadership, what historians would call the Great Man theory of history.

        His background fits those beliefs: summa, Harvard College; magna, Harvard Law; clerked for the DC Circuit and Scalia at the Supremes; taught at Chicago before being welcomed back to HLS, where his views are considered so precious, he has held two endowed chairs.

        Elsewhere in that Atlantic article from 2020, he elaborated on the aims of his purported common good constitutionalism:

        [It] is certainly not to maximize individual autonomy or to minimize the abuse of power (an incoherent goal in any event), but instead to ensure that the ruler has the power needed to rule well … Just authority in rulers can be exercised for the good of subjects, if necessary even against the subjects’ own perceptions of what is best for them — perceptions that may change over time anyway, as the law teaches, habituates, and re-forms them. Subjects will come to thank the ruler whose legal strictures, possibly experienced at first as coercive, encourage subjects to form more authentic desires for the individual and common goods, better habits, and beliefs that better track and promote communal well-being.

        To ensure that the ruler has the power to rule well? As with Henry Kissinger, Vermeule must read better in the original German, or perhaps Latin.

      • timbozone says:

        That sounds like pure bunk designed to justify the debasing of human dignity. The guy is likely a sociopath. It’s certainly an Anti-Enlightenment position for the most part.

  9. Goat Herd says:

    My first post to one of Ed’s threads, always good reads. Some day soon, I’ll try to post something of substance.

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