States Rights

Index to posts in this series

One of the recurrent themes in The Nation That Never Was by Kermit Roosevelt is states rights, the right of the state to make many critical decisions about the rights and privileges of their residents. It seems like a strange way to run a country. How can we think of ourselves as a single nation when there are enormous variations in our rights? It seems contradictory to another recurrent theme of Roosevelt: the desire for unity.

The original English settlements in the US were organized under Charters from the Kings of England. They seem to have been drawn for various political reasons, that is reasons of English politics and money, and without regard to the interests of Indigenous Americans, or of the Colonists. There was no plan. Our original 13 colonies arrived on the scene just like the nations of the Middle East after the Sykes-Picot lines: as an exercise of British colonialism.

The Colonists were subjects of the English Crown, but each colony eventually established its own government. They created courts, legislatures, and administrative bodies usually under a written constitution. One of the big complaints in the Declaration of Independence is that the King is ignoring these institutions. As an example:

He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.

He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.

By 1776, these governments were entrenched. After the Revolutionary War their big fear was that any central government would act the tyrant as had the English Kings. That led to the Articles of Confederation, which created a central government so weak it could not be a tyrant. The Articles were a total failure.

But the dominant vision remained. Colonial leaders wanted a federation of independent states, each with a strong government, and a national government barred from interfering with state governments. The Constitution preserves most of the powers of the individual states, and gave the rest to the central government. They got a central government strong enough to insure peace among these independent units, to ward off external attack, and to establish a suitable business environment. People’s rights as citizens of the United States were limited. Substantially all individual rights sprang from state citizenship.

Even within this context slavery was a paramount issue. The northern states were moving away from it, as was Europe. This was obviously a concern to the Southern states, and the Constitution contains provisions they demanded by the to alleviate those concerns.

Roosevelt says that supporting the demands of the slave states is just the first of many occasions in which unity takes priority over equality in our history. It’s one of the many times the interests and rights of Black people were sacrificed to the demands of unity.

The Constitution was an agreement among the Thirteen Colonies, not an agreement of “We the people of the United States” as the Preamble states. Theoretically the people agreed through their representatives in the state governments, but that seems just as unlikely as the assumptions underlying of social contract theory.

The Founders Constitution preserves the powers of the States except for specific matters, and that is confirmed by the Tenth Amendment:

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

The powers reserved to the states include determining citizenship in the state, the right to vote, the right to serve on juries, almost all other political rights, and the right to establish and regulate slavery. This is the origin of the notion of states rights: that the state has the right to determine your rights.

Theoretically the Reconstruction Amendments changed the relations between the states and the Federal government. Citizenship in a state was conferred on all residents, and the states didn’t get to decide that question. The rights in the Constitution became enforceable against the states, although that took decades and has a twisted legal history. Voting was a right guaranteed by the federal government. States were prohibited from treating people differently on account of race. Congress was explicitly empowered to legislate these changes. But the Supreme Court refused to allow this to happen. In the Slaughter-House Cases and later cases, the Supreme Court narrowed and nearly neutered the Reconstructions Amendments and restored state power, enabling states to neutralize the supposed gains of Black citizens.

The pre-Civil War arrangement of power continues to the present. In a 2010 case, McDonald v. City Of Chicago, the revanchist Alito said that SCOTUS wouldn’t reexamine the Slaughter-House Cases.


Reading these cases makes me wonder what it means to be a US citizen, a point I have raised before, as here. If it’s true that your rights mostly come from the state where you live, the differences among the rights available to citizens can be enormous.

Two of the obvious examples currently are abortion and trans rights. Right-wing state legislators are passing laws to police these bodies directly and by terrifying medical professionals. Another obvious example is the right-wing assaults on education, including the ridiculous Florida laws against teaching subjects the right wing can’t face, like Black history and racism, LGBTQ rights, and critical thinking. This includes books like the two in this series and probably my posts on them.

I think the problem is much wider. The plain fact is that some states take better care of their citizens than others. The clearest example of this is life expectancy. Here’s a list of the states by life expectancy at birth using data from the years 2018-20. The top 5 states, all Blue (New Hampshire at 4 is purple), have a life expectancy of 79.4 years while the bottom 5, all bright Red, are at 72.9. If, as the Declaration claims, you have a right to life, you get nearly 9 more years of it in Hawaii than in Mississippi.

The same is true for education, public safety, and all other aspects of government that are primarily the responsibility of states. That inequality is the direct result of the notion of dual sovereignty that underlies cases like McDonald.

This problem was created by the Supreme Court. SCOTUS decisions about our rights as US citizens start with the Slaughter-House Cases and related cases that tightly narrow the Reconstruction Amendments. At about the same time SCOTUS decided to give rights to corporations just like people. SCOTUS dismantled the Voting Rights Act in direct violation of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments which give Congress the power to legislate. SCOTUS allows gerrymandering on the flimsiest pretexts and on the shadow docket.

Because whatever rights we have as citizens of the US are in the Constitution and federal laws, SCOTUS has the final say. SCOTUS has proven itself to be a screaming disaster for democracy, and for the supposed principles of the Founders of equality of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

The Intent Of The Declaration Of Independence

Posts in this series

In his book The Nation That Never Was, Kermit Roosevelt lays out the standard story we are all taught about our history. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are our founding documents. They lay out our principles of freedom and equality. The Declaration teaches us that All Men Are Created Equal and entitled to certain inalienable rights. P. 8 et seq. The Constitution puts that theory into practice. It’s so engrained in our minds that it’s hard to imagine contesting it.

But people have. Roosevelt gives examples from the 19th Century. White supremacists across the nation argued that these documents justified slavery, the eradication of Native Americans, and second-class citizenship for women, among other inequalities. Black people and Abolitionists said that equality and freedom were meant for everyone in the country, not just White men of property.

This dispute continued into the Civil Rights Era in the 20th Century. In his I Have A Dream speech, Martin Luther King said that the Declaration was a guarantee of freedom and equality for all.

“I have a dream,” he said, “that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’” P. 23.

Malcom X saw the Declaration as a call to action for Black people, who he said were a nation within a nation. The US had abused Black people for hundreds of years, and refused to treat them as human beings. Therefore, just as the colonists were justified in rebelling against an abusive King, Black people were justified in rebelling against White rule. For him, the Declaration was not about equality, but about the right to throw out the oppressors.

Roosevelt offers four arguments that we shouldn’t interpret the statement “all men are created equal” as a political foundation for the US government.

First, if we interpret that statement as Lincoln did in the Gettysburg Address, or King did in his I Have A Dream speech, Jefferson would have to be condemning slavery and granting the freedmen the same rights as White people. Jefferson obviously wasn’t saying that. He himself was a slaver: he enslaved his own children by Sally Hemings. This was perfectly legal in Virginia, which passed a statute in 1662 saying that citizenship of a person depends on the citizenship of the mother. This was necessary because “questions have arisen” after a Virginia court decided that the daughter of a White man with nn enslaved woman was a free woman. P. 45.

Second, the ideal of equality is irrelevant to Jefferson’s argument. There is no other mention of equality in the Declaration. There’s a long list of abuses and offenses committed by the King of England, and it’s those abuses that justify throwing off the King’s rule by force, not the equality of anyone with anyone. It wouldn’t affect Jefferson’s argument if the King were treating Englishmen equally with the Colonists by oppressing both, .

Third, Jefferson’s first draft complained that the King introduced slavery into the Colonies and then overruled the Colonist’s attempts to terminate the slave trade. That was taken out by the Signers, leaving only the complaint that the King was stirring up rebellion among the slaves. That’s the equivalent of a demand to have the king stay out of Colonial slavery.

Fourth, you wouldn’t make equality a principle and then exclude people from the definition of “all men”. That makes you look bad, especially because England had already outlawed slavery. [Adding on edit: This is an overstatement of the facts. See the comments of Michael Conforti below. I may also have overstated Roosevelt’s point. I quoted his text in a comment below.] Continuing slavery makes you look like hypocrites in the eyes of potential allies. Relatedly, freedom and equality of all citizens was not the dominant view, and calling that self-evident would look foolish.

So, what did Jefferson mean? He claims that it is self-evidently true that all men are created equal and endowed with equal rights. Then he says

That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it,

This is the actual principle that motivates the Declaration: government power comes from the consent of the governed, and the governed have a natural right to withdraw that consent if the government misuses its power.

Jefferson explains that the Colonists aspire “to the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them”. He’s basing his entire argument on Natural Law, not laws created by humans. He’s saying that there is no Divine Right of Kings, that the King is just a man, not a person born to rule, or ordained by the Almighty with the right to rule. This was mostly accepted by this point even in England. But it moves the argument onto solid ground, the grounds of consent. Roosevelt says that the Declaration is a document of political philosophy, not of human rights.

And how does slavery, the antithesis of freedom and equality, fit in?. Roosevelt says that Jefferson is referring to the generally accepted idea of government at that time. It comes from the likes of Jean-jacques Rousseau, as we saw in The Dawn Of Everything. It begins by imagining a society in a state of nature. Everyone is free and equal, and has certain natural rights. But they have no way to protect those rights other than their own strength, leading to a war of all against all in which life is brutish, nasty, etc., following Hobbes.

So men formed governments to protect those rights. The men who formed the government agree to defend each other against the outsiders, who have no protection from that government. The Declaration doesn’t say anything about the rights of outsiders like slaves and Indigenous Americans. It only addresses the rights of insiders, the White English colonists, as against their rulers.

Slavery is perfectly consistent with this view of nationhood. The slaves, Native Americans, and others are outsiders, beyond the protection of government and not entitled to equality or freedom, except as the government is willing to provide.


1. Many of the books I”ve discussed here have changed my understanding of something I was taught in school. I think one reason I don’t have trouble changing my mind is that so few things seem critical to my self-understanding. For example, I was taught that there was a fixed external truth, and that our human truths are mere approximations of that truth. Now I think differently about truth. But that doesn’t change anything about my self-perception or my day-to-day interactions with other people. On the other hand, when I am accused of bad behavior towards others I feel an assault on my self-perception, and I try to change my behavior.

The standard story seems critically important to lots of right-wing partisans, as we saw in the right-wing reaction to the 1619 Project, and the hissy-fit about Critical Race Theory. It’s one thing to say: my principles include the belief that all men are crated equal and have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It’s another to say one of my principles is that Thomas Jefferson and the other Founders believed that and said so in the Declaration and the Constitution. The latter strikes me as akin to a religious belief, analoguous to the early Egyptians believing that the dead require leavened bread and wheat beer and changing their entire agriculture to fit that belief.

2. The Declaration may not have originally stood for the proposition that all men are created equal, but now it absolutely does. The history of that change of perception is important, because it tells us that we as a nation can change. Slavery was once widely accepted. Now it’s not. Our ancestors reversed that consensus, and we can and should be proud of that. It is as inspiration to work for a better country.

Introduction And Index To Series On The Second Founding

Posts in this series
The Intent Of The Declaration Of Independence
Problems With The Standard Story Of The Revolutionary War And The Constitution
States Rights
The Better Story
Democracy Is Our Hope For A Better Future
The Thirteenth Amendmeent
The fourteenth Amendment
The Fifteenth Amendment
The Slaughterhouse Cases
Cruikshank, Gun Control, And Bad Rulings
The Major Questions Metadoctrine and The Slaughterhouse Cases
The Supreme Court Has Always Been Terrible

The term “second founding” refers to the fundamental changes made to the US Constitution and in our society by the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments. I had not heard this term before did some reading for this this post praising Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson’s questions at oral argument on the recent Alabama redistricting case. Justice Jackson actually knows her history, unlike the Fox News members of SCOTUS, and, well, me.

Shortly after writing that post I heard a podcast featuring Kermit Roosevelt discussing his book, The Nation That Never Was: Reconstructing America’s Story. I read it and was discussing it with a friend who recommended I look into the work of Eric Foner. That led me to his recent book, The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution.

In this series I’ll take up these two books. They’re short and very readable, and they complement each other. Foner focuses on the events of the period, while Roosevelt focuses on the legal/theoretical side.

The Nation That Never Was

Roosevelt teaches law at Penn, and yes, he’s the great-grandson of Teddy Roosevelt. The premise of his book is that we are telling the wrong story about our constitutional history. The conventional story starts by describing the Declaration Of Independence and the Constitution as our founding documents, incorporating our national values of freedom and equality for all, but hmmm, slavery was bad so we had a Civil War and Reconstruction and cured that problem, but then we found out about racism, and then Martin Luther King solved that problem and now things are great. It’s a story that the right-wing fetishizes.

The rest of us have a more adult view of our history. It doesn’t question starting point of the standard story, the part about the Declaration and the Constitution. But it adds all the horrors of the Jim Crow Era, the abuses of a perverted capitalism against workers of every description, and the horrifying treatment of Native Americans. It’s grim and unsatisfying, but at least it’s more accurate.

Roosevelt thinks we need a story that gives us real heroes, people who give us hope and inspiration for the future. He also thinks we need to look very closely at the founding documents, and the decisions of the First Founders as well as their omissions.

Roosevelt suggests a new story. First we had a system that was OK with the most brutal forms of slavery. Then we fought a war to wipe it out. We won that war at huge cost in blood and treasure. We changed the very nature of our society and we can take pride in that effort and the people who did it. We aren’t perfect. But the Civil Rights Amendments gave us the tools we need to reach for freedom and equality for all, and it’s a task for which we as citizens are all responsible.

Roosevelt discusses reparations, but I’m not going to address that, except to say this. I urge readers to take the time to read this article by Ta’Nehisi Coates. It’s a tough read. I certainly know I have benefited from the current structure of society, almost certainly at the expense of others who have suffered unfairly. I don’t know what to do about that, but it is unjust.

The Second Founding

Foner teaches history at Columbia. I haven’t finished the book yet, but so far there’s a lot of detail about our history I didn’t know or ever think about. Much of that has to do with the sausage-making behind the Civil Rights Amendments, and the arguments made by opponents of those Amendments. I read Heather Cox Richardson’s Letters From An American substack every day, in large part because she is attuned to the parallels between the politics of the Civil War Era and those of today. Here’s an example. In the same way, Ibram X. Kendi shows that arguments by racists never die, and Hannah Arendt shows that anti-Semitism is an endemic hate virus. White supremacy and Christian Nationalism seem to be ineradicable.


My current plan is to do a fairly short series. I’ll start with the Roosevelt book. There is a conventional view of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, but that story is utterly inadequate. Then I’ll turn to Foner’s book to look at the politics of the Reconstruction Amendments, and the way they were weakened by centrists and subverted by White Supremacists and the Supreme Court.

We’ll see what else pops up.

Taken together, I think these two books give us a good introduction to a different way of thinking about our history, one in which we can take pride, one that gives us heroes we can respect, one that sets our aspirations and hopes for our future and our descendants. The history is suitable for grown-ups, and therefore is probably illegal in Florida and Texas.

We can’t fix the past, but we can do better for the future, just as the Second Founders did. That’s what it means to be a citizen.

Conclusion To Series On The Dawn Of Everything

Posts on The Dawn Of Everything: Link

The Dawn Of Everything by David Graeber and David Wengrow has 525 pages of text. I’ve discussed 10 of the 12 chapters in the last 14 months, and it’s time to move on. I’ll conclude this series with a few ideas triggered by the book.

1. The authors show that human societies didn’t follow any particular pattern of change. We didn’t move from foraging to agriculture to industrialization along a single track. We didn’t grow from bands to tribes to clans to small hamlets to towns to cities to nation-states. We didn’t move from one form of social organization to another in any particular order. Instead, the crucial factor is human agency. Agency is the antithesis of the mindlessness of Darwin-style evolution. People make choices. Genes don’t.

2. Greaber and Wengrow are clear about their biases. Among other things they think the current state of society is based on social inequality, and that this is bad. One of the principle themes of the book is laid out as a section heading at p. 111: Why The Real Question Is Not “What Are The Origins Of Social Inequality’ But ‘How Did We Get Stuck?’ They don’t answer the question directly, but it’s likely they think one of the central problems is domination.

In Chapter 10 they say that societies are held together by domination, which can take three forms, sovereignty (control of violence), control of knowledge, and charisma, which operates through virtues approved by the group, such as strength or rhetoric. Each of these can be used to achieve and perpetuate social inequality.

3. The authors think that societies have a shared mental component that links members and separates them from other groups. In ancient societies people shared creation myths or other cosmogonies, rituals, cultic practices, totems, and social practices. We moderns do too. In this post I suggested that

… we Americans share a sort of secular religion based on the founding myths of our country and a weak allegiance to what Jefferson called “Laws of Nature and Nature’s God” in the Declaration of Independence. The latter is a formulation that originally meant Natural Law but I think now includes a science-based mental stance and values based on a vaguely Christian moral sense. The founding myths include our commitment to freedom, as “all men are created equal”; a government of laws, not of men; a form of capitalism; and representative democracy.

By “vaguely Christian moral sense”, I meant something like the Golden Rule, and that this Rule was given to us from something greater than our mortal selves. Each of us has many more beliefs, some fully supported by fact and reason, many less so, and some perfectly arbitrary, such as a preference between forks and chopsticks, or certainty that the end times are upon us.

One important mental component that holds citizens of the US together is a shared commitment to the idea that this is a nation of laws, not of men. We had a general agreement that we would select our leaders, and adhere to the laws and rules they enacted. There’s still some truth there even in these days of Republican treachery.

4. Control of knowledge is a powerful tool. In Chapter 10 the authors describe an ongoing problem in pre-dynastic Egypt, around 3500 BCE: whether the dead require food and drink, and if so, what. The answer turns out to be they need leavened bread and wheat beer. There is no known explanation for this. Skeptics might suggest the priests who gave this answer really liked leavened bread and wheat beer. In any event, this answer required a vast increase in the amount of wheat to satisfy the needs of all of the dead people. That led to vast increases in agriculture, away from the fertile floodplains of the Nile, increased need for irrigation, additional labor, accounting bureaucracies, and debt peonage. The baseless idea of feeding the dead changed the course of human history.

Many of the societies described in the book believed that their gods demand sacrifices of animals, food, or even human beings. We see this among the Aztecs, and in Gen. 4:3 and Gen. 22:2, for example. These ideas don’t ever really disappear. For example, the idea of helping one’s dead ancestors shows up in Chinese use of joss paper.

These ideas seem strange to me, even for the ancients. That’s because they are perfectly abstract. There is no way to verify them, or to justify them other than stories. And yet human beings have always acted on stories, and those actions shape whole societies.

5. At present, it seems to me that our mutual commitment to the rule of law is threatened by a drive to dominate and control knowledge. In most advanced societies knowledge was largely generated and vetted in and through an academic culture. Because of this commitment, no one cared that I read existentialist and surreal texts in college in the 60s, and no one cared that my history class was heavy on criticism of Gilded Age capitalism. Everyone assumed that it was important that as we got older we replace our child’s version of philosophy and of our history with a more adult ideas. Universities were thought to be the training grounds for leadership. Why would you want ignorant leaders, trained on a bunch of Young Adult stories?

But now intellectual pursuits, such fields of study as Critical Race Theory, deconstruction, the history of Reconstruction in the US, and gender studies are the subject of political hostility. For at least the last 50 years private interests have been trying to take control of information. Think of tobacco companies and their scientists lying about their cancer-causing products. Exxon and its scientists concealed the dangers of climate breakdown while fighting changes in energy policy. Someone found a bunch of doctors to attack vaccines. The right-wing media dumps lies into the minds of its audience. Now politicians are reaching directly into the intellectual formation of college students, hoping to hide people and histories they don’t like and that don’t fit the Potemkin World they’ve created.

That Potemkin World is the endpoint sought by the reactionaries who have dumped billions into the project of knowledge control. They’re motivated by their desire to protect and extend their wealth, and defuse any opposition to their control. I see an obvious analogy to the priests of Egypt who divined that the dead needed wheat beer.

Graeber and Wengrow say “As soon as we were human we started doing human things.” P. 82. And apparently we keep doing them even when they make as little sense as feeding the dead with expensive wheat products or risking the future of the earth to make a few bucks.

The Search For The Origins Of The State

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 Chapter 10 of The Dawn Of Everything the authors, David Graeber and David Wengrow, take up the search for the origins of the state. They discuss current theories of the nature of the state. They provide a different framework for understanding the term in ancient times, and even suggest that the earliest versions of these organizational structures were part-time, just as agriculture was part-time. Then they give examples of how their theory works.

Theories of the State

Today almost everyone lives under the governance of a nation-state. The generally accepted definition was suggested by Rudolph von Ihering in the late 1800s and is now associated with Max Weber: “… any institution that claims a monopoly on the legitimate use of coercive force within a given territory….” P. 359. But that’s not the way things worked in the earliest large groups.

Marxists suggested that states emerged to protect the power of an emerging ruling class, but the authors reject this theory.

A third theory is quite common: as the population in any area increases, you need top-down authority to coordinate and plan. But, as we’ve seen, this isn’t right, because a large number of ancient polities operated quite well without an autocratic leader endowed with the power of violence.

The authors suggest that at least for ancient societies we should consider three factors:

  • Sovereignty, meaning the control of violence directed at members of the group and the right to authorize other to inflict violence;
  • Administration, meaning control over information. This can be of two kinds. Frequently it means factual information necessary to keep things operating, for example taxes due and collected, or corvée obligations. Particularly in early societies it means esoteric or cultic knowledge, for example, explanations of the cosmos and the roles of people in it.
  • Charisma, meaning a personal power of persuasion that enables one to dominate others.

Each of these factors is a form of dominance, which the authors see as the basis of the state. The authors rephrase the search for the origins of the state from their perspective:

How did large-scale forms of domination first emerge, and what did they actually look like? What, if anything, do they have to do with arrangements that endure to this day? P. 370.

Dominance in early societies

This material takes up most of the chapter. The authors give examples of societies organized under one form of dominance, which they call First-Order Societies, then societies with two of the forms of dominance, Second-Order Societies. The material is fascinating, and the examples support the use of their categories. I’m only going to discuss one illustration, the Chavin Culture, a pre-Inca group located on the western slopes of the Andes down to the sea near what is now Lima Peru.

This culture seems to have arisen around 3000 BCE, and flowered around 1200 BCE. It lasted another 800 years before disappearing. The authors say there is little evidence of the use of violence, no evidence of a formal bureaucracy, and no evidence of a monarch with sovereign or political power.

The archaeological record is dominated by imagery, primarily carved stone. Here’s a description.

Crested eagles curl in on themselves, vanishing into a maze of ornament; human faces grow snake-like fangs, or contort into a feline grimace. No doubt other figures escape our attention altogether. Only after some study do even the most elementary forms reveal themselves to the untrained eye. With due attention, we can eventually begin to tease out recurrent images of tropical forest animals – jaguars, snakes, caimans – but just as the eye attunes to them they slip back from our field of vision, winding in and out of each other’s bodies or merging into complex patterns. P. 388.

The authors characterize these as “shamanic journeys to the world of chthonic spirits and animal familiars.” The society was held together by rituals and cultic knowledge. The people seem to have enjoyed rituals oriented to hallucinogenic substances made from local plants.

This is an example of a First-Order Society.


1. I do like the idea of a stoner kingdom.

2. The authors possibly think that societies are held together through domination. Like power, this is a term they don’t discuss. I did a digression on power, link above. I’ve discussed Pierre Bourdieu’s work on domination, link above. And I’ve discussed some current ideas about freedom, which is the complement to the idea of both, link above.

But they give plenty of examples where that isn’t so. In fact, they seem to think we’d be better off if we lived without domination, or at least in a society where decisions are made in a more democratic system. That contradiction is confusing.


Very large social units are always, in a sense, imaginary. Or, to put it in a slightly different way: there is always a fundamental distinction between the way one relates to friends, family, neighbourhood, people and places that we actually know directly, and the way one relates to empires, nations and metropolises, phenomena that exist largely, or at least most of the time, in our heads. P. 276.

Large social units may exist in the imagination, but they have roots in reality. I live in the Gold Coast neighborhood of Chicago. I only know a few of my neighbors, but we are bound together by a number of links. We care about local schools, local traffic, local businesses and our parks in a particular way. If these are threatened, say by a local developer trying to replace a park or increase the traffic burden, we cooperate to deal with it.

I’m bound to other Chicagoans by crucial ties: they staff my doctor’s office, my dry cleaner, and my grocery store, and everything else I need. My life is smooth and pleasant because of them. I care that they are safe and healthy. I care that they have paved streets so they can get to work, and so I care about the people who pave those streets, clear off the snow, fill the potholes, and replace the bulbs in the stoplights. I want everybody’s kids to have good schools, just like I want good schools for my grandkids.

We have other ties. We like brats and argue about pizza. We ride public transport and we talk about the best way to get around in our miserable traffic. We go to movies, theater, concerts, and restaurants together. We can always talk about something here that affects us all, the latest corruption story, property taxes, who the Bears should draft, and the weather.

As I read it, the authors think those ties are strong enough to pull us together as a group without a dominating force.

4. Each of the societies described in the book has a mental component that goes deeper than just being neighbors. They share rituals, cosmologies, stories about themselves as a people, cultic practices, and there’s a shared understanding of themselves as a group. These are taught to children and reinforced by ritual and practice throughout the lives of members. They are at least as important to the maintenance of the group as any of the forms of dominance.

The Founders rejected the idea of a state religion, and we’ve mostly abandoned cultic practices. I think we Americans share a sort of secular religion based on the founding myths of our country and a weak allegiance to what Jefferson called “Laws of Nature and Nature’s God” in the Declaration of Independence. The latter is a formulation that originally meant Natural Law but I think now includes a science-based mental stance and values based on a vaguely Christian moral sense. The founding myths include our commitment to freedom, as “all men are created equal”; a government of laws, not of men; a form of capitalism; and representative democracy.

This, roughly, is the mental component that up til now has bound us into a nation. I think the authors miss this point.
Photo credit: Cbrescia.

Egalitarian Cities In Early Central America

Posts on The Dawn Of Everything: Link

Befor I read Chapter 9 of The Dawn Of Everything I thought all the Pre-Columbian Central American societies were monarchies, and that they all practiced violent rituals, including lethal ball games and ritual human sacrifices. David Graeber and David Wengrow describe a city, Teotihuacan, and a city-state,Tlaxcala, that were not.


Teotihuacan was founded around 100 BCE in the Valley of Mexico, where Mexico City is today. It grew into a city aided by an influx of people fleeing an earthquake and a volcanic eruption. It seems to have started with a traditional top-down authoritarian regime. There were huge constructions including the Pyramids of the Sun and Moon and the Temple of the Feathered Serpent and other public buidings. Around 250-350 CE there was a dramatic change in the organization of the city.

A key piece of evidence is the desecration of the Temple of the Feathered Serpent and the construction of a new center of organization along the Avenue of the Dead. At the same time, they built stone apartment complexes to house the population, which is estimated at 125,000. The authors cite the work of an early excavator who thought these apartments were a form of social housing, designed to bring order to the growing population. The authors paint an idyllic picture of a communal commercial life.

We don’t know exactly how the city was organized or governed in the later period, but the authors say we an probably rule out a top-down form of government. The city lasted for about 250 years in this form, and then it collapsed, perhaps under the strain of rising class inequalities, perhaps exacerbated by a long period of drought.

By around AD 550, the social fabric of the city had begun to come apart at the seams. There is no compelling evidence of foreign invasion. Things seems to have disintegrated from within. Almost as suddenly as it had once coalesced some five centuries previously, the city’s population dispersed again.… P. 345.

This history is broadly similar to that in Wikipedia.


Tlaxcala was an independent group of four small kingdoms formed in the 14th Century to stand against their Aztec neighbors, the Triple Alliance. The authors say it was a democratic entity that governed itself by consensus. The primary evidence for this is records of their decision to ally with the army of Hernan Cortés in 1519. The description of the decision-making process given by the authors sounds a lot like that of the Native Americans of the Great Lakes region discussed in earlier chapters. Of course, once the Spanish destroyed the Aztecs, they subjugated and evangelized the peoples of Tlaxcala.

Here’s the relevant part of a brief Wiki entry, which gives a somewhat different history, and ignores the organization issue. Both accounts discus the Flower Wars. The Wiki entry says the Flower Wars were ritual combat intended to demonstrate the machismo of the participants, and were less lethal than the wars of conquest. The authors say these were real wars, and that the Aztecs made up this story about the Flower Wars to cover up their inability to conquer the Tlaxcall people; “But this was braggadocio.” P. 348.


1. Mesoamerican art of this era is remarkable, as the authors note. Here’s an article describing some of it. There’s a Nova episode on the archaeology of the Maya people. This and other material got me to thinking about the role of religious beliefs in the ancient cultures described by the authors. One of the central factors is the role of religion in the power structure of cultures like the Aztecs and Maya, and many others, including our own.

2. The book does not discuss of the origins of religion in ancient societies. Instead of religion, we are told that our ancestors participated in rituals, in the case of Teotihuacan, “calendrical rituals”. All of the cultures discussed in The Dawn of Everything had rituals, fertility rituals for humans and agriculture, rituals for the beginning of the new year, rituals for rain, and so on. We might think of them as precursors of organized religion.

Decades ago I read Mircea Eliade’s book, The Myth Of The Eternal Return, which I stole from my mother’s bookshelves. Eliade offers a framework for understanding the mindset that adheres to ritual. It starts with the differentiation of the sacred and the profane. This is from Wikipedia:

According to Eliade, traditional man distinguishes two levels of existence: (1) the Sacred, and (2) the profane world. (Here “the Sacred” can be God, gods, mythical ancestors, or any other beings who established the world’s structure.) To traditional man, things “acquire their reality, their identity, only to the extent of their participation in a transcendent reality”. Something in our world is only “real” to the extent that it conforms to the Sacred or the patterns established by the Sacred. Fn. omitted.

The entire Wiki entry is worth reading, and for those interested the book is full of valuable material and fascinating speculation. Fun fact: I first heard of the Epic Of Gilgamesh from this book, and I recall spending a long afternoon at the library of the University of North Carolina reading it in 1970.

I can’t find my copy of the book so I don’t know if Eliade discusses Mesoamerican beliefs. But we can find hints that these people believed that they were participating in the divine through human and animal sacrifice and human bloodletting. See this and this.

3. In many ancient societies the monarch, ostensibly an earthly power, became a deity. In Eliade’s terms, this is a melding the Sacred and profane. We see this in some of the Mesoamerican societies, and in Egypt, for example. A weak version of the idea continues into the 17th Century under the concept of the Divine Right of Kings, one of the ideas rejected by Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence (“All men are created equal”.) We can see echoes of it today in the legal doctrine of sovereign immunity, which arises from the idea that the king holds power under the aegis of the Almighty. Therefore the king can do no wrong and cannot be sued. This bizarre notion was imported from English Common Law into US law without much thought, and despite Jefferson’s principle. Now there’s a zombie idea.

4. The effort to link religion and political power exists today in the US and other nations. You might get the impression that some religious leaders see their religion as a stepping-stone to earthly power.

The Rise Of Cities In Eurasia

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Chapter 7 of The Dawn Of Everything shows that the rise of agriculture around the world shows a pattern similar to that of the Fertile Crescent, discussed here. To be sure, the mechanisms vary, the staple foods vary and the mix of foraging and farming vary, but in each case, people slowly domesticate plants and farm animals, and switch between hunting and gathering and agriculture, and work out methods for sharing resources. There is not a single linear story, just a general increase in the amount of farming and a reduction in foraging over a span of several thousand years.

Chapter 8 takes up the rise of cities. The standard story is that when people live in large groups they need a hierarchical organization, like monarchy. One of the main points Graeber and Wengrow make is that merely living together in large numbers doesn’t imply any particular form of political organization, or that there is anything we would recognize as political organization. In Chapters 8 and 9, we get a look at the various ways people lived together in the earliest large groups we have uncovered so far.

The earliest large settlements, tens of thousands of people, seem to date back about six or seven thousand years. These early settlements have some things in common. They seem to be laid out in an orderly way, in grids or circles, and smaller subdivisions. Where we have written records, there are grand statements of civic unity, and often the residents refer to themselves in terms like The Sons And Daughters Of the City. We see evidence of infrastructure, like roads, market places, meeting spaces, and ritual spaces. We also see some cities with more advanced infrastructure, storage facilities, drainage and sewer systems, and open spaces.

There is evidence that people came from all over to live in these cities. The standard story says for most of human history people lived in groups based on kinship, so members lived mostly with an extended family. Gradually these groups accreted into cities. The authors have a different theory.

There is an obvious objection to evolutionary models which assume that our strongest social ties are based on close biological kinship: many humans just don’t like their families very much. And this appears to be just as true of present-day hunter-gatherers as anybody else. Many seem to find the prospect of living their entire lives surrounded by close relatives so unpleasant that they will travel very long distances just to get away from them. P. 279-80

These escapees would naturally look for pleasant places to live, places with abundant foraging and hunting, and most important, other people.

Rather than replicate the authors’ description of these early cities, I will give links to sites describing them. These have good descriptions, with maps and photographs of the sites and objects found there. Here I give only limited discussion focused on political arrangements as described by the authors.


The earliest large settlements we know about now are in Ukraine, founded 6-7,000 years ago and occupied for hundreds of years. Here’s a description of one called Nebelivka.

This article agrees with Graber and Wengrow that there is no evidence of a central authority, or rulers or large wealth or class disparities. The settlement seems to have some form of self-government, possibly through communal meetings at the assembly houses. The article also notes that other excavators think the sites were not occupied year round. Instead they think it was used part of the year, or regularly by groups of pilgrims.


Uruk is thought to be the first large city in Mesopotamia. There are settlements there dating back to at least 5000 BCE, and the city emerges around 3500 BCE. The city and the kingdoms associated with it, Assyria and Babylonia, are mentioned in the Bible, a fact that led 19th Century archaeologists to search for them. Here’s a long Wikipedia entry on Uruk, worth reviewing just for the pictures.

Graeber and Wengrow claim that the earliest incarnations of Uruk were not monarchies. They base that assertion on the lack of the visible signs of monarchies: “palaces, aristocratic burials and royal inscriptions, along with defensive walls for cities and organized militia to guard them.” P. 298. These do begin to appear later, around 2800 BCE. This seems to conflict with the Wiki entry, which is based on a Sumerian document dated around 2800, the Sumerian King List. It may be that a lot of the early history of this area mixes myth and fact. Some of it reminds me of The Epic of Gilgamesh, and it may be that the early histories are attempts to justify the monarchy.

We know a lot about Uruk because they developed cuneiform script around 3500 BCE. Excavators have found vast amounts of written material, enough to form a good idea of the social organization of the city. It appears that there were local councils and councils of elders and other groups, so that everyone had some kind of representation. These councils continued in different forms long after kings took over the primary role of rulers.


Mohenjo-daro is a city on the Indus River in Pakistan. It dates back to about 2600 BCE, and was abandoned about 800 years later. There are pictures and description in this Wikipedia entry. There are two levels in the city. The most striking building here is a gigantic pool located on raised brick structure in the upper part of the city. You can see it in this short National Geograpphic video.

There isn’t much evidence of wealth inequality in the early part of the city’s history. Graeber and Wengrow tell us that there is no evidence of wealth or power in the upper city. In the lower city we find jewelry and other signs of wealth everywhere, and not concentrated in a few sites. There are also tools and craft equipment all over the lower town, but not in the upper town.

The upper town seems to be focused on the baths and other public buildings. The authors speculate that the people who lived the residents sought purity rather than wealth or power. They suggest that residents of the upper town constituted a proto-caste, a precursor to the Brahmin caste, and that the residents of the lower town were grouped into other castes. They say there is no evidence for kings or other charismatic leaders in this town or in the other towns in the area. They speculate that these cities had some form of communal governance.

Eventually the townspeople moved to the higher level. Apparently a few people began to accumulate great wealth, as the later residences on the upper level are grander, and have craft spaces attached. And then the city was abandoned.


The first three cities seem to have begun without kings or powerful figures like priests. The fourth city, Taosi, in northern China, seems to have been formed under a hierarchical system. Taosi dates back to about 2200 BCE, a millennium before the first named dynasty, the Shang. Here’s a fascinating report from Chinese authorities, tying Taosi to the Emperor Yao, previously thought to be fictional.

Here’s the Wikipedia entry. The article says that Chinese archaeologists believe that the city collapsed after a rebellion against the ruling class. Graeber and Wengrow acknowledge this possibility. They agree that there was a rebellion, as evidenced by pits with human remains showing torture and murder. But then the city walls were razed, and the city expanded and remained for another 200 years. They suggest that the overthrow of the elites was followed by a prosperous and more egalitarian period.

Next we look at some Mesoamerican cities.

Techniques Of 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 the second part of The Subject And Power Michel Foucault discusses techniques of power. He focuses on one issue: what exactly happens when power is exerted by one person on another. He describes power as intentional actions of one person to affect the actions of others. He thinks that this involves three types of interaction: power relations, communication, and objective capacities.

  • Power relations are not explicitly defined, but he gives examples: they “… consist of obligatory tasks, of gestures imposed by tradition or apprenticeship, of subdivisions and the more or less obligatory distribution of labor”.
  • Communication sets up the structure of information and understanding between the parties to the power relationship.
  • Objective capacities are the physical actions which one party can impose on a thing, or other person.

These three things are not separate, though the latter two can exist apart from the exertion of power. Communications can be used to convey information, feelings, inchoate ideas and more, without necessarily affecting or intending to affect the actions of others. This post is an example. I have many physical capabilities that have nothing to do with power relations, such as my ability to type.

In a social setting we can see that these three can be combined for the purpose of exerting power, of affecting the actions of others. One obvious way is direct one-on-one interactions. The parent tells the child to put on a coat before going outside. The child probably does so, perhaps because it understands the power of the parent. It may also require physical action, such as putting the coat on the child, or carrying the coat to the car and telling the child to come along.

Alternatively, the parent may say it’s cold out, and we’re leaving for school in five minutes. The child (hopefully) responds by getting its coat and putting it on, gathering backpacks and lunch and standing by the door. This would be a simple example of what Foucault calls a block, a discipline. The power relations between the child and the parent create a situation where the direct application of physical capabilities and communication are unnecessary.

We all follow similar patterns in our lives. An employer has expectations, and employees try to meet them without being bossed around. A school is an institution designed to teach whole blocks of behavior so that the student can emit them as needed for productive activity. An apprentice learns how to carry out complex tasks without supervision or complaint. A grad student learns the behaviors appropriate to college professors. Once learned, there is no need for imposition of control by others. There is still some surveillance, and some testing, but normally the student learns to accept that as part of the production function.

These blocks combine with related blocks to form what Foucault calls disciplines because they condition large parts of our productive lives. At one level, these are mere behaviors, but over time they are internalized; they are so ingrained that they define us in certain parts of our lives, and affect us in all parts of our lives to some extent.

The creation and inculcation of disciplines is an act of power. The people who do this are changing other people’s actions.

The creation of disciplines may or may not involve violence against or consent of the subject, though of course both are possible. Foucault writes:

It is a total structure of actions brought to bear upon possible actions; it incites, it induces, it seduces, it makes easier or more difficult; in the extreme it constrains or forbids absolutely; it is nevertheless always a way of acting upon an acting subject or acting subjects by virtue of their acting or being capable of action.

Once these disciplines are incorporated by the subject they operate apart from conscious control. The dominant person can change the form of the discipline as they see fit, at least within the boundaries of the relationship, and possibly to a greater extent. Foucault says that the subjects have learned to govern themselves. They have learned how to behave in ways that are useful, or at least acceptable, to the dominant person.

The last point I take from Foucault is this: power can only be exercised over free individuals. The dominant party structures the field of possible actions and the subject chooses from the possibilities left open. But the subject remains free to reject the governance of the dominant. That freedom of “recalcitrance” is crucial to an understanding of power relations. The individual or group of subjects can always reject authority and force a physical confrontation. If not, then the dominant person is an enslaver, a relationship outside power relations, strictly governed by violence.


1. There is more in this paper, but it carries me away from the purpose for which I took it up, so I’ll stop here.

2. Again, I note the similarity between Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu. Links above.

3. This part of the paper summarizes some of the ideas in Foucault’s book, Discipline And Power.

Conclusion To Series

I read this paper because in The Dawn Of Everything Graeber and Wengrow assert, with some evidence, that much of the decision-making among our ancient ancestor groups was at least partly communal, perhaps even egalitarian. I had the feeling that a good bit of that decision-making was bases on force or violence. I think Foucault would agree. Here’s an enigmatic sentence from the paper:

Is this to say that one must seek the character proper to power relations in the violence which must have been its primitive form, its permanent secret, and its last resource, that which in the final analysis appears as its real nature when it is forced to throw aside its mask and to show itself as it really is?

He doesn’t really answer his own question, but I interpret this to mean he assumes that violence was the original source of power relations. When I started this series I assumed the same thing, that power in even the earliest societies must have ultimately arisen from violence and fear.

After reading this paper I’ve mostly changed my mind. I think it’s possible to imagine different routes to the creation of societies. For example, we can imagine that as our ancestors evolve into fully human creatures, they live in groups that work together for survival. These groups create ways of working and living together. They recognize, whether or not they verbalize it, that their survival depends on these structures.

The structures they create are oriented to survival. As a result, deviations from those structures are not tolerated. As groups become larger, and interact with other groups, structures are modified by consent, but still, deviations from the agreed structures are not tolerated. Changes are very slow in coming, because the desire to survive is so strong. As evidence consider the slow evolution of tool-making.

The importance of structure is internalized by all the members. In larger groups some kind of social mechanism may be needed to reinforce the rules. These people might be proto-kings or proto-priests. Or they might be people of empathy, able to guide towards good outcomes. Thus, different forms of leadership can emerge.

Well, that’s just a projection and there will never be evidence one way or the other. But the fact that I can imagine such a pathway means that I shouldn’t be so quick to reject the pollyanna-ish take offered by Graeber and Wengrow.

And with that, I’ll return to The Dawn Of Everything.

Pastoral Power

Index to posts in this series

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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

Power And Rationality

Posts in this series
Index And Introduction To The Subject And Power By Michel Foucault

Foucault begins his essay The Subject and Power by telling us that his project is understanding how human beings are made subjects. By this he means both a) objects for others to study, and b) objects for domination and exploitation. We generally study things, including human beings, through methods which “try to give themselves the status of science”; or by dividing things into groups and studying the groups; or by dividing ourselves into parts and studying those parts in ourselves or others.

Foucault describes three of the ways in which people are enmeshed in relations with each other: relations of production, relations of signification (communication), and power relations. He says that economics gives us tools to consider the first, and linguistics and semiotics give us tools to understand the second, but he couldn’t find any similar academic-type disciplines useful in considering power relations. Legal models point us to the proper uses of power, and other considerations point to the role of the state, but these are only small parts of power relations. That awareness pointed him to study of power relations in a broader context.

So, Foucault’s overall project is to create a theory, a systematic way of thinking about power relations. To create a theory, we have to objectify the thing to be studied. That requires conceptualization, through critical thinking. He says he has to check his thinking constantly.

1. He says the conceptualization should not be founded on a theory of the object. That is, we don’t start with a theory of the object. Instead we start with a description of the object in the context in which it exists, and the history of how it came to be. We have to recognize that that history influences our thinking in a deep way. It can make it very hard to see the thing objectively. This ties back to the point I made in the first post in this series: the importance of Foucault’s methods.

2. We must examine the kind of reality we are considering. Power is a matter of lived experience, not of abstract theory. Its manifestations are a central problem of our time. Our recent history includes two “pathological forms” of power relations: fascism and Stalinism. Neither was new. They both used existing techniques of power, existing mechanisms and devices. Despite their internal madness there was a kind of rationality.

We have to limit our rationality to the boundaries given by experience. One possibility is the use of reason. This was the goal of the Enlightenment, to use reason to solve problems, material problems, social problems, and even psychiatric problems. It might make sense to consider the rationality of various subparts of society, as Foucault has done, with sexuality, crime, madness and more.

But Foucault has a very specific idea for studying power:

//It consists of taking the forms of resistance against different forms of power as a starting point.//

This is a smart move, because we do not directly consider an unknown object called power, which we haven’t even defined yet. To do this Foucault will look at ways of identifying resistance, the history of that resistance, its motivations and its goals. The hope is that in the process of considering resistance, we can get a clearer picture of the thing resisted, as if we were defining it by its boundaries.

For example, to find out what our society means by sanity, perhaps we should investigate what is happening in the field of insanity.

And what we mean by legality in the field of illegality.

And, in order to understand what power relations are about, perhaps we should investigate the forms of resistance and attempts made to dissociate these relations.

Here’s my example. We have an enormous code of laws, regulations and procedures. We say we are a government of laws, not men, and that the rules and procedures define legality. But in the real world, we can understand legality better by looking at the parts of that legal structure that we actually enforce, the people we hold accountable and the way we enforce it against different people.


1. We generally think of the Enlightenment as leading us to the scientific method, the foundation of all our sciences today. A key element of the scientific method is that we understand things in the context of a paradigm, as we saw in Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, for example here. The paradigm predicts an outcome so we check to see if that’s what happens. If not it’s possible we have reached the limits of validity of the paradigm.

Foucault is forced to start from the beginning with the theory of power because in his view there are no acceptable existing theoretical frameworks. He needs a method for studying things without a paradigm.

2. But his argument has a broader implication. He writes:

… [S]ince Kant, the role of philosophy is to prevent reason from going beyond the limits of what is given in experience; but from the same moment-that is, since the development of the modern state and the political management of society-the role of philosophy is also to keep watch over the excessive powers of political rationality ….

We saw this idea in Hannah Arendt’s The Origins Of Totalitarianism. Both the Nazis and the Communists carried their theories from their more or less empirical beginnings in Darwin and Marx to murderous extremes, but in an inexorably logical way. Here’s my discussion:

The last chapter of Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism is devoted to discussion of the totalitarian regime, which comes when the totalitarian movement has taken power. Arendt says that totalitarian movements don’t offer a specific program for government. Instead, they propose to operate under a “scientific” program. For the Nazis, this was the law of nature with its eternal progress towards perfection, which Arendt thinks arises from a corrupted form of Darwinism. For the Communists it was the laws of history as supposedly discovered by Marx. Once in power, the totalitarian regime becomes an instrument for the will of the leader, who in turn is an instrument for imposing and acting out those laws.

Earlier in the book, Arendt discusses one of the reasons people found this irresistible. She points to their loneliness, their alienation, their rootlessness, their irrelevance, their impotence:

That thought processes characterized by strict self-evident logicality, from which apparently there is no escape, have some connection with loneliness was once noticed by [Martin] Luther …. A lonely man, says Luther, “always deduces one thing from the other and thinks everything to the worst.” The famous extremism of totalitarian movements, far from having anything to do with true radicalism, consists indeed in this “thinking everything to the worst,” in this deducing process which always arrives at the worst possible conclusions. P.477-8.

Foucault’s discussion of rationality is similar to the idea expressed by Oliver Wendell Holmes quoted and sourced here:

… the whole outline of the law is the resultant of a conflict at every point between logic and good sense — the one striving to work fiction out to consistent results, the other restraining and at last overcoming that effort when the results are too manifestly unjust.

I think this is a pretty good description of the political problem we face today. The Democrats at bottom are trying to work with reality, sometimes aware of the limits of theory and sometimes willing to learn from experience. The Republicans at bottom are only interested in their truth: a vile and corrupt form of neoliberal capitalism. They intend to follow this “truth” to the ends of rationality regardless of the consequences in the real world.

And it finds a receptive audience in the mass of alienated people who make up the Trumpian base,