The Dialectical Imagination by Martin Jay: Conclusion On Labor Day

This series has been wonky, even for me. The Dialectical Imagination by Martin Jay is an eye-opening description of the creation of Critical Theory, a way of approaching the social sciences that is still important today, although the forces of formulaic empiricism are gathered against it. The insights of the scholars of the Frankfurt School were remarkably prescient, and are crucial today. They give a nice description of Homo Economicus in Dialectic of Enlightenment, p. 175, long before Friedman and Hayek began their push to create the new human. They were also right about the culture industry and the effect of mass culture. Michael Moore tells a version of this story in his movie Columbine.

But for me, the most important insight is the form that reason took during the Enlightenment. This is from an interview of Michel Foucault in 1978.

… I think that the Frankfurt School set problems that are still being worked on. Among others, the effects of power that are connected to a rationality that has been historically and geographically defined in the West, starting from the sixteenth century on. The West could never have attained the economic and cultural effects that are unique to it without the exercise of that specific form of rationality. Now, how are we to separate this rationality from the mechanisms, procedures, techniques, and effects of power that determine it, which we no longer accept and which we point to as the form of oppression typical of capitalist societies, and perhaps of socialist societies too? Couldn’t it be concluded that the promise of Aufklärung (Enlightenment], of attaining freedom through the exercise of reason, has been, on the contrary, overturned within the domain of Reason itself, that it is taking more and more space away from freedom?

The rationality Foucault is talking about here is the same one the Frankfurt School aimed at: the systematic logic of science and technology, focused by a drive for dominance over nature and over human beings. Our society is controlled by system of mechanisms, procedures, techniques and effects of power that focus that logic and allow it to dominate us. That project is far from complete, but we can see its outlines. The political system supports only one kind of life, a life focused on work. The solution to every problem is “Get a Job”. Schools are focused on jobs training, almost from the outset. Those without jobs are scorned and openly vilified, at least if they aren’t rich.

Businesses are focused on achieving dominance. The goal is monopoly and monopsony power, or at least oligopoly and oligopsony. They lobby for laws that free them from responsibility and give them the widest possible scope to control the lives of workers, and the freedom to screw the worker as it suits managers. They pay off courts and legislators to get their way. They demand trade conditions that permit them freedom at the expense of the rest of us. Those who best succeed at dominance get all the money, and corporations fight efforts to limit their income, even by disclosure.

Dominance entails a related submission. People readily allow the growth of dominance. We tell ourselves that our work is fulfilling, and that we are making a contribution, but just ask yourself how much of your work day is filled with mindless and stupid crap that shouldn’t be done at all. Most of us work for entities which are working towards dominance, and our own work is measured by how much we contribute to achieving dominance for the employer. Those not directly involved in establishing dominance are outsourced. That has led to a two-tier economy, in which people who can directly support the drive to dominance are made actual employees and rewarded, and those who don’t are pushed out into dead-end temp, contractor, adjunct or gig jobs.

A people who once fought and died for a fair share of the productive pie now accept flat wages, grotesque inequality of wealth and income, and slowly decaying prospects for our children. We carelessly threw away the protections our parents and grandparents won for us, 40 hour work weeks, paid vacations, fair taxation, and all those communal benefits from fairly priced colleges and tech training to decent mass transportation.

We all understand the reason for these losses. We just can’t afford this stuff. We can’t pay for essentially free college and technical training. If businesses have to pay fair wages, some foreign company will under-price them and put them out of business. If we tax the filthy rich, they’ll leave for the Cayman Islands and take their jobs with them. If we don’t put in 65 hour weeks, someone else will. We don’t have money for mass transit, so we sit on the road in heavy traffic. We give up our hours to traffic, our money for schooling, and our lives for a company that will dump us when it can.

All this is guided by the formal logic of capitalism, so we understand it. That’s the rationality Foucault and the Frankfurt School are talking about.

Each of these losses makes us less free. Every surrender to the formal logic of capitalism makes us less free. Every bit of information that Amazon and Facebook and Apple and Google and all the rest glom onto makes us less free, easier to manipulate. That’s the rationality of capitalism. That’s what comes of formal logic divorced from understanding and recognition of the wide variety of possible purposes. That’s what happens when the only thing that matters is dominance. That’s what happens when we submit to economic dominance.

The promise of the Enlightenment was that we could achieve freedom through reason. Seventy years ago the creators of Critical Theory told us that was wrong. Today we are learning how right they were.

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

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

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

Foucault concludes the lecture with this:

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Security, Territory and Population: Foucault on Power

Security, Territory and Population: Foucault on Power

In this post I discussed some aspects of Foucault’s method of inquiry, focused on some of the terms he uses. That post was based on other sources besides Foucault himself. Before moving on in the discussion of Security, Territory and Population, I think it will be helpful to see how Foucault understands power, particularly in the government sense. I thank commenter Alan for this link to an interview of Foucault from November 1980. There are several related strands of thought in this discussion. This post focuses on power but the entire essay is worth reading to see Foucault’s understanding of morality and of the role of the philosopher.

For Foucault, power is a relationship. In its broadest sense, power ts a relationship in which one person has the ability to guide another, to influence the behavior of another. This is an unequal relationship, but it is in itself neither good nor bad. For example, the interviewer asks if it would be oppressive to stop a child who was scribbling on a wall.

And there’s no reason why this manner of guiding the behavior of others should not ultimately have results which are positive, valuable, interesting, and so on. If I had a kid, I assure you he would not write on the walls—or if he did, it would be against my will. The very idea!

It can involve physical force, but there are other relations where it doesn’t involve force, but other factors in a relationship.

Good. I exercise power over you: I influence your behavior, or I try to do so. And I try to guide your behavior, to lead your behavior. The simplest means of doing this, obviously, is to take you by the hand and force you to go here or there. That’s the limit case, the zero-degree of power. And it’s actually in that moment that power ceases to be power and becomes mere physical force. On the other hand, if I use my age, my social position, the knowledge I may have about this or that, to make you behave in some particular way—that is to say, I’m not forcing you at all and I’m leaving you completely free—that’s when I begin to exercise power. It’s clear that power should not be defined as a constraining act of violence that represses individuals, forcing them to do something or preventing them from doing some other thing. But it takes place when there is a relation between two free subjects, and this relation is unbalanced, so that one can act upon the other, and the other is acted upon, or allows himself to be acted upon.

Therefore, power is not always repressive. It can take a certain number of forms. And it is possible to have relations of power that are open.

A good example of an open system of power relationships is that of parent and child. Parents are heavily affected by babies, and change their behavior to comfort and soothe the child, At the same time, the child is affected by the parents, and gradually begins to be affected by the desires and guidance of the parents. Not, of course, without friction, and not in every case, but certainly as a general rule, the child and the parents come to equilibrium, and when one or the other changes, for example by aging, the equilibrium changes too. Or consider our process of education. In the early years, the child is the object of a practice of education. The system makes certain demands, not by force, but by other means. Over time, the situation changes and the students become part of the practice of education, both through their own demands on the system, and through their own attempts to educate themselves outside and inside the system. In college, students are more or less completely in charge of their own learning, and the teachers can learn from the students as well, and many do.

This gets us close to the idea of power in governments. Government has the power to influence and guide our behavior and to some extent even our thinking. The relationship is not completely open, but citizens have the abililty and the right to influence government actions. Depending on the responsiveness of the government actors to the concerns and demands of citizens, it can be more open, or it could be more repressive or worse.

Relations of power are not in themselves forms of repression. But what happens is that, in society, in most societies, organizations are created to freeze the relations of power, hold those relations in a state of asymmetry, so that a certain number of persons get an advantage, socially, economically, politically, institutionally, etc. And this totally freezes the situation. That’s what one calls power in the strict sense of the term: it’s a specific type of power relation that has been institutionalized, frozen, immobilized, to the profit of some and to the detriment of others.

When power is frozen in a society, in its institutions, its organization, and its laws, sooner or later it becomes intolerable, Foucault says. And, of course, what seems acceptable at one point in time may become intolerable at a later time. When power relationships reach the point that people no longer accept their position as subjects of that power, something has to change. Foucault’s goal is to analyze those frozen relationships and see what can be done to liquefy them so that there is more mobility, more freedom, more openness.

This definition and this application help me to think about our situation in the US. Power relationships are unequal. If people agree to be governed, they are in fact accepting a certain kind of inequality: they are saying someone else is likely to be better than they are at guiding or leading in some area of their lives. This is the basis for a decent society. Power relations, relations of inequality, do not have to be oppressive. As long as each side is heard, and decisions take into account as much as possible of the interests of all concerned, then the exercise of power may not be what some want, but it is not oppressive.

People who don’t agree to be governed frequently talk about that rejection in terms of power: “Its those damned liberals and intellectuals always telling me what to believe, they think they’re so smart. They can’t make me do anything.” Foucault would say they confuse mere physical force (“make me do anything”) with his definition of power as influence or guidance or something more forceful.

Everyone is subject to influence by someone else. It might be Fox News or Trump or a Preacher; or some French philosopher; but there’s always someone. Many of the anti-liberals are perfectly willing to be governed by those who defend their prejudices and hatreds, and insist that the rest of us be subject to the same people. The insistence on purity of principle has a strong potential to be oppressive.

Security Territory and Population Part 5: Governmentality And Introduction to Foucault’s Method

In the fourth lecture in Security, Territory and Population, Michel Foucault introduces the idea of governmentality. He begins this lecture with a discussion of the change in the idea of governing that began in the 16th Century, when writers of the day began saying that the word covers a number of different relationships.

There is the problem of government of oneself…. There was of course the problem of the government of souls and of conduct, which was, of course, the problem of Catholic or Protestant pastoral doctrine. There is the problem of the government of children, with the emergence and of the great problematic of pedagogy in the sixteenth century. And then, perhaps only the last of these problems, there is that of the government of the state by the prince. How to govern oneself, how best to be governed, by whom should we accept to be governed, how to be the best possible governor?

Foucault sees these issues as the intersection of two trends, the breakup of feudalism and its gradual replacement by a centralized state; and the dispersion of religious belief brought on by the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation. Foucault says that the leading text is Machiavelli’s The Prince, both for its own ideas and for the range of texts disputing it. He says that the central idea of The Prince is that the Prince’s position as sovereign is external to his principality. He took the position by force, or by connivance with others, and his central object is retaining his power, protecting it both from external and internal threats.

Those reacting to Machiavelli emphasized the art of governing, as opposed to the art of neutralizing opposition. They observe that many people are in a position of governing, the father with the family, the teacher with the child, the master with the apprentice or employee, the judge, the mayor, the superior in a convent. Foucault points to a typology of government identified in the 16th Century by the French writer La Mothe Le Vaver. There are three levels of government, the governance of the self, which is the subject of morality; the governance of the family, which becomes identified with the economy; and the governance of the state.

These levels of governance bear on each other. If the self is well-governed, then the family is well-governed, and the state will be well-governed. If the State is well-governed, that leads to the good governance of the family and of the self. Foucault says that in this idealized arrangement the idea of the economy as a principle object of government begins to emerge. He traces this development through the 18th and 19th Centuries as the idea of the economy begins to take on the meaning it has today.

Foucault points to another writer, Guillaume de La Perriere, who wrote “Government is the right disposition of things arranged so as to lead to a suitable end.” This means first that governors act primarily on things, and not specifically on people. A suitable end is not necessarily the best end, but one that is achievable. The important point to Foucault is that government has to do with the relations between people and things, and the steps those who govern take with respect to those relationships.

There is a good bit more of this kind of exegesis of texts on the art of governance from the 16th to the late 18th Centuries, all in a similar vein. But for this theory to come into full practice, various obstacles had to be removed, and the apparatuses of security had to be developed more thoroughly. One of the barriers was the idea of sovereignty.

But we could also say that it is thanks to the perception of the specific problems of the population and the isolation of that level of reality that we call the economy, that it was possible to think, reflect and calculate the problem of government outside the juridical framework of sovereignty.

Another important factor was that the model of the economy should be the family. Foucault says that as the focus of government became the population and not the individual subject, the family lost its status as the model and became simply an element of the population, one useful for achieving some of the goals of the government.

And then, of course, there was the need to develop better understandings of the world and thus better apparatuses of security.

Finally we get to the definition of governmentality. Foucault says that it means three things.

1. “…[T]he ensemble formed by institutions, procedures, analyses and reflections, calculations, and tactics that allow the exercise of this very specific, albeit very complex, power that has population as its target, political economy as its major form of knowledge, and apparatuses of security as its essential technical instrument.”

2. The pre-eminence of government as the dominant form of power, which has led to the development of a series of specific apparatuses … and the development of knowledges.”

3. The process by which the state of law in the Middle Ages was transformed into what Foucault calls the security state, the form of government we have in the West today.

Governmentality becomes the focus of the rest of the lectures.


1. I think the first definition is directly useful for understanding what Foucault is driving at. If so, why doesn’t he use a term like “art of government” or “governmental practice”? That leads me to think that the idea of mentality is important. There is a mental state that is conducive to the application of the security regime, both for the governor and for the governed. In the next lectures we take up the question of what that mentality might be.

2. In the second definition, Foucault uses the terms “knowledges” and “apparatuses”. Foucault’s method is described briefly in Section 4.3 of this article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

…[S]ystems of thought and knowledge (epistemes or discursive formations, in Foucault’s terminology) are governed by rules, beyond those of grammar and logic, that operate beneath the consciousness of individual subjects and define a system of conceptual possibilities that determines the boundaries of thought in a given domain and period.

There is much more at the link. Apparatus is described here.

Foucault generally uses this term to indicate the various institutional, physical and administrative mechanisms and knowledge structures, which enhance and maintain the exercise of power within the social body.

From the text, I would have described it as the institutional and operational forms of knowledges in a specific society, so the difference is the addition of last phrase relating to exercise of power. To that end, we get this description of “power-knowledge”

One of the most important features of Foucault’s view is that mechanisms of power produce different types of knowledge which collate information on people’s activities and existence. The knowledge gathered in this way further reinforces exercises of power.

That explains his method of looking at old texts. He is trying to see the forms that knowledge took in prior times as a way of understanding the past and then teasing out the changes in ideas from time to time. It helps to see this because the lack of empirical data in the text might put off those people who see “facts” as the only form of knowledge.

3. Knowledges change from time to time, and the first part of Foucault’s method is to understand those changes; that’s the historical or archeological part. Why they change is the more difficult problem. Foucault takes that up under the term genealogy. The Stanford site has this:

Foucault intended the term “genealogy” to evoke Nietzsche’s genealogy of morals, particularly with its suggestion of complex, mundane, inglorious origins—in no way part of any grand scheme of progressive history. The point of a genealogical analysis is to show that a given system of thought (itself uncovered in its essential structures by archaeology, which therefore remains part of Foucault’s historiography) was the result of contingent turns of history, not the outcome of rationally inevitable trends.

As a simple example, for a number of years, Keynesianism was the form of knowledge about the economy. Then it was replaced by neoliberalism. That’s the historical situation as I see it today. Why it changed, the genealogy of that change, is open to discussion. One strand of the discussion can be found in Philip Mirowski’s Never Let A Serious Crisis Go To Waste.

4. Foucault suggests that the family as a model for the economy had to be overcome and replaced by operations on the population as a whole. As we know, the idea of the family as model for both government and for government of the economy as a whole has not died out, but like most bad ideas will never die.

Security Territory and Population Part 4: Conclusion of Description of Security and Population

The third lecture by Michel Foucault in Security, Territory and Population begins with a discussion of the systems of law and discipline considered from the standpoint of “norms”. In the system of law, norms are the acceptable behaviors,derived from sacred texts or societal customs or the will of the sovereign. They are then codified and made mandatory. In disciplinary systems, the goal is to identify the best way to do some act, and the people are taught those actions and punished or reeducated for not doing them. In a security system, the ideas of the new sciences of understanding of the nature of the human species are brought to bear on the problem, with the goal of freeing people from the problem, or channeling their behavior into the best known forms. Normalization in the security regime consists in recognizing a problem, and working out solutions using analysis and planning.

He illustrates the latter with a detailed discussion of the introduction of inoculation and the related advances in medicine, administrative controls and statistics, showing that the basic idea of security as a method of government is to treat the population as a whole. There is a nice example of this here. In fact, once you get used to thinking about government as Foucault describes it, you see examples everywhere.

In a law regime, the determination of norms is based on the will of the sovereign, or some sacred text or long-established custom. In a disciplinary regime, the determination of norms is made to fulfill the desires of the powerful, including the sovereign. The examples given, how to load guns, how to form up for a battle, make this clear. Foucault does not discuss the way that norms and the process of normalization are derived in the security regime. How is the decision made as to what problem should be solved, or what behavior should be encouraged or discouraged? These decisions are made through relationships of power, so perhaps we will get more on this later.

Foucault then draws several conclusions.

1. The issues became more important because of the rise of towns as centers of economic and social activity. This changed the relation between sovereigns and their subjects, and required changes in the nature of government.

2. One of the central problems of the town is circulation, not only of humans walking the street but of goods and services moving about, the need for the careful control over the circulation of money, the need for circulation of air and so on. Towns operate on the basis of circulation, which was always an issue, but becomes central as the nature of economic activity changed.

3. One critical difference is that under a security regime, there is no attempt to “… make use of a relationship of obedience between a higher will, of the sovereign, and the wills of those subjected to his will. Security doesn’t depend on “… the exercise of a will over others in the most homogeneous, continuous, and exhaustive way possible. It is a matter rather of revealing a level of the necessary and sufficient action of those who govern.”

4. In a mercantilist state, it becomes clear that the power and strength of a nation are dependent on the activities of the population as a whole. The first source of strength is the merchant and manufacturing elites, but the entire population is also crucial. The strength of the state depends on the agricultural workers and factory laborers both for their work and for their numbers, which keep wages low. For the mercantilists, the population is seen as as a productive force, and not much more.

5. The function of the population under a regime of law is to create wealth for the sovereign. In a mercantile system, a regime of discipline, the goal is still the creation of wealth in the hands of the sovereign and a few others. In both cases, the people are seen as the objects of direct action by the sovereign and the elites.

This changed in the mid-1700s according to Foucault. He argues that once the population becomes an object of study, it becomes apparent that it cannot be changed by the will of the sovereign or by decree.

To say that population is a natural phenomenon that cannot be changed by decree does not mean, however, that it is an inaccessible and impenetrable nature, quite the contrary. … [T]he naturalness identified in the fact of population is constantly accessible to agents and techniques of transformation, on condition that these agents and techniques are at once enlightened, reflected, analytical, calculated, and calculating.

A population cannot be coerced into some new behavior, but it can be indirectly channeled and prodded. The example Foucault gives is currency: money must flow throughout the territory to encourage the people in the countryside to work on farms.

The one thing common across the individuals who make up a population is desire. “Every individual acts out of desire.” Nothing can be done about desire, but if everyone is allowed to act out of desire, according to the Physiocrats the natural outcome is the greatest good for the society. Foucault identifies this as the “matrix” of the utilitarian philosophy.

Foucault notes that he is using the term sovereign less and the word government more as the notion of the population emerges. The government is more than the power of the sovereign. It is a thing in itself, one addressed in much more detail in the next lecture. Foucault says that it is the interplay of the techniques of power and their object that carves out the population as a new reality, and as the object of the techniques of power.


1. The first three lectures seem to roam around in circles, adding details as we repeat the loops. This is frustrating, and difficult to follow. It helps to realize that an introduction to a new framework has to start somewhere, and the ideas have to be repeated, developed and explained from several different perspectives. This is how we come to grips with most new ideas, but especially abstract ideas.

2. The idea of political economy, or the economy as an object of study, emerges in this lecture. This economy is driven by Desire. This idea hadn’t appeared in either of the first two lectures, and it appears here with no preparation and no explanation, simply as a fact. This idea deserves more analysis; and it seems odd that Foucault drops it so casually into the discussion.

3. I quoted a section about changing the population through “agents and techniques of transformation”. The gloss Foucault adds “on condition that these agents and techniques are at once enlightened, reflected, analytical, calculated, and calculating” could be misleading. It certainly does not mean that the agents must be decent humans with the best interests of society as a whole in their hearts. It’s simply a matter of technique, which can be used for any purpose.

4. Obviously these are not the only techniques that work to change society, or at least large parts of the population. Trump is a good example, and there are plenty of others whose techniques are good at changing things. In any event, the old techniques are not lost. Consider policing as we see it in Baltimore and Chicago. It sounds just like the law regime Foucault describes.

5. One way to understand this the changes in regimes is by size of population. Large populations cannot be governed in the same way as small populations. For example, we like to say that today’s large populations have a role to play in determining the goals of government and of society. Foucault has not mentioned this change.

7. Taking these last points together, the question becomes why increases in wealth and power are the only goals.

Security Territory And Population Part 3: Security As The Basis For Governing

In the second lecture in Security, Territory and Population, Michele Foucault takes up the problem of food scarcity; this follows his examination of the problems of criminal law and epidemics in the first lecture. Foucault discusses two ways of thinking about problems like scarcity. One idea is that they are misfortunes, in the classical Greek sense, obstacles for humans to overcome. In the other story, they are the result of “man’s evil nature”. These two ideas lead to the basic forms of governmental response. If problems arise from man’s evil nature, then solutions must limit freedom of action and control the exercise of that evil nature. If they are just inevitable facts of life, the ideal solutions come from allowing the greatest freedom to find and test solutions.

Through the mid-18th Century the second idea dominated in Europe. The reaction in France to the problem of food scarcity was an increasingly complex and detailed set of regulations and prohibitions, designed to limit and control the evil behavior that caused scarcity. Foucault identifies a second reason for the adoption of discipline besides man’s evil nature:

The objective is of course for grain to be sold at the lowest possible price so that peasants make the smallest possible profit and townspeople can thus be fed at the lowest possible cost and are consequently paid the lowest possible wages.

This idea is identified with mercantilism. Then in the mid-1700s, the French Physiocrats brought dramatic changes with their emphasis on freeing up trade in grain and letting markets deal with the problems of supply. The government began to allow greater freedom to the market for food. The role of the government shifted from control to supervision and occasionally some assistance to those damaged.

Foucault points out that the problem of scarcity is that it hit everyone in the territory, rich and poor, urban and country. The universality of pain is why scarcity was considered a curse. But with the new arrangement, the problem of universality of damage was ended. Those who could pay were safe, and the problem became one of dealing with those who could not pay. Under the new arrangement the problem of scarcity disappears as a problem for the population as a whole, and becomes a problem only for a comparatively few few.

This is another example of what we saw in the first lecture. The goal of security is to deal with the population as a whole, even knowing that some are not protected.

This lecture closes with a discussion of some of the differences between discipline and security as a theory of government.

1. Discipline encloses and contracts. Security opens and increases circulation, and increases the range of tools of production and control.

2. Discipline focuses on the smallest detail, while security looks at the end results, and ignores details that do not detract from the desired outcome.

3. Discipline divides everything into the categories of permitted and forbidden. Security tries to grasp the “effective reality” of events and processes, The point is to “respond to reality in such a way that this response cancels out the reality to which it responds –nullifies it, or limits, checks, or regulates it.”

Security is connected to liberalism as a form of government. This last difference helps us see the nature of liberalism as a political ideal. It promises more freedom of action, more freedom of response to realty.

The idea of a government of men that would think first of all and fundamentally of the nature of things and no longer of man’s evil nature, the idea of an administration of things that would think before all else of men’s freedom, of what they want to do, of what they have an interest in doing, and of what they think about doing, are all correlative elements. A physics of power, or a power thought of as a physical action in the element of nature, and a power thought of as a regulation that can only be carried out through and by reliance oven the freedom of each, is, I think, something absolutely fundamental. It is not an ideology …. First of all and above all it is a technology of power….


1. The idea Foucault is grasping at in that last paragraph is almost defiantly abstract. It isn’t obvious how a government which considers first “the nature of things” and then works through and with “men’s freedom” is a “technology of power” in the normal usage of those words. It seems to me that the choice of outcomes to be sought constitutes the exercise of power. This suggests that by technology, Foucault means merely the choice of methods of reaching the goals of power. Technology of Power sounds more imposing, though.

2. The nature of security becomes quite clear in this lecture. Foucault says that government doesn’t try to provide absolute safety. Instead, it tries to provide an acceptable level of safety while allowing the greatest possible degree of freedom to individuals. He explicitly says that under a security regime people will die of hunger, they will die from inoculations, and there will be murders and property crimes. The government does not attempt to eradicate these problems. Foucault doesn’t even argue that the role of government is to ameliorate the ills visited on the few.

a. This is descriptive, not normative. Foucault doesn’t say what should be, merely what is.

b. Professional experts use this framework as the basis for their analysis. Obama apologist Paul Krugman is a good example. He points to various statistics that say that the economy is functioning well, including low unemployment and the stock market, and he argues heatedly that Sanders’ ideas for change would be bad. It’s certainly true that things are better for many, but Donald Trump is succeeding by arguing that it isn’t working for a huge group of people.

c. The experts who operate within this intellectual framework have consistently refused to deal with the left-behind, the superfluous people. That’s just as true of liberals as it is of the congenitally vicious conservatives. Worse, politicians constantly say that the first job of the politician is to assure our safety. Foucault says the President and all politicians are only going so far to provide that safety. And people will be killed by terrorists; and babies will be born microcephalic because the Congress thinks Zika research is not worth doing.

3. Foucault discusses the notion of man’s evil nature as the cause of social problems. This idea has its origins in Christian religious doctrine. For example, in response to plagues, Medieval Christians engaged in penitential rites seeking mercy from the Almighty. In Evil in Modern Thought, Susan Nieman says that this nonsense only died out in the aftermath of the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755, a horrible disaster in which an earthquake started a fire driving people to the seashore just in time for a tidal wave to kill them. Malagrida, a Jesuit cleric, blamed the disaster on the sinful people of Lisbon, and demanded that they scourge themselves and fast and pray instead of rebuilding. The chief minister Pombal was able to get rid of him and focus on healing the sick, feeding the hungry and rebuilding that great city. According to Nieman, that was the beginning of the end of sin as an explanation of natural disaster.

4. Foucault dismisses the idea of man’s evil nature as the cause of social issues, but wait. There are plenty of aspects of human reality that cause social problems: religious hatred, racism, misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia, and a host of others. These are real parts of us as primates. We shouldn’t just dismiss man’s evil nature as a fantasy. It kills people too, and it isn’t obvious how government can or should or does respond in Foucault’s description.

Security, Territory and Population Part 2: Initial Discussion of Security

The first lecture in the series Foucault calls Security, Territory and Population is primarily a discussion of security. Instead of a definition, Foucault gives two sets of examples. The first group involves penal statutes. In the simplest case, there is a prohibited practice (you shall not steal) and a punishment (amputation). In the second, the disciplinary case, the prohibition and the punishment are present, but in a more complex context, including a system of supervisions, inspections and checks to identify the likelihood that a person will commit a crime; and instead of a spectacular punishment like amputation or banishment, there are incarceration and efforts at transforming the person. In the third case, the first two remain in place, but we add a supervisory regime of statistics and other efforts to understand the problem created by the prohibited practice and to set up mechanisms that are cost-effective in trying to keep the prohibited acts at a tolerable level with cost-benefit analysis and other constructs.

The second set of examples concerns illness. In the Middle Ages, leprosy was dealt with using a strict protocol of separation. A bit later, the Plague was treated with a robust series of quarantines, inspections and other regulatory steps to prevent spread. In the third case, there is smallpox, treated with inoculations, so that the crucial questions are the effectiveness of the vaccine, the modes of insuring widespread inoculation, and other more formal statistical understandings.

Even without a formal definition of security we see the general outline: prevention of certain kinds of harm through concerted action. Protection of the public from preventable harms is an important role of the sovereign, and almost everyone would agree it is a proper role. The goal is accomplished through exercise of power, including both overt violence in the case of some punishments, or the separation of the diseased in the first case and by teaching and correction in the disciplinary case. In the third and contemporary example, there is a widespread effort to understand the mechanisms of prevention and a more disciplined effort by government to achieve its goals, complete with measurements of both the steps taken and the results achieved.

Foucault then takes up a Seventeenth Century text describing the proper layout of a town. The design should accommodate the things that provide security as well. The streets should allow for circulation both of human and commercial traffic, and should allow for good air circulation to prevent miasmas. Of course to some extent this ease of circulation will benefit rioters and thieves, so that sets up the need to adjust to enable good policing. From this Foucault draws the lesson that the crucial thing is to provide a “milieu” which is conducive to pleasant and secure lives for all citizens. That lesson expands to a view of governing. The goal of the sovereign is to organize things in a way that is conducive to security.

The nature of the people taken as a whole changes in the three cases. In the first, the individual is an object of action. In the criminal case, the punishment serves as a warning to the rest of the population, but that is a side effect. In the second case, the individual becomes a participant in the disciplinary process. The goal is to persuade the criminal to become a decent member of society. In the third, the entire population becomes the subject of study, enabling the sovereign to design an entire system so that society can function in safety.

In the same way, in the case of leprosy, the point is simply to segregate the sick person from the rest to achieve security for the healthy. In the second, the goal is separation, but the people separated are carefully watched and given what care is possible, including food and shelter and medical care, in the hope that they might safely return to society. In the third, the goal is to figure out the best ways to insure safety through treatment in advance.

In each of these cases we can observe the some of the elements of power in action. In the first cases, there is direct and forceful action. In the second, there is a recognition that the individual has some capacity to improve enough to warrant return to society. In the third, there is a more subtle approach in which such things as costs and benefits are considered, and the government tries to minimize the value of bad or evil actions, and to increase the chances that the individual will see no reason to harm others.

The idea of territory comes up briefly. In every case, the sovereign exercises authority within a defined territory There are spaces in the territory devoted to the outcast in the first case. In the second case, those spaces become more differentiated, but they remain spaces of segregation. In the third, those spaces remain, but they are not the focus. Instead, the overall layouts become the focus of thought and action; some spaces are still spaces of segregation, but other controlled spaces are more open.

Foucault doesn’t see the three cases as successive iterations. In each group, the first and second steps remain as the third evolves, and in the actual settings, there are elements of all three present in each of the cases.

In general, we can see the idea that Foucault wants to discuss, the genesis of the idea that humans are a species that can be studied, and that the results of those studies can be put to work as elements of mechanisms of power to shape the behaviors of humans in a social setting.


This first lecture seems fairly simple, but it illustrates the value of a formal statement of an issue. Simply by arranging things in order and providing well-chosen examples, we can start thinking about our current situation in a more organized way. Here are two of the ideas this lecture sparked for me.

1. Consider the first case, the law, the punishment. In this case, the individual confronts an impervious system that punishes those who transgress, without mercy or consideration of circumstances. From the standpoint of the system, there are no human beings with their own motivations and problems. There is only the fact: the rules were broken and the breaker was captured by the system. Perhaps this is the neoliberal vision: the individual confronts the market which renders judgments devoid of mercy or consideration of circumstances. The state is more or less indifferent to the outcome.

2. In order for case three to work, the people in charge have to get it right most of the time, and be flexible enough to change when they get it wrong. In addition, in our system, we require the assent of the population to the governing structure, by which I mean the aggregate of the public and private actors who create the milieu in which we live. That hasn’t been happening. To take Foucault’s example, look at vaccinations. There was a consensus about the value of these projects, a consensus created by the combined efforts of health care professionals, scientists, schools and government education projects, including frequently direct statements by the President and other political leaders. When the anti-vaxxers got traction, that consensus was undermined, and now we see the possibility of serious outbreaks of once-suppressed diseases. In the same way, Congress refuses to fund Zika research. The part of the milieu that protected us from infectious diseases has broken down in fits of individualism. By exalting the individual at the expense of society, we have allowed the ignorant and the silly the ability to disrupt the security of all of us.

The Origins of Totalitarianism Part 1: Introduction

The Origins of Totalitarianism is Hannah Arendt’s analysis of the rise of totalitarian governments, the Nazis under Hitler in Germany and the Communists under Stalin in Russia. It was published in 1951, though it was largely completed in 1945. In its original form it focused primarily on Nazism, and as more detail emerged about Stalinist Russia, the book was revised. There are three sections, Antisemitism, Imperialism and Totalitarianism. The book can be read here. Page numbers at this link correspond to the page cites I’ll be using.


Why this book? Anyone following current US politics has seen references to a fascist turn in Republican politics, and in the crowds surrounding at least one of the candidates. Similar but much smaller outbreaks occurred at campaign appearances of Sarah Palin in 2008 and at other Republican and conservative gatherings. One early user of the term fascism was @billmon1 on the Twitter, also here. Arendt’s detailed exploration of the rise of fascism, particularly in Germany, is a tool to help us understand its genesis, and perhaps see certain parallels to today.

In Modernity on Endless Trial, Leszek Kolakowski says:

If we are to believe Hegel – or Collingwood – no age, no civilization, is capable of conceptually identifying itself. This can only be done after its demise, and even then, as we know too well, such an identification is never certain or universally accepted. Both the general morphology of civilizations and the descriptions of their constitutive characteristics are notoriously controversial and heavily loaded with ideological biases, whether they express a need for self-assertion by comparison with the past or a malaise in one’s own cultural environment and the resulting nostalgia for the good times of old. Collingwood suggests that each historical period has a number of basic (“absolute”) presuppositions which it is unable clearly to articulate and which provide a latent inspiration for its explicit values and beliefs, its typical reactions and aspirations. If so, we might try to uncover those presuppositions in the lives of our ancient or medieval ancestors and perhaps build on this basis a ” history of mentalities” (as opposed to the “history of ideas”); but we are in principle prevented from revealing them in our own age, unless, of course, … we are living in the twilight, at the very end of an epoch. P. 3.

Maybe so, but I think most ages are blessed with a few people capable of identifying at least the central points of a civilization, as they write the first drafts of history from the perspective of those who lived through it. They give us signposts for thinking about the best way to proceed into the future, and ways of understanding aspects of we humans and our societies that seem ineradicable. I’m also dubious about the term “historical period”, because there are few ideas that ever really disappear once installed in human minds. Instead they hide in the corners of society until conditions are ripe for another outbreak.

Arendt and Polanyi both wrote near the end of WWII. Both were Jews, educated in Europe after WWI, and both left Europe as Antisemitism struck at their ability to work and to live. Arendt left Germany in 1933, first to Czechoslovakia and then Geneva, then Paris. She was picked up by the Vichy regime in France, and interned in a camp. She was permitted to leave France in 1941 and moved to the US using an illegal visa issued by a US diplomat, Hiram Bingham, and with the aid of a noted rescue worker, Varian Fry. Polanyi left Vienna in 1933, and moved first to London, and then to the US. After WWII, he was unable to obtain a visa because his wife was a former Communist, so they moved to Canada and Polanyi commuted to New York where he taught at Columbia.

The technique adopted by Karl Polanyi in The Great Transformation was to look far back into history to show the wave that swept over European nations with the Industrial Revolution and the rise of capitalism as the dominant form of economic organization. Foucault uses the same technique, for example in Discipline and Punish, which describes the impact of the Industrial Revolution on the working people of France. Arendt uses the same technique. She gives a broad historical perspective to the rise of fascism and communism and their transformation of Germany and Russia into totalitarian states. This technique offers a way to begin to identify a civilization, or a social structure, to get at its roots. Thus, all three follow Kolakowski’s model.

In this post, I described Polanyi’s discussion of the rise of fascism in Germany. It is similar to Arendt’s analysis in The Origins of Totalitarianism. They both see the destruction of social roles of huge numbers of people, primarily from the lower and middle classes, as a crucial element of that change, though they use different sources and different language. Polanyi points to the large numbers of people who lost status and social position and roles in the sweeping changes of the Industrial Revolution, and in the wake of the Great Depression. As we will see, Arendt points to the dislocation of millions as the Industrial Revolution progressed, and to the dislocation of the lives of many Germans in the wake of defeat in WWI, exacerbated by hyperinflation in the early 20s and then worsened by the Great Depression.

It seems to me that the wave of neoliberalism that rose to new heights under the Reagan and Thatcher administrations and has wedged itself in our minds since, is a cultural change, not of the magnitude of the rise of totalitarian states or the Industrial Revolution, but still with an enormous impact on the lives of individuals. For many in the upper class, the neoliberal turn has removed any sense of responsibility to society or to the planet. For others in the upper class, there is increasing fear for the future because of global warming and the rise of oligarchy.

In the case of the lower and middle classes, that impact has been much more concrete. After years of stagnating wages and pointless wars followed by a frightening financial crash, and more wars and political deadlock, the middle class is disappearing. People experience dropping from the middle class as a loss of status, of a place in society, a role, and even a purpose. There is nothing in US society to replace that status, or to provide a new sense of belonging. These dislocated people are not in any way organized. The neoliberal system dismisses them as moochers and leeches seeking handouts while taking no responsibility for themselves. People who are nominally still middle class are feeling similar pain as their future prospects and those of their children dwindle.

The parallels to today are uncertain. But I think it’s worth examining this argument in detail to see if we can learn something useful.

General Plan

The Origins of Totalitarianism is divided into three sections: Antisemitism, Imperialism, and Totalitarianism. I intend to focus on Totalitarianism. I see the first two sections as setting up the third. One of the central ideas in the section on Antisemitism is that the Jews in Europe were never assimilated. There are several forces described in the section on Imperialism that reach full flower in Totalitarianism. Among others, these include the idea of superfluous humans and superfluous capital, which are associated with Arendt’s categories of the mob and the masses, and the whirlwind of capitalism. I’ll take those up briefly, and quite incompletely, before turning to the main discussion.

The Two Prongs of the Neoliberal Project

It may seem odd that a site focused on national security, domestic spying, and US foreign policy should have a secondary focus on the economy and on neoliberal economic theory. As I see it, these are the two prongs of the overall neoliberal project. That project is to free up the entire globe for the profit-making activities of a few gigantic corporations and their billionaire owners, with minimal interference from governments or any other social institution.

That is obviously the goal of the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal, particularly the provisions on Investor State Dispute Settlement. Senator Warren explains it in this WaPo op-ed. The examples she gives are fascinating:

Recent cases include a French company that sued Egypt because Egypt raised its minimum wage, a Swedish company that sued Germany because Germany decided to phase out nuclear power after Japan’s Fukushima disaster, and a Dutch company that sued the Czech Republic because the Czechs didn’t bail out a bank that the company partially owned. U.S. corporations have also gotten in on the action: Philip Morris is trying to use ISDS to stop Uruguay from implementing new tobacco regulations intended to cut smoking rates.

The US Trade Representative has an explanation of the benefits:

  • Freedom from discrimination: An assurance that Americans doing business abroad will face a level playing field and will not be treated less favorably than local investors or competitors from third countries.
  • Protection against uncompensated expropriation of property: An assurance that the property of investors will not be seized by the government without the payment of just compensation.
  • Protection against denial of justice: An assurance that investors will not be denied justice in criminal, civil, or administrative adjudicatory proceedings.
  • Right to transfer capital: An assurance that investors will be able to move capital relating to their investments freely, subject to safeguards to provide governments flexibility, including to respond to financial crises and to ensure the integrity and stability of the financial system.

Obviously this benefits the rich and their profit-making corporations, but it doesn’t benefit the rest of us. That is the legacy President Obama sees for himself: cementing the rights of the rich at the expense of the rest of us. Obama wants to insure that this part of the neoliberal project is in place to cut deals that only benefit the rich and their corporations.

The neoliberal project has always had a special place for disciplining the proles. Prison, parole, draconian court systems, all are directed at keeping the proles from interfering with the ability of the rich and their corporations to make lots of money. The legal system has completely broken down when it comes to disciplining Wall Street thieves, but it’s great at wrecking the lives of the poor and near poor. This is not an accident. Here’s the explanation written by the soi-disant public intellectual and Judge on the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals Richard Posner:

The major function of criminal law in a capitalist society is to prevent people from bypassing the system of voluntary, compensated exchange — the “market,” explicit or implicit — in situations where, because transaction costs are low, the market is a more efficient method of allocating resources than forced exchange. Market bypassing in such situations is inefficient — in the sense in which economists equate efficiency with wealth maximization — no matter how much utility it may confer on the offender. … (P. 1195, footnote omitted)

Posner says that the rich are to be disciplined by tort law, after the fact court enforcement of laws, but the poor, having nothing, need jail for discipline. He concludes:

I contend, in short, that most of the distinctive doctrines of the criminal law can be explained as if the objective of that law were to promote economic efficiency. Ibid.

There’s a fine statement of neoliberal economic theory. Posner is himself a member of the neoliberal front group, the Mont Pelerin Society, and his theories of law and economics are an integral part of their project.

Domestic spying and collection of all our information are tools to enforce discipline against the citizenry. Marcy documents those activities. Regular readers know that the collection efforts are prodigious, far more that conceivably useful in hunting for terrorists. But these ideas can be traced a long way back, as Michel Foucault explains in Discipline and Punish. Here’s an extended (and slightly angry) discussion.

As the US continues to sink into third world status, it will be more necessary to plan for disruptions from those left behind. This isn’t going to change by itself. The first step is recognizing the situation. That’s just as true of National Security/Domestic Spying as it is of neoliberal economic theory. That’s why I write here, next to the best analyst in the country. With Marcy on a well-deserved vacation, I’ll be putting up more posts than usual, and I hope they help in the counter-project.