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.