Federico Testa | Capitalism and the Political Economies of the Punitive Society

By Federico Testa

How are the emergence of modern forms of power and forms of economic production and exploitation connected? As Foucault will explain in the Punitive Society, the existence of a punitive logic – not spatially restricted to prisons and other modern institutions of confinement but extending to society as a whole – constitutes one of the key aspects of the capitalist mode of production. The logic of para-penal forms of punishment extending to the totality of people’s life, as well as techniques of surveillance and institutions of sequestration seem to play an essential role in the constitution of a utilizable workforce, functioning as a condition of possibility for capitalism itself.

In this text, I would like to sketch a few remarks shedding light on Foucault’s analysis of capitalism in the lectures on the Punitive Society. As one reads these lectures, it is important to bear in mind that some of the main insights of what will be Discipline and Punish are here just emerging: for example, in the 1972-73 lectures, we find the initial formulations of key ideas of Foucault’s analysis of the modern forms of subjection and power, such as the notion of panopticism (PS 64; PS 262) and that of a disciplinary power (PS 237). However, these notions emerge in the context of particular problematics, and respond to them in ways sometimes different from the role Foucault assigns to these notions in the published book. Therefore, when reading the Punitive Society, it is important to make resource to a prudential methodological position, which consists in not projecting onto the lectures the analyses and concepts of the 1975 book, which are the product of a trajectory of reflection that would be accomplished two years later. In order to read the 1972-73 lectures for what they are, and not as imperfect formulations of ideas we allegedly already know too well, we must practice a certain form of epochē: if we bracket our familiarity with Discipline and Punish, as well as the sometimes schematic and well-established understandings we have about that work when reading the lectures, we may be surprised with a series of differences, displacements, and variations on themes and concepts. Perhaps one of them is the place and importance that an understanding of capitalism occupies in the lecture course. Of course, one will say, Foucault’s 1975 description of the production of docile bodies through discipline is inseparable from a certain understanding of the requirements for industrial production. The factory and the workshop play an important role in Foucault’s description of the workings of disciplinary power, which means that the capitalist organization of production would not be possible without a dressage and use of the body. The capitalist organization of production requires a body made productive and docile by a series of techniques, a real “machinery of power that explores it, breaks it down and rearranges it” (DP 138), and which channel its forces and energy, increasing these forces in “economic terms of utility” while diminishing them “in political terms of obedience” (DP 138). That is, no doubt, true.[1]

However, I would like to suggest that the importance of capitalism is even more explicit and perhaps more central in the 1973 lectures, where Foucault more openly (and critically) engages with the Marx and Marxist tradition,[2] while at the same time building upon its analyses and sometimes operating within its vocabulary and lexicon. In addition, I believe that in the Punitive Society Foucault’s view of capitalism is a key element in his reflection on penalty and the “coercive factor” of what he calls the “penitentiary” (PS 110), which goes beyond juridical penalty and characterizes a whole “penalization of existence” (PS 193) that spreads over social life in the nineteenth century. The penitentiary “takes place with one class applying it to another: it is in this class relationship between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat that the condensed and remodeled penitentiary system begins to function; it will be a political instrument of the control and maintenance of relations of production” (PS 149).

Roughly speaking, Foucault’s reading of capitalism is structured along two main axes namely an axis of materiality and an axis of temporality. These two axes are related to two forms of illegalism that respond to and interact with them: depredation and dissipation, respectively.

Let us begin with the first axis, that of materiality, a term that Foucault uses in the course summary to characterize his approach, emphasizing what he calls a “physics of power” (PS 262), which in its turn focuses on a “mechanics of bodies” (PS 263). When explaining the transformation of the regimes of penalty taking place in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Foucault writes that “[w]hat activated the great renewal of the epoch was a problem of bodies and materiality, it was a question of physics: a new form of materiality taken by the apparatus of production, a new type of contact between this apparatus and those who make it function; new requirements imposed on individuals as productive forces” (PS 261). This “mechanics of bodies,” therefore, takes places in the encounter and co-presence of the worker’s body and what Foucault will characterize as the body of wealth.

In lectures 10, 11 and 12 in particular, the body of the worker is defined by its desires, needs and pleasures – all expressing what Foucault calls an “explosive energy” (PS 232). But this body is also defined by a physical force, which is potential for production, virtual or potential labor-power. I use the word ‘potential’ because, as Foucault explains, labor-power is not found already there, ready for use and appropriation in the productive system; rather, it must first be produced. Differently “from certain famous post-Hegelians,” as Foucault ironically refers to the Marxist tradition – and in this case, to the young Marx in particular –, he does not think that “labor is man’s concrete existence” (PS 232). On the contrary, “human life must be synthesized into labor-power,” the body must be made productive by a system of coercions.

The body of wealth (PS 159), by contrast, consists in the spatialized form of accumulated bourgeois wealth a property: not only commodities, products and materials of production, but also the body of the productive apparatus itself: the assets, machinery and fixed capital, or, simply put, the means of production.[3]

Foucault’s analysis of the materiality of capitalism, then, focuses on the interaction of these bodies, examining how power will seek to apply and fix the worker’s body to the body of the productive apparatus, maximizing its productivity, while at the same time preventing the disposed worker from attacking the body of bourgeois wealth. After all, Foucault explains, in industrial capitalism, everything is within the worker’s reach, but nothing belongs to him.[4] This creates a constant danger for bourgeois property. This danger perceived by the bourgeoisie kindles the fear of the popular or lower-class illegalism that Foucault will call depredation: “bourgeois wealth, thus exposed, faces new risks, from the daily erosion of theft up to great collective machine breakings. The danger represented by the working class in extreme poverty is not fantasy” (PS 172). It is the necessity of the interaction of the body of the worker and the bodies of wealth and the productive apparatus for capitalism, as well as the dangers that this interaction presents, that will serve as one of the main reasons for the extension of a coercive, punitive and penitentiary logic to the whole of society, and as an instrument of control of one class by the other: given the workers’ co-presence with bourgeois wealth and property, it is necessary to moralize, superintend and supervise their conduct and behavior. As Foucault explains, “the problem is one of the moral training of populations: their manners must be reformed so as to reduce the risks to bourgeois wealth” (PS 105).

This leads us to the second axis of Foucault’s analysis: temporality. This is an analysis of how the time of people’s existence – the time of life marked by non-utilitarian processes such as “pleasure, discontinuity, festivity, rest, need, moments, chance, violence, and so on” (PS 232) – is turned into labor-power and integrated in the temporality of production and capitalization. In the Punitive Society, the production of useful and productive bodies – which in 1973 is phrased as the transformation of human life and energy into labor-power – requires a certain form of power over time. It is precisely what I would like to call regimes of time – the techniques for controlling people’s use of and existence in time – that will pave the way for the control of bodies in the lecture course. In this sense, the controls of the body, the history of which Foucault propose to write in the Punitive Society, appear in the lectures as an “ancillary” control (PS 219), operating in conjunction with the control of time, done through modern institutions of sequestration. As Foucault puts it: “The time of life, which could be broken up by leisure, pleasure, chance, revelry had to be homogenized so as to be integrated into a time that is no longer the time of individuals, of their pleasures, desires, and bodies, but the time of the continuity of production, of profit. The time of people’s existence had to be fitted and subjected to the temporal system of the cycle of production. Such is the first function of sequestration: to subject the time of life to the time of production” (PS 211).

In this sense, if feudal production presupposed power that localized individuals in space (a “territorial” form of domination), industrial capitalism fixes the working class in space by fixing it in time (PS 229). One controls the body of the workers by controlling the time of their lives.[5] The management and organization of the worker’s life is essentially a form of control of time. Indeed, the notion of time appears coupled with the notion of life in the lectures: it seems that, in 1973, the very substance of this life is time, and that the key for power to exercise its superintendence over life is a form of domination that is, first and foremost, domination over time – as if controlling the forces and productive energy of living bodies consisted essentially in a temporal economy of its use.

So, alongside what in Discipline and Punish Foucault will call a “political economy of the body” (see DP 25-26), in the Punitive Society, we find what we could call a “political economy of time,” or of the power over time. It seems that, even though the body and the techniques of power over space and architecture already occupy a central role in the 1973 lectures, with the first formulations of the notions of panopticism for example, the notion of time plays an even more central role, functioning as the key to access and control the body of the worker and its processes, the ways it uses its energy, the way it is turned into labor-power by a penitentiary apparatus, a para-penal or infra-penal system of punishment capilarized and spread over society, which in the last lectures Foucault will begin calling “disciplinary regime of labor” (PS 72). If the controls of activity the concern with chronologies and the efficient use of time are still essential for the genealogy of the modern soul proposed in Discipline and Punish, time assumes an even more important role in the Punitive Society. Moreover, one of the key ideas defining modern societies and their systems of punishment is the structural analogy between the prison-form and the wage-form, which is given precisely by the notion of time (PS 71). In terms of the system of penalty, the target of punishment will be the individual’s “time left to live. Time is exchanged against power” (PS 72). Moreover, “behind the wage-form, the objective of the form of power put to work by capitalist society is essentially to be exercised on people’s time: the organization of the worker’s time [in] the workshop, the distribution and the calculation of this time in the wage, the control of leisure, of the worker’s life, saving, pensions, and so on” (PS 72). In the manuscript, Foucault adds: “from the workshop clock to the pension fund, capitalist power clings on time, seizes hold of it, makes it purchasable and utilizable” (PS 72). What is more, the emphasis on time also seems to signal a transformation of the functioning of power and a shift of emphasis from the law to the norm; the power exercised through the norm will extend to the totality of the individual’s time and existence, to every movement of desire and every impulse. It is a power exercised upon individuals “from the beginning to the end of their existence” (PS 216), with no intervals.

However, if the power exercised over and through time opens a new field of operation, much deeper, more discreet and constant than previous forms of power, Foucault also signals a new form of illegalism interacting with and resisting to this form of power. In what appears in the manuscript as “A Short History of Laziness” (PS 186), Foucault speaks about dissipation, an illegalism that undermines capitalist production not by attacking the physical body of wealth, but by undermining the use of body and time as labor-power: a conduct and a way of living that subscribes to an active “refusal of industrious labor.” These forms of “absenteeism, lateness, laziness, festive revelry, debauchery, nomadism” (PS 283) amount to “the refusal to apply one’s strength at the proper time and place; this is to dissipate one’s forces (…) not safeguarding everything in this force that is a condition for its effective use, to waste it by not taking care of one’s body” (PS 187).

Looking at these forms of illegalism can help us visualize and clarify the functioning of the forms of power and exploitation to which they resist: in a word, depredation resists a certain strategy of application of the worker’s body to the body of the productive apparatus, fundamentally taking place at the level of the materiality of this encounter; one body attacks the other. Through theft, subtraction of spatialized wealth, or through the destruction of components of the body of the productive apparatus, the worker’s body undermines the productive process and, consequently, bourgeois wealth. Dissipation, by contrast, responds to a form of power that takes people’s life as its object by the appropriation, organization and management of time. Dissipation, then, mobilizes non-utilitarian forms of activity, which we could characterize by expenditure.

I have briefly touched upon Foucault’s critique of the young Marx and the idea that “man’s concrete existence is labor.” I believe that in the form of resistance to capitalist production that takes the form of dissipation, it is possible glimpse a different view of the economy, one that has a Nietzschean – rather than Marxist – origin. If labor-power appears as the basis of the punitive and disciplinary economy of capitalism, the lower-class illegalism seems to point to a different economy – a counter-economy of dissipation and expenditure. Here, as well as in his descriptions of a time of life that is not labor but “revelry, chance, violence and festivity,” Foucault seems to be implicitly referring to Georges Bataille. In his book Accursed Share and in the seminal article on the notion of expenditure, Bataille radicalises Marcel Mauss’ analysis of the potlatch and the economy of the gift, elaborating a critique of the classical principle of utility. Material utility, Bataille argues, is limited to the production, acquisition and conservation of goods. However, this principle is insufficient, since it does not account for processes of non-productive expenditure and loss. Bataille’s idea of expenditure (dépense) places the accent on loss, destruction and dissipation, which takes place in unproductive forms of activity. As Bataille explains:

Human activity is not entirely reducible to processes of production and conservation, and consumption must be divided into two distinct parts. The first, reducible part is represented by the use of the minimum necessary for the conservation of life and the continuation of individuals’ productive activity in a given society (…). The second part is represented by so-called unproductive expenditures: luxury, mourning, war, cults, the construction of sumptuary monuments, games, spectacles, arts, perverse sexual activity (i.e., deflected from genital finality) – all these represent activities which (…) have no end beyond themselves. Now it is necessary to preserve the use of the word expenditure for the designation of these unproductive forms, and not for the designation of all the modes of consumption that serve as a means to the end of production (…) [T]hey constitute a group characterized by the fact that in each case the accent is placed on a loss that must be as great as possible in order for that activity to take on its true meaning (Bataille 1997: 169).

It seems, therefore, that both in Foucault’s description of dissipation and in his critique of the idea that human life and essence consist in labour, one finds Bataille’s notion of dépense and a whole Nietzschean economy of life, not based on lack or scarcity, utility and conservation but in abundance accompanied by loss and expenditure. In this sense, perhaps we could see in dissipation as choice of life a trace of a reading of Bataille in terms of a counter-conduct, which resists the processes of coercion aimed at turning life into labor-power, organizing life according to the principles of conservation and utility.

Finally, one could object that Foucault’s analysis of capitalism is – after all – an analysis of the new forms of power over time and the body rather than a reading of the functioning of capitalism as a mode of production. To this we could reply by looking closely at how Foucault conceptualizes the relationship between power and mode of production. As Foucault makes clear in the lecture of 28 March 1973, “power is one of the constitutive elements of the mode of production” (PS 231); that is to say it is not a mere superstructural effect, a political repercussion or that which ensures the maintenance and reproduction of a certain mode of production. Rather, it is part of its very structure, it is the mode of production’s immanent or transitive cause, which means that power is not only “constitutive” of a mode of production in merely genetic sense, but it is one of its defining traits, one of its constant attributes, that must therefore perdure in time. And here, perhaps, we can find a case for abolition in Foucault’s analysis of capitalism – or at least a clue on how to think abolition without neglecting that it presupposes a transformation in the structure of the mode of production. Is it the case then to affirm that, as a long as there are institutions of sequestration and the type of power they effect, there will be capitalism; and as long as there is capitalism, there will be institutions of sequestration?


[1] As Foucault clearly puts in Discipline and Punish: “The growth of a capitalist economy gave rise to the specific modality of disciplinary power, whose general formulas, techniques of submitting forces and bodies, in short, ‘political anatomy’, could be operated in the most diverse political regimes, apparatuses or institutions” (DP 221).

[2] One could quote here, Foucault’s dialogue with E. P. Thompson on the notion of “seditious mobs” and its relations to popular or lower-class illegalisms in the lecture of 21 February 1973 (PS 140), or the critique to Louis Althusser’s notion of “State apparatus” (PS 229), which Foucault sees as a way of analyzing power by localizing it, as well as Althusser’s understanding of the functioning of power through ideology and violence (PS 233), both pointed out by Bernard Harcourt in the critical apparatus (for the latter see PS 272). One could also mention Foucault’s critique of the notion of Gattungswesen elaborated by the young Marx in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 (PS 219; PS 232).

[3] When analyzing the fear of the bourgeoisie in relation to the workers in the developing urban centers, Foucault characterizes the body of wealth by the “the accumulation of capital now invested visibly in a tangible and accessible material form, in stocks, machines, raw material, commodities” (PS 172).

[4] In the 21 February lecture, Foucault describes the condition of the worker of the Port of London as follows: “nothing belongs to him, [but] on the other hand, he has right in front of him, on the boats, in the docks, a wealth estimated by Colquhoun to equal 70 million pounds a year” (PS 147).

[5] A similar logic appears in Discipline and Punish, where Foucault explains how punishment migrated to the “soul” and became a form of moral correction: “one no longer touched the body, or at least as little as possible, and then only to reach something other than the body itself” (DP, 11). For the importance of a control of time in disciplinary apparatuses, see the section on “The organization of geneses” (DP 156-161).


Bataille, G. The Accursed Share: An Essay on General Economy, vol.1 – Consumption, translated by Robert Hurley, New York: Zone Books, 1988.

Bataille, G. The Georges Bataille Reader, edited by Fred Botting & Scott Wilson, Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1997.

Foucault, M. Discipline and Punish. The Birth of the Prison, translated by Alan Sheridan, London & New Yorl: Penguin, 1991.

Foucault, M. The Punitive Society. Lectures at the Collège de France 1972-1973, translated by Graham Burchell, edited by Bernard Harcourt, New York: Picador, 2015.

Fonda Shen