Axel Honneth on The Punitive Society

By Axel Honneth

By contrast to Nadia Urbinati, whose comments I read with great interest and from which I learned a lot, I will concentrate in my remarks on some theoretical premises within Foucault’s fascinating lectures on The Punitive Society. There are a few astonishing and revealing differences to the book he later published as result of these lectures (M. Foucault, Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison), which I take as a starting point for outlining some tensions I see in the theoretical apparatus of Foucault’s approach. To mention these fractures and breaks in his attempt to analyze what he calls the birth of the prison does not mean to criticize his approach; instead I attempt to draw our attention to some difficulties we are confronted with when trying to follow his enormously fruitful inspirations:

1.  In these lectures even more than in the book based on them, Foucault is emphasizing that all power is somewhat rooted in what he calls civil wars; he understands this civil war in difference to Hobbes as a “permanent state” (p. 13) of all social life, so that it cannot be ended by the establishment of a sovereign, but instead continues even after such an enthronement. As constitutive properties of that kind of civil war Foucault sees a) that they are pursued by collectivities or groups, which b) are not existing before, but constituted by the struggles (p. 28) and c) which therefore must be the bearers or containers of capacities for exercising power. Power itself is then, if I understand Foucault’s proposal correctly, the unstable, fluid element for the appropriation of which the struggles—the civil wars—are pursued; or, we can also say, that power is a relational factor insofar as its exact form, quality and size depends on how and by whom it is appropriated and reactivated at a specific time within the civil war. Only in brackets I would like to mention here that such a concept of power would require to be understood in some way or the other as entailing the capacity of one side to direct the course of action of the other side against its will—a relative traditional definition of “power” which Foucault would like to avoid.

What is more striking, however, is that beside this understanding of power as something permanently fluid within adversarial, war-like relationships, Foucault also speaks at the same time of power as something fully “established” (p.31), not qualified to be quickly appropriated or circulated. The problem with this second notion as it informs e.g. the concept of a “disciplinary power” is not that it is inconceivable; to the contrary, it makes good sense to think of certain forms of power as being so highly aggregated and deeply institutionalized that opposition to them or appropriation of them is hard to imagine. The problem is rather that it is difficult to conceive of how the two notions can be internally connected such that the one helps to explain the other and vice versa: either power is the permanently fluid, unstable result of an ongoing civil war, in which it always easily can be re-appropriated by one or the other involved collectivities, or power is the institutionalized system of apparatuses by which an oppressed group is somehow subjected to certain forms of conduct and behavioral norms. One possible way out of this difficult problem could be to say that what Foucault attempts in his lectures is exactly to investigate the historical transition from one to the other, from the fluid, struggle-based power to the institutionalized, established power of the disciplinary regime. But then one would have to conclude that the second, aggregated form of power must by definition succeed in ending the civil war—the idea of a possibility, which not only contradicts Foucault’s hypothesis that civil war is a “permanent state” of all social life, but which also would make him sound a little bit like Hobbes when saying that the sovereign in virtue of his constituted power is able overcome the war of all against all.

2.  A second element that is much more highlighted in these lectures than in the later book is the role Protestant Ethics is playing in the formation of what is called the “prison-form” (esp. Lecture 6). The rough idea here is that one central factor in paving the way to establish imprisonment as the central, dominating form of punishment in the beginning of the nineteenth century was the belief of certain protestant groups that only enforced confinement to rethink one’s vices and moral failures can bring the sinner back to an ethically correct form of life; it was this concept of the moral function of imprisonment which in Foucault’s view spread at the end of the eighteenth century and started to produce the fast institutionalization of the prison as the state-based form of punishment—a process by which the state became “the agent of morality” (p.112/113). Let me only mention in brackets the close, methodological as well as substantial affinity between this analysis of Foucault and Max Weber’s explanatory strategy in his study on the Protestant Ethics: in both cases it is claimed that Protestantism in one form or the other served in bringing about the moral conditions under which the capitalist system could then establish itself. The convergence between the two authors goes even deeper than that since both believed that it was the “elective affinity” (Foucault: “twin form”, p.72) of certain practices (Weber: protestant practices of searching for inner-worldly signs of salvation and capitalist orientation towards accomplishment; Foucault: “protestant” prison form and wage-form), the (contingent) combination of which allowed the institutionalization of capitalism.

In any case, this is not the point I want to make here. Instead I’m interested in a certain tension that could result from Foucault’s emphasis on the protestant roots of the prison-system. In consequence of this religious genealogy, Foucault is somewhat forced to see as the main function of the suddenly established network of prisons the re-socialization, the “inner transformation” (p.91) of those people defined as “criminal social enemies” (Lecture 4). As long as he is following this line of argumentation in his lectures the central idea therefore is that the prison-form operates on the “soul,” on the psyche of the individual prisoner, attempting to change his or her “inner” attitude towards the requirements of capitalist society—“normalization” means here a process by which the delinquent is, via mechanisms of influence, manipulation and re-education, made obedient to the existing normative order. And it follows from this that “disciplinary power” mainly, if not exclusively, operates by using instruments able to “normalize” the psyche of the members of the population.

However, this obvious conclusion contradicts strongly the formulations with which Foucault summarizes the results of his analysis at the end of his lectures; there he claims over and over that it is the “body” which is the object of the work of the prison-system (p.261/62). From this observation he concludes that the function and procedures of “disciplinary power” consist in regulating bodily behavior, “training” the body to obey the requirements of the capitalist system; and he adds that the scientific knowledge produced by this kind of power is aimed at “curing the body” (p.261).

My worry at this point therefore is, that Foucault is presenting unwillingly two very different understandings of the functioning of the prison-system and, on a larger scale, of what he is naming “disciplinary power.” And I don’t see how these two descriptions can coexist, because they lead to conclusions contradicting each other: either the modern, disciplinary system of power is working by normalizing the body, making it fit for the demands of the capitalist labor-market, or this system operates via influencing the psyche by stimulating it to be subservient to functional requirements of the capitalist order. My guess is that you can’t have it both ways —biopolitics and psychopolitics—the former normalizing bodily behavior, the second normalizing individual affects and psychic reactions.

3.  My last remark is also dealing with a point that again is much more emphasized by Foucault in his lectures than in the book later resulting from them. In trying to explain why the two events of the establishment of the modern prison system and the discursive constitution of the criminal as “social enemy” happen to appear at the same time, Foucault is relying on “time” as being the bridging variable (p.70/71): it is in the moment when in consequence of the introduction of the “wage-form” the organization of time is becoming the central concern of social integration and the “social contract,” that the two independent developments can support each other because imprisonment now is understood as a justified subtraction of a certain “quantity of time of liberty,” whereas the “criminal” is defined as someone undermining and attacking the existing, “repressive” order of time (Lecture 4). This explanation allows Foucault then, in the following passage, much more strongly than in Discipline & Punish, to conceive of the establishment of the prison as being an internal element within the broader process of the institutionalization of the “capitalist system of power”:

 “Thus, what allows us to analyze the punitive regime of crimes and the disciplinary regime of labor as of a piece is the relationship of the time of life to political power: the repression of time and repression through time, that kind of continuity between workshop clock, production line stopwatch, and prison calendar” (p.72).

However, as elegant and suggestive as such an explanation may sound, it doesn’t seem to me to be really convincing. Its weakness lies, in my view, where Foucault attempts to show that the criminal is from now on publicly defined as the one who is supposed to undermine or attack the existing order of time. I find that explanation too farfetched, even counterintuitive, since it would have been much more obvious to understand the existing “social contract” as being based on granting negative freedom and individual property rights, so that correspondingly the “criminal” is understood as the one who undermines or attacks those “bourgeois” liberties: he or she is the “social enemy,” since by his or her “crimes” that bundle of liberties is violated which is the normative basis of the new social contract after the French Revolution. Such an interpretation is heavily supported by literature within political thought of that time period Foucault has in view: from Adam Smith to Hegel there is an overall agreement in the conviction that from now on a crime should be understood as a violation of the social bond which is based on the mutual granting of certain liberties, most importantly private property and physical integrity. Such an interpretation then would allow one to give an alternative, but far more obvious explanation for the sudden establishment of the prison as the dominating form of punishment than the one Foucault has offered in these lectures: imprisonment is seen as the justified form of punishment for the “criminal” not because it subtracts a quantity of time, but because it takes in certain degrees that liberty away, which is understood as the normative fundament of the new political order. Following such a line of explanation would mean, however, to see the functional role of the prison not so much in connection with the capitalist organization of time, but with a political regime based in negative liberties alone.