Bernard E. Harcourt | Introducing “Society Must Be Defended”

By Bernard E. Harcourt

At two key junctures in his 1975 lectures Abnormal, Foucault turns his attention to the way in which the figure of the abnormal gives way, in the last years of the nineteenth century, to “the problem of heredity, racial purification, and the correction of the human instinctual system by purification of the race.” (Abnormal, p. 133; see also pp. 316-318). In those passages, Foucault begins to develop the hypothesis that psychiatry gave birth to a new form of racism, different than traditional ethnic racism, that he refers to as “racism against the abnormal.” (Abnormal, p. 316). Foucault proposes, provocatively, that this new form of racism ultimately would be combined with the more traditional form of racism to trigger some of the worst excesses of the twentieth century: “this neoracism as the internal means of defense of a society against its abnormal individuals, is the child of psychiatry, and Nazism did no more than graft this new racism onto the ethnic racism that was endemic in the nineteenth century,” he states (Abnormal, p. 317). These passages from Abnormal combine Foucault’s renewed interest in heredity and degeneration, and in racism, with his long-time fascination for theories of social defense and civil war.

It is to these exact themes that Foucault turns in 1976 in perhaps his most famous and well known lectures, “Society Must Be Defended. Most well known because they were the first to be published in French, and also because, very early, they were (at least the first two lectures) translated into English and published in 1980 in Knowledge/Power. In fact, their integral publication in French in 1997 would inaugurate the series that we are studying this year in Foucault 13/13.

“Society Must Be Defended” announces key themes in Foucault’s work. Several of them would be published just a few months later, with the release on 17 November 1976 of his History of Sexuality—Volume 1 (La Volonté de savoir): the notions of biopolitics and security, of population, of race wars and racism. It is in these lectures and La Volonté de savoir that Foucault famously compared sovereign power to biopolitics through the lens of those two now-famous epigraphs, respectively, « faire mourir ou laisser vivre » (to cause death or let live) and « faire vivre et laisser mourir » (to make live and to let die).

Three key concepts structure the central argument of Society Must Be Defended: (1) race war; (2) biopolitics; and (3) modern racism. Together these three concepts lead to an analysis of what Foucault calls “State racism” that is best exemplified by colonization (p. 65, 103, and 257), Nazism (p. 259), and Soviet State racism (P. 83)

(1) The first concept, race war, Foucault identifies with the emergence of a new historiography in the 16th and 17th centuries that highlights the struggle between peoples, between races (p. 57-61). In contrast to an earlier political paradigm associated with Roman history, Foucault argues, there emerges during the late Middle Ages an understanding of politics as riven by race conflict–the struggles between the Frankish, Goths, Gauls, Celts, Saxons, etc.  (p. 75) Politics becomes understood, during this period, as tribal clash. This new political history moves away from a universalist understanding, privileging a certain decentering of truth: the basis for truth becomes partiality, partisanship, interest, race interests. The birth of this historical-political discourse serves as a truth-weapon, where truth turns on local interests.

(2)  At the same time that the discourse of race wars gets masked by a return to universalism during the time of the Revolution and, soon, the development of a discourse of perpetual peace (p. 239), biopower emerges in the second half of the 18th century as a counterpoint to disciplinary power. We witness here another way of governing, one that focuses not on correcting the individual, but on managing the population: on achieving optimal outcomes for the population as a whole, on reaching equilibrium for the nation. The target of governing becomes birth rates and mortality rates, the fertility of the population, reproduction (p. 243). We witness a shift from “man-as-body” to “man-as-species,” as power relations focus on “living man, man-as-living-being.” (p. 242)

(3)   During the 19th century, there emerges as well what Foucault refers to as “modern racism”: a form of racism that, Foucault argues, is associated with the elimination of the abnormal, the cleansing of defectives. Racism, in this technical sense, is the racism against the abnormal, the strategy of cleansing a race of its inferior or defective instantiations. Modern racism becomes “primarily a way of introducing a break into the domain of life that is under power’s control: the break between what must live and what must die.” (p. 254)

Putting these three concepts in conversation, Foucault argues that it is the linking of politics as race war (as between races) with modern racism against the abnormal (within races) that produces the worst excesses of the 19th and 20th centuries: the brutal, genocidal forms of colonization that seek to eliminate others and cleanses one’s own, as well as Nazism with its race war and internal cleansing as well. Foucault explains that “Racism justifies the death-function in the economy of biopower by appealing to the principle that the death of others makes one biologically stronger.” (p.258). The extreme murderousness of these regimes is a combination of all three of these concepts–race war, biopower, and modern racism.

In these 1976 lectures as well, Foucault returns to themes developed previously, especially to the question of civil war and to his earlier direct engagement with Hobbes (which he had silenced since The Punitive Society in 1973). We also find here a fascinating gesture to the acturial turn (p. 250 note *) that is highly suggestive and will be developed in 1978-79.

“Society Must Be Defended” is, for the contemporary critical thinker, a font of ideas, leads, and research avenues–in Foucault’s own words, a collection of “suggestions for research, ideas, schemata, outlines, instruments.” (SMBD, p. 2) As he would provocatively say:

do what you like with them. Ultimately, what you do with them both concerns me and is none of my business. It is none of my business to the extent that it is not up to me to lay down the law about the use you make of it. And it does concern me to the extent that, one way or another, what you do with it is connected, related to what I am doing. (SMBD, p. 2)

With us to reread and discuss these 1976 lectures, we are delighted to welcome Ann Stoler, Partha Chatterjee, and Robert Gooding-Williams. As early as 1995, Ann Stoler drew importantly on these 1976 lectures to formulate the argument of her seminal book, Race and the Education of Desire: Foucault’s History of Sexuality and the Colonial Order of Things (Durham, Duke University Press, 1995). As Emmanuelle Saada writes, “Ann Stoler’s reading of Foucault in colonial situations remains indispensable.” It is for us a particular pleasure to have Professor Stoler in conversation with Columbia Professors Gooding-Williams and Chatterjee.