Partha Chatterjee: Comments on “Society Must Be Defended”

By Partha Chatterjee

The subject of these lectures is war. Given all that is happening in France right now, it seems utterly appropriate that we should be looking back today at these lectures delivered by Michel Foucault in Paris in 1976.

The best way for me to begin my discussion is to refer to Foucault’s remarks in his lectures on The Punitive Society (which we discussed a few weeks ago) where he said that contrary to Hobbes’s famous theoretical claim, establishing an absolute sovereign through a social contract does not in fact bring the civil war to an end. Rather, the civil war continues below the surface, as attested by the persistence of illegalities and frequent peasant and artisan revolts in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century. But when Foucault reads the testimonies of these rebellious groups, it is the moralization of delinquency and the moral condemnation of sovereign punishment that come through most prominently. This moral tone did not go well with Foucault’s subsequent demonstration of the penal reforms of the nineteenth century as an exercise in the “economy of punishment”, which is why, I suspect, the theme of civil war dropped out from his book Discipline and Punish.

In his 1976 lectures, he picks up the theme once more and develops, I think, a much more powerful argument about the continuation of war within a society that has been apparently pacified. Most interestingly, he does this through an examination of the rise of the modern disciplines of the human sciences, on the one hand, and historical discourse, on the other. As a result, Foucault brings us face-to-face with a set of challenges that we, as professional humanists or social scientists, are reluctant to recognize.

Let me begin by making a preliminary point about sovereign power. Hobbes’s Leviathan was the absolute sovereign, the theoretical epitome of what Foucault described in Discipline and Punish as the classical form of sovereign power as a centralized repressive force. The problem of the modern regime of power, however, parallels a shift in the locus of sovereignty from the absolute monarch to an abstract construct called the people. This historical transition in the ground of legitimate sovereignty is, I believe, often missed in our discussion of Foucault’s study of power, and Foucault himself may be at fault for not emphasizing the point sufficiently. But in his second lecture in SMBD, Foucault says quite explicitly: “juridical systems, no matter whether they were theories or codes, allowed the democratization of sovereignty, and the establishment of a public right articulated with collective sovereignty, at the very time when [in the nineteenth century, that is], to the extent that, and because the democratization of sovereignty was heavily ballasted by the mechanisms of disciplinary coercion.” (p. 37) Foucault’s project was to explain how modern power could function as mechanisms of domination grounded in the sovereignty of the people while concealing domination behind the disciplinary forms of regulation and self-regulation.

To show us the stakes involved in this project, Foucault temporarily sets aside the abstract juridical-contractual concepts of political theory and jurisprudence and focuses instead on the discourse of history, particularly in seventeenth-century England and eighteenth-century France. The writers of these histories held a variety of ideological orientations, from radical Levellers and Diggers in England to reactionary aristocrats in France. But they wrote the history, says Foucault, of the struggle between races – Normans against Saxons, Romans against Gauls, Gauls against Franks. Race here is most definitely not a sociological category. Foucault is at pains to explain that our modern-day understanding of race as a socio-biological term is only one particular meaning assumed by a word that, for his purposes of elucidating the discourse of history in Europe, must be understood in that far more general sense defined, let us say, in the Oxford English Dictionary as “a group of people with a common feature”. Unlike Hobbes’s description of the anarchic state of nature where each person is at war with everyone else, the race struggle in history takes place where one group has, for the time being, asserted its dominance while the other group seeks to overthrow that dominance. The war is between groups, collective entities called races – Normans, Saxons, Gauls, Franks. And it takes place below the surface of a system of laws made by the group that dominates the state. Foucault paraphrases: “Law is not pacification, for beneath the law, war continues to rage in all the mechanisms of power, even in the most regular. War is the motor behind institutions and order. In the smallest of its cogs, peace is waging a secret war.” (p. 50)

Now, the crucial characteristic of this history of the race struggle is its contingency, indeterminacy, its irreducibly unpredictable character. Decisive outcomes are often the result of sheer accident. The historians show that the formation of great kingdoms are the result of invasion, conquest, usurpation, assassination; victory and defeat in battle hinge on nothing more than mere chance. The lesson of this historical-political discourse of the seventeenth or eighteenth century – and this is crucial for Foucault – is that there is no inherent moral legitimacy to the legally constituted state. It is simply the result of the temporary domination of one race over another; the subjugated race could, if it can seize the chance, overthrow the ruling power and establish its own dominance. These histories, therefore, do not proclaim any universal truth. They are partisan; they condemn the brutality and wickedness of those others who had overpowered and tricked the race into temporary subjugation; even in defeat, they celebrate the bravery of their own race and anticipate its future victory. They reject the continuous genealogies with older sovereignties that conquering regimes claim for themselves. In other words, the histories of race struggle challenge the unity that theories of sovereignty seek to build for a pacified society. Doggedly undermining the legitimacy of the established order of laws, they become a counter-history of the state. Foucault notes that the specific meaning of race could assume many forms defined, for instance, by a common language or religion. But everywhere the counter-history would insist that two opposed groups are brought together within the unity of a polity only by the violent acts of war.

From the seventeenth century onwards, beginning with Hobbes’s theory of sovereignty, the disciplines of knowledge that would become the human sciences have tried assiduously to deny, or at least suppress, this bloody history of the formation of states. Foucault thinks Hobbes desperately wanted to reject the political use that was made in the civil wars of the historical knowledge of conquest, invasion, dispossession, confiscation, etc. “Leviathan’s invisible adversary is the Conquest.” Foucault reads Hobbes as saying that “war or no war, defeat or no defeat, Conquest or covenant, it all comes down to the same thing. ‘It’s what you wanted, it is you, the subjects, who constituted the sovereignty that represents you.’ The problem of the Conquest is therefore resolved.” (p. 98) In other words, theoretical knowledge comes to the rescue of the state threatened by the violent history of its own origins. The same relationship between the new disciplinary knowledges and the perennially disruptive discourse of history will be seen in the emergence of nation-states, the spread of colonial empires and what Foucault calls internal colonialism. (p. 103)

Based on my own study of British colonial history, I could give dozens of examples where a theoretically grounded justification of the colonial state, framed within a certain universalist understanding, whether liberal or conservative, of the development of human societies, has attempted to tame the violent history of colonial conquest. Thus, Edmund Burke, conservative critic of the French Revolution, was also a ferocious critic of the despotic misgovernment of the colonial governor Warren Hastings in India who, he alleged, had scant regard for the ancient dynasties and laws of that civilized country. But when it came to the scandalous history of the British acquisition of Indian territories, the otherwise eloquent Burke was strangely reticent: “Many circumstances of this acquisition I pass by,” he said in Parliament in 1788. “There is a secret veil to be drawn over the beginning of all governments. They had their origins, as the beginnings of all such things have had, in some matters that had as good be covered by obscurity.”[i] And if I were to turn to a liberal, let me give you Thomas Macaulay, the celebrated Whig historian of England, who wrote an essay in 1840 on Robert Clive, the founder of the empire in India. Macaulay could not deny the palpable evidence of the historical records that Clive, in his dealings with Oriental nobles, had descended to the lowest levels of Oriental trickery to secure his victory in battle. But historical judgment, said Macaulay, must be relative. We must judge Clive not as his contemporaries judged him, but by the good consequences we see today as having resulted from his actions. Though still authoritarian and paternal, the state now sat far more lightly, securely and happily on the people than at any time in India’s history. Therefore, suggested Macaulay, one must judge men like Clive with “a more than ordinary measure of indulgence”.[ii] Finally, if you prefer someone more philosophically rigorous than Macaulay, I could cite none less than Immanuel Kant who said in his famous essay of 1795 on Perpetual Peace that although European conquests by war of overseas territories were unjust, the federation of nations must nevertheless accept the historical results of those conquests as naturally given and not attempt to resist them or undo the laws that Europeans had imposed on other peoples.[iii]

The formation of the disciplines in the nineteenth century did have their effect on the historical discourse of race struggle. Theoretical knowledge successfully promulgated the truth that the consequences of historical processes were structurally irreversible. Rulers might be changed, yesterday’s downtrodden could stand up today and make themselves heard, but certain fundamental institutions produced by actual histories of violence and domination must nonetheless persist. European conquest and settlement of the Americas, the Atlantic slave trade, the primitive accumulation of capital, the dispossession of peasants and artisans, colonial wars – they may all merit the severest moral condemnation but the structural transformations they have wrought cannot be undone.

But if the old races – Normans, Saxons, Gauls, Franks, etc. – were no longer the constituent forces of historical struggle, what was the ground on which these fundamental institutions were to be found? Foucault says that from the late eighteenth, and especially the nineteenth, century, there emerged a new subject of history. “It is what a historian of the period calls a ‘society’. A society, but in the sense of an association, group, or body of individuals governed by a statute, a society made up of a certain number of individuals, and which has its own manners, customs, and even its own law. The something that begins to speak in history, that speaks of history, and of which history will speak, is what the vocabulary of the day called a ‘nation’.” (p. 134) In the eighteenth century, Foucault notes, this society-nation carried a sense such that the nobility was thought of as a nation, just as the bourgeoisie was also a nation. (p. 142) But from the nineteenth century, as we know, the society-nation would acquire in Europe a more definite territorialized sense of the identity between people, nation and state. Foucault says the earlier idea of nation would give rise in the nineteenth century to notions like nationality, race and class. (p. 142)

The new subject of history – society – brought about a methodological revolution in history writing. Instead of condemning the brutality or perfidy of the conquering race, historians began to seek the economic and political reasons for defeat. They discovered that instead of the natural equality of citizens as proclaimed by constitutional or juridical theory, what prevailed in actual history was the inequality produced by freedom. Instead of identifying and asserting public rights, therefore, historians began to see their field as the record of the interplay of the relation of social forces. They began to produce knowledge about nations, minorities, classes. In fact, setting aside the juridical construction of the legal subject, the new history produced in the nineteenth century – now to be called social history – would adopt the state’s administrative rationality (or governmentality – the word has not yet appeared in the Foucauldian lexicon) to construct its language of the historical analysis of social forces. Inventing new methods of survey research and deploying a probabilistic rather than determinist form of scientific reasoning to bring under epistemic control a wide range of social phenomena conditioned by uncertainty, social history, like the other human sciences, would now fully participate in the process of normalizing society.

In his very first lecture of SMBD, Foucault points out the stakes involved in our production of knowledge today. “The question or questions that have to be asked are: ‘What type of knowledge are you trying to disqualify when you say that you are a science? What speaking subject, what discursive subject, what subject of experience and knowledge are you trying to minorize when you begin to say: “I speak this discourse, I am speaking a scientific discourse, and I am a scientist.” What theoretical-political vanguard are you trying to put on the throne in order to detach it from all the massive, circulating, and discontinuous forms that knowledge can take?’ “ (p. 10) The ostensible target of this charge by Foucault is Marxism, but I think it is a valid question that can be put to virtually all the truths that we proclaim in our universities and learned societies. To take an example, modern medical science tells us that polio vaccination can with complete certainty prevent the occurrence of that disease. But, let us say, a certain group of people in some remote region decide to refuse vaccination. Their local knowledge of the outside world, gathered through centuries of harsh experience, has taught them not to trust these beneficial gestures offered by city people: the vaccine, they believe, is a plot to harm or kill their children. The community might even suggest that it has a liberal right, supposedly protected by the state, to choose what it thinks is best for its children. Our predicament here is by no means unfamiliar. An authoritarian state might decide to ignore the objection of the community and vaccinate the children by force: after all, scientific truth was on its side. But many of us might not have the stomach for such war-like methods of welfare. Policy scientists and public health experts would then put their heads together to find ways to get around the objections of the parents and devise a subtle system of rewards and penalties to finally elicit their consent. As Foucault tells us, the human sciences are asked to arbitrate, on behalf of society, between scientific truth and juridical right. The war to defend society is carried out through a humane policy of governmentality.

Finally, to bring us back to our immediate context today, let me point out the striking passage in Foucault’s lecture of 3 March 1976 where he talks about the barbarian in relation to civilization. The barbarian, unlike the savage, is a product of history: he can only exist when there is a civilization he can set out to destroy. The barbarian is ruthless and efficient, with excellent skills at fighting wars. He is bad and wicked, but in his arrogance and resolute will to dominate, he has certain qualities that cannot but be admired. I hear Foucault asking us today, doubtless with a large dose of irony: “How can we arrive at the right balance of forces, and how can we make use of the violence, freedom, and so on that the barbarian brings with him? In other words, which of the barbarian’s characteristics do we have to retain, and which do we have to reject, if we are to get a fair constitution to work? What is there in barbarism that we can make use of?” (p. 197) Our honest answer must be: “We have been doing that for some time now. We have security experts, lawyers, political scientists – entire think tanks and even university departments – figuring out what we must learn from the barbarian’s knowledge in order to enhance and fortify our strategies based on nothing else but a thoroughly realist view of national security. And at moments of crisis, we have no dearth of humanists to make impassioned appeals to us to take seriously the threat that the determined and ruthless barbarian poses to our civilized society.”

But I cannot resist a further twist to this denouement to Foucault’s account of the continuation of war in our pacified society. I imagine the picture in reverse – of the plotter sitting in Syria or Paris or Brussels, it doesn’t matter where. He stands for the most perfect civilization in history which has been at war for centuries with Western barbarians. For him, the question probably is: “What can I learn from the Western barbarian without compromising the identity of my civilization?”

As I said at the beginning, the stakes that Foucault sets for us in these lectures are extremely high, perhaps impossibly so.



[i] “Speech on Opening of Impeachment, 16 February 1788” in The Writings and Speeches of Edmund Burke, vol. 6, ed. P. J. Marshall (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991), pp. 316-7.

[ii] “Lord Clive” (1840) in T. B. Macaulay, Critical and Historical Essays, vol. 1 (London: J. M. Dent, 1946).

[iii] “Perpetual Peace” in Immanuel Kant, On History, ed. Lewis White Beck (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1963), pp. 85-136.