Bernard E. Harcourt | Epilogue: Four Themes for “Society Must Be Defended”

By Bernard E. Harcourt

The penetrating comments by Ann Stoler, Partha Chatterjee, and Bob Gooding-Williams raise four important themes for our seminar discussion:

  1. The place of “truth and historical forms” in Foucault’s discussion of the discourse of race wars;
  2. The role of colonialism as a pivot moment in Foucault’s analysis;
  3. The function of modern racism in the mechanism of biopower; and
  4. The relevance of Foucault 1976 lectures to the recent global acts of violence.

I.  Truth and History

This first theme was raised most directly in Partha Chatterjee’s comment, and it connects these 1976 lectures well with the earlier series. In terms of the intellectual trajectory of the Collège de France lecture series, many commentators have identified in the first few lectures (esp. ’71, ’72, and ’73) the project of writing a “history of truth.” This organizing thread was somewhat less prominent in the 1974 and 1975 lectures, but it returns here vividly: whereas earlier, Foucault had been addressing “Truth and Juridical Forms,” as he explained in Rio in 1973, here Foucault is squarely in the realm of “Truth and Historical Forms.

Partha Chatterjee captures this brilliantly in his analysis of Foucault’s argument that the historiography of race wars erupts in the seventeenth century (see SMBD pages 57-62) with what Foucault refers to as a “historical-political discourse,” a “counter-history” (p. 70) to the earlier (to be simplistic) Roman history and philosophical-juridical discourse.

In this sense, the discourse of race wars represents one (new) historical form. They have a unique relationship to truth, marked by a de-universalization. As Partha notes, “These histories … do not proclaim any universal truth.” In this new discourse, the relationship to truth changes: it is decentered, as Foucault explains on p. 52. I personally think here of the birth of “realist” political discourse in international relations: a decentering from universality, where being biased, having interests is the guardian of truth. (Foucault’s discussion at pages 52-54 is remarkable and makes me think in particular of realist theories).

Now this leads to what Foucault refers to at the top of page 54 as historical discourse that functions as “a truth-weapon,” “a truth bound up with a relationship of force.” Or on page 57: “it is a discourse in which truth functions exclusively as a weapon that is used to win an exclusively partisan victory.”

This new historical-political discourse intersects with Marx directly, as Foucault draws the connection between race war and class war, a connection that Marx had mentioned in his letter to Joseph Weydemeyer of 5 March 1852. Partha notes this: Marxism, he suggests, is the “ostensible target of this charge by Foucault.” But Partha adds: “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.”

Indeed. So the question we may want to ask ourselves is, how are we, in our own work, able to escape this? Should we even try? Or on the contrary, is that part of our mission? How do we, as historians in this room, political scientists, legal scholars, anthropologists, philosophers, etc. reflect self-reflectively on this question of “Truth and Academic Forms”?

The notion of race wars will be covered and masked later, as Partha suggests, by the idea of “perpetual peace” (in Kant’s terms) and the white-washing of warlike social relations with the advent of the human sciences and the universalism of the post-revolutionary period. How does our own work contribute to this?

II. The Relationship to Colonialism

Ann Sotler asks us, in her insightful comment, first, why Foucault had not turned to European imperial formations to explore state racism, and second, why Foucault had not simply turned to France–the France of the time (though little different today), a France marked by “distressed urban outskirts,” what we call today les banlieus, with their brutal living conditions.

Here, I would suggest that what Foucault offers are “ideas, schematas, outlines” (p. 2) regarding the place of European imperial formations and, specifically, colonialism. So I would like to turn the question back to Ann and ask, not why he did not develop them more, but what can be made of what he does propose.

In the fourth lecture on 28 January 1976, p. 65, Foucault argues that the “discourse of race war or race struggle” of a sociobiological nature (our first theme) was reworked in the 19th century into a “racist discourse” for purposes, he states, “of social conservatism and, at least in a certain number of cases, colonial domination.” So what he is suggesting here is that a primary purpose or function of the introduction of modern racism is colonial domination.

In the next lesson, on 4 February 1976, p. 103, Foucault adds another layer and explores what he calls the “boomerang effect” of colonial practice: the way in which these practices of colonial domination would also revert back to the domestic in the West. What he argues is that the same practices that Western nations would export to the colonies would return to the domestic governing mechanisms of the colonizers. “A whole series of colonial models was brought back to the West, and the result was that the West could practice something resembling colonization, or an internal colonialism, on itself.” (p. 103). So here, the suggestion is that one could either look at colonial domination and colonization as the model for the birth and function of modern racism or one could look at the domestic boomerang illustrations—which I take it would involve the focus on HLM that we were mentioning, but also generalized policing today, such as the kinds of practices that are being most vehemently contested by the #BlackLivesMatters Movement.

Then, after tracing the history of this race war that interests him, Foucault returns to the colonial experience to discuss its racism. Evolutionism and race war, he argues in his eleventh lecture on 17 March 1976, morphs in the 19th century into “a real way of thinking about the relations between colonization, the necessity for wars, criminality, …. and so on.” (p. 257). Foucault states:

“And we can also understand why racism should have developed in modern societies that function in the biopower mode; we can understand why racism broke out at a number of privileged moments, and why they were precisely the moments when the right to take life was imperative. Racism first develops with colonization, in other words, with colonizing genocide. If you are functioning in the biopower mode, how can you justify the need to kill people, to kill populations, and to kill civilizations? By using the themes of evolutionism, by appealing to a racism.” (p. 257).

Although Foucault turns, at the end of the 17 March 1976 lecture, to Nazism, as one example of “the most murderous States” (p. 258), that illustration is only supposed to stand in for other forms of colonizing genocide. [As an aside, query whether this responds to Alondra Nelson’s critique that Foucault elides brute violence? It is here, I believe, that we can discover Foucault’s analysis of extreme murderousness, and it turns on race wars blended with modern racism.]

The question, then, is whether these schemas and ideas are productive and whether they can serve as useful pistes de recherches?

III.  Modern racism

Bob Gooding-Williams draws our attention forward to modern racism, discussed most poignantly by Foucault in three passages, pp. 60-62, 81-84, and 254-263.

This is the modern racism whose function is so dark: it’s not just racial or ethnic racism, which, Lord knows, can be murderous, as we are seeing today with police shootings–the recent release of the Chicago police shooting being a stark illustration. (Query, incidentally, whether that is an incident of racial/ethnic racism or Foucaultian modern racism?). It is not just “ordinary racism” (p. 258). Modern racism is more penetrating because it justifies and legitimates the death drive of biopolitics—the “let die” euphemism, the right to kill that is wedded to the “make live.” It is what justifies the elimination of the abnormal, the degenerate, as a means to enhancing the lives of the superior species-beings. And in fact, as Foucault argues, it justifies the most murderous of all racist states, Nazism (p. 259) and Soviet State racism (p. 83).

Here, I would like to encourage discussion on this third theme of modern racism, but raise one issue: Bob Gooding-Williams suggests that Foucault’s account of modern racism is both too narrow and too broad. Too narrow because it “fails to acknowledge other functions that racism can serve.” (Comment 2.6). But when I listen to the alternative functions—justifying chattel slavery or justifying colonial economic exploitation—I do not hear other functions so much as forms of indirect murder.

Indirect murder is a key element of Foucault’s account: it’s not just killing that Foucault is interested in, or that biopolitics does, it is “every form of indirect murder: the fact of exposing someone to death, increasing the risk of death for some people, or, quite simply, political death, expulsion, rejection, and so on.”

In other words, is the problem that Foucault did not flesh out “indirect murder” – because I would possibly place slavery or economic subservience in that list – or did not provide other functions? And the larger question, of course, is whether we buy this account of the functions of modern racism in the biopolitical power that is best described as “the right to make live and let die”? This is a very important question because I believe it is at the root of the critique of American neoliberalism that Foucault will develop in his Birth of Biopolitics lectures on 21 March 1979. So it is also a theme we will be returning to.

IV. The Implications for today’s acts of violence

Both Ann Stoler and Partha Chatterjee invoke Society Must Be Defended as a useful lens to our current political situation. I agree. Earlier, I had mentioned the emergence of “realism” in international relations in the context of a “truth-weapon.” This kind of realist discourse is, I think, dominant today. In fact, I see it reflected in Partha Chatterjee’s comments, where he discusses security experts with their “thoroughly realist view of the national interest.” To what extent does realism represent one of the truth-weapons functioning in today’s debates?

Ann Stoler points our attention to the ritualized blowback to the Paris attacks, seeing there a vivid illustration of “Foucault’s insights about the intensely racialized qualities of the biopolitical modern state.” For his part, Partha adds a final twist to the conversation, imagining one of the plotters asking him or herself “What can I learn from the Western Barbarian without compromising the identity of my civilization?” This is, naturally, a pregnant question or formulation—so much so that it may be impossible for us to resolve. I take that to be Partha’s point: the stakes of these lectures may be impossibly high.

If we agree that the stakes may be impossibly high, then perhaps there is no way out of this “race war against barbarians” from both perspectives.  But I wonder whether we want to leave it there. And so I would like to open that fourth theme for further discussion.