Foucault, Humanitarianism and the Will-to-Power

This is the first post that’s coming out of my attempt to read ‘Discipline and Punish‘ by Michel Foucault. I want to start with the broadest idea of the book: an analysis of how our attitudes to and methods of punishment have changed in the emergence of modern society.

Foucault’s story is like this: in the previous ideology of punishment, the criminal appeared as something outside of and opposed to the social body – that social body being identified with the body of the king. The function of punishment was to reaffirm the superiority of the sovereign body over the criminal’s body by destroying it; the more complete the destruction, the more effective. Hence criminals taken out in public, tortured, dismembered, and finally executed.

In the currently ascendant ideology of punishment, the criminal appeared as always still a part of the social body, but a malfunctioning and diseased part (partly because the social body was now the nation and the people, not the sovereign). So now the function of punishment is to restore it to health – to strengthen and clean society.

Some key consequences of this new approach to punishment: that rather than seeking excess (after all, to rip off someone’s flesh with pincers, and kill them, and then string out their guts, is pretty excessive) it had to seek balance between two opposed imperatives. On the one hand, to attack and harm (after all, that’s what punishment is), but on the other, to respect and preserve the criminal (for they must eventually be returned to society in ‘mended’ form).

Secondly, knowledge of the criminal now becomes vital – detailed understanding so that they can be changed both inside and outside. This again tells against ‘excess’ and ‘violence’, because they might disrupt the collection of systematic data. The prison thus appears as the paradigm of punishment it preserves a symbolic ‘something’ about the prisoner that is not violated (they can keep their bodily integrity as long as they follow the regulations) and because its regimented, drawn-out nature allows for the collection of detailed information, the detailed composition of schedules and regulations, and the endeavour of trying to ‘fix’ the defective human being.

That’s how Foucault presents matters – and in many respects this account is not too different from the conventional liberal story. As society became more ‘civilised’, its efforts at punishment shifted away from being motivated by base motives of vengeance and cruelty, and came to embrace ‘humanitarian’ punishment that respected the ‘rights’ and ‘dignity’ of the criminal, along with seeking to ‘understand’ them so as to ‘rehabilitate’ them.

The two stories are clearly referring to the same phenomenon, but presenting it in quite different ways – in essence, for the liberal, this new ‘humanitarianism’ is the opposite of the preceding attitudes towards punishment, while for Foucault, it is a different version of them.

It’s Foucault’s interpretation that makes most sense to me – it looks both more likely that the new approach should take over a heavy debt to the former, and similar foundations, and also more suited to explaining the defects of ‘humanitarianism’ that sit uneasily with its avowed principles.

What I want to add, and explore, is that this change looks like an example of a more widely recognisable psychological phenomenon: a sort of ‘sadistic-altruistic shift’. If I enjoy exercising power, then the way that I prefer to do so is liable to become more destructive and sadistic as I feel more threatened and insecure, and more ‘benevolent’ as I feel more secure and confident. Under threat, I must exhibit power by destroying the threat as much as possible – with more security, I can rise my sights to aim at a more refined form of power, that would make the recipient accept my dominance with gratitude.

So it seems that what’s happened is that as ‘society’ becomes stronger (and, insofar as certain groups have effective control over society and its resources, as they become stronger) its sense of that strength makes it less interested in merely destroying its ‘enemies within’, and more interested in a greater expression of dominance – ‘reforming’ them.

What might this suggest about the future? There are three obvious thoughts one might suggest.

Firstly, it might be that this is neither an improvement nor a worsening, merely a change of form, and in a century or two we’ll merely get another form of the same will-to-power. We may document the development of humanitarianism, but see nothing of great promise or threat in it. Foucault doesn’t explicitly say anything like this, but to me it seems to be, in practice, the implication of the general future-agnosticism of him and his pomo friends.

Secondly, it might be that this humanitarian form of power is actually, in its own way, worse – perhaps not now, but for the future. We might predict that if society continues to develop as it has, the institutions of discipline – prisons among them – will become so generalised that no other tendency of impulse will be able to contest the ‘will to rehabilitative power’. This possibility is explored in books like 1984 and Brave New World – in both cases, an omnipotent power controls all of society ‘for its own benefit’, though in different ways.

Thirdly, it might be that humanitarianism is a progressive step, and that its further development will be in the direction of its own dissolution (that is, dissolution as a particular form of power-relationship).

That would involve telling a story like this: the reason why the human psyche finds ‘rehabilitation’ a more satisfying form of domination (and hence prefers it when it has sufficient confidence) is because, together with self-defensive urges, it naturally contains a wish for fellowship and reconciliation. Its perspective naturally reaches out to the other person’s shoes, and humanitarian punishment provides a mix of these two: it combines power-over with a measure of empathy and fellowship.

Consequently, when that psyche’s power and confidence increases even more, the need for domination ebbs, while the need for fellowship strengthens. The amount of control and self-assertion-by-power-over that’s needed is less: the psyche is less afraid of the other’s unpredictability, and so is more willing to grant it freedom, more willing to let go of some control – while the need for fellowship, in order to be able to sleep at night, does not similarly weaken.

Eventually, it becomes more satisfying to let the other be free, and to enjoy the sense of self that comes from being recognised by one whom you recognise (am I sounding Hegelian enough?), than to seek to control them. It is still the same desire, at base – still will-to-power (am I sounding Nietzschean enough?), but now finding satisfaction not in triumph of ‘me’ over ‘you’ but of ‘us’ over our the very alienation that made ‘me-over-you’ make sense.

The key claim here, in amongst the German philosophy, is that our desire to affirm ourselves by dominating others (rather than in more social ways) is a product of fear and weakness, and that therefore, if the curret processes of technology and social development continue, it will be gradually reduced.

That amounts, arguably, to a particularly specific form of the oft-debated idea that ‘human beings are naturally good’. It also implies that the predictions of such novels as ‘Brave New World’ are not natural extensions of current trends, but rather the product of an artificial (and, over time, likely unstable) holding up of those trends – that the lack of interest in freedom or transcendence, and the great willingness to control and manipulate, which such dystopias envisage, would need a setting of societal fear, weakness, and vulnerability that the technology they possess would be in serious tension with.

Such a position might seem blithely optimistic. It might also seem determinist, in that it suggests that the cycles of cruelty will wear out due to relatively apolitical trends in technology, rather than by ‘our’ efforts to break them.

Such allegations are perhaps valid, and perhaps not. They certainly don’t imply that it’s not nevertheless true.

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