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Alex Callinicos

Who is in control?

(November 1978)

From Socialist Review, No. 7, November 1978.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison
Michel Foucault
Allen Lane £7.50

The use of imprisonment as the general form of punishment is, Michel Foucault reminds us, a comparatively recent phenomenon, dating back to the early nineteenth century.

Previously punishment involved the use of exemplary violence against the offender – Discipline and Punish begins with a description of a particularly gruesome public execution in 1757 in which the living body of the victim was literally pulverised, torn to pieces and finally reduced to ashes (anyone who saw Ken Russell’s film The Devils will have a pretty good picture of the barbaric tortures involved).

In the following two hundred years the nature of punishment has been transformed – executions, when they still happen, are not (usually) accompanied by torture and take place in private; criminals are sent to prison, with the avowed aim, not of making them suffer, but of improving them.

Liberal historians describe these changes as the product of an enlightened and rational society which has left medieval barbarism behind it. Foucault, one of the most outstanding figures on the contemporary French intellectual scene, sets out to refute these claims.

He argues that the shift from one form of punishment to another reflected the development of what he calls ‘a new “political economy” of the power to punish’, in other words, the introduction of a different method of controlling the population.

Public executions were intended, by the physical destruction of the victim, to demonstrate the ‘super-power’ of the feudal monarchy, its ability to exterminate anyone who broke its laws. But this form of intimidation involved dangers – it turned punishment into a public spectacle, in which the crowd of spectators might easily side with the victim and, even, on occasion, free him.

The new capitalist class which was asserting its claims to dominance at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century needed a more efficient and less risky form of punishment to protect its property. Hence the movement of penal reform led by figures like Beccaria and Jeremy Bentham.

The product of the reform movements was the prison. Imprisonment, according to Foucault, has functioned as a form of what he calls the disciplines.

These are a set of techniques of physical control, whose aim is not so much, as in the case of public execution, to terrorise the mass of the population into subjection, as to channel their activities in a certain direction, supervising these activities so as to ensure that they are carried out at the pace and in the manner required.

Hence the spread of a range of institutions – prisons, schools, factories, hospitals, barracks – in which people’s activities are subject to a set of rules prescribing what they should or should not do, and are constantly supervised.

This theory clearly has implications which extend far beyond the prison. Foucault believes, for example, that the human sciences were produced as part of the same process as the ‘technology of power’ he calls the disciplines – that the human individual only became an object of scientific analysis once his or her body had become the point of application of the techniques of surveillance and control involved in disciplines.

Foucault, by concentrating on the ‘microphysics of power’ at work in the disciplines, consciously sidesteps, the question of the broader social processes of which their introduction was part – above all the development of capitalism.

This, it emerges in his most recent book. The Will to Knowledge (as yet untranslated from the French), reflects a conscious break with orthodox Marxism – society is, he argues, to be seen a collection of diverse power relations, rather as a social whole shaped by the basic conflict between capital and labour.

The problem is that this approach means that Foucault is extremely vague when it comes to explaining how the ‘disciplinary society’ came into being; he describes the spread of the disciplines as a process of ‘infiltration’. Surely this will not do, without some explanation of the way in which capitalist relations of production made the introduction of the disciplines both possible and necessary.

There is another, more basic fault. Foucault treats the different disciplinary institutions – prisons, barracks, schools, hospitals, factories – as if they were the same. However, the factory does not equal the prison, Workers are indeed subjected to what Marx called ‘the despotism of the factory’.

But there also develops within the factory the ability to organise and fight collectively on the part of the workers. No other institution in capitalist society has anywhere the same effect. That is why the struggle between worker and capitalist at the point of production is not just one of a multiplicity of relations of power – it is the fulcrum on which the struggle to overthrow capitalism must be based.

His approach leads Foucault to reduce the struggle of the exploited and oppressed to ‘a multiplicity of points of resistance’. Resistance is inherent in every power relation: resistances are, as he puts it, ‘the other term, in the relations of power’.

He seems to imply that both power, and resistance to it, are inevitable. The oppressed will resist power, but they cannot destroy it. Foucault’s basic message is therefore a pessimistic one.

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