Society Must Be Defended: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975–76

Michel Foucault, Society Must Be Defended: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975–76, Allen Lane an imprint of Penguin Books, London, 2003. pp. 310. $32.95 paperback.

Given his tendency to opaque deliberation, and alleged scorn, at least in the eyes of his critics, for the serious study of the past, Michel Foucault would surely have felt ambiguous about the preservation of his January–March 1976 Collège de France lecture series, Society Must Be Defended, as an historical artefact. Or perhaps not? Society Must Be Defended indicates that Foucault approached his lectures thoughtfully, and with attention to detail; he fretted over their reception. Addressed, like all lectures from the professors of the prestigious Collège, to an audience of anyone who wandered off the Paris streets and cared to hear them, Foucault’s lectures presented findings from research conducted in the previous year. As reprinted in this Penguin edition (the first in a series of his annual lecture programs to be published in coming years), Foucault sought to clarify his aims in a carefully argued course summary written some months after the conclusion of the program; this displays a comforting concern to be understood from an intellectual so identified with a disturbingly radical break with traditional knowledge and methodology.

Foucault polarises readers, a response produced by the dense yet often rather reductionist nature of his arguments. Society Must Be Defended proceeds from a reductionist premise: Can war provide a way of analysing and explaining power relations?

I would like to try to see the extent to which the binary schema of war and struggle, of the clash between forces, can really be identified as the basis of civil society, as both the principle and motor of the exercise of political power.

Foucault argues that, from the seventeenth century, war presided over the birth of states:

not an ideal war — the war imagined by the philosophers of the state of nature [Foucault refers to Machiavelli and Hobbes] — but real wars and actual battles; the laws were born in the midst of expeditions, conquests, and burning towns; but the war continues to rage within the mechanisms of power, or at least to constitute the secret motor of institutions, laws, and order.

Society Must Be Defended explores the infiltration of race into the structures of state power and its discourse in the late nineteenth century, producing fascism and Nazism. Ethnic racism was endemic in the nineteenth century, ‘when it was used to provide an internal social defense against the abnormals’. Foucault tries to trace:

the moment when race struggle and class struggle became, at the end of the nineteenth century, the two great schemata that were used to identify the phenomenon of war and the relationship of force within political society.

Socialists, attracted to the aim of ‘taking control of life and managing it’ were hardly immune to the homogenising appeal of race, and Foucault identifies a proposition fascists and some socialists found darkly seductive: ‘if you want to live, the other must die’, either by murder or the effect of exclusion.

Foucault had in common with Isaiah Berlin an ability to draw from history obscure actors and thinkers whose experience or thought illuminates past and present in new or neglected ways (hands up all those familiar with Boulainvilliers, Sieyes, Montlosier, Buat-Nancay). With Berlin he shared a horror of totalising power and an instinctive scepticism for ‘totalizing explanations’. Berlin would surely have applauded Foucault’s observation that ‘whether one wants it to be or not, [ideology] is always in virtual opposition to something like the truth’. Foucault, however, lacked Berlin’s clarity and consistency.

Foucault often seems torn between his ambitions: to provide a discrete, probing analysis of the breakdown of the totalising explanations — Marxism, psychoanalysis, the whole notion of western enlightenment — which, as he tells his audience, have been ‘crumbling beneath our feet’ since the 1960s; to give voice, through ‘discursive critique’ to the ‘abnormals’, the ‘buried and disqualified’, whose stories have been denied by those who have controlled the prevailing discourse of power and the instruments of government. Yet in the lectures and books that poured from him from the 1960s until his death in 1984 Foucault seemed determined to try to explain everything: sexuality, governmentality, the very ‘order of things’, the nature of knowledge and how it may be reconfigured. Society Must Be Defended records this intensely creative and frustrated process.

The lectures capture Foucault caught up in his own post-modern dilemma, or at least plain intellectual loneliness. Foucault refers to the lecture process as an oddly alienating experience, surrounded by a crush of people — drawn in increasingly larger numbers by the magnet of his reputation — but left drained and with a feeling of ‘total solitude’. All he could do was to distribute his ideas into the fragmented discourse of which he, his audience and ultimately his readers were a part: ‘These are suggestions for research, ideas, schemata, outlines, instruments; do what you like with them’.

What may labour historians draw from Foucault’s work? Whatever his faults, Foucault’s work, as Deleuze observed, ‘pulls us towards a future, toward a becoming’, with a provocative analysis of power, and an opening up of new lines of discursive enquiry into the techniques of government, the expressions of gender and sexuality, and the recovery of marginalised and punished lives. Labour historians might profitably read Society Must Be Defended. For a compelling introduction to this area of Foucault’s work, try ‘Lives of Infamous Men’ (in Power: the Essential Works of Foucault, vol. 3.), his terse analysis of the war waged by the state in the identification and the elimination of the infamous and degenerate. This brief essay, with its forensic and discursive focus on a few paragraphs drawn from legal indictments, clarifies the metaphor of war and the function of state power that Foucault treats at length in Society Must Be Defended, and demonstrates the insights that might be yielded from applying the attributes of a gifted historian: empathy and a profound exercise of the imagination.