Power and Survival

Ed Mendelsohn

In this paper we investigate some of the thoughts of Michel Foucault (1927-1984), a French philosopher who wrote a lot about power and how its exercise requires a strong projection of the concept of truth and how it relies for its justification on an established body of knowledge. Basically, he is talking about developments since the beginning of the Enlightenment, though he also draws comparisons with some ancient cultures. By pursuing a genealogical study a la Nietzsche, Foucault traces the development of the prison system, the treatment of insanity and its definition, as well as other institutions that follow a regimented pattern. His discussion of the concept of discourse and episteme is fascinating. He ends up with an unfavorable comparison of regimented institutions as they have developed in recent times. However, he fails to address certain basic issues, especially whether other ways of dealing with his critiques would enable a society to survive in a desirable manner (leaving aside the question as to what is desirable for now). For now, our main thrust is to speculate – based on Foucault’s thinking – whether there is hope for a future society to offer its members a way of life that provides for variety and independence, yet can survive against forces that would negate those attributes.

Eventually, of course, one needs to establish some criterion that will allow the charting of a course of action, or at least determine whether one is one the right track. Given all the desirable qualities for a future society that could be listed from the average person’s point of view, it seems to me that the notion of personal autonomy might be a good measure to apply. Of course personal autonomy also includes the choice of following a prevalent discourse that many people will elect as their preference. However, it would also enable ‘outsiders’ to live their chosen lifestyle (especially if it is different from ‘mainstream’ discourses). And autonomy assumes that no person would be stuck with a choice made at a previous time. Note that ‘autonomy’ is very different from ‘authenticity’ which is such a fashionable word in philosophy. The latter makes an assumption that somehow there is an interior kernel, that with some effort, one can reach. However, that kind of authenticity, in extreme cases, allows the development of a world view that might include the oppression of those who do not share it.

Now once the concept of personal autonomy is accepted, we are up against the next question: assuming that personal autonomy is desirable, can the social-political system in which personal autonomy is practiced survive? And what does it take to ensure such a survival. Clearly to make survival possible one has to have recourse to power structures. And it is here that we need Foucault to help us in our speculation about the future. What is good power, and what is bad power. And if we decide that we must proceed (and solve the problem as to how such a decision can be made in a timely and procedural manner), how do we avoid such a power structure from staying in place and acting contrary to general desires once the threat is eliminated?

One way of dealing with this issue would be in the manner of Hobbes. However, Foucault is very much opposed to Hobbes which opens up the question of alternatives. Unfortunately, Foucault is not of great help here. He appears to spend a great deal of effort on critiquing what exists but not so much on projecting viable alternatives. What we need is a system that insures all of us present and future a good chance of survival while enjoying a reasonable degree of autonomy.

Much of the change in attitude for the institutions Foucault criticizes is blamed on a new point of view that seeks to control the person in all his/her doings. It aims to ‘homogenize’ human beings so that they can be controlled more easily. The term ‘docile’ is being used to indicate the assumed proper relationship between those in power and those being controlled. A primary manner of controlling human beings is through surveillance and categorization. Foucault sees similar patterns developing in modern times in the prison system, in mental institutions, and in schools, for example. It is, however, not clear to me that control necessarily presents a serious threat to autonomy. One could also argue that some forms of control enhance autonomy inasmuch as it might protect us from forces that may wish to injure our autonomy. If that is the case, the question then arises as to how one might put an effective monitoring system in place to make sure that those who exercise legitimate power do not abuse that power.

If people are striving for autonomy, then they must be able to live within a political environment where they can freely act and develop. The baseline for such an environment comprises a social system that will support their aspirations and protect their many chosen manners of existence. That means that there is available to them a society that allows movement outside the ‘mainstream’. It also means that such a system will protect them from other systems that would thwart such efforts. The ‘excuse’ most likely offered by such contrary systems is that an individual’s striving is not in conformance with the ‘truth’ as defined by the ideology of that particular system. Such insidious argumentation is quite common by political systems that demand conformity of all its members.

Unfortunately, such attitudes may be readily accepted and even propagated in social structures. An excellent example would be Virginia Woolfe’s distinguished novel To the Lighthouse. The novel portrays Ms. Ramsey, who has a large number of children and spends all her time catering to her family. She would like to read but does not have time to do so. Eventually, she passes on without having been able to do anything she really wanted to do. Unfortunately, while alive she appears to promote the very system that denies her autonomy. Somehow she is trapped in a discourse that she cannot get out of, or she is unwilling to pay the price for getting out of it.

Even more insidious are political systems that aim for the total elimination of what they consider to be any contrarian point of view. The goal is the total control of all the members of that society under the banner of a proclaimed ‘truth’. Members who refuse to subscribe to that truth may be ruthlessly eliminated. Unfortunately, examples of such socio-political systems, even in modern times, are prevalent.

At the extreme are those cases where other human beings are ‘tagged’ to be outside the boundaries of the preferred group. Unfortunately, cases abound from antiquity to modern times where that is the case. In many of these instances – once history has erected a ‘time fence’ between us and the incident in question, the perpetrators of these incidents may even be described with admirations and rectitude by present day observers. Thus, for example, the exploits of Julius Caesar in the area of what we now call ‘France’ fall into that category. Such exploits costs a million peaceful Gauls their lives. Today many students of history express great admiration for Julius Caesar and his military ‘skills’. Many other examples could be cited. At times, throughout history, such brutal actions are directed at defenseless human beings. From the actions in ancient Greece, the example of Melos reported by Thucydedes comes to mind, to the Nazi death camps and Soviet Gulags, and the more recent killing fields of Cambodia and massacres in Rwanda come to mind.

The question then arises as to what can be done, if anything, to preclude these horrible events from happening again. We are not just talking about survival, but surviving with some degree of dignity and allowing us to develop our interests. This is what I mean by autonomy, namely the ability to develop in some direction that lies outside what might have been predicted. I would contrast that with ‘authentic’ which presumes that there is some ‘essence’ within me that I need to recover. Unfortunately, that effort may be used to support any state of mind, however limited and directed against others as it may be.

In all cases described above, there is some regime of power that subscribes to a notion of ‘truth’, in the sense that Michel Foucault uses that term. Associated with that concept of truth is a defined body of ‘knowledge’ that supports this concept of truth. To a significant extent then, this truth concept is historically contingent and serves to justify the ideologies of the survivors. This stays in place until the surviving society is replaced by another one some time later in history. This ‘truth’ is protected by power which is usually controlled by an elite that benefits from this set-up.

Can the process of cultural replacements be systematized such that transitions will in the future be peaceful and benign? This amounts to one truth being replaced by another one. Certainly, the existence of an awareness that this may be happening would help a great deal. However, there is no fast and easy rule to predict what will happen (or maybe we do not know all the parameters that enter into the calculation). In general, people are unaware that they are deeply embedded in an episteme, so Foucault tells us. Whether the new or the old will survive is uncertain but there will be changes which will affect life styles. Examples of such ‘holdovers’ are the Roman presence in Gaul and the French presence in England (following the Battle of Hastings). In one case, a vanished society left an indelible mark on an entire culture, and in the other the victor’s culture was absorbed (though it took about 200 years) except for traces in the vocabulary.

Like it or not, our culture is stuck with the unconscious heritage of Hegelianism, which is implicitly contained in our way of being in countless ways in what we imagine a definite beginning and ending, and a value judgment of all the steps in between. Foucault talks about it by saying:

But truly to escape Hegel involves an exact appreciation for the price we have to pay to detach ourselves from him. We have to determine the extent to which our anti-Hegelianism is possibly one of his tricks directed against us, at the end of which he stood motionless, waiting for us (Cambridge Companion, 215).

Whatever analysis we do, it is bound to be impacted by that kind of thinking. In fact, it may be described as part of a discourse we are embedded in. In regard to survival, we might wish to ask whether a socio-political system that has a better chance of flourishing might have to be Hegelian.

One aspect that Foucault appears to neglect is the strong coupling between economic conditions and the way we treat those who are incarcerated. In many cultures where the government does not have large budgets, punishments tend to be rather brutal. In modern Western cultures there appears to be a movement away from such brutalizing penalties. The emphasis is rather on “locking away” those who are defined as “criminal”. Not having to see those who step outside acceptable bounds reassures people that their current discourse “works”. It is interesting to note that California has a prison population of 17,000 persons and a prison budget of about 8 billion dollars. That works out to be an expenditure of 50K per prisoner, and unheard of amount in many societies past and present.

We should not neglect technological ‘advances’. Foucault has a great regard for Heidegger who ‘preached’ against technology. True, at times technology has been misused in warlike activities to control and pronounce a new truth. But it has also resulted in the invention of devices such as the washing machine, the dryer, etc. that have released countless human beings from drudgery and made liberation from domination possible. Even the much maligned ‘fast food’ craze enables people to bypass long and tedious food preparation ‘rituals’. It may have enhanced autonomy while having a negative effect on longevity.

Finally, we should not forget the struggle between high fertility and low fertility groups, whether it happens inter-culturally or temporally. The example of Mr. Ramsey, discussed above, is to the point. However, there are many others. For example, I recently wrote a term paper on the Roman historian Mommsen (the only historian who has received the Nobel Prize for Literature) who died in 1904. He married the former wife of his publisher and together they had 14 (!) children. One of them became an admiral in the Imperial navy; one became a professor, several died, and the rest, who knows. In order for this to work Frau Mommsen had to become Ms. Ramsey, figuratively speaking of course. Additionally, she probably had the help of several young women (Kindermädchen?) whose autonomy was thereby severely compromised. Today, in that culture, the two child family is the norm and the parents invest significant resources in making sure that their children get into the universities (which are bulging at the seams). Modest occupations are reserved for immigrants with high fertility rates. Unfortunately, these are not necessarily from cultures that respect autonomy but probably come with their own discourse (which may not be very kind to the concept of autonomy).

The future of autonomy seems uncertain. Survival of a society that has developed to a point where all its members enjoy a reasonable degree of autonomy is not assured (and the very concept of development might be considered ‘Hegelian’ and therefore unacceptable to Foucault). The dynamics of the situation (i.e. the movement of cultural groups and the resulting configuration and tension between different concepts of ‘truth’) is hard to grasp. The dynamics of power may be even more difficult to predict and Foucault appears to have little to say about that. We might of course hope that over time this will work itself out, but whether in a favorable manner to the development of autonomy or not, who is to say. Eventually, of course, we will get hit by another asteroid (as we have in the past, every 100 million years) and depending on its size, there is a possibility that life on earth might be back to square one.

Works Cited

  • Foucault, Michel. Power (James D. Faubion, ed.). New York: The New Press, 1994.
  • Foucault, Michel. Ethics (James D. Faubion, ed.). New York: The New Press, 1994.
  • Cutting, Gary (ed.). The Cambridge Companion to Foucault. Cambridge University Press, 1994.
  • Rabinow, Paul (ed.), The Foucault Reader. New York: Pantheon Books, 1984.