'Society Must Be Defended' - On Lecture Two

Lecture Two14th January 1976[1]

In the first moments of the second lecture in his ‘Society Must Be Defended’ series, Michel Foucault outlines the rationale behind his current research. Simply put, this is the extent to which ‘war’ can provide a fundamental insight into the analysis of power relations. Foucault phrases this overarching question in the following manner:

“Can we find in bellicose relations, in the model of war, in the schema of struggle or struggles, a principle that can help us understand and analyse political power, to interpret political power in terms of war, struggles and confrontations?”

From here, he contends that he wishes to begin unpacking this through the concept of the ‘military institution’ that has functioned within society since the seventeenth century.

Once again, as in the first lecture, Foucault wishes to revise some of his earlier work in order to demonstrate how this flows into the topic at hand. The first claim he makes is that his project between 1970 and 1971 was concerned with the ‘how’ of power, in order to understand its mechanisms. In this he establishes two limits or markers:

1) The rules of right that formally demarcate power.

2) The truth-effects that power produces.

In this, there are three major concepts that form the building blocks of Foucault’s grasp regarding the ‘how’ of power, forming a structure between them in a triangular fashion as such:

Power, Right, and Truth thus form a mutually constructive relationship to one another that forge a certain basis of power relations themselves. In traditional terms, this often leads to a rather specific question, namely, how does discourses of truth (and included in this is the discourse of philosophy) establish the limits of power’s right? So, how does truth co-constitute the right of power? This traditional question of political philosophy, in usual fashion, Foucault dismisses for another.

Instead, he chooses to formulate the problem differently, emphasising not how truth discourses lead to the right of power, but rather what type of power is capable of producing discourses of power that have such formidable effects? Or, in a different frame, what are the rules of right that stem from power to produce discourses on truth? The traditional question concerns Truth – Right – Power; Foucault’s mechanises this trio differently, as Power – Right – Truth – i.e. the reverse. Why reformulate this?

Relations of power cannot be severed from the discourse of truth, and neither can they be formed nor operate without such discourses in circulation. Power thus relies on truth discourses. “Power cannot be exercised unless a certain economy of discourses of truth function in, on the basis of, and thanks to, that power”, and in this our contemporary societies are structured in a peculiar way.

The first aspect of this concerns the way we are forced and obliged to tell the truth, condemned to admit or discover it. Truth is produced, Foucault exclaims, in the same manner that we must produce wealth, and thus we must produce truth so to produce wealth. I do have a question with this, in relation to the first lecture. Simply put, Foucault relates truth production to wealth production, yet in the previous lecture he explicitly states that economic conceptualisations of the truth-power nexus require overhauling. In this, perhaps he falls into a trap he critiques others for also doing? Nonetheless, it is the discourse on truth that lays down the law, that decides, coveys and drives the outcome of a discourse of truth (truth-effects). This shifts the initial triangular relation between Truth, Power and Right to a dual relation; between rules of power and the power of truth discourses.

This, as Foucault explains, is the general domain which he wishes to investigate and examine. In order to do this, he begins by discussing the relationship between law and royal power.

In western societies, the elaboration of juridical thought has essentially centred around royal power since the Middle Ages. The juridical edifice of society was forged in order to serve as the instrument and justification of royal power, aiding the notion we hold in the west that right is the right of the royal command; stemming from the reactivation of Roman law in the Middle Ages and reconstructing a certain absolutism located in the personage of the royal sovereign.[2] In later centuries, and the coming of the Modern era, the judicial edifice escaped from royal control and turned against royal power, turning the issue at stake into the limits of power and its prerogatives after its detachment from the absolutism of divine monarchical right. This turned tradition on its head, especially considering that the western juridical system concerned the king, their rights and the limits of their power – remaining fixated with the limits of royal power until even today.

In either sense, the ‘western’ judicial edifice was concerned with royal power in one of two ways: (a) demonstrating the sempiternal sovereign authority vested in the body of the king, or, (b) demonstrating that the power of the sovereign had to be limited in order to retain its legitimacy. Thus, we can see that from the Middle Ages onwards, the essential role of the theory of right was to establish the legitimacy of power – connecting the theory of right to the problem of sovereignty.

The problem of right in connection to sovereignty holds an essential function regarding the technique and discourse of right to dissolve overt domination and replace it in a masked form with two things: (a) the legitimate rights of the sovereign, on the one hand, and (b) the legal obligation to obey on the other – centring the system of right on the king, and as such, eliminating the appearance of domination and its consequences. The General project for Foucault in past years, he mentions, was to invert this analysis. His attempt had been to, in his own terms:

“stress the fact of domination – that is self-evident – but also how, to what extent, and in what form right (and when I say right, I am not thinking of just the law, but of all the apparatuses, institutions, and rules that apply it) serves as a vehicle for and implements relations that are not relations of sovereignty, but relations of domination.”[3]

Indeed, Foucault wishes to stress the opposite of the traditional problem of sovereignty in relation to the theory of right, i.e., that relations of right serve to implement not relations of sovereignty (of rights legitimation and obedience) but of domination.

What is ‘right’ and ‘domination’ in this sense? How does Foucault understand what these conceptual terms? Domination, for Foucault, exists as “the multiple forms of domination that can be exercised in society”, thus, he shifts emphasis from the king in their central position to subjects in their reciprocal relations that take place and function within the social body, and that come to the surface as subjugation. Right, should be views not in terms of legitimacy to be forged, but as a vehicle for the subjugation it implements, intricately connecting both domination and rights as subjugating forces, shifting emphasis away from sovereignty and subjugation. From here, Foucault maintains that a number of methodological precautions must undergo discussion. Indeed, he lists five:

1) Power can be grasped by focussing on its extremities, where it becomes less judicial.

2) Not to approach power at the level of intentions or decisions, nor to approach it from the ‘inside’ and ask ‘who has power?’.

3) Power passes through the individuals it has constituted.

4) This circulation of power is true up until only a certain point of limit.

5) It is possible that ideological production did coexist with the great machineries of power.

Let’s investigate each of these briefly. The first methodological precaution Foucault identifies is that the object of investigation is to understand power by focussing on its extremities and its outer limits, i.e., to grasp power at its most peripheral and extreme manifestations. Foucault does give an example of the ‘power to punish’, quietly linking to the work in his famous ‘Discipline and Punish’ that was published in the months prior to these lectures. Rather than trying to discern how the power to punish locates its basis in sovereignty, in terms of monarchical or democratic right, ‘Discipline and Punish’ focuses on how the power to punish was expressed in a certain number of local, regional, and material institutions like imprisonment or torture, whilst simultaneously concerned with the institutional, physical, regulatory and violent frame of the actual apparatus of punishment. This is an example of how power can itself be grasped by focussing on its extremities – in the orbit of the local.

Secondly – The central tenet of this methodological precaution concerns not to approach power at the level of intentions or decisions, nor to approach it from the ‘inside’ and ask ‘who has power?’. Foucault’s goal, he claims, is to study power at the point where the intentions of them who hold power are completely invested in real and effective practices, by studying its ‘external’ face – i.e., the place where “it [power] implants itself and produces its real effects”. As opposed to asking what the sovereign appears like from on high, one ought to ask how individual bodies are constituted as both political subjects and a conscious subject.

This is precisely the opposite of what we can say Thomas Hobbes was attempting with his seminal 1651 work ‘Leviathan’. The concern of the early modern and medieval jurists was to discover how a multiplicity of individual drives can be shaped into a single will as a body politic. Foucault asks us to recall the schema of Hobbes’s Leviathan. Here, the Leviathan is no more than the coagulation of a distinct number of individuals, united by the state’s constituent elements. At the heart, or head rather, is something that constitutes the entire body, and this is the sovereign – the soul of the Leviathan as Hobbes describes it. Rather than raising the issue of a ‘central soul’, Foucault claims that we should be studying the multiple bodies that constitute the material of the Leviathan at its periphery, by studying “the bodies that are constituted as subjects by power-effects”.

Thirdly - Power passes through the individuals it has constituted. Power is not an entity that is divided between those who are exclusively its bearers and those are not, being subject to it. “Power must”, Foucault asserts, “be analysed as something that circulates, or rather something that functions only when it is part of a chain”. Power is not posited in specific localities alone, in this site or that. Power functions and exists through networks, and individuals are in a position to both submit to and exercise power via this network. “They are never the inert or consenting targets of power; they are always its relays”.[4] Power passes through individuals, it is not applied to them, it is not necessarily a tangible entity. It would be an error, therefore, to think of the individual as a primitive atom or nucleus to which power is applied or struck by. Reflectively, power indeed permits the constitution of an entity to be identified as something individual. “The individual is not, in other words, power’s opposite number; the individual is one of power’s first effects”, i.e., the constitution of the individual is a power-effect, and simultaneously they are a despatcher of that power - power passes through the individuals it constitutes.

Fourthly - This circulation of power is true up until only a certain point of limit. Power does indeed pass or migrate through both our bodies (as relays) but also through the body politic as a whole. This being said, power is not distributed either democratically or anarchically. As a result of this, an analysis should concern the way in which the phenomena, techniques, and procedures of power ‘come into play’ at the lowest, or rather most peripheral, levels, as opposed to beginning at the centre and assessing how far it is reproduced away from that innermost potent site – linking to Foucault’s grasp of ‘subjugated knowledges’ in the first lecture.

Foucault goes on to discuss this fourth point in relation to Madness, connecting to his early work ‘Madness and Civilization’. Discussing the relations between the discourse of madness and Bourgeois society, Foucault explains that analysis should focus on the localisation and power-effects upon general discourse as a whole. In most cases, analysis generally centres its attention on the primary effects from the rule of the Bourgeoisie in relation to productive forces, i.e., how madness is not conducive to production, and as such, became excluded. Contrary to this, rather, one should look “in historical terms, and from below, at how control mechanism come into play in terms of the exclusion of madness, or the repression and suppression of sexuality”. Focus should turn to the agents of power not within the Bourgeoisie in general, but the agents of the power-effects upon discourse existing within social structure, e.g. amongst and within the family, parents, doctors, nurses, police constables, and so on. What is significant to highlight is not that exclusion had to occur, but that the techniques and procedures of exclusion itself came into being through the power-effects on discourse. This is what interests Foucault, in discerning how these mechanisms and techniques of exclusion became part of the whole.

“In other words, the bourgeoisie doesn’t give a damn about the mad, but from the nineteenth century onward and subject to certain transformations, the procedures used to exclude the mad produced or generated a political profit, or even a certain economic utility. They consolidated the system and helped it to function as a whole. The Bourgeoisie is not interested in the mad, but is interested in power over the mad.”[5]

Fifthly - It is possible that ideological production does coexist with the great machineries of power. Foucault begins his discussion of this methodological precaution by declaring that he did not think that ideologies are shaped at ‘the base’, at the point where the networks of power culminate. The mechanisms of power are unable to function unless knowledge, and the apparatuses of said knowledge, are formed, organised and spread. Equally, Foucault emphasises that these epistemological apparatuses are non-ideological. A critique that I think is important to cite against Foucault here is that although he tells us what is not ideological, he does not explicate how he grasps the very concept of ‘ideology’ itself. It would be foolish of us to simply assume a Marxian undercurrent in his conceptual grasp of ideology, i.e. as ‘false consciousness’, considering his postfoundationalism and anti-Marxism generally. Thus, although Foucault does illuminate much concerning the structures of knowledge in relation to ideology, by neglecting to etch out a basic grasp of the concept, one is left begging therefore what these knowledge structures are not to a greater extent – this precaution acts to mystify, not to clarify. Even in this, he dedicates only a moment to this fifth precaution, and as such, one cannot help but feel greater development of the point was perhaps necessary.

From here, Foucault engages with a summary of all five methodological precautions his project involves. In his own words:

“I think we should orient our analysis of power toward material operations, forms of subjugation, and the connections among and the uses made of the local systems of subjugation on the one hand, and apparatuses of knowledge on the other.”

For the sake of a pictorial representation of what Foucault affirms should be the anchor of an analysis of power, the following is a diagram of what he claims above:

All in all, Foucault makes it clear that the Hobbesian model of the leviathan requires jettisoning, at least for the analysis of power-effects, beginning with centring focus on the techniques and tactics of domination and subjugation.

In this, a unifying fact emerges for Foucault, namely, that: “the juridico-political theory of sovereignty – the theory we have to get away from if we want to analyse power – dates from the Middle Ages” and stems from the reactivation of roman law. This theory of sovereignty, he claims, plays four roles:

1) It referred to the actual power mechanism of the feudal monarchy.

2) It was used as an instrument to constitute and justify the great monarchical administrations.

3) It was used to both restrict and strengthen royal power.

4) It was used was used to construct an alternative model to authoritarian or absolute monarchical administration in the eighteenth century, especially in relation to Rousseauian thought, i.e., that of popular democracy and the ‘General Will’ (volonté générale).

In other words, the power relations that emerged from sovereignty, understood in both a broad and narrow sense, where coextensive with the entire social body. Equally, the manner in which power was exercised could be chronicled in terms of subject/sovereign relations. With the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a new phenomenon came into being as the appearance of a new mechanism of power with specific procedures that were irreconcilable with relations of sovereignty that applies primarily to bodies – in terms of corporeal sovereignty – making it possible to extract time and labour; a type of power that is exercised through constant surveillance and not discontinuously through systems of taxation and obligation. Foucault expresses that this form of power, this new phenomenon of corporeal subjugation, is the opposite form of power that the theory of sovereignty aimed to transcribe. Foucault explains this through the distinction between power over land and that over bodies:

“The theory of sovereignty is bound up with a form of power that is exercised over the land and the produce of the land, much more so than over bodies and what they do…The theory of sovereignty is, if you like, a theory which can found absolute power on the absolute expenditure of power, but which cannot calculate power within minimum expenditure and maximum efficiency.”

This new form of power that Foucault attempts to sketch out cannot be understood in terms of sovereignty, and is one of the Bourgeoisie’s great inventions. This, Foucault claims, is ‘disciplinary power’ and it cannot be justified in terms of sovereignty alone. Disciplinary power, thus, in Foucault’s framework, is distinct from that of the theory of sovereignty. In this, however, the theory of sovereignty continued to function as an ideology of right, of sorts, and to organise the juridical codes that the nineteenth century would come to adopt in the post-Napoleonic era. Foucault asks “Why did the theory of sovereignty live on in this way as an ideology and as the organizing principle behind the great juridical codes?”. Effectively, why did the theory of sovereignty remain extant? I would like to add that Foucault still does not conceptualise his grasp of ideology, but the question he does ask is fascinating.

He provides a twofold answer. Firstly, the theory of sovereignty was a permanent critical mechanism to be employed against the monarchy and all the obstacles that restricted the advancement of a disciplinary society. Secondly, the theory of sovereignty made it possible to place over the mechanisms of discipline a frame of right that hid its apparatus and erased the elements and techniques of domination involved in discipline. Simply put, judicial systems permitted the democratization of sovereignty precisely because the democratization of sovereignty was heavily stabilised by the mechanisms of disciplinary coercion. In his own words:

“To put it in more condensed terms, one might say that once disciplinary constraints had to both function as mechanisms of domination and be concealed to the extent that they were the mode in which power was actually exercised, the theory of sovereignty had to find expression in the juridical apparatus and had to be reactivated or complemented by judicial codes”.

A brief point of order, perhaps, is the extent to which this concealment was undertaken consciously or occurred under the radar, so to speak. Nonetheless, from the nineteenth century until the present day, we have constructed in our societies, firstly, a discourse and an organization of public right articulated around the sovereignty of the social body, and secondly, that a dense squaring of disciplinary coercion exists that guarantees the cohesion of that body. The two are mutually constructive, i.e., a right of sovereignty and a mechanics of discipline go hand in hand; between these two is where power is exercised and one can never truly be reduced to the other – they function in tandem. Indeed – “power is exercised through, on the basis of, and in the very play of the heterogeneity between a public right of sovereignty and a polymorphous mechanics of discipline”.

Moving on from this, Foucault explains that the discourse of disciplines concerns not a discourse of juridical rule derived from sovereignty, but one regarding a so-called rule of nature that had simply become the norm. Disciplines define a code of normalization and as such refer not to the edifice of law, but rather the field of the human sciences and its jurisprudence of clinical knowledge – linking the discussion back to the topic of power/knowledge that Foucault introduced in the first lecture. The gradual constitution of the human sciences, and its discourse, has been made possible by the juxtaposition of (a) the organisation of right around sovereignty, and on the other hand, (b) the mechanics of coercion exercised by disciplines. Thus, contemporarily, power is exercised through both right and disciplines. The mechanisms of discourse that arise by means of discipline invade the notion of right, and as such, normalising procedures increasingly ‘colonise’ the procedures of the law. Interestingly, perhaps Foucault draws a connection, even an interchangeability, here between the notions/acts of ‘normalisation’ and ‘colonisation’. The workings of this juxtaposition are what he pens as ‘normalising society’.

To be more specific, Foucault describes this postulation in the following manner:

“I think that normalization, that disciplinary normalizations, are increasingly in conflict with the juridical system of sovereignty; the incompatibility of the two is increasingly apparent; there is greater and greater need for a sort of arbitrating discourse, for a sort of power and knowledge that has been rendered neutral because its scientificity has become sacred.”

Where does Foucault see this confrontation, however? His answer to this is in the expansion of medicine and the ‘medicalisation’ of behaviour – relating to his ‘Madness and Civilization’ and ‘The Birth of The Clinic’. This process, this medicalization of social behaviour, Foucault claims, has taken place whilst overlaying the point at which the discipline and sovereignty meet. To continue in his own words:

“That is why we now find ourselves in a situation where the only existing and apparently solid recourse we have against the usurpations of disciplinary mechanics and against the rise of a power that is bound up with scientific knowledge is precisely a recourse or a return to a right that is organized around sovereignty, or that is articulated on that old principle.”

The question remains however, after assessing and analysing where the discourses of scientific knowledge and sovereignty meet, what happens in real life, in concrete terms? Foucault argues that against this juxtaposition, state edifices invoke the older formal notion of bourgeois right that is, in reality, the right of sovereignty. Nonetheless, critically, undertaking a recourse to sovereignty against the power-effects of discipline will not enable the limitation of the effects of disciplinary power. To limit the effects of disciplinary power, Foucault seems to be suggesting, one must go beyond the normalised liberal framework that seeks to limit such disciplinary power by no more than an appeal to rights.

All in all, sovereignty and discipline, the right of the sovereignty, disciplinary apparatuses, and legislation constitute the general mechanisms of power in our contemporary society. If we wish to search for a ‘non-disciplinary power’ the old right of sovereignty must no longer be turned to, but rather a new mode of right that is both (a) antidisciplinary and (b) emancipated from the principle of sovereignty all together. In the net lecture, Foucault turns his attention to the imbedded logic of war and struggle at the heart of disciplinary society.


[1] Michel Foucault (2020) Society Must Be Defended: Lectures at The Collège de France, 1975-1976, London: Penguin Books, pp. 23-42.

[2] Reminded me of Ernst H. Kantorowicz (2016) The King’s Two Bodies: A Study in Medieval Political Theology, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

[3] Emphasis added.

[4] Although I do not wish to make comparisons, or state the existence of power in this way as such, my mind is always drawn to the Deleuzian notion of a Rhizome here because of the manner in which Foucault claims power functions as a network where individuals are its relays. Here, with power as a network of relays and reaction, the six principles of a rhizome may apply: connection, homogeneity, multiplicity, asignifying rupture, cartography and decalcomania.

[5] Emphasis added.