The Problems with Historical Materialism in Discipline and Punish

In “Two Lectures,” Michel Foucault criticizes historical materialism for inadequately explaining social phenomena. He derides academics that use bourgeois domination to explain a diverse range of social trends, including the exclusion of madness and the repression of infantile sexuality. Foucault calls this kind of social theory too easy and faults it for yielding results that are both true and false simultaneously. Yet, Foucault commits the same error when he derives the origin of disciplinary power from bourgeois domination in Discipline and Punish. According to Foucault, an eighteenth century shift from an illegality of rights to an illegality of property prompted the bourgeoisie to protect their goods by making the penal system more efficient. They removed public execution and torture, symbols of the inefficacy of the sovereign, and targeted the criminal’s soul. Later, the upper class created the concept of delinquency to supervise and normalize the poor (Discipline 277). By using bourgeois influence to explain penal reform, Foucault ignores other social trends and insufficiently explains power outside of the prison. Without providing substantial evidence to support his claims, Foucault dismisses the idea that the reformers might have changed punishment by appealing to human sympathy. Instead, he forces their efforts into a larger discourse, dominated by the bourgeoisie. Although upper-class influence offers a plausible explanation for penal reform, it fails to justify disciplinary power in its other forms. Foucault asserts that disciplinary power extends throughout all society, but does not give a reason for it to exist outside of the prison. The errors in Foucault’s ideas about penal reform reflect a larger problem with his idea of power. Foucault finds power in discourse and social relations, but neglects to discuss the reasons why power exists in a given situation. His problems in deriving the origin of modern discipline arise because he conceives of power as strategy but leaves the employers of power and their goals unclear.

In Discipline and Punish, Foucault attempts to create a genealogy of the modern soul by examining the evolution of punishment (Discipline 29). His primary interest is in how punishment stopped targeting the criminal’s body and instead controlled his behavior through examination and discipline. During the eighteenth century, protest against public torture increased, and people demanded that punishment respect the humanity of the criminal. In Foucault’s view, the call for punishment to be humane lacked a rational explanation (Discipline 74). He rejects the idea that sympathy for others prompted this change and instead emphasizes a transformation in crime. With the wealth of society increasing, crime became more widespread and shifted its focus from physical violence to material goods. Foucault cites the fact that from the end of the seventeenth century, the rates of murder and assault decreased, while those for economic crimes increased (Discipline 75). The higher prevalence of crime and its new nature called for a change in punishment. Foucault argues that the concentration of power in the sovereign incapacitated the penal system by making justice irregular. The old system demonstrated royal power through the excess of physical torture but was not effective at preventing economic crimes. It left open loopholes that permitted popular illegality to mushroom at the end of the seventeenth century (Discipline 78-9). For example, the king could suspend the courts or overrule their judgments. The king could also sell a portion of his judicial power to magistrates who made the application of punishment even less consistent. Thus, Foucault believes that the change in punishment was a strategy to control a new and quickly spreading kind of crime. Although the reformers appealed to a concept of humanity, a larger discourse that called for penal regulation influenced their claims.

In Foucault’s terms, a discourse defines what is conceivable within a field of knowledge. Foucault believes that knowledge and power are inseparable, because every opinion must be situated within a discourse (Discipline 27). Saying something outside of a discourse is nearly impossible, and Foucault gives the example of the modern penal system to illustrate this point. Although many people realize that the prison fails at rehabilitating the criminal and preventing crime, abolishing it is inconceivable. According to Foucault, modern thinkers aim to improve the penal system, but the discourse concerning it presupposes the existence of the prison (Discipline 232). Discussing the relationship between power and knowledge, Foucault writes that “we should admit rather that power produces knowledge… that power and knowledge directly imply one another; that there is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute at the same time power relations” (Discipline 27). Thus, Foucault asserts that the reformers’ efforts to make punishment more humane must be placed within the discourse of the time. The protest against torture and public execution coincided with a shift in crime’s focus from hurting others’ bodies to stealing goods. According to Foucault, this transformation necessitated less severe modes of punishment and more subtle ways of ordering the lives of individuals (Discipline 89). Foucault believes that there was a strategic coincidence between what the reformers wanted and what the bourgeoisie needed. He argues that the reformers’ criticism was not aimed at the cruelty of power, but instead at its ineffective management. The reformers wanted to eliminate public execution, because it was where the excess power of the sovereign and the illegality of the people were most visible. They thus set up man and a respect for his feelings as the limitations of power. In this explanation of penal reform, Foucault’s placement of every opinion within a discourse results in a very cynical and limited view of social change. Without providing any evidence except the coincidence of the reformers’ efforts with other trends, he dismisses the idea that human sympathy might have caused penal reform. Foucault suggests that the eighteenth century reformers were acting within a bourgeois discourse of power either consciously or unconsciously.

The bourgeoisie not only made punishment less severe, but also gave the prison its current disciplinary qualities, according to Foucault. After economic crime caused the first change in the penal system, another shift in illegality led to the prison’s focus on the supervision and normalization of the criminal. Foucault claims that in the nineteenth century there was a shift from material illegality to political illegality. He refers to the period of political uprising from the French Revolution to the Revolutions of 1848 to illustrate this point (Discipline 273). The ruling class started to recognize that the majority of “murderers, thieves, and idlers” came from the lower class and associated that class with crime (Discipline 275). People no longer connected illegality with the momentary passions and circumstances of men, but instead made it an inherent quality of the poor. Thus, the upper class sought to control people who were prone to crime by creating the concept of delinquency. The delinquent is the product of the carceral system and human sciences. He is defined as abnormal and is therefore subject to the disciplinary power of society. Foucault writes that “it would be hypocritical or nave to believe that the law was made for all in the name of all; that it would be more prudent to recognize that it was made for the few and that it was brought to bear upon others” (Discipline 276). The prison separates delinquents from the rest of society and makes them less dangerous than they would be otherwise.

Foucault contradicts his own theory of power when he uses bourgeois influence to derive penal reform. He argues against the traditional idea that power is held by dominant groups and used against marginalized people within society. Foucault believes that separating people into bullies and pushovers is overly simplistic. He asserts that power is a strategy used by all, instead of a possession owned by the dominant class (Discipline 26). “This power is not exercised simply as an obligation or a prohibition on those who ‘do not have it’; it invests them, is transmitted by them and through them,” Foucault asserts, “it exerts pressure upon them, just as they themselves, in their struggle against it, resist the grip it has on them” (Discipline 27). Although Foucault believes that the modern prison arises from class struggle, the lower classes have no input in developing methods of punishment. The bourgeoisie uses punishment to supervise, normalize, and debilitate the lower classes. Foucault emphasizes that power is something which circulates, although its distribution may be unequal (Critique 37). Yet, in Discipline and Punishment, the bourgeoisie has complete control of the penal system. The upper class decided to focus on regulating the soul instead of inflicting pain to protect their livelihood. The upper class also created the concept of delinquency to control the lower class. In Discipline and Punish, Foucault fails to give the poor much choice except to obey the wishes of the bourgeoisie.

Although Foucault focuses on the development of the penal system, he believes that disciplinary power extends throughout all society. “The ideal point of penalty today would be an infinite discipline…” Foucault writes, “Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, and hospitals, which all resemble prisons?” (Discipline 227-8). Schools, hospitals, and military institutions all control the time and movement of the individual. The goal of these organizations is to force the individual to conform to a norm by defining what is acceptable within society. Despite the similarities between schools, hospitals, and prisons, they serve different purposes under Foucault’s conception of power. The prison resulted from the bourgeoisie’s effort to control the lower class, but schools and hospitals are not apart of this endeavor. Everyone, rich and poor, must attend school and is therefore subject to disciplinary power. Whereas the penal system is a tool for bourgeois domination, schools affect all people by subjecting them to norms and managing their time. Foucault does not explain the purpose of disciplinary power within schools in the same way that he does for prisons. His conception of power is vague in showing who is using power towards a specific goal. Foucault derives a pervasive disciplinary power from the bourgeoisie, but shows that they are also affected by their own strategies of domination (Critique 42). Thus, a central problem with Foucault’s theory of power is that it emphasizes the existence of power relations in society, but ignores why these relations exist. Regarding this aspect of his work, Foucault argues that it is more important to analyze the effects of power than to discern the intentions behind it. “Let us not, therefore, ask why certain people want to dominate, what they seek, what is their overall strategy,” Foucault asserts, “Let us ask instead, how things work at the level of ongoing subjugation, at the level of those continuous and uninterrupted processes which subject our bodies” (Critique 35). However, power loses its meaning when the motives behind its use are not considered. If power is a strategy as Foucault claims, then it is equally important to consider the goal in mind as well as methods of domination (Discipline 26).

Although Foucault gives the bourgeoisie the credit for penal reform, it is difficult to understand whether the upper class is the most significant agent in this process. Foucault criticizes historical materialism for giving dubious explanations of social phenomena. He gives the example of infantile sexuality in “Two Lectures” to prove his point. Although Marxian thinkers would argue that society prohibited infantile sexuality to save people’s energy for production, an opposing explanation is equally plausible. The bourgeoisie could have encouraged infantile sexuality as a way of promoting sexual precociousness and thereby increasing the labor force (Critique 38). Because Foucault uses bourgeois domination to explain the changes in the penal system, his theories have the same quality of being true and false at the same time. Although Foucault argues that the protection of bourgeois property was the catalyst for modern penal reform, he also explains the change in the judicial system by referring to the social contract. The criminal must accept the laws of the society, because he has chosen to be apart of it. When he breaks the social contract by committing an illegal act, he hurts the entire society and gives it the right to punish him (Discipline 89-90). However, when referring to the social contract, Foucault does not suggest that the criminal hurts certain sections of society more than others. He asserts that the “defense of each individual is involved” in the criminal’s punishment (Discipline 90). This understanding opposes the one in which the sovereign protected his honor by inflicting pain on the criminal. The idea that the “defense of each individual is involved” when crime occurs indicates a shift to a more democratic way of thinking. Thus, Foucault implies that judicial power was transferred from the sovereign to all people – not just the bourgeoisie. Foucault writes that “the right to punish has been shifted from the vengeance of the sovereign to the defense of society” (Discipline 90). It is thus plausible that all citizens resented that one person possessed judicial power and therefore altered the old system of punishment.

In the Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx writes that “the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas.” Although Foucault dismisses historical materialism, it figures prominently in his work. Foucault believes that the bourgeoisie caused crucial changes in the function of power. When the upper class sought to protect its property, punishment targeted the soul instead of the body. When the bourgeoisie associated illegality with the lower class, they gave power its disciplinary qualities. The problem with Foucault relying on historical materialism is that he is not a true Marxist. Marx divides society into the exploited proletariat and the oppressive bourgeoisie, and he sees history as determined by class struggle. Foucault resists this categorization of society and prefers to view power as something that circulates. He is also wary of attributing social phenomena to bourgeois domination. Foucault thus demonstrates ambivalence on how much influence to give to the bourgeoisie. Although Foucault explains that penal reform protects upper class property, he also justifies penal reform by referring to the social contract. Similarly, Foucault gives the bourgeoisie the credit for disciplinary power, but fails to show how discipline outside of the prison promotes its aims. Thus, power is more difficult to comprehend in Foucault’s work than in Marx’s. Foucault conceives of power as strategy, but does not clarify who its agents are and how much influence they have.

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