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Discipline for the Benefit of the Rich

Michel Foucault

[T]he ideas of crime and punishment must be strongly linked and ‘… follow one another without interruption…. When you have thus formed the chain of ideas in the heads of your citizens, you will then be able to pride yourselves on guiding them and being their masters.’ Foucault, Discipline and Punish, at 102, quoting J. M. Servan, Discours sur l’administration de la justice criminelle, 1767.

We are bombarded by politicians and their enthusiasts telling us that the great virtue of being a US citizen is freedom. What on earth are they talking about? It must at least mean freedom to buy stuff from corporate persons, often at oligopoly or monopoly prices. Past that, I’m not sure. One thing I know is that I am included in a number of data bases where my purchasing decisions and other information about me are consolidated and examined as if I were nothing but a purchasing machine, or a potential threat. To the owners of these databases I am nothing but a data source, a specimen pinned for examination by Others dedicated to getting my attention and eventually, my money.

Writing in 1767, Servan rejected the brutal punishment system of his day, and argued for a completely different way to control the population. Get into their heads, he says, and they’ll bind themselves with chains stronger than iron and heavier than lead; they become clay in the hands of the rich and powerful. Of course, he wasn’t talking about today’s vast array of techniques for control of the body of the great mass of humanity, but of a more humble goal, instilling good morals into the lower classes. But he is right: if you get your ideas into people’s heads, you are in control. That’s a powerful insight. Foucault goes into detail about techniques for getting ideas into people’s heads in Discipline and Punish, and many of those techniques are in use today. Here’s a description of a school:

‘At the last stroke of the hour, a pupil will ring the bell, and at the first sound of the bell all the pupils will kneel, with their arms crossed and their eyes lowered. When the prayer has been said, the teacher will strike the signal once to indicate that the pupils should get up, a second time as a sign that they should salute Christ, and a third that they should sit down’. Quote from J.-B de La Salle, Conduits des écoles chrétiennes, 1783

Note how well this corresponds to the treatment of the kids in the No Excuses school in New Orleans I discussed recently. Foucault shows how this level of control worked well for the armies of that day. Men trained to respond to bells by falling on their knees are quick to learn martial drills and battle tactics, and respond well to the commands of their masters. Foucault suggests that the internally disciplined person makes a more productive worker as well. The job is broken down into steps, and the worker executes the steps as if by a series of signals, under the watchful eye of the master, or the clerks of the master. No moment much be allowed to pass without productive activity, for that would cheat the employer of his due:

… [T]he employers saw that [surveillance] was indissociable from the system of industrial production, private property and profit. At the scale of a factory, a great iron-works or a mine, ‘the objects of expenditure are so multiplied, that the slightest dishonesty on each object would add up to an immense fraud, which would not only absorb the profits, but would lead to a loss of capital. 175.

What works for armies works for capitalists. The two dominant powers of society benefit from the same kind of treatment of human beings: as cogs in the production and war machines, responsive through their own beings to the demands of the rich and powerful.

In Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Thomas Piketty says that there is vast capital inequality in every society he knows of. It’s as if we need a hierarchy, someone to kowtow to. See, for example, the excellent rants of Tilda Swinton as Mason in Snowpiercer. The distribution of capital is random, done by birth, sheer luck or fraud. But once they have vast wealth, the Oligarchs want three things: preservation of wealth, and the status and power that go with it; the power to spend the money as they see fit; and the power to shape society so they can increase their wealth.

We don’t like to think about it, but that power means exactly one thing: control over the bodies of others. Smart women know this very well. The main force of power has always found women a particular object for exercise of control over the body. The Hobby Lobby case is a perfect example: the five self-righteous Catholic judges don’t give any weight to the impact of their decision on the women who want to control their own bodies. Instead, they focus on the controlling power of the wealthy owners of capital, and their desires for control over the bodies of their women employees.

Once upon a time, smart workers knew this too. They formed unions and fought in the streets for control over their own bodies. They demanded to be treated with dignity, not exploited for their productive or war-fighting skills. They won. They created a whole new class of people, what Piketty calls the Patriarchal Middle Class, who worked, saved, raised a family, and retired to a decent life and could even leave a bit of money to their children. They even began making that life possible for everyone, not just white men. But now that’s over.

Stupid and false ideas about markets, drummed into us from birth by every instrument of government and capitalism, have entrenched themselves in the minds of a majority, making it possible for our masters to guide and manipulate them. Servan is right:

…[A] true politician binds them even more strongly by the chain of their own ideas; it is at the stable point of reason that he secures the end of the chain; this link is all the stronger in that we do not know of what it is made and we believe it to be our own work; despair and time eat away the bonds of iron and steel, but they are powerless against the habitual union of ideas, they can only tighten it still more; and on the soft fibres of the brain is founded the unshakable base of the soundest of Empires’. Quote at 102-3.

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masaccio

masaccio

I read a lot of books.

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