War as an Analyzer of History

This is more a summary than a review of Society Must be Defended by Michel Foucault. It is a remarkable collection of lectures that Foucault gave at the College de France in 1976. This is my attempt to wet the beak of the reader. In what follows I will sometimes shamelessly borrow the words of the author without bothering with quotation marks. 

All history is the worship of Rome

Until the sixteenth century, all historical discourses were in a sense discourses of power. History was made up of stories about Kings, their great ancestors, their valor and their glory. These narratives of court historians were a naked exercise in the legitimization of royal power. These were, in fact, directly related to the rituals of power. The philosophico-juridical discourses of Hobbes and Locke, in the tradition of Thomas Aquinas–are discourses of right, universality and law. These are also in some sense; not in the sense of the court historians, but in a functional sense; discourses of power. They serve to legitimize the order: peace, law and sovereignty. The discourse of Machiavelli and his decedents–Richelieu and Kissinger for instance–is concerned with a sort of technical exercise in statecraft, and in this sense is completely subsumed by the narratives of power, about power, about the State.

In short, up until the sixteenth century, both the historical and the philosophico-juridical narratives, are ultimately about the State, about the King. From the Middle Ages on, the essential role of the theory of right has been to establish the legitimacy of power. The problem of sovereignty has been the central problem of right in Western societies–the technique and discourse of right has functioned to dissolve the element of domination in power, to mask it, and to reduce it by two things. The legitimate rights of the sovereign on the one hand, and the legal obligation to obey on the other. In this sense, the system of right is completely centered on the King.

By domination, Foucault does not mean the brute fact of one over the many, or one group over another, but the multiple subjugations that take place within the social body. The system of right and law are permanent vehicles for the relations of domination, and techniques of subjugation.  

There are two things to note before we go further. First, in the universal philosophico-juridical discourses, the theory of right, there are only two characters–the individual and the sovereign. The King exercises the right to judge, punish and kill the individual. Right, law, divine law and natural law are about the justice or otherwise of this exercise of sovereignty. Second, thanks to the establishment of the State monopoly over violence, war has been consigned to the outer limits of the State, to the periphery, away from the body-politic of society.

War beneath the peace

In the seventeenth century a new discourse appears. The new discourse says this–the monopoly of violence imposed by the State, the juridical-political order of the regime, is just a thin veneer of peace and order. Under it, running up and down, and cutting through the body-politic of society is constant war. This is the discourse of counterhistory. 

This analysis was made in binary terms–the social body is not made up of a pyramid of orders or of a hierarchy, and it does not constitute a coherent and unitary organism. It is composed of two groups, and they are not only quite distinct, but also in conflict. The conflictual relationship that exists between the two groups that constitute the social body and shapes the State is in fact one of war, of permanent warfare. The State is nothing more than the way that the war between two groups in question continues to be waged in apparently peaceful forms. No matter what philosophico-juridical theory may say, political power does not begin when war ends. War has not been averted. War obviously presided over the birth of States: right, peace, laws were forged in the blood and mud of battles, massacres, and conquests which can be dated and specified. Law is not pacification, for beneath the law, war continues to rage in all the mechanisms of power. War is the motor behind institutions and order. Peace is waging a secret war–a battlefront runs through the whole of society, continuously and permanently, and it is this battlefront that puts us all on one side or the other.

This discourse that comes about in the seventeenth century is the first discourse in postmedieval Western society that can be strictly described as being historico–political. When the new subject speaks of his right, it is both grounded in history and decentered from a juridical universality. It bypasses the great philosophico–juridical systems. This discourse has nothing to do with Hobbesian notion of sovereignty, nor with the Machiavellian politics. This discourse, so to speak, cuts off the head the of the King. This discourse actually begins properly in the seventeenth century, twice. In pre-revolutionary and revolutionary England, and then fifty years later, in France at the end of the reign of Louis XIV. The war that is going on beneath order and peace, the war that undermines our society and divides it is a race war–ethnic differences, linguistic differences, differentials of force, vigor, energy and violence; the conquest and subjugation of one race by another. The clash between the two races runs through society from top to bottom and we see being formulated for the first time by Bougainvilliers.

Note that this is very different from the war of Hobbes. That primitive war of every man against every man, is born of equality and takes place in the element of that equality. He says that if there were marked differences between men, then one of two things will happen; either there will really be a clash between the strong and the weak–and that clash would immediately end with the victory of the strong over the weak, and that victory would be definite precisely because of the strength of the strong; or there would be no clash because noting their own weakness, the weak would surrender even before the confrontation began. In other words, in a state of insurmountable power asymmetry, there is no war. So what happens in a state of insufficient differences? In other words with a flat society? This then leads to the institution of a Commonwealth and the birth of sovereignty. According to Hobbes, another way that sovereignty is established is through conquest. How can sovereignty be established by conquest?? 

The vanquished, at the end of the battle, are at the mercy of the victors. If they are all killed then the problem goes away. If they are allowed to live, then they can either rebel, in which case the war is resumed. Once they are pacified, the threat of rebellion does not go away, so force-relations remain till the threat goes away. Its a matter of who has the weapons?  This leaves a body mark on the body-politic of society. The regime encodes the terms of surrender in the entire juridico-political order. Sovereignty is shaped from below, by those who are afraid. It is precisely at the point at which the threat of rebellion dissolves that sovereignty is established in this territory by annexation. The different points at which technologies and mechanisms of dominance and coercion are applied to the body-politic of society, encode the terms of surrender of the vanquished.

Race struggle

The discourse of “race struggle” does not begin at both ends of this relation. It begins with the victors. The race of conquerers are now the feudal lords. Remember that this is the early Modern period, so Bougainvilliers talks about Normans in England; Franks and Germans in France et cetera. Bougainvilliers is the first to use war as an analyzer of history. In his narrative, history is shaped precisely by war, in the mud and blood of battles. The invaders were a race of warriors who maintained their dominance by maintaining a monopoly of the weapons of war, over the economy of weapons of war. If the race of conquerers take over the land and establishes an aristocracy then its dominance can be maintained. It is an attempt to check the growth of royal absolutism. It says that the King was only a first among equals. It was the crusades that distracted the lords. Since then the growth of mercenary armies of the King have undercut the military order that was the core of the dominance relations established between the warring races. His is a call to arms aimed at the knights. The race of invaders ought to assert their right of conquest. It is a darwinian struggle between two warring races. There is no center. This is the decentered view: either you are with us or you are with them. 

It is at this point that a new subject appears in history for the first time, that of the “nation”. A new actor appears on the stage of history apart from the King and the individual. Let us look at the other side of the equation before digging into this further.

On the other side of this equation, the vanquished of history, the losers of the last war make the same call. But this time its a call of rebellion against the race that shackles them down. It is not until prerevolutionary England that a new “nation” appears on the scene, a new actor. The Third Estate. The idea of the nation an imagined community of people, an ethno-linguistic majority of a territory, does not appear till the eighteenth century. In the lead up to the Revolution this is a counter history, a call to rebellion, an attack on sovereignty. At the end of that century, the notion of “race struggle” gets tamed by the State, and passes into history. The English and French revolutions of the eighteenth century are co-opted by power, precisely by taking over, by colonizing, and reformulating a specific discourse of race struggle–that unleashed by the Third Estate. This then becomes a Statist discourse, a universalist discourse; it tamed and tied to the juridico-political discourse of law, order and sovereignty. This is the birth of the modern sense of the word Nation; and of the Nation state.

Note that the Marxist discourse of “class struggle” is nothing but a discourse of “race struggle”, as Marx points out to Engels: “You know very well where we found the concept of class struggle”. In fact, the conception of bourgeoise as the nation, pitting the town against the country, that is against the landed aristocracy, is also a discourse of “class struggle”. 

Note also that this is before the growth of biopower and the medico-biological conception of race that comes about in the nineteen century. To develop into State racism we need to wait till the techniques and technologies of biopower begin to make their mark on the medico-biological body of society in the nineteenth century. In the coming together of absolute power and State racism in Nazi Germany, we get the final solution and collective suicide. The State turns on the body-politic and unleashes a total war exposing every single individual to annihilation. State racism and absolute power combine again in the Soviet Union to give us the gulag.

Remarks and promises in lieu of a conclusion

There are multiple lines of investigation one can pursue by inverting the dictum of Clausewitz–politics is war by other means. War, as an analyzer of power, is a powerful tool. Even though the view is decentered, it lets us go beyond and deeper than the philosophico-juridical discourses of right, law, universality and sovereignty. One runs the risk of historicism, but without running that risk, no historico-political discourse is possible outside the theory of right.

It is my intention to analyze the discourse of the town against the countryside in the context of the transition from feudalism to capitalism. I want to explore the birth of the Nation state further and the connection between the discourse of race struggle and the theory of the balance of power–as it first appears in the discourse of Richelieu. Finally, I want to reread Nietzsche.

One must reckon with the genealogy of knowledge and power. Michel Foucault died too soon to make more than a dent in the vast enterprise of the archaeology of the order of things. That task is left to us.


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