Cutting off the King's head: Foucault's Society Must Be Defended and the problem of sovereignty.

Author:Neal, Andrew W.
 
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What we need, however, is a political philosophy that isn't erected around the problem of sovereignty.... We need to cut off the King's head: in political theory that has still to be done. Michel Foucault, "Truth and Power" (1977) Foucault's concern with the problem of sovereignty has been known to his Anglo-American readership for some time. However, it is only with the recent translation of his oft-cited College de France lecture series Society Must Be Defended that we are in a position to engage with the full extent of Foucault's explorations in this area.

In this article I argue that Society Must Be Defended is an important and sophisticated text for beginning to understand the complexity of sovereignty as an intense site of political and philosophical problems. The lectures form a timely and badly needed contribution to a resurgent but largely unsatisfactory critical-theoretical debate on sovereignty. This debate has no doubt gathered momentum in response to the violent and contentious assertions of sovereignty invoked since September 11, 2001, in the name of "antiterrorism" and the "war on terror." Sovereignty has once again been brought to the fore as a pressing contemporary problem, given practices of "exceptionalism," imperialism, and the resurgence of Carl Schmitt as the theorist of these problems posed in their starkest terms.

Rather than interpret the lectures as an addition to the entire Foucault oeuvre therefore, I wish to argue that Society Must Be Defended is in its own right an extremely important text for thinking about the enduring politico-theoretical problematic of sovereignty. I will offer a reading of Society Must Be Defended that both challenges the existing readings of Foucault on the problem of sovereignty and highlights the paucity of the post-9/11 sovereignty debate. This, I hope, will help open up a more sophisticated understanding of sovereignty as a site of intense politico-theoretical problems.

9/11 and the Sovereign "Exception": Agamben, Schmitt, and Benjamin

Before discussing Society Must Be Defended, I want to lay out the basic terms of the recent critical theoretical debate on sovereignty. Giorgio Agamben can be credited with explicitly linking the problem of sovereignty with the problem of the "exception," preemptively capturing in theoretical terms much of the sovereigntist logic that is being played out in post-9/11 world politics. The exception has become an especially sharp political concept that is being used to characterize and critique the contentious political practices undertaken since 9/11 in the name of the so-called war on terror. These practices include the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, the internment of foreign "terrorist" suspects in Belmarsh Prison in London, the extrajudicial killing of "terrorists" by the United States in third countries, (1) the "preemptive" war in Iraq, the use and sanction of torture by Western states, (2) the discriminatory treatment of Muslims, a tightening of asylum and immigration procedures in Europe. (3) ... The list goes on.

In Homo Sacer, Agamben aligned the contemporary sovereignty debate across two theorists in particular: Carl Schmitt and Walter Benjamin. (4) Although by no means exhaustive choices, Schmitt and Benjamin have come to be considered as two of the most incisive expressions of the problem of sovereignty and sovereign exceptionalism.

In Schmitt's very sharp terms, "Sovereign is he who decides on the exception." (5) For Schmitt, the very definition of sovereignty is the capacity to declare exceptions to the norm (of civil liberties, human rights, the rule of law, and so on). Agamben argues that Schmitt's uncompromisingly statist form of sovereignty is a conservative response to the apocalyptic conception of sovereign power that is posited by Benjamin. (6) In his Theses on the Philosophy of History, Benjamin argues that we have entered a period of history where the exception has become the norm, plunging us into a "permanent state of exception." (7) This model has come to express a more radical interpretation of contemporary world politics. A Benjaminian reading of the present suggests that sovereign political power has exceeded all limits and become "totalized."

Although useful and analytically precise, Agamben poses the problem of sovereignty in rather apolitical and entirely juridico-philosophical terms, thus emptying out the extremely complex principle and practice that is sovereignty. Agamben's reading of Schmitt and Benjamin to demonstrate the logic of sovereignty creates two caricatured extremes, usefully demonstrating the overdetermination of the problem, but also failing to escape it or open it up. (8) Relaying the problem in these binary terms simply reproduces the dualistic structures that pervade the discourse of modern state sovereignty (and indeed many earlier forms of political discourse).

In contrast, Society Must Be Defended sets out to offer a historical critique of sovereignty as it has been understood in the discourse of political theory and political and historical discourse more generally. Foucault's main target is the Hobbesian juridical model of sovereignty, a system of power with a single center.

In short, we have to abandon the model of Leviathan, that model of artificial man who is at once an automaton, a fabricated man, but also a unitary man who contains all real individuals, whose body is made up of citizens but whose soul is sovereignty. We have to study power outside the model of Leviathan, outside the field delineated by juridical sovereignty and the institution of the State. (9) This already points toward a strong riposte to Agamben. By rejecting the Hobbesian juridical model of sovereignty, Foucault also implicitly rejects the models of power that are expressed in Agamben's reading of Schmitt and Benjamin. For Foucault, a juridical system of power emanating from a single center and a totalized and apocalyptic system of power amount to expressions of the same singular model of sovereignty that we need to reject.

Instead of a model of power derived from the singular conditions of possibility manifest in modern state sovereignty, Foucault initially suggests that we examine power under the rubric of a multiplicity of force relations manifest in a perpetual underlying war. Whereas the Hobbesian model of modern sovereignty was established as a radical, dualistic temporal and spatial break from the premodern war of all against all, Foucault suggests that that war never really went away. It continues, he suggests, in the fabric of modern politics and its discourses and institutions. Inverting Clausewitz's famous aphorism, he captures this in the initial hypothesis that politics might be the continuation of war by other means, and not the other way around. This suggestion, however, has aroused strong responses.

The Reception of Foucault on Sovereignty

Both the common laudatory and critical readings of Foucault in his flirtation with war reveal why so much is at stake in the problem of sovereignty. On the one hand, both Paul Veyne and Gilles Deleuze were happy to characterize Foucault as a "warrior." (10) On the other hand, Habermas refused Foucault's understanding of power as "the interaction of warring parties, as the decentered network of bodily, face-to-face confrontations, and ultimately as the productive penetration and subjectivizing subjugation of a bodily opponent." (11) Habermas explicitly accuses Foucault of being a Schmittian, thus invoking the standard liberal caricature of Schmitt as a dangerous other. (12) What concerns Habermas about Foucault's conception of power is the possibility of politics as civil war: effectively a might-is-right situation where the foundations for a "civil" society are lacking.

In her Critique of Violence, Beatrice Hanssen sets herself the brief of reading Society Must Be Defended in order to investigate Habermas's charge against Foucault. Ultimately, she delivers a guilty verdict, on account of Foucault failing to maintain a suitable distance from the decidedly illiberal figures that he engages with in constructing his critique of sovereignty. (13) Her response is to reduce Foucault to some kind of liberal by rejecting the aspects of his work that contribute to the image of "Foucault the warrior." She valorizes an anemic reading of Foucault that pluralizes subjectivity and ethics and offers a "provocative invitation to leave one's conventional limits behind and to reinvent oneself as one enters into dialogue with others." (14)

Although none of these critical readings of Foucault are satisfactory, they are extremely revealing. They show why Foucault's provocative text gets to the heart of what is at stake in the problem of sovereignty. The reason that Foucault's provocative suggestion about a permanent war underlying politics arouses such critical ire from the likes of Habermas and Hanssen takes us back to Hobbes's dualism: the break between modern state sovereignty and what Hobbes postulated to have gone before and still existed outside. In rejecting the subordination of war to politics, which constitutes the key modern sovereign move, Foucault potentially undermines all the achievements and principles that rest on those foundations: civil liberties, democracy, the rule of law, republicanism, civic peace, and the possibility of progress.

By suggesting that residing underneath politics is war and a multiplicity of force relations, Foucault is immediately interpreted as valorizing all sorts of partisan strife or premodern barbarism. These critiques of Foucault on sovereignty invoke the specter of what is effectively Hobbes's premodern war of all against all. They either seek to dismiss Foucault as dangerous or reduce him to some kind of friendlier and less challenging liberal. Yet this closing down of the problem is precisely what Foucault was struggling against. Ironically but revealingly, Foucault's intervention into the problem of...

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